Hurricanes, Tempests, and the Meteorological Globe

  • Steve Mentz
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


Why did Shakespeare not name his stormy weather play The Hurricane? The question may seem trivial, but it speaks to the ways that new empirical knowledge entered early modern English culture during the first age of globalization. In choosing the Latinate word ‘tempest,’ with literary connections to poets such as Virgil and etymological links to the French temps (weather) and Latin tempus (time), Shakespeare placed his play squarely within classical European literary and meteorological traditions that grew out of the Mediterranean ecosystem. If, as seems likely, the play’s storm responds at least partially to the 1609 wreck of the Virginia Company vessel Sea-Venture on Bermuda, the more accurate term might have been hurricane, a word recently introduced into English to describe an Atlantic storm commonly found on the western side of the sea.1 As Peter Hulme has influentially noted, ‘England’s sphere of American interests in 1611 could be defined geographically by the presence of that novel and much-feared natural phenomenon, the hurricane.’2 Experiencing the radical novelty of these destructive American storms changed ancient ideas about global weather. Through the gradual recognition that hurricanes were distinct from tempests, European meteorology became a global science. In the process, the expert knowledge and experience of sailors and settlers supplemented the more familiar labors of scholars and early scientists.3


Seventeenth Century Early Modern Period English Settler Colonial Encounter Tropical Hurricane 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steve Mentz
    • 1
  1. 1.St. John’s UniversityNew YorkUSA

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