In the book Over the Edge of the World the author Laurence Bergreen has described Ferdinand Magellan's daring circumnavigation of the globe in the sixteenth century was a three-year odyssey filled with sex, violence, and amazing adventure. The book was first published in 2003 and the Harper Collins edition which I read was published in 2008.

The best and most affecting eyewitness account of Magellan’s circumnavigation was written by Antonio Pigafetta, the young Venetian scholar and diplomat who was among the handful of survivors. His chronicle remains one of the most significant documents of the Age of Discovery.

Pigafetta’s account of the Patagonian giant describes him as:

“He was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist,” the official chronicler observed. “He had a very large face, painted round with red, and his eyes also were painted round with yellow, and in the middle of his cheeks he had two hearts painted. He had hardly any hairs on his head, and was painted white.”

The giant was a member of the tribe known as the Tehuelche Indians, who were numerous throughout the region.

Laurence Bergreen continues:

About ninety years later, Pigafetta’s affecting account of the curtailed education and conversion of the Patagonian giant drew the attention of William Shakespeare, who read an English translation by Richard Eden of Pigafetta’s diary. Distinctive fingerprints in Shakespeare’s resulting play, ‘The Tempest’, first performed in 1611, could only have come from Pigafetta’s account.

In Shakespeare’s imagination, the humble details of Pigafetta’s encounter with the Patagonian giant are woven into an immense cosmological tapestry. The playwright sets the scene on an enchanted magical island ruled by Prospero, the duke of Milan, who, with his daughter Miranda, had been set adrift by his brother Antonio, a usurper. Shipwrecked, Prospero learns magic and manages to remain on good terms with spirits inhabiting the island, especially Ariel, a sprite whom Prospero had freed from an evil sorceress known as Sycorax. But Sycorax also has a son, Caliban, one of the most compelling yet enigmatic characters in the Shakespearean canon, and a character inspired in part by the Patagonian giant.

The clash between Prospero and Caliban offers a vivid image of the impact of European discovery and conquest on indigenous peoples throughout the world, and Shakespeare dramatizes the encounter with wit and a frisson of horror.

You taught me language; and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you,

For learning me your language!

Later, Caliban quotes Pigafetta’s account of the Patagonian giant:

I must obey: his art is of such power,

It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,

And make a vassal of him.

Although Shakespeare keeps the setting vague, this mystical play demonstrates, if nothing else, that the New World, with its splendour and barbarism, had taken up residence in the European consciousness.

Is Caliban's description based on the Patagonian Giant described by Antonio Pigafetta? Apart from this reference in the referred adventure book, are there any other sources to support such a conclusion?

2 Answers 2


TL;DR: Shakespeare must have got the name “Setebos” for Caliban’s god from Antonio Pigafetta via Richard Willes’ The History of Travel in the West and East Indies (1577), but Bergreen’s claim that the character of Caliban is “inspired in part” by Pigafetta’s description of a captive Patagonian is speculation.

Bergreen’s case

Bergreen has overstated the case for Pigafetta’s influence on Shakespeare. The following two points suggest a writer who is eking out a teaspoon of evidence with a ladleful of rhetoric.

  1. Bergreen writes that The Tempest contains “distinctive features” that “could only have come from Pigafetta’s account”, without saying what they are, leaving the reader with the impression that there are multiple points of borrowing. But in fact there is only one such feature, the name “Setebos” for Caliban’s god.

  2. Bergreen writes that “Caliban quotes Pigafetta’s account”, and follows this with three lines from The Tempest, leaving the reader with the impression that all three lines are quoted from, or at the very least paraphrased from, Pigafetta. But this is not true: the only word in the quoted passage that comes from Pigafetta is “Setebos”.

Also, Bergreen says that Shakespeare read Pigafetta in “an English translation by Richard Eden”. But it is not clear that the first English translation of Pigafetta was in fact by Eden: it was printed in The History of Travel in the West and East Indies (1577), edited by Richard Willes. This volume combines Eden’s 1555 translation of Peter Martyr’s first three Decades with a number of other texts about the New World. The title page says, “augmented and finished by Richard Willes”, and it is nowhere stated who is responsible for each translation. Bergreen’s failure to acknowledge this difficulty suggests that he did not consult this source. Bergreen’s quotations from Pigafetta are much closer to the 1874 translation of Henry Stanley, but this was not, of course, available to Shakespeare.


Here are the passages from The History of Travel in the West and East Indies (1577) where the name “Setebos” appears. First, in a description of how the Spanish captured two Patagonians:

There came four other giants without any weapons, but had hid their bows and arrows in certain bushes. The captain retained two of these which were youngest and best made. He took them by a deceit in this manner, that giving them knives, shears, looking glasses, bells, beads of crystal, and such other trifles, he so filled their hands that they could hold no more: then caused two pair of shackles of iron to be put on their legs, making signs that he would also give them those chains: which they liked very well because they were made of bright and shining metal. And whereas they could not carry them because their hands were full, the other giants would have carried them: but the captain would not suffer them. When they felt the shackles fast about their legs, they began to doubt: but the captain did put them in comfort and bade them stand still. In fine when they saw how they were deceived they roared like bulls and cried upon their great devil Setebos to help them. Being thus taken, they were immediately separated and put in sundry ships. They could never bind the hands of the other two. Yet was one of them with much difficulty overthrown by nine of our men, and his hands bound; but he suddenly loosed himself and fled, as did also the other that came with them. In their flying, they shot of their arrows and slew one of our men. They say that when any of them die, there appear 10 or 12 devils leaping and dancing about the body of the dead, and seem to have their bodies painted with diverse colours. And that among other, there is one seen bigger then the residue, who maketh great mirth and rejoicing. This great devil they call Setebos, and call the less Cheleule.

Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1523). A brief declaration of the voyage or navigation made about the world. In Richard Willes, ed. (1577). The History of Travel in the West and East Indies, p. 434. London: Richard Jugge. Spelling modernized.

Second, a discussion of how Pigafetta learned some words of the Patagonian language:

The other giant which remained with them in the ship, named bread Capar: water, Oli: red cloth, Cherecai: red colour, Cheiche: black colour, Amel: and spoke all his words in the throat. On a time, as one made a cross before him and kissed it, showing it unto him, he suddenly cried Setebos, and declared by signs that if they made any more crosses, Setebos would enter into his body and make him burst. But when in fine he saw no hurt come thereof, he took the cross and embraced and kissed it oftentimes, desiring that he might be a Christian before his death. He was therefore baptized and named Paul.

Pigafetta, pp. 434–435.


The Tempest is one of a small number of Shakespeare plays for which there is no obvious source for the plot. (The others are A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost.) When discussing sources of inspiration, critics mainly list Montaigne's essay "Of cannibals" (for Gonzalo's speech in Act 2, scene 1), travel writing, especially the "Bermuda pamphlets" about the wreck of the Sea Adventure in Bermuda in 1609, and a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses (of which they find an echo in the fifth act).

The "Bermuda pamphlets" include William Strachey's A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight (excerpted in Orgel's Oxford edition), Sylvester Jourdain's Discovery of the Bermudas (1610) and the Council of Virginia's True Declaration of the state of the Colony of Virginia. However, the pamphlets do not appear to be sources for the characters or the plot in The Tempest. The origin of the characters appear to be a mystery (Anne Barton, p. 24). (Though Orgel poins out that Sycorax is based on the figure of Medea in Book 7 of Ovid's Metamorphoses.) The edition by Hulme and Sherman (Norton, 2004) contains a 33-page section for "Sources and Contexts" (i.e. excerpts of sources that Shakespeare may have used or contemporary discussions of similar themes), none of which suggest a source for Caliban. Ackroyd's biography mentions that there was a riding master in London named Prospero (page 460) but mentions no real-life inspiration for Caliban.

Peter Hulme's 2002 lecture ""Shakespeare's Spanish Tempest" discusses a few other potential sources, such as Gaspar Gil Polo's Diana enamorada and Primaleon, Prince of Greece. Primaleon may have provided the source for Prospero but not necessarily for Caliban.

The above are all textual sources, however. In the discussions of sources (see the editions listed below) and the biographies I have consulted (see Ackroyd and Wells, below), I have not been able to find evidence that Caliban may be based on a real person. In addition, none of the sources I consulted mention Antonio Pigafetta.


  • The Tempest. Edited by Anne Barton. The Penguin Shakespeare. Penguin, 1968, 1996. (See especially pages 23-25.)
  • The Tempest. Edited by Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman. Norton Critical Editions. W. W. Norton, 2004.
  • The Tempest. Edited by Stephen Orgel. The Oxford Shakespeare. [1987] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Ackroyd, Peter: Shakespeare: The Biography. Chatto & Windus, 2005.
  • Hulme, Peter: "Shakespeare's Spanish Tempest: Colonial Sources, Postcolonial Readings", The Sir Henry Thomas Memorial Lecture, University of Birmingham, February 2002.
  • Wells, Stanley: Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. W. W. Norton, 1995.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.