The Tempest: The Still-Vext Bermoothes and Caliban’s Desease


Painting of Wormwood Wermut Vermouth Bermooth


Shakespeare is known for having a wide range of knowledge. His knowledge of medicine and healing is highlighted in his play The Tempest set in an Island off the coast of Sicily. Alongside the magical and spiritual aspects of the play are the more down to earth ideas of healing and care for the sick. The practice of using a distillation with herbs leads to a more obvious interpretation of the term ‘still-vext Bermoothes’ than the idea that it refers to the alcoholic spirit produced in the Barmudas. Shakespeare lived in a world where medicines were accompanied by incantations and female healers were condemned as witches.

The ancient Hippocratic ideas about healing and medicine were re-emerging, replacing the Catholic religious belief that disease is brought about by sin and healing is brought about by repentance. The description of Caliban and his affliction can be interpreted as a man with the signs and symptoms of a specific skin disease. There are references to the treatment that eases Caliban’s affliction, including the medicinal use of dew from the ‘still-vext Bermoothes’. The character of Prospero, who could be described as a bookish physician, might be named after a real physician called Prospero who was in trouble with the Inquisition because of his modern approach to healing. The ideas presented here do not exclude the magical elements of the play, or the theme of spiritual healing through the process of forgiveness, but add an extra layer, that displays Shakespeare’s understanding of a new modern world, a world in which physical healing plays a part.


In addition to controversies about its authorship, Shakespeare’s The Tempest has long been thought to be a late play or even the last play that Shakespeare wrote. The intension here is not to discuss the dating of the play, but to discuss the term Bermoothes, which has been used as evidence in the dating debate. That the word Bermoothes means a place named Bermudas has largely been accepted by traditional and non-Stratfordian scholars, whether this be the islands in the Atlantic Ocean or a notorious area of London. The far more obvious meaning for the word, which seems to have been overlooked, is not Bermuda, but wormwood. The Tempest is about healing, both physically and spiritually. This is highlighted by attitudes towards the character Caliban. There is a juxtaposition between Christian ideas of disease being somehow evil in need of spiritual healing and Hippocratic principles and traditional medicine used for healing.


Map of Sicily by Ortelius

Map of Sicily by Ortelius 1579

It is thought that Shakespeare sets this play on an imaginary Island. However, Richard Paul Roe in Shakespeare’s guide to Italy provides evidence that the play is set on the island of Volcano off the coast of Sicily.1 Shakespeare tells us (Tempest, I.ii.) that the ship has been caught in a storm on the return home from Tunis on the North coast of Africa to Naples. The Ship runs aground on an island in this region.

The Still-Vext Bermoothes

A wide internet search for the meaning of the word Bermoothes only reveals that it means Bermuda, apart from an essay by Charles Graves, where the connection is made between Bermoothes, Vermouth and wormwood.2 How can Bermoothes mean Bermuda? The two words sound quite different. The islands of Bermuda were named after a Spanish Explorer Juan de Bermudez who discovered the islands in 1505. In Spanish ‘d’ is pronounced like a hard ‘th’ sound, thus giving us Bermooth-es. Ariel says to Prospero ‘Thou calldst me up at midnight to fetch dewe from the still-vext Bermoothes’. (Tempest, I.ii.227) The island itself is not Bermuda, Ariel wouldn’t be called to fetch dew from Bermuda if they were on Bermuda. Shakespeare has already described the Geographical area, of an island in the Mediterranean between Tunis and Naples. Ariel, being a spirit, is able to travel through the air. The question is whether Prospero instructed Ariel to fetch dew from Bermuda. Dew is thought to be a pun on distilled alcohol, or Aqua Vitae. There was an area of London known as Bermuda which was thought to be notorious for drunkenness, due to the spirits produced in stills there. The first mention of the “Barmoodoes” area in London is made in the Middlesex calendar of sessions records dated 1616:3

Committed for default of sureties and afterwards handed in bail until the next Sessions to Oliver Smith of St. Clement Danes, tailor, and Ralph Garrett of Holborn, gentleman, to be of good behaviour, and to do his best endeavour to apprehend the said Captain Stokes, who escaped by means of the said Francis out of the Barmoodoes in Milforde Lane.

Quote from The Tempest

This refers to an area which is a safe haven for tax dodgers, there appears to be no evidence that this area was notorious for drunkenness. The Brewers Dictionary gives the area of the Bermudas in London, in the streets and alleys North of the strand near Covent Garden.4 In Shakespeare’s time the area described is the site of Cecil house. In 1605 Cecil’s Palace had passed to his elder son, Sir Thomas Cecil Earl of Exeter, and was in use as the Dutch Embassy when it burnt down in 1627, after the publication of The Tempest in the First Folio.

The earliest documented record of distilling for the production of alcoholic drinks in the UK occurs in Scotland was recorded in the Exchequer Rolls (1494):⁵ ‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vita’ Distilled alcohol, Aqua Vitae, was produced medicinally in 16th century London. There are no records of distilleries for producing alcoholic drinks in London until later. Distilleries producing whisky were possibly introduced by the influx of Scots when they began migrating to London after King James of Scotland became King James of England. Gin was introduced following the thirty years war in Holland which lasted from 1618 to 1648.

The question returns, why is Ariel instructed to ‘fetch dew from the still-vext Bermoothes’? Shakespeare is obviously punning on dew as Aqua Vitae, and Bermoothes is in italics. Bermooth sounds like Vermouth. The modern version of Vermouth was first produced in Turin by Antonio and Beneditto Carpano in the 18th century. Vermouth is a fortified wine, made with wine, spirits and flavoured with wormwood. Vermouth gets its name from the German word for wormwood, Wermut. Fortified wines containing wormwood as a principal ingredient existed in Germany around the 16th century. At around the same time an Italian merchant started making a fortified wine with wormwood in Italy. The German Wermut became Vermouth, in Spanish B and V are interchangeable making Vermouth sound like Bermouth, the ‘th’ at the end of the word is almost silent in Spanish. When the plural is used the word Vermouths sounds like Bermoothes. Different to Bermudas which sounds like Bermoothaz. It makes perfect sense that Ariel is asked to fetch dew from a plant. Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium is a native plant of North Africa and grows in abundance on the islands off the coast of Sicily. Hot ale and wormword was called Purl of Tudor England. Shakespeare uses the homophone pearl to describe drops of dew in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wormwood, referred to as ‘Dian’s bud’ is used by Oberon, he says it ‘has such force and blessed power’ (MND, IV.i.74–5). Shakespeare describes the Bermoothes as ‘still-vext’:

Still:Drawing of a map of Covent Garden
i) adjective: not moving
ii) adverb: continuing to be
iii) noun: a piece of equipment for making alcohol
i) from the Latin shake or toss violently
ii) modern usage harass, annoy, torment or provoke

Shakespeare is playing with these words that are the opposite to each other, not moving and being shaken vigorously. Dew in effect is distilled water, that condenses from the air on calm clear nights, when the air is still. When collected it is not pure distilled water, because it absorbs a chemical signature from the plants that it rests on. It wouldn’t be possible to collect dew from a plant that was continuing to be tossed violently by the wind. Dew condenses on the still leaves, stimulating or provoking the leaf to give up some of some of its healing properties. It seems obvious, that if you were asked to collect dew, you would naturally collect it off leaves or petals of plants.

Why would Prospero call Ariel at midnight? If Prospero, magician, scholar, alchemist and physician was making a herbal medicine, or a magic potion, it would not have been good enough just to bring the ingredients together. The time of collection and the way the ingredients were collected were thought to add to the potency of the medicine. The positions of the stars might also be important. Ariel is saying, ‘You know that cove where you asked me to go at midnight to collect dew from the wormwood plants, that’s where the ship is hidden’. So, the literal meaning is that drops of dew are collected from the wormwood plants, the pun is on the drink Vermouth, containing Aqua Vitae and wormwood, popular in the Spanish- or Catalan-speaking areas of Italy.

A distillation made with wormwood has its roots much earlier. Its origins date back to ancient Greece invented by Hippocrates around 400 BC, he macerated wine with wormwood and other spices, used as a medicine, known then as ‘Hippocratical’. Thought to be good for stomach complaints and parasites. The reemergence of Galenic and Hippocratic principles led to a rise in non-conformist ideas among open minded physicians. They were generally well-read men who circulated books among colleagues; physicians often faced the Inquisition for the possession of heretical literature. In 1566 Pope Pius issued a papal bull, Super Gregum Dominicum. All physicians were required to urge their patients to make confessions in order to be healed. Any physician breaking this rule was to be expelled from the College of Physicians, fined and have his name added to the list of suspected heretics. The College of Physicians in Venice refused to apply this rule, and in 1571 a parish priest, Antonio Rocha, denounced all physicians in the city to the Inquisition. Following this, any physician failing to comply was to be banned from practicing medicine and banished from the city of Venice. In 1572 physician Prospero de Foligno, did not conform to the rules and one of his patients died without confession. Prospero was denounced and when asked why he had failed to follow the rules he said, ‘I have no answer for this’. He was summoned to appear again the following week, the outcome was not recorded, but he was still attending college meetings until 1575.⁵

In the play, Prospero, exiled because he spent too much time reading books, treated Caliban kindly at first. The Reformation brought a shift in thinking about how people with deformities or rare congenital conditions were treated: they were no longer treated as bad omens or evil spirits. Prospero seems to recognise Caliban’s humanity. It seems that by Hippocratic principles favoured by physicians like Prospero de Foligno, and perhaps by the medicine invented by Hippocrates, Prospero tried to cure Caliban. Caliban abused his trust by trying to rape Miranda. It is from this point that Prospero treats Caliban badly, because of his evil thoughts and evil intensions. Prospero uses Caliban’s disease as a punishment, by no longer providing treatment and preventing Caliban from roaming the island to collect his own remedies, he inflicts pain on him. It is possible to deduce the disease suffered by Caliban from the signs and symptoms that Shakespeare describes in the text.

Caliban’s disease

The first description is given by Prospero ‘…come thou tortoise. When?’ (Tempest, I.ii.301) complaining that Caliban is moving slowly – and possibly describing the way that Caliban is moving. He is also alluding to the scaly appearance of the skin and the harlequin-type pattern that is seen on a tortoise. This would lead to a suggestion that Caliban has a rare congenital condition known today as Harlequintype ichthyosis. Few children survive past the neonatal period. Those that do survive generally show the following signs: skin around the mouth contracts with an appearance described as ‘fish-mouth’; the thickening skin cracks forming a scaly appearance like fish scales; the arms and digits are contracted; the angular appearance of the arms are like fins and the digits can appear webbed.

Trinculo says:
…What have we here, a man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish,
he smells like a fish – a very ancient and fishlike smell, a kind of
not-of-the-newest poor-John…A strange fish. Legged like a
man, and his fins like arms! …

(Tempest, II.ii.25–7; 34–5)

Children with this disease often have stunted growth and hypothyroidism, they can also develop rheumatoid type polyarthritis. Trinculo describes Caliban as deformed: ‘…I hid me under the dead mooncalf’s gaberdine for fear of the storm.’ Shakespeare not only describes the signs of the disease, but he also describes the symptoms.

For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins
Shall forth at vast of night that they may work
All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made ’em.

(Tempest, I. ii.389–94)

Due to the tightness of the skin around the chest some patients can have breathing problems. The thickened skin tends to crack causing intense stinging pain.

…His spirits hear me,
And yet I needs must curse.
But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire,
Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em. But
For every trifle are they set upon me,
Sometimes like apes, that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me; then like hedgehogs, which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.

(Tempest, II.ii.3–14)

Caliban describes his pain as ‘urchin-shows’, being bitten by apes or walking on hedgehogs. Patients with this disease are unable to sweat effectively due to the thickness of the skin, this leads temperature dysregulation or overheating. The inability to close the eyelids effectively can lead to visual impairment: ‘Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark…’ (Tempest, II.ii.6)

Impaired hearing is a common symptom, due to a build up of skin over the ears. Caliban says that ‘apes chatter at him’ and ‘snakes hiss him into madness’.

Harlequin-type ichthyosis often causes limitations in movement – dry skin can make it too painful to move certain parts of the body. Arthritic joints would also make movement difficult. The pain caused by this disease would cause a person to move slowly, or not wish to move at all.

If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly
What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps,
Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar
That beasts shall tremble at thy din.

(Tempest, I.ii.443–6)

There’s no cure for ichthyosis but moisturising daily to prevent dryness and exfoliating the skin daily can help prevent scaling. The wet skin should be gently rubbed with a pumice stone to prevent the build-up of skin cells. Sufferers of Harlequin-type ichthyosis are often more prone to infection, due to the cracked skin, these days antibiotics are often prescribed. Anti-inflammatories and painkillers can be used to reduce join pain. The setting has not been chosen arbitrarily; the island provides the ingredients necessary for healing Caliban. The island of Volcano off the coast of Sicily is famous for its mud baths and thermal springs. The benefits of thermal springs have been used as a treatment since ancient times, first mentioned by Hippocrates. Keeping Caliban’s skin well hydrated might help ease the pain, the minerals found in the springs, may also contain antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, was described as a witch. Women who practiced herbal medicine became a target for the inquisition. Many wise women who practiced folk medicine were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. One escape from execution was pregnancy. So Sycorax who was pregnant with Caliban was exiled to the island. Caliban in the Catalan language of Sicily means outcast. Sycorax being a healer might have given Caliban an increased chance of survival, by bathing him in the healing waters. Whereas Caliban accuses Prospero of throwing him in the mire, possibly a treatment lacking in bedside manner. At first Prospero tried to help Caliban ‘Thou strok’st me’, suggests that Prospero was either applying a moisturiser or exfoliating the skin. It is otherwise difficult to understand why a man like Prospero would ‘stroke’ a man like Caliban. Using a pumice stone abundant on Volcano, can help removed the hard thickened skin. ‘Wouldst give me water with berries in’t’ Many berries have antimicrobial and antibiotic properties. He may also have been giving him wine with wormwood. Wormwood has long been used for its anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties. In a randomised controlled trial of the effects of sweet wormwood on patients with rheumatoid arthritis by Min Yang et al in 2017,⁶ it was found that tenderness, the number of painful joints and the number of swollen joints were greatly reduced.

Because Prospero has withdrawn medical treatment and Caliban has been prevented from roaming around the island to seek his own natural remedies, at the point he meets Trinculo and Stephano (Tempest, II.ii) he is probably in terrible pain. Stephano, a drunk gives Caliban wine to drink, Caliban is not fooled into worshipping Stephano as a God just because he has been plied with alcohol. Stephano has given him pain relief. It is a natural reaction for anyone to worship someone who has the ability to take away intense pain. Stephano says, ‘How now Mooncalf, how does thine ague?’ Caliban replies. ‘Hast thou not dropped from heaven?’ In return for pain relief, Caliban offers to show him all the island has to offer, as he did for Prospero.

I’ll show thee the best springs. I’ll pluck thee berries.
I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood enough.
A plague upon the tyrant that I serve.
I’ll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee,
Thou wondrous man.

A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder
of a poor drunkard.

(Tempest, II.ii.166–72)

Shakespeare has understood Caliban’s condition, but he highlights the poor attitude that uneducated people show towards people like Caliban.

Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish
painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver.
There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there
makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame
beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. (II.ii.28–34)

Following the reformation, attitudes towards people with deformities were slowly changing, but so was the Social care structure. Previously a person might have sought help from the church and may have been taken care of by monks or nuns in an abbey hospital, financed by pilgrims giving alms to the poor as an atonement for sin. In Elizabethan England, someone like Caliban might have been forced to seek an income. It was during this time that Freak shows began in England. Caliban could have earned a lot of money in the sideshows on the south bank in London.

Prospero tried to reform Caliban with kind treatment and herbal remedies. When he discovered Caliban’s intentions towards Miranda, he pursues a different treatment, that of punishment.

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers. I will plague them all
Even to roaring.

(Tempest, IV.i.211–6)

Prospero who first attempted to heal Caliban with kindness, gave up humane treatment when he learned of Caliban’s evil intentions. From the point that Caliban tried to rape Miranda, Prospero’s treatment of Caliban is one of punishment.

In the Virginia Pamphlet, ‘A True declaration of the estate of the colonie in Virginia’ (1610),⁷ the author writes about a shipwreck as though he is referring to Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

What is there in all this tragicall Comædie that should discourage us with impossibilitie of the enterprise? … Quæ videtur pæna, est medicina, that which we accompt a punishment of evill, is but a medicine against evill.

In the Final Act of The Tempest all is restored, old wounds are healed. Prospero has been angry about his exile but, in the end, he forgives those who exiled him and asks for forgiveness and mercy for himself.

Please see also the author’s video: @ContextShakespeare1740

End Notes

  1. Richard Paul Roe, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels, HarperCollins, 2011.
  2. Charles Graves, Essay 30, On The Tempest, 2015. The drink ‘bermooth’ does not refer to Bermuda (an island) but to the vermouth drink which John Lyly brought to Edward while he was in the Tower for getting Anne Vavasour with child (1580).
  3. The Milford Lane Bermudas, accessed 5/3/2023.
  4. William Cecil’s Magnificent Mansions, Stamford Sights 2020, accessed 5/3/2023.
  5. Celati, Alessandra, ‘Contra Medicos: Physicians Facing the Inquisition in Sixteenth-Century Venice.’ Early Science and Medicine, vol. 23, no. 1/2, 2018, pp. 72–91. JSTOR, Accessed 5/3/2023.
  6. Yang M, Guo MY, Luo Y, Yun MD, Yan J, Liu T, Xiao CH. Effect of Artemisia annua extract on treating active rheumatoid arthritis: A randomized controlled trial. Chin J Integr Med. 2017 Jul;23(7):496-503. doi: 10.1007/s11655-016-2650-7. Epub 2016 Dec 29. PMID: 28035541.
  7. A True declaration of the estate of the colonie in Virginia. (London,1610).

To view or download this article as a PDF click here.