Michael J. Cummings...©
are the most memorable events in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark? Readers
and audiences frequently identify them as the midnight appearance of the
ghost of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet’s impassioned “to be or not to be" soliloquy,
the death of the ruefully demented Ophelia, Hamlet’s nostalgic musings
while holding the skull of Yorick, and Hamlet’s climactic sword fight with
Laertes. Seldom, however, do readers and theatergoers select the episode
in which pirates unwittingly rescue Hamlet at sea, taking him captive from
a ship bound for England and later releasing him on the shores of Denmark.
that episode lacks the dramatic power of the other events, mainly because
Hamlet recounts it in a letter to Horatio as a past event. Nevertheless,
it is a turning point in the play. Consider that without the intervention
of the pirates, Hamlet would have ended up in England with his neck on
a chopping block, and Claudius would have reigned unchallenged as King
fact, ships are important turning points, or plot catalysts, in many of
Shakespeare plays. Rather than mere vessels of haulage, ships are carriers
of hope and despair, fortune and misfortune, death and rebirth. Shakespeare’s
ships, in short, represent humankind on the sea of life encountering the
most formidable of antagonists: caprice. In The Merchant of Venice,
for example, the entire plot turns on one event: the shocking, unexpected
foundering of Antonio’s ships. The sea disaster forecloses Antonio’s ability
to repay Shylock. In turn, Shylock demands his pound of flesh.
ships and the seas they sail serve not only as fulcrums on which plots
turn but also as conveyances in which Shakespeare delivers stunning imagery,
as the following passages from the plays demonstrate:
Antony and Cleopatra, Domitius Enobarbus, Antony's best friend,
describes in soaring imagery Cleopatra's arrival at Tarsus, on the Cydnus
River, in the eastern Roman Empire (present-day Turkey) on the day she
was introduced to Antony in 41 B.C. Cleopatra makes a grand entrance while
enthroned on a barge. Following is the description (Act II, Scene II, Lines
is a tide in the affairs of men,
taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
all the voyage of their life
bound in shallows and in miseries.
such a full sea are we now afloat;
we must take the current when it serves,
lose our ventures.
Act IV, Scene III, Lines 217-223
that you have seen
well-appointed king at Hampton pier
his royalty; and his brave fleet
silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
with your fancies, and in them behold
the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
the shrill whistle which doth order give
sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
with the invisible and creeping wind,
the huge bottoms through the furrow'd sea,
the lofty surge: O, do but think
stand upon the ravage and behold
city on the inconstant billows dancing;
so appears this fleet majestical,
due course to Harfleur.
Act III, Lines 3-17
Troilus and Cressida
sea being smooth,
many shallow bauble boats dare sail
her patient breast, making their way
those of nobler bulk!
let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
gentle Thetis, and anon behold
strong-ribb'd bark through liquid mountains cut,
between the two moist elements,
Perseus' horse: where's then the saucy boat
weak untimber'd sides but even now
greatness? Either to harbour fled,
made a toast for Neptune. Even so
valour's show and valour's worth divide
storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness
herd hath more annoyance by the breeze
by the tiger; but when the splitting wind
flexible the knees of knotted oaks,
flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage
roused with rage with rage doth sympathize,
with an accent tuned in selfsame key
to chiding fortune.
Act I, Scene III, Lines 34-54
I saw a thousand fearful wrecks,
thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
of gold, great ouches, heaps of pearl,
stones, unvalued jewels,
scattered in the bottom of the sea.
lay in dead men's skulls; and in those holes
eyes did once inhabit, there were crept—
'twere in scorn of eyes—reflecting gems.
Act I, Scene IV, Lines.24–31
barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
on the water: the poop
was beaten gold;
winds were love-sick with them;
the oars were silver,
to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
water which they beat to follow faster,
amorous of their strokes. For her own
beggar'd all description: she did lie
her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
that Venus where we see
fancy outwork nature: on each side her
pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
glow the delicate cheeks
which they did cool,
what they undid did.
. . . burn'd: simile, alliteration
stern (rear) of a ship
. . . them: metaphor/personification,
. . . strokes: metaphor/personification.
Even the water, stroked by oars, was in love.
shelter hung with gauzy golden fabric
. . . nature: The imagination (fancy)
of the designer, or artist, exceeds (outworks) nature's own creative
. . . cheeks: redden the cheeks
. . . did: paradox (the cooled cheeks
"heated up" with a blush
The Tempest, the sprite Ariel sings this rhythmic, alliterating
fathom five thy father lies;
second act of Richard II, Northumberland and Ross use sea metaphors
to describe the peril facing England:
his bones are coral made;
are pearls that were his eyes:
of him that doth fade
doth suffer a sea-change
something rich and strange.
hourly ring his knell.
Act I, Scene II, Lines
Reproach and dissolution hangeth over him.
Storms and Shipwrecks
ROSS He hath not money for these Irish
His burthenous taxations notwithstanding,
But by the robbing of the banish'd duke.
His noble kinsman: most degenerate king!
But, lords, we hear this fearful tempest sing,
Yet see no shelter to avoid the storm;
We see the wind sit sore upon our sails,
And yet we strike not, but securely perish.
ROSS We see the very wreck that we
And unavoided is the danger now,
For suffering so the causes of our wreck.
sea storms that cause shipwrecks occur often in Shakespeare’s plays to
underscore the emotional paroxysms of everyday life, to introduce a scene
or an entire play, or to justify a shift in the action.
example, in Act II, Scene I, of Othello, the fate of ships sailing
to Cyprus during a storm establishes the direction of the plot for the
rest of the play. Here is what happens: After Ottoman Turks and Venetians
both set sail for Cyprus, there to fight over control of the island nation,
most of the Turkish fleet sinks in a storm. However, Othello, the general
of the Venetian armies, arrives safely amid fanfare and rejoicing. The
wreck of the Turkish fleet enables the plot to shift from military conflict
between two nations to emotional conflict between Othello and his wife,
inflamed by one of Othello’s evil officers, Iago.
the beginning of one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, The Tempest,
the passengers and crew of a king’s ship jump overboard during a raging
storm and take refuge on an enchanted island. There, the magic of the island’s
ruler, the sorcerer Prospero, and his mischievous sprite, Ariel, reunite
and reconcile Prospero with his brother, a refugee from the ship who had
usurped Prospero’s dukedom years before. Meanwhile, Prospero’s daughter
and the king’s son–another refugee from the ship–fall in love.
Night begins with a shipwreck that casts the main character, Viola,
and her twin brother, Sebastian, ashore on Illyria. However, because they
arrive at different locations, Viola thinks her brother has died. As a
result, mix-ups and mayhem occur throughout this engaging comedy. In the
end, Viola and Sebastian reunite while also pledging marriage to lovers
they have met in Illyria
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the title character meets his future spouse
after a storm wrecks his ship and casts him ashore at Pentapolis, on the
coast of North Africa. After marrying and spending several months in Africa,
Pericles sails home to Tyre with his new wife, Thaissa, who is pregnant.
During a violent storm, she gives birth to a daughter, Marina. However,
the midwife who delivered the baby says Thaissa has died. Brokenhearted,
Pericles bids an emotional farewell to his wife as her body is placed in
a chest and cast overboard. Later, he stops at Tarsus to leave his child
with friends so that she will not have to endure the long voyage back to
later, Pericles, eager to reunite with his daughter, sets sail and tracks
her down. On his sea voyage, he also discovers that the chest containing
the body of Thaissa floated ashore at Ephesus, where a physician discovered
her still alive. Pericles, Thaissa, and their daughter live “happily ever
also enable Shakespeare to ignore classical unities that state, in part,
that a play should take place in one place on a single day. For example,
in Antony and Cleopatra, ships ferry the principal characters around
the known world, over a period of years, enabling Shakespeare to set scenes
in Alexandria, Egypt; Rome, Messina, and Misenum, Italy; Athens and Actium,
Greece; a plain in Syria; and various scenes of battle on land and sea.
The Winter’s Tale, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, sails across the
Mediterranean to visit his boyhood friend, Leontes, King of Sicily. During
the visit, Leontes wrongfully suspects that his wife, Hermione, has courted
the attentions of Polixenes. So strong are his suspicions against his wife
that he even thinks the child she carries is Polixenes’s, not his own.
When he orders his advisor, Camillo, to poison Polixenes, Camillo warns
Polixenes that his life is in danger. Polixenes then debarks on a return
trip to Bohemia, taking Camillo with him. In Bohemia, Camillo becomes the
Leontes imprisons Hermione and forbids her to see their son, Mamillius.
After she gives birth to a daughter, he disowns the child and orders her
abandoned in a far-off place. Antigonus, a servant, sails to Bohemia and
releases her there, leaving a note identifying her as “Perdita." But before
he can return to his ship, a bear attacks and kills him and an angry sea
wrecks the ship and swallows it and all aboard. Consequently, no one is
left to report the fate of the child. Back in Sicily, Mamillius dies pining
for his mother. Then Leontes receives a report saying Hermione herself
Bohemia, a shepherd adopts and rears Perdita, who blossoms into a beauty.
Florizel, the son of the Bohemian king, Polixenes, falls in love with her.
Polixenes opposes their plans for marriage. However, Camillo, eager to
return to his homeland, Sicily, persuades Florizel and Perdita to go with
him. After they set sail, Polixenes follows. In Sicily, King Leontes, now
deeply repentant of his past misdeeds, reconciles with Polixenes and Camillo.
Perdita’s remarkable resemblance to Hermione, as well as a note left behind
by Antigonus before he died, reveals that Perdita is Leontes’s daughter.
Leontes also learns that Hermione is not dead, but very much alive; she
has been living with the servant Paulina. The two kings approve the betrothal
of the son and daughter, and the play ends happily.
Shakespeare Travel on Ships?
questions occur at this point: (1) Did Shakespeare’s frequent use of ships
in his plots suggests that he had special knowledge of them? (2) Does his
use of ships indicate that he traveled beyond the boundaries of Britain?
fact, no public records, private memorabilia, letters, or other documents
exist indicating that Shakespeare ever traveled on a ship. However, given
his familiarity with the argot of seafarers and his fondness for sea metaphors,
one may at least speculate that Shakespeare had taken passage abroad on
one or more occasions. Keep in mind, too, that the English Channel, between
England and France, is a mere 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. From
Dover or a port nearby, he could have reached France–or Belgium or The
Netherlands–in a matter of hours.
too, Shakespeare's use of sailor’s language in his plays. One example is
the following passage from Act IV, Scene I, of a Comedy of Errors.
The speaker is Dromio of Syracuse:
there is a bark
stays but till her owner comes aboard,
then, sir, she bears away. Our fraughtage,
have convey'd aboard; and I have bought
oil, the balsamum
ship is in her trim;
the merry wind
fair from land: they stay for nought at all
for their owner, master, and yourself.
small sailboat with two forward masts and a rear
balsam, a plant resin used to heal or soothe
(also spelled aquavite, akvavit): strong liquor (more than 40 percent
alcohol) made from potato mash, grain mash, or other alcoholic beverages.
It is especially popular in Scandinavia.
is in her trim: well balanced for a voyage
because of correct placement of ballast
Shakespeare did travel abroad, one country he might have visited was Italy.
Consider that more than a dozen of his plays–including
The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, All's Well That Ends Well,
Othello, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming
of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Winter's Tale
all have some or all of their scenes set in Italy. Consider, too, that
plays not set in Italy are often well populated with people having Italian
names. For example, although The Comedy of Errors takes place
in Ephesus, Turkey, the names of many of the characters end with the Italian
''o'' or ''a'':–Angelo, Dromio, Adriana, Luciana. In Hamlet's Denmark,
we find characters named Marcellus, Bernardo and Francisco.
Practically all of the characters in Timon of Athens bear the names
of ancient Romans–Lucullus, Flavius, Flaminius, Lucius, Sempronius,
Servillius, Titus, Hortensius. Of course, it is quite possible that
Shakespeare visited Italy only in his imagination.