Shakespeare's Ships
Keep Plots Afloat
And Suggest He May Have Sailed Abroad
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By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
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.......Which 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. 
.......True, 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 of Denmark.  
.......In 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. 
.......Shakespeare’s 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:
    From Julius Caesar 
    There is a tide in the affairs of men, 
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; 
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life 
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries. 
    On such a full sea are we now afloat; 
    And we must take the current when it serves, 
    Or lose our ventures. 
    Brutus, Act IV, Scene III, Lines 217-223 

    From Henry V 
    Suppose that you have seen 
    The well-appointed king at Hampton pier 
    Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet 
    With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning: 
    Play with your fancies, and in them behold 
    Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing; 
    Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give 
    To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails, 
    Borne with the invisible and creeping wind, 
    Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow'd sea, 
    Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think 
    You stand upon the ravage and behold 
    A city on the inconstant billows dancing; 
    For so appears this fleet majestical, 
    Holding due course to Harfleur. 
    Prologue, Act III, Lines 3-17 

    From Troilus and Cressida 
    .......................[T]he sea being smooth, 
    How many shallow bauble boats dare sail 
    Upon her patient breast, making their way 
    With those of nobler bulk! 
    But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage 
    The gentle Thetis, and anon behold 
    The strong-ribb'd bark through liquid mountains cut, 
    Bounding between the two moist elements, 
    Like Perseus' horse: where's then the saucy boat 
    Whose weak untimber'd sides but even now 
    Co-rivall'd greatness? Either to harbour fled, 
    Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so 
    Doth valour's show and valour's worth divide 
    In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness 
    The herd hath more annoyance by the breeze 
    Than by the tiger; but when the splitting wind 
    Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks, 
    And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage 
    As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize, 
    And with an accent tuned in selfsame key 
    Retorts to chiding fortune. 
    Nestor, Act I, Scene III, Lines 34-54 

    From Richard III 
    Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, 
    Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon, 
    Wedges of gold, great ouches, heaps of pearl, 
    Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels, 
    All scattered in the bottom of the sea. 
    Some lay in dead men's skulls; and in those holes 
    Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept— 
    As 'twere in scorn of eyes—reflecting gems. 
    Clarence, Act I, Scene IV, Lines.24–31

.......In 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 196-210):  
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The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,  
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;  
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that  
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,  
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made  
The water which they beat to follow faster,  
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,  
It beggar'd all description: she did lie  
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–  
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see  
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her  
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,  
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem  
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,  
And what they undid did.
Barge . . .  burn'd: simile, alliteration 
poop: stern (rear) of a ship 
Purple, perfumed: alliteration 
sails, so: alliteration 
winds . . . them: metaphor/personification, alliteration 
made . . . strokes: metaphor/personification. Even the water, stroked by oars, was in love. 
pavilion: shelter hung with gauzy golden fabric  
where . . . nature: The imagination (fancy) of the designer, or artist,  exceeds (outworks) nature's own creative abilities. 
divers-colour'd: diverse-colored, many-colored 
glow . . . cheeks: redden the cheeks 
what . . . did: paradox (the cooled cheeks "heated up" with a blush
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In The Tempest, the sprite Ariel sings this rhythmic, alliterating passage:
    Full fathom five thy father lies; 
    Of his bones are coral made; 
    Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
    Nothing of him that doth fade 
    But doth suffer a sea-change 
    Into something rich and strange. 
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell. 
    Act I, Scene II, Lines 394-400
In the second act of Richard II, Northumberland and Ross use sea metaphors to describe the peril facing England:
    NORTHUMBERLAND  Reproach and dissolution hangeth over him. 
    LORD ROSS He hath not money for these Irish wars, 
            His burthenous taxations notwithstanding, 
            But by the robbing of the banish'd duke. 
    NORTHUMBERLAND  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. 
    LORD ROSS We see the very wreck that we must suffer; 
            And unavoided is the danger now, 
            For suffering so the causes of our wreck. 
Storms and Shipwrecks

 .......Wrathful 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.  
 .......For 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. 
 .......At 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.  
 .......Twelfth 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 
 .......In 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 Tyre.  
 .......Years 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 after." 

Far-Flung Settings 

 .......Ships 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.  
 .......In 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 king’s advisor.  
 .......Meanwhile, 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 has died. 
 .......In 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.  

Did Shakespeare Travel on Ships?

.......Two 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? 
 
.......In 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.  
 
.......Consider, 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: 
  
Master, there is a bark of Epidamnum
That stays but till her owner comes aboard,
And then, sir, she bears away. Our fraughtage, sir, 
I have convey'd aboard; and I have bought
The oil, the balsamum and aqua-vitae.
The ship is in her trim; the merry wind
Blows fair from land: they stay for nought at all 
But for their owner, master, and yourself.
bark: small sailboat with two forward masts and a rear mast 
fraughtage: cargo, load
balsamum: balsam, a plant resin used to heal or soothe 
aqua-vitae (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.
ship is in her trim: well balanced for a voyage because of correct placement of ballast
 
 
.......If 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.   
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