Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review: Shakespeare and the Sea

A recent trip to see The Tempest triggered an interest in the connections between the bard and Britain's maritime past, and a search of eBay was rewarded by a second hand book called "Shakespeare and the Sea" by Lieutenant Commander Alexander Frederick Falconer, VRD, MA.

It is not an easy read, more of a breakdown of Shakespeare quotes by topic, with chapters called "Putting to Sea", "Storms", "Pirates", "Shipwrecks", "Tides", "Swimming" and so on. Within each chapter there are then examples of how these themes were represented in the plays, and comparisons between the texts and contemporary accounts of sailing.

He uses this resource to support two points:
1) There are a lot of references to maritime issues, some quite detailed and specific, for example on navigation
2) The naval and maritime language is incredibly accurate, much more than other play writes of the day

Some knowledge of seafaring would be expected, as in this quote from Macbeth:

All the quarters that they know
I' th' shipman's card

Here the card describes the 32 points of the compass. But at times it is very specific, as in this woeful extract from Cymbeline:

O melancholy,
Who ever yet could sound thy bottom, find
The ooze, to show what coast thy sluggish crare
Migh'st easil'est harbour in

Here he describes not just use of a sounding line but also arming the plummet to bring up samples, to "find", from the sea bed.

Shakespeare lived through a time where maritime power saved England from conquest, when in 1588 the great Spanish Armada was fought from one end of the Channel to the other.  At such a time of national emergency many souls that would normally have remained on dry land would have volunteered to do their duty..... so could Will have been one of them?

This is where it gets fascinating, for there are in the Bard's life two periods described as "lost years", when there are no records of his whereabouts, and the latter of these two was 1585 - 1592, matching the time of the Armada, and when he was in his early twenties.

Falconer speculates he gained a rank of corporal, then a position held at sea, and there learned the trade of the sea, navigation and sailing, listened to how gunners and fishermen talked, and watched the wild vagaries of the English weather blow through.

Alas it is likely we will never know for sure if this is true, but for me it feels right that William Shakespeare as a young man sailed the seas off England, helping defend against the great Armada.

It was not just King Lear it was the greatest play write himself that spoke these lines:

Hark, do you hear the sea?

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