Keep Plots Afloat
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
Vessels Sail the Sea of Life
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:
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, 4.3.217-223)
In The Tempest, the sprite Ariel sings this rhythmic, alliterating passage:
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. (1.2.394-400)
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. (265-276)
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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
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
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.
Did Shakespeare Travel on Ships?
questions occur at this point: (1) Did
Shakespeare’s frequent use of ships in his
plots suggest that he had special knowledge of
them? (2) Does his use of ships indicate that
he traveled beyond the boundaries of Britain?
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.