Shakespeare overflows with sea poetry, and my favorites include memorable lines like the “never-surfeited sea” (The Tempest 3.3.73), the “always-wind-obeying deep” (Comedy of Errors 1.1.63), and Juliet’s adjective “boundless” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.140). But for my top five quotes I’ll choose slightly longer pieces –
1. Ariel’s “sea change”
First, and most famous, the speech that’s launched a thousand metaphors, is Ariel’s song about “sea change.” This phrase, which modern dictionaries define as a “profound or complete change,” has a deeper saltwater context if heard in full:
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. The Tempest 1.2.474-79
The transformation of human bodies into treasures through the agency of sea water may be Shakespeare’s most resonant image of the ocean. When I recall this passage or sing it to myself in the shower, I like to remember that so much of the glorious vision is false. The King-father has not drowned. His bones and eyes remain in his living body, walking a different part of the beach in freshly-cleaned clothes. Even the depth which Ariel describes – five full fathoms, about 30 feet – isn’t all that far. On a sunny day, in clear Mediterranean waters, we can see thirty feet down. We might even be able to swim there, if we really want to.
2. “Dolphin-like” Antony
My second quotation comes from the play I’m deep inside right now, Antony and Cleopatra. I’m working on a keynote lecture about this play for a “Shakespeare and the Sea” conference at the National Maritime Museum in London in September. The tragedy refuses the poetic clarity of Ariel’s song and instead offers muddy hybrids. The play’s central conflict pits masculine, linear, urban Rome against the feminine, sinuous, fertile valley of the Nile. But Mark Antony, as eulogized by Cleopatra at the end of the action, spans these two worlds and two elements.
For his bounty
There was no winter in ‘t; an autumn ‘twas
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphin-like; they showed his back above
The element they lived in.
Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.106-10
In describing Antony as a dolphin, Cleopatra emphasizes his attachment to opposed but adjacent worlds. The sea is the “element” that his delights “lived in.” The air above, into which the hero “show[s] his back,” provides sustenance. The four classical elements do not map neatly onto the Rome-Egypt dichotomy – Cleopatra will dissolve into “fire and air” (5.2.244), and Caesar’s victory for Rome happened “by sea” (3.7.52) – but Antony’s “dolphin-like” bridging of the fluid elements of water and air captures his symbolic multiplicity and excess.
3. A shipwreck dream in Richard III
In my third passage, a dream in Richard III combines human and global immersions. Clarence, who will soon be drowned in a butt of wine by assassins working for his ambitious brother, glimpses his own mortality and the oceanic horizons across which England was about to sail navies, merchants, and colonizers.
O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown,
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,
What sights of ugly death within my eyes.
Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks,
A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.
Richard III, 1.4.22-29
I’ve written about how shipwreck formed a defining image of early modern global sea travel. No portrait of maritime detritus is more resonant than this one. Gold, jewels, and pearl mix with anchors, wracks, and fishes, “scattered” on the sea floor like the hopes of so many would-be conquerors.
4. Cardinal Wolsey beyond his depth
My personal oceanic practice is open water swimming, which was a rarity in early modern Europe. Relatively few people learned to swim in Elizabethan England, though the practice was faddish and dangerous enough to have been banned at Cambridge University in 1571, when Shakespeare was seven years old. One of my favorite images of swimming comes in my fourth passage, from Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, who likens his fall from grace at court to children in deep water.
I have ventured
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth. My high-blown pride
At length broke under me and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must forever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate you.
Henry VIII, 3.2.427-34
This lovely passage emphasizes the risk of swimming above an inhuman “sea of glory.” It also suggests, in the “bladders” which support the “little wanton boys,” that water-wings and personal flotation devices have a long history.
5. Perdita as “a wave o’ th’ sea”
During these last golden days of summer my bedtime reading is anthropologist Stefan Helmreich’s A Book of Waves, which explores multiple types of waves, wave science, and human interactions with waves. Moving between storm surges, the flooded Netherlands, quantum mechanics, and the permanent wave that styled American women’s hair in the 1920s has led me to consider what Shakespeare thought about waves. The best image and my final passage come from Prince Florizel, speaking to his beloved Perdita in The Winter’s Tale.
When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might every do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.
The Winter’s Tale, 4.4.166-72
Wave and beloved both appear radically independent, unlike anything else, “singular in each particular.” In the endless motion of the waters, the music of the surf echoes Perdita’s pastoral dance. This wave, like many others, has miles to travel before it curls up to meet its beach.
Hear more from Steve Mentz on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast:
Shakespeare and the Ocean, with Steve Mentz
Steve Mentz’s books connect literary criticism with marine ecology. He takes us on a deep dive into Shakespeare and the sea.
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