The Active Sea as Element of Character and Plot

Sea imagery in early modern drama allows for the enhancement and heightening of a character’s experience; its use may also suggest that powers outside human agency are in play. It can more fully define a character or add to their story: without it, characters such as Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina would not be as rounded or appealing. Sea-related allusions or dreamscapes can also hint at a character’s psyche or inner experience. In Richard III, for example, the Duke of Clarence’s dream narrates stages of life and emotion beyond what reality-based language can convey, while the seafloor setting adds a sense of numinous wonder. The trope is flexible, timeless, and easily accessible for audiences.

In this post, I will look briefly at how sea imagery is used to define characters, connect them, and shade the situations surrounding them. In subsequent posts, I will address similar active uses of the trope, including seas showing apparent affect and emotion as well as those described as playing a role in transformation and change, literary choices that can make its contribution integral to the plot.


In The Roaring Girl (1607–10),1 Middleton and Dekker employ numerous references to water, fishing, and the like, situating the sea as almost another character and subtly playing on the word “roaring.”2 Moll and the gallants move about the shops and city in a wave-like ebb and flow (2.1); she is associated with water-related images such as mermaids and ducks (1.2.217, 3.3.7); and when asked to sing, her song is of a sailor and ship (4.1.116–126). These tropes do more than merely suggest the ebb and flow of fortune and relationships or the mysteries and dangers of the urban landscape; they show Moll to be a creature easily inhabiting the “sea” of the city. This is underscored by the tidal imagery used by Trapdoor in his bid to be in Moll’s service. He describes himself as “A poor ebbing gentleman that would gladly wait for the young flood of your service” (2.1.359–360), essentially transforming them both into bodies of water. His words become action when Moll agrees to his request, taking him into her service much as a wave takes in the shore or merges with another wave.

The sea images in The Roaring Girl are mostly calm, mirroring the characters and their actions. In other early modern plays, however, the imagery adds a sense of peril or danger to backgrounds or backstories. Beggars’ Bush (Beaumont, Fletcher, and Massinger; published 1647)3 and The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare, written 1596–1599)4 both feature the sea as a source of success/ruin/restoration for a character and use it to frame a courtship. There is a perceived loss of ships, creditors pressing a merchant character for payment, and a comedy ending (i.e., a marriage).

In scene 3 act 5 of Beggars’ Bush, for example, sea references are sprinkled throughout the dialogue. They mirror Goswin/Florez’s concern about his ships, his lover Gertrude/Bertha’s subsequent distress at his changed regard, and the young couple’s passion. The exchange begins with Gertrude/Bertha noticing her lover’s suddenly aloof, distracted manner. Not knowing that his ships (and consequently his fortune) might be lost, she takes this change to mean he is infatuated with another. Far from dreaming of other loves, however, Goswin/Florez is mired in anxiety over his investments. He envisions the tide swamping his mercantile venture and imagines the resulting economic effects: “And, like a tumbling wave, I see my ruin / Come rolling over me” (3.5.25–26). Even though he speaks in an aside, Gertrude/Bertha’s subsequent lament echoes his. Giving voice to her fear of losing him, her words essentially link her own fortune to the same wave: “And may the next you love, hearing my ruin…” (3.5.31). Her words call Goswin/Florez’s attention back to the present and his apology, “My mind, o’erflow’d with sorrow, sunk my memory” (3.5.35), again connects with the motion of water. The words “o’erflow’d” and “sunk” gesture to the source of Goswin/Florez’s ongoing distraction, pointing to his indebtedness to the sea and confirming its importance to the plot.

The centrality of the sea in The Merchant of Venice is made clear by Shakespeare’s similar use of foregrounding, allusion, and imagery. Antonio’s worldly fortune is in his ships, and their perceived loss shifts his very existence into the the hands of Shylock. Bassanio must depend on Antonio’s sea-linked fortune to court Portia, and in the trial scene pronounces the possible loss of Antonio as a threat to his own emotional and existential future (4.1.278-283). Portia is linked to the sea merchant’s life and well-being by way of Bassanio’s happiness.

Likewise, Shylock’s plan for revenge relies upon the loss of Antonio’s ships. Bassanio’s ability to successfully woo Portia (via Antonio’s good credit), leads to her involvement in the trial and Shylock’s subsequent loss of wealth, religion, and by extension, self. Based on this, it can be argued that the sea might be almost another character, one introduced in the opening lines (“Your mind is tossing on the ocean…” 1.1.7). As in Beggar’s Bush, throughout Merchant a tidal echo of human passions and the ebb and flow of fortune are continually present, keeping the sea’s strength and economic importance top of mind for the audience.


[1] Middleton, Thomas, and Thomas Dekker, “The Roaring Girl,” in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 1371–1453.

[2] Per the OED, the use of “roaring” in regard to the sea dates to the 15th century.

[3] Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher, “Beggar’s Bush,” in The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: Variorum Edition, Vol. II. Edited by W. W. Gregg, R. B. McKerrow, P. A. Daniel, and R. Warwick Bond. (London: George Bell and Sons & A.H. Bullen, 1905), 339–454.

[4] Shakespeare, William, “The Merchant of Venice,” in The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, 2nd ed. Edited by Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thomas, and David Scott Kastan. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 831–858.