The capacity of the sea to choose or become an agent or locus of transformation is suggested in Richard III (c.1592–94). It can also be argued that in the play, sea imagery helps Shakespeare more fully define character and articulate change. Its use in defining character is noted as early as Richard’s opening lines:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. (Richard III 1.1.1–4)
Here, the last line is the most intriguing. In Shakespeare’s 1590 “prequel” to the play, Henry VI calls Richard “…the sea / Whose envious gulf did swallow up [Prince Ned’s] life” (Henry VI, Part 3 5.6.25–26). This in mind, Richard’s reference to “the deep bosom of the ocean” covering “all the clouds that loured” on the house of York can be read as pointing to his own restless, discontented soul. Several lines later when Clarence, Richard’s first obstacle to the throne, makes his entrance, Richard’s words are again associated with this burying sea: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul; here Clarence comes” (Richard III 1.1.41). Any musing on his scheme to take the throne must quickly be submerged in his inner abyss, a place where enmity and rage lie seething.
Richard’s restive, vengeful soul is again apparent in Clarence’s dream, which Shakespeare fills with imagery evoking a sea alive, destructive, and mocking of human endeavor—much like the discontented Richard. The result is an unsettling vision describing the transformation of men and ships and the associated death and loss. Clarence recounts being “struck…overboard” by Richard (1.4.19), where he encounters a landscape embodying the act of transformation: all is caught between death and life. What he sees is both surreal and real, horrifying and beautiful:
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.
Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept –
As ‘twere in scorn of eyes – reflecting gems,
That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep
And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered by. (1.4.24–33)
The reality of shipwreck becomes Shakespeare’s textual conduit for limning transformation and articulating change, a locus where metaphysical belief systems and mutable nature become one (Mentz Shipwreck xxxi). This sea seems complicit in the loss of the ships, men, and wealth, as if demanding tribute for its use, and participates in the transition of those lost into reanimated, adorned skulls destined to stalk the ooze. Mocking the idea of mortal beings, these macabre creations turn their affections to their marine surroundings and woo the ugly, primordial slime.
Clarence then describes an “envious flood” that would not let him drown. Here, Shakespeare furthers the idea of a sea with agency, crafting an entity with the capacity to hinder human will:
…and often did I strive
To yield the ghost, but still the envious flood
Stopped in my soul and would not let it forth
To find the empty, vast and wandering air,
But smothered it within my panting bulk,
Who almost burst to belch it in the sea. (1.4.36–41)
Clarence himself is not allowed agency. He is kept from acting on the urge to drown by “the envious flood” that “stop[s] in [his] soul,” a phrase again reminiscent of Richard, the “envious gulf.” The sea, not Clarence’s will to survive, holds in his soul, preventing it from leaving his body as he struggles under the sheer power of the entity. Shakespeare’s words suggest an embodied presence, not simply an actant. This sea almost becomes another character in Clarence’s dream: a living entity with the capacity to mock the desires and paltry strength of human beings, much like the gem-adorned skulls of earlier lines.
Clarence’s nightmare vision shows Shakespeare bridging the mythic and modern, blending a sea with the capacity for agency with one used as a tool for exploration and trade. This mix underscores both the inherent danger of the entity and the risk associated with commercial ventures, hence a sea bottom enriched by losses from these enterprises. The bodies of the men sacrificed in these wrecks are at the mercy of the fish and brine, becoming one with the forfeited wealth and the sea floor itself. By way of comparison, in 1.4.45 the Styx is merely described as a “melancholy flood,” and this description gestures toward the difference between an active, even treacherous, earthly sea and a milder, more navigable mythical river. Shakespeare’s words imply that human beings have much to learn about the ways of the sea, and that its ability to hinder or “stop[ ] in” human will and desire must not be underestimated. His imagery hints at an “ungraspable thing,” “a nearly inconceivable physical reality and a mind-twisting force for change and instability” (Mentz Bottom ix, x).
Mentz, Steve. At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.
———. Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719. U of Minnesota Press, 2015.