“The Tempest”: The Participatory Sea

In The Tempest, Shakespeare describes an entity not only capable of making the choice to participate in human affairs, but actively doing so. The simple, poignant lines of Ariel’s song introduce the idea of a sea with agency, providing a vision of the possibility and revealing an entity able to enact both physical and mental change. More than just a ruse to draw Ferdinand into Prospero’s plan, Ariel’s song is an attempt to confound the psyche and distract by recounting the sea’s physical power to transform:

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. (1.2.397-402)

In these lines, Shakespeare uses words reminiscent of Clarence’s dream in Richard III (1.4.24–33) and the forfeited wealth it describes on the sea floor. Ariel’s song, like Clarence’s dream, suggests human powerlessness; its tone, however, is more melancholy than sinister. Alonso, the now-coral body, could not escape absolute change and through Alonso’s perceived death, neither can Ferdinand. Father and son are at the whim of fate and subject to being transformed in one way or another.

The body of King Alonso plays an important part in actualizing, or embodying, the idea of transition between one state and the next. Ariel sings of a man taken by the sea and transformed, albeit into a more benign creature than the bejeweled skulls in Clarence’s dream. Alonso becomes and begets coral, something “rich and strange,” but his bones do not menace or creep along the sea floor. There is nothing left of his physical body that has not experienced a shift from human being to wonder-inducing entity. His royal status is not noted, only his place as Ferdinand’s father. This underscores the sea’s disregard of human wealth and state (also implied in Clarence’s dream), and gestures to the concept of the king’s two bodies: the flesh of a dead monarch dissolving as his legacy becomes substance. The action of becoming is deemed a “sea-change,” which aptly describes the other instances of transformation Shakespeare includes in the play. In each, characters experience some sort of physically and/or emotionally transformative situation, if only for the time spent on the island.

Ariel returns to this participatory sea, one possessing agency and power and that “writes all the play’s plots” (Mentz Bottom 10), during the harpy scene. Again, the spirit’s words and images are meant to confound the men and situate them as helpless, unable to avoid judgement for their actions against Prospero and Miranda. Contrasting with the melancholy lyricism of the earlier song, Shakespeare’s lines now employ tidal imagery indicative of power and quick, decisive action:

You are three men of sin, whom destiny,
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t, the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you…
But remember…that you three
From Milan did supplant good Prospero,
Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,
Him and his innocent child; for which foul deed,
The powers delaying, not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and the shores…
Against your peace. (3.3.53-56, 68-76)

The words “never-surfeited sea / Hath caused to belch up you” suggest an entity agreeing to physically reject the men and participate in their punishment. Here, Shakespeare incorporates vestiges of the mythic by gesturing to the idea of a god paying back, or “requit[ing]” members of the group for their schemes against father and daughter. The seas are angered, urged into their rage by “the powers,” and their willing response and desire to be a part of the retribution indicates agency and previous knowledge of the heinous deed.

The harpy passage is, like Ariel’s song, obviously intended as a vision or nightmare experience. It also successfully convinces Alonso of the sea’s capacity to know and act on human endeavor; he believes it “told” him the group’s situation on the island is a result of their treatment of Prospero. Alonso describes this experience using words that imply the sea’s embodiment and ability to share motives and reasons. He describes these capacities as he reflects on the natural forces opposing the group:

Methought the billows spoke and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder – 
That deep and dreadful organpipe – pronounced
The name of Prosper. It did bass my trespass. (3.3.96-99)

As in Clarence’s dream, Shakespeare suggests the sea as another character, animate and able to impart to Alonso the basis for its recent actions. This sea also possesses a porosity and ability to influence that is realized in the final scene as Prospero muses “Their understanding / Begins to swell, and the approaching tide / Will shortly fill the reasonable shore / That now lies foul and muddy” (5.1.79-82). He envisions the men’s reason as tidal, and although muddied by Ariel’s spell and the stagnant nature of lies and deception, able to be cleansed by a newly-turning flow. Their gradual understanding, like a swelling tide, will grow as the fresh influx of water fills their minds, clearing away the charm that has left them circling for the last few scenes (5.1.57, SD) and bringing with it an understanding of their situation.

This suggestion of a powerful tidal entity is important to the final scene of revelation and resolution. Upon learning that his father is not drowned, Ferdinand falls to his knees as if in the presence of a deity: “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful. / I have cursed them without cause. [He kneels]” (5.1.178-179). Through the prince’s words and actions, Shakespeare makes an even stronger reference to the sea god suggested in the harpy scene–and also shifts the tone. The entity’s apparently random behavior and treacherous actions are forgotten, and its god-like goodness brought forth. This brings to mind act three scene 4 of Twelfth Night (1600-02), when Viola realizes her brother Sebastian might be alive: “O, if it prove, / Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love!” (3.4.382-383). In both passages, Shakespeare describes an entity with the capacity to choose and the ability to aid, as well as recognize, human frailty. Although Viola speaks conditionally, Ferdinand speaks concretely, showing remorse for injurious words against the waves. His lines imply that just as the seas embody power, they are capable of mercy, and recall an age when seas were believed to span the metaphysical space between the gods and humanity.

Works Cited:

Mentz, Steve. At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Proudfoot, Richard, Ann Thomas, and David Scott Kastan, editors. The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. Bloomsbury, 2011.

Shakespeare, William. “King Richard III.” Proudfoot et al, pp 701–741.

———. “The Tempest.” Proudfoot et al, pp 1191–1218.

———. “Twelfth Night.” Proudfoot et al, pp 1071–1095.

Agency and the Sea in “The Roaring Girl”

In scene two of their play The Roaring Girl (c.1607–10), Middleton and Dekker gesture to a sea with agency that also incorporates echoes of reality and instability. Sir Alexander, who believes his son Sebastian is in love with Moll, laments, “All my joys / Stand at the brink of a devouring flood / And will be willfully swallowed, willfully!” (2.2.188–190). Like Shakespeare’s portrayals of the sea entity in Clarence’s dream (Richard III 1.4.24–41) and the tides in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1.2.48–51), these lines describe a malicious flood primed and eager to destroy human desires. They also knit together threads of description and allusion used by Middleton and Dekker to characterize Moll and the city of London. As noted in a previous blog post, the play associates Moll with sea-related images, and her movement through the urban landscape resembles tidal ebbs and flows. In Sir Alexander’s lament, these allusions merge; he envisions Moll as a deluge poised to dash all his hopes for Sebastian’s contracting an advantageous marriage. In Sir Alexander’s mind the blame rests on the culture of a city that suffers a girl like Moll to flow freely through it, and he imagines a flood of circumstances standing ready and willing to consume his carefully laid plans. To make this point, Middleton and Dekker employ sea imagery that becomes the embodiment of all Sir Alexander’s fears: a devouring agent contrary to all his wishes, ready to efface what was acceptable in his son and recreate it in ways destructive to his parental strategies and aspirations.    

Text used for The Roaring Girl and The Spanish Tragedy:
Bevington, David, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen, editors. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.

For Richard III:
Kastan, David Scott, Richard Proudfoot, and Ann Thomas, editors. The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. Bloomsbury, 2011.

The Embodied Sea: Character and Transformation

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.

The Sea as Embodied Ally

A backgrounded sea presence similar to that in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is also found in Marlowe’s earlier play, The Jew of Malta (1589–1590).1 Marlowe, however, includes lines suggesting the sea has the capacity to act as an ally or embody the rage and bravery of a threatened nation. Like Antonio in Merchant, main character Barabas’s wealth comes from his sea ventures, as do his losses—the largest of which stem from the arrival of the Turkish fleet. This event is introduced via Marlowe’s wordplay remark, “What accident’s betided to the Jews?” (1.1.145, emphasis mine). Later, when Ferneze, Governor of Malta, joins with the Spanish to resist the Turks’ demands of tribute and threats of attack, his words to Callapine, Bashaw of the Turks, speak of the sea in terms that imply its agency and alliance with the island. Warning Callapine of the consequences of pressuring Malta, Ferneze describes the waves as willing tools and instruments of vengeance that will side with Malta if the Turks attempt to invade:

Bashaw, in brief, shalt have no tribute here, 
Nor shall the heathens live upon our spoil.
First will we raze the city walls ourselves,
Lay waste the island, hew the temples down,
And, shipping off our goods to Sicily,
Open an entrance for the wasteful sea,
Whose billows, beating the resistless banks,
Shall overflow it with their refluence.” (3.5.11-18)

Marlowe crafts lines as descriptors of an entity eager to break its bounds and “overflow” the island. It is made clear, however, that this action would be coordinated with and encouraged by Malta as a response to threats of war. Far from describing a fear of waves overtaking their shores, these lines reflect a people willing to cooperate and fully prepared to allow the waves entry. 

These images of a sea imbued with agency and the capacity to assist or oppose are flexible. They can suggest interaction with or aid for those imperiled, or they can suggest the violence of war through depictions of a threatening, dangerous tide. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c.1585-87),2 this imagery is central to the description of an angry, passionate, god-like entity, one seeming to echo the play’s theme of revenge:

Their violent shot resembling th’ocean’s rage,  
When, roaring loud and with a swelling tide,
It beats upon the rampiers of huge rocks,
And gapes to swallow neighbor-bounding lands. (1.2.48-51)

The violence of conflict is compared to an entity both vengeful and embodied. Kyd’s images mirror the passions of battle: angry, raging, roaring, and increasing. The tide’s embodiment becomes more pronounced as the passage progresses: it “beats upon…huge rocks,” “gapes to swallow lands,” and its increasing rumble is made almost tangible through consonance (“rage,” “roaring,” “rampiers,” and “rocks”). Kyd’s words evoke a monstrous presence possessing traces of a sea god, capable of rage and dangerous to any opposition. In contrast to Malta’s sea as ally, Kyd’s entity is aggressive and uncontrolled, threatening destruction as it wills or chooses, coming to no creature or country’s aid. 

[1] Marlowe, Christopher, “The Jew of Malta,” 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), 287–349.

[2] Kyd, Thomas, “The Spanish Tragedy,” 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), 3–73.

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.

Radio Silence: explained…and a slight (temporary) shift

As you might have noticed, my blog has been seriously neglected lately. Why? Well, in addition to my day job, I started a professional certificate in editing at the University of Chicago–so my available time has taken a hit. I’m not able to give plays like The Changeling the attention they deserve and post an analysis in a decent space of time.

I want to keep my blog up and running, though, so I’ve hit on an idea. The second half of my MA thesis was good as far as content, but I never felt it matched the first half stylistically. What I propose to do is break the second half into sections and edit them to my liking, then post them here. With any luck you’ll find them as entertaining and informative about early modern drama as my earlier posts.

The title of my thesis was The Sea in Early Modern Drama: Existential Affect, Imperative Choice, and Embodiment of Transformation. The project was more of a compendium of examples and how they were used than a defense of a stated argument. The first half (in my opinion, the better stylistically) addresses language used by early modern dramatists to portray situations of intense emotion or imperative choice, such as Brutus’s line “there is a tide in the affairs of men” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 4.3.215 [Arden Complete Works]). The second half, the one I propose to post in sections here, looks at language suggesting the embodiment of transformation: think Ariel’s song in The Tempest or Clarence’s dream in Richard III. If you’re here for the non-Shakespearean content, no worries! Works by Will’s contemporaries are also part of the discussion–you might even learn about a play you didn’t know existed.

Thanks for being patient while I revise what I think is an interesting exploration of dramatic language and usage. When I can, I’ll get back to my close reading of non-Shakespearean drama.

Happy reading!