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.
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.