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Shakespeare and Shipwrecks

By the time audiences first witnessed the separation of twins Sebastian and Viola at sea in Twelfth Night (c. 1601), shipwrecks were a recurring motif in Shakespeare’s plays: from the shipwreck that separates two sets of identical twins in The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594), to the failed venture at sea that ultimately sees Antonio indebted to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596). Shakespeare also writes shipwrecks into the plays that follow Twelfth Night. In Othello (1604), a storm disperses the Turkish fleet and briefly separates the Moor from his companions off the coast of Cyprus. Tempestuous sea voyages are particularly conspicuous in the plots of the Late Romances: the unfortunate hero of Pericles (1608) is forced to endure the phenomenon on two separate occasions; a storm wrecks doomed Antigonus’ ship and strands him on Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale (1611); and of course, it is the magical illusion of a shipwreck that brings Antonio to Prospero’s island in The Tempest (1611).

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning, 2017

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning, 2017

Shipwrecks, then, are a common occurrence in Shakespeare’s plays, but what structural function do they serve? As a plot device, shipwrecks disrupt itineraries and separate families. Out of the chaos they create, the quest to re-establish order and reclaim stable identities provides the drama for plays like Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors. When the twins are reunited and Viola’s true identity is finally revealed to Orsino, the count makes reference to the initial calamity that set the events of the play in motion: ‘If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,/ I shall have share in this most happy wreck.’ Naval disasters also serve as a reminder of forces that lie beyond human control: ‘it is comforting’ writes Roman poet Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, ‘when the winds are whipping up the waters of the vast sea, to watch from land the severe trials of another person.’ This model of stoic detachment was taken up by early modern humanists like Montaigne, whom we know Shakespeare read.

Shipwrecks would also have had wider associations within the early modern cultural imagination. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences did not need to look very far for examples of voyages of discovery that had ended in disaster. In 1588, a little over a decade before Twelfth Night was first staged, the Spanish Armada (a fleet of 130 ships sent by King Philip II of Spain to invade England) was scattered along the coast of Scotland and Ireland. Due to severe storms, crucial misjudgement by Spanish forces, and the defensive efforts of English and Dutch fleets, over a third of the Spanish ships failed to return, signalling one of the greatest political triumphs of Elizabeth’s reign. Years later in July 1609, Sea Venture, the first dedicated emigration vessel and flagship of the London Company, was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Bermuda - an event immortalised in the 1610 eye witness account of poet William Strachey (1572-1621), which some scholars believe to be a source for The Tempest.

In Twelfth Night, both Maria and Fabian make reference to the doomed sea voyage of Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, an event that was fresh in the minds of the play’s first audiences. The expedition set out for the Northeast Passage in May 1596, and in July reached the island of Nova Zembla, where Barentsz’s ship became trapped on the ice. The crew was forced to spend the winter in uninhabitable conditions, and Barentsz died in June 1597, along with several of his crew. In Twelfth Night, when Malvolio’s relationship with Olivia begins to broach uncharted territory, Fabian warns the steward that ‘you are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.’ Maria furthers the insult, saying that Malvolio’s face has ‘more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.’ This new map, drawn by Edward Wright in 1600, was the legacy of Barentsz’s ill-fated voyage.

First published on the Globe Blog, May 26th, 2017.


The London-born poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552 – 1599) is best known for his allegorical epic poem The Faerie Queene (1589) and the pastoral verses of The Shepheardes Calendar (1579). Although we study him mostly for his stylistic innovations with verse, Spenser wrote during a period of significant colonial upheaval and, as a civil servant, lived in great proximity to, and participated in, the tempestuous events of the Second Desmond rebellion and the Nine Years War that characterised the final decade of the Elizabethan age in Ireland. As one of many young men to take advantage of the schemes to colonize Ireland under Elizabeth’s reign, Spenser’s personal fortune was inexorably tied up with the success of English conquest.

Spenser first came to Ireland in August 1580 as private secretary to the queen’s representative, the Lord Deputy Arthur Grey (1536-1593). It is unclear whether this life in Ireland was entirely of Spenser’s choosing: his appointment may well have been a result of an unfavourable portrait of the politician William Cecil in the satirical poem Mother Hubberds Tale, the manuscript of which no longer survives. Either way, his expatriate life was not without its advantages: he was able to acquire land and wealth at a rate far beyond what he might have achieved as a civil servant in England. By the time he obtained the lease for New Abbey, County Kildare, in 1582, he is identified as ‘Gent.’: this was a significant rise in social status from modest beginnings as a ‘sizar’ at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he undertook a servant’s duties alongside his undergraduate studies and received financial support.

Spenser’s commander Lord Grey was a notoriously hard-line Protestant, and concerns about his extreme anti-Catholic outlook had delayed his appointment as Lord Deputy. This reticence proved well-advised when, in 1580, he ordered the massacre of 600 Spanish and Italian troops at the Fort d’Oro, Smerwick, following a three-day siege and their surrender. The scandal was a likely factor in Grey being recalled to England; Spenser, who may have been present at the slaughter, later defended his commander’s actions in the political tract A View of the Present State of Ireland (1598) against accusations of being ‘a bloodye man’ who regarded the life of the queen’s ‘subjectes noe more then dogges’. The tract is arranged as a dialogue between two speakers who present arguments for the eradication of Irish Brehon law, customs, religion and language, and lament the intermarrying of previous generations of English settlers with native Irish so that they ‘should soe muche degenerate from their first natures as to grow wild.’ This anxiety of Englishness derives from the fact that the descendants of the twelfth century Norman settlers in Ireland (Sean Ghaill) largely shared a language and religion with the native Irish. One of the so-called Sean Ghaill, Lord Roche, was involved in a protracted, and ultimately successful, lawsuit against Spenser over the illegal seizing of land during the plantation of Munster, as well as for allegedly threatening his tenants, stealing his cattle, and beating his servants. In 1597, Roche’s son David came out in open rebellion against the Crown.

In September 1598, Spenser was nominated Sheriff of Cork by the Privy Council as ‘a man endowed with good knowledge in learning, and not unskilful or without experience in the service of the warres.’ This accolade was never bestowed, as on the 15th of October his chief residence, Kilcolman Castle, was sacked and burned by local Irish forces, of which Roche’s son was thought to have been a prominent member. Spenser and his family escaped through an underground tunnel and sought refuge in Cork. Ben Jonson would later assert that Spenser’s infant son, Peregrine, died in the fire, though no other record survives of this. The following December, Spenser left Ireland for the last time, delivering letters to the Privy Council in London from Sir Thomas Norris, president of Munster. He died there on January 13th 1599 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

First published on the Globe blog, June 2nd, 2017.

The Early-Modern Constable

Dogberry, who leads the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598), is one in a long line of bumbling, ineffectual constables to appear in writing across the early modern period. He is not the first constable to feature in Shakespeare’s work: he is proceeded by the aptly-named Anthony Dull in Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1598), and followed by constable Elbow in Measure for Measure (c. 1604). The trope of the tedious constable and the simple-minded Watch is not exclusive to Shakespeare’s work, and also appears in John Lyly’s Endymion (1591) and Anthony Munday’s Fedele and Fortunio (c. 1584), amongst others. That constables are thought to be tedious seems to have been idiomatic of the time; in Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels (1600), Mercury makes the pejorative comment that ‘ten constables are not so tedious.’

Dogberry, with his malapropisms and his poor advice to the men of the Watch, is a comic character with no realistic strategy for apprehending the criminals of Messina. He instructs his men to make an arrest only if the individual ‘be willing, for indeed the watch ought to offend no man, and it is an offence to stay a man against his will.’ The contradiction here - that the Watch should only arrest those willing to be arrested – betrays a wider contradiction in a deeply hierarchical Elizabethan society: namely, how does an ordinary citizen exert authority over a wrong-doer of higher social standing? The ineptness of the Watch is a failing by design, exacerbated by the fact that such a thankless role may have only attracted citizens deemed unemployable in other professions!

The office of constable was an elected position, which was supposed to rotate between eligible householders of a parish, town or borough. The position was not particularly lucrative, offering only a slight financial stipend to the candidate. Constables were required to recruit their own deputies, and carry out a number of unenviable duties that could put the individual’s life in danger, including breaking up local fights; apprehending, jailing and punishing drunks, thieves, or murderers; and putting an end to illegal practices in the area, such as unlicensed ale houses or the smuggling trade. The kind of unpopularity that such duties could breed among one’s neighbours was a further deterrant. When asked why no one else in Vienna has served as constable for the past seven and half years, Elbow tells Escalus that he has retained the position in exchange for money: ‘as they are chosen, they are glad to choose me for them; I do it for some piece of money, and go through with all.’ This pressure of being caught between loyalty to their local community and obedience to their superiors is touched upon in a ballad attributed to a Surrey constable in1626:

The Justices will set us by the heels
If we do not as we should,
Which if we perform, the townsmen will storm
Some of them hang [u]s if they could.

Constables of the period are commonly characterised as sleeping on the job. Thomas Dekker’s pamphlet The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1601) claims that watchmen ‘snort […] so lowde, that to those Night walkers (whose wittes are up late) it serves as a Watch-word to keepe out of reach.’ In Much Ado, Dogberry tells his men, ‘I cannot see how sleeping should offend.’ An anonymous, undated work entitled Street Robberies Consider'd addresses the nocturnal habits of members of the Watch, who ‘should be a little more active in their employment; but all their business is to get to a Watch house and guzzle, till their time of going home comes.’

There are many records of real life constables who may have provided ample basis for their stage counterparts. A letter from Lord Burghley to Secretary Walsingham, dated August 10th 1586, despairs at poor state of the Watch at Enfield, who have been ‘no better instructed’ than to ‘fynd 3 persons by one of them havyng a hooked nose.’ In 1566, writer Thomas Harman published A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors vulgarly called Vagabonds, which sets out to warn the reader of the low practices of various criminals. It recounts an instance of a ‘constable in action’ who detained a vagabond in his home after making an arrest. When the constable is called away to business, the criminal, who has been stripped naked and searched, is left alone in the house with the constable’s wife and daughters. She gives him a cloak to wear, and allows him outside to relieve himself, ‘neither thinkinge or mistrusting he would have gon away naked; but, to conclude, when he was out he cast awaye the cloak, and as naked as ever he was born, he ran away, that he could never be hard of againe.’