Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Shakespeare and Seamanship - Sea, Wind, Sailing terms

Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge in many fields of knowledge is one of the hallmarks that has set him apart from other playwrights. And often of greater interest is that the use of this knowledge, via the terminology of the specialty, is usually precise and unlike that of a layman, even when stretched to metaphorical use in contexts where only an expert is likely to see the parallel to his field.

For instance, in the last post in the series “Was Shakespeare a Lawyer” there was this quote from Shakespeare's Legal Language: A Dictionary (2000) by Sokal and Sokal:

The overall impression given by this Dictionary may well contradict frequently reiterated claims that Shakespeare's interest in law was at best superficial, and that Shakespeare exploited legal ideas, circumstances, and language with no regard for any factor aside from 'poetic' effect. It is our view, derived from cumulative evidence, that on the contrary Shakespeare shows a quite precise and mainly serious interest in the capacity of legal language to convey matters of social, moral, and intellectual substance.

Another area, not yet covered here, is Shakespeare’s precise knowledge and use of the terminology in seamanship. This came to my attention by a recent blog post article by Oxfordian Hank Whittemore. He quotes experts in this field who attest to Shakespeare’s “accurate knowledge of naval matters” and who say things such as that he “made exact use of the professional language of seamanship” and who believed that “the Bard’s knowledge in this area could not have come from books alone.” A reviewer wrote that “… only those who actually served at sea could acquire a profound knowledge of the practice of seamanship and the correct meaning and use of the terms proper to the working of ships”. As usual, there is no evidence whatever that the businessman/actor from Stratford was ever on a ship.

He also quotes Dan Brayton from Shakespeare’s Ocean (2012) who wrote “Most current scholarship fails to note the sophistication of Shakespeare’s maritime imagination”.  

Similarly,  in this same volume, Brayton, in mentioning the work of John Gillies, says “Gillies argues that “Shakespeare is demonstrably conversant with quite a variety of geographic discourses and … cartographic genres”. (as was shown for Bacon in the previous post). This can be found at the end of the book in his Notes for chapter 7 “Prospero’s Maps”:

[Bacon is also known to have visited Elizabethan scholar John Dee who was then a respected cartographer].

Samuel Johnson suggested that Shakespeare’s naval dialogue may have been the first to be exhibited on the stage. Lord Mulgrave believed “that the Poet must either have drawn his technical knowledge of seamanship from accurate personal observation, or else have had a remarkable power of applying the information gained from others [skills Bacon was known to have]. And he thinks Shakespeare must have conversed with some of the best seamen of the time, as “no books had then been published on the subject.” [Bacon was sent by Queen Elizabeth to sail with the English diplomat Sir Amias Paulet to Paris so he likely sailed with some of England’s best sailors; he was also friends with Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Essex, and others with much sailing expertise].

Then there was a previous book:

Another expert, W. B. Whall  (b. 1837, d. 1925?), who was educated at Oxford before becoming a seaman in 1861 and served with shipmates who were “old men-of-war’s men who had served at sea before 1815”, and then he himself ended up a Master mariner who studied old naval terminology -- “having made a study of these archaic terms” and wrote about sea life and sailor songs. Since no one had yet written about Shakespeare’s knowledge of sailing and his use of naval language, he researched it and wrote Shakespeare’s Sea Terms Explained, 1910. Confirming what has already been said above, Whall writes “Now it is small wonder that a playwright in such times should make use of sea words, but the wonder is that without professional acquaintance he should always use these terms correctly. No modern writer is able to do this. An author who ventures in that direction invariably “gives himself away” unless he is a sailor author: this the writer of the plays never does. ….”For be it noted he essays to write as a sailor, and does so successfully.” He later says “… but the mystery is that sea expressions crop up in quite unexpected places, and that they are all phrased as by a sailor.”  He also writes regarding Shakespeare: “His sea terms are always absolutely correct.” Also, “One thing is certain, that the sea expressions scattered through the plays cannot be understood by the ordinary reader without some help of the kind given here.” And “How did the writer obtain sufficient knowledge of the sea to write like a sailor? That is a question which cannot be answered.” Notice this is the same ability that Shakespeare has with using legal terminology and with the language used in other fields.

He foresees that some will say that anyone of the time could use naval terms. So he writes “It may be advanced that, our modern, colloquial English being so full of sea phrases, there is nothing to be wondered at that the plays are full of them; but these phrases are not used in a technical, professional sense, as Shakespeare uses them,”

And then he continues on pages 21-22 with “There is the further curious fact that only one other Elizabethan writer lards his writings with technical sea terms, and that one is Bacon.” And then a little further on “Shakespeare and Bacon, however, never make a professional mistake, but write like sailors.”

Keep in mind that Whall does not make any reference to the “authorship question” nor does he show any awareness that there was such a thing.

You can find Whall’s book here:

Bacon’s writing on Winds and Sails of Ships can be read here:

And yet there still does not seem to be a single mainstream Shakespearean scholar that is willing to say publicly that all authorship evidence should be fairly examined. Perhaps this is the only field in all of academia where a beloved theory is desired for its own sake rather than a seeking of historical or scientific evidence-based truth.

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