At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

January 21, 2010

Why must we go down to the sea again? In wrestling with this question and the apparent ubiquity of the ocean in Shakespeare's oeuvre, Steve Mentz provides some intriguing suggestions. He also demonstrates a real flair for good old-fashioned close reading while displaying an unfortunate haughtiness towards it. In places, his deft teasing-out of Shakespeare's pelagic imagery is pure Caroline Spurgeon (whose 1935 Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us followed hard on the heels of I.A. Richards' Practical Criticism). Elsewhere, though, the inclusion of odd prose-poetry interludes, imagined conversations between Hamlet and the pirates, as well as frankly tangential citations of Edouard Glissant, Charles Olson and Derek Walcott, are - one can only assume - attempts to look less predictable. Oddly, for a volume in a series called Shakespeare Now!, its most successful sections are its most traditional.

Mentz's subject matter includes environmentalism, globalisation and postcolonial theory, the three aligning themselves to form a perfect storm for what he calls, variously, "the New Thalassology", "Blue Cultural Studies" or, more comprehensibly, "the new maritime humanities". Whether (weather?) such a fresh discipline is emerging is a moot point (although his bibliography does run to a dozen pages) but Mentz's sense of urgency is conspicuous: "as the world grows bluer and less ordinary, these are the stories we need". The function of Blue Criticism at the present time is to shift "our focus from the supposed stability of land ... to a broader vision that embraces the maritime world ... abandoning certain happy fictions and replacing them with less comforting narratives".

The sea thus represents the cussedness of Nature, symbolised most forcefully in the "motiveless malignancy" of Moby-Dick, a text that Mentz ingeniously places beside the plays of Shakespeare: "Caliban and Moby Dick are the two biggest fish in the sea". The constant ebb and flow, the callous indifference and the explosive violence of the ocean mean that it eludes the best efforts of Pericles, Othello, Viola, Egeon, Lear, Timon and of course Ahab to map, control or navigate it. Even Prospero acts upon the sea only through the enforced co-operation of Ariel. Such frustrations are exquisitely felt in a culture of maritime expansion like that of early modern Europe: the sea "is too large for history, too vast for culture, too fluid for any stable meaning". As a result, any and all human "authority stops at the water's edge".

Mentz is an eloquent and incisive critic who convincingly demonstrates the degree to which the plays are saturated with oceanic language and terms of reference. He brilliantly matches the tone of his critical prose to that of the plays under discussion, which illustrates his profound comprehension of them. In the case of Twelfth Night, for example, his expression is plaintive: "the surf speaks to lost human connections, but it substitutes for them a blank, uninterpretable noise" while, of the Vice figure in Othello, Mentz stresses the character's bewildering potency: "Iago's salt-language forms a half-hidden pattern around him. The sea, itself mysterious, may not clarify his motives, but it epitomizes his power."

"Shakespeare's sea-poetry presents a bitter ecology," says Mentz, which, as Hurricane Katrina so fiercely confirmed, is constantly and dangerously close. Mentz's important study insists that the bottom of Shakespeare's ocean is, as Clarence's dream in Richard III eerily testifies, dark, disturbing and deadly.

At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

By Steve Mentz. Continuum Books, 136pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9781847064929 and 4936. Published 10 October 2009

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