Shakespeare’s Sea Change

Can one seriously imagine that the Bard, who wrote so stunningly of the sea, never truly saw it? Royal Shakespeare Company associate director David Farr on the power that the ocean held over the poet. From the book Living With Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors.

Edward Gooch/Getty,Edward Gooch

“I shall have share in this most happy wreck.”

So says the reawakened Duke Orsino at the denouement of Twelfth Night. In this comedy of shipwrecked souls and lost hopes, the magical ending of reunion and love turns the sea from destructive terror into redeeming angel.

Perhaps no other natural force has this double edge. It rips you up, shatters you, spews you onto foreign lands without care or compunction. But nothing is so beautiful, so serene. Nothing but the sea reflects the mystery of our soul.

You can’t be born in the United Kingdom much further from the sea than Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems unlikely that the young Shakespeare would even have seen it. How astonishing this is. The forests of Arden on which he based his forest comedies were just round the corner. But the ocean?

Shakespeare wrote at least six plays in which shipwreck is the cause of the comic chaos that leads ultimately to joyful or semi-joyful reunion. From one of his very first plays, The Comedy of Errors, to The Tempest, his last, a ship smashing on a shore is what causes all the drama to happen.

In The Comedy of Errors, two sets of twins are separated by a huge storm that severs the boat they are traveling on in two.

In Twelfth Night, twins again, this time male and female, are shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, each believing the other dead.

In The Winter’s Tale, a storm hurls the boat on which the baby Perdita is being carried onto the coast of Bohemia, and all the sailors are “sea-swallowed.”

In Pericles, the Prince of Tyre is shipwrecked on the shore of Pentapolis, loses his daughter Marina (she of the sea), and searches the oceans to find her again.

And in The Tempest, a whole political family is shipwrecked on Prospero’s isle so he can enact his project of revenge and reconciliation.

I have directed four of these plays, and am constantly drawn back to my favorite metaphor in Shakespeare—the sea storm as redemptive force.

O, if it prove,Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.(Viola, Twelfth Night, 3.4.304–305)

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What these plays all need, in production, is that sensitivity to the sea. They need a strange, elusive poetry that renders fortune, fate, chance (all words constantly used in these plays) as agents of a greater power. That makes the sea both God and Devil, and that makes man tiny and vulnerable. In the Twelfth Night I directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the world of Illyria was a hotel, its furniture seemingly drifting on an endless wave, the flotsam of human disappointment. What one learns in working on Twelfth Night is that the truly shipwrecked souls of this play are not Viola and Sebastian but the wretched inhabitants of Illyria, clinging to the driftwood of their dashed hopes as their world goes under.

But we are not just overwhelmed by the ocean, we also contain it. Orsino in Twelfth Night describes his passion as “all as hungry as the sea” (2.4.101). The human soul is an ocean tossed by storms of passion, deep and bottomless in its need for succor and nourishment. Storm is a metaphor for our own desires.

And then again we are just a drop of water. Lonely, lost, bereft. In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Syracuse, searching for his lost twin, remarks:

I to the world am like a drop of waterThat in the ocean seeks another drop,Who, falling there to find his fellow forth—Unseen, inquisitive—confounds himself.(1.2.35–38)

This wistfully fluid elasticity of self is a great challenge for an actor. To contain at one moment oceans of passion, at the next to feel as tiny as a single drop, to sense the hugeness of fate and destiny, to be both agent and nothingness, this is at heart the challenge of Shakespearean comic acting. The comedy comes from these contrasts and conflicts. No one in Shakespearean comedy knows who the hell they are. All are in a constant state of becoming. And the performances need this liquid lightness, this unknowability, this strange magic.

As a director I always try to find a world that allows the space for this search, this poetic lostness and this strange mystery. No stage set can be as beautiful as the ocean. But that feeling is what must inspire the director of these plays. It’s worth looking at the video of the great Italian director Giorgio Strehler’s remarkable production of The Tempest to see the most heroic literal attempt to create the illusion of ocean on stage, without one drop of real water. It’s something special indeed. Valiant and light.

In my production of The Tempest, I created an austere world of imprisonment, but with a magical “cell” of reflective glass, which like the sea contained and revealed its magic.

In The Comedy of Errors, I was also drawn towards the use of reflective glass both to reflect the mysterious doubleness in the play and also to remind one of the reflectivity of water.

Only once in Twelfth Night did I use water itself. Somehow, water is not always the best metaphor for itself.

In the end, the literal is not what’s important. You just need to find a world that justifies the internal poetic journey of loss and renewal as sung unforgettably by Ariel in The Tempest:

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-changeInto something rich and strange.(1.2.460–465)

Say those last two lines slowly and you can hear the ocean. Can one seriously imagine that the man who wrote so stunningly of the sea never truly saw it?

From the book Living With Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors. “The Sea Change” copyright © 2013 by David Farr. Introduction and compilation copyright © 2013 by Susannah Carson. Forward copyright © 2013 by Harold Bloom. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.