- Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration by Dan Brayton
Dan Brayton has been a key player in the emergence of “‘blue cultural studies’” (13) or the “‘new thalassology’” (203n13), as he terms it, drawing our attention to the presence and importance of water in early modern literature and drama in particular. This monograph aims to reread Shakespeare “through the lens of marine environmental history” (5) in an ecocritical framework, which means that alongside the historicist impulse that governs Brayton’s methodology here he is also keen to identify the lessons (5) to be learned in the modern era from Shakespeare. It is interesting to see how the book is informed at every turn by Brayton’s Massachusetts Bay experiences and the hands-on knowledge he has of fishing and sailing, which gives some of the descriptive material a genuine force and a phenomenological insight. Brayton is admirably alert throughout to “the relationship between subjectivity and geography” (75). Nevertheless, it is his drive to make seventeenth-century engagement with the oceans meaningful in the context of current environmental debates that occasionally threatens to steer off-course an otherwise impressive critical work.
Shakespeare’s Ocean is extensively and necessarily interdisciplinary; Brayton turns at various points to marine history, environmental sciences, spatial theory, cultural geography, and art history, as well as offering readings of plays, like The Tempest, that are admirably alert to places and spaces of performance. The Blackfriars Theatre as a social space came alive in new ways when set amid the sensory geographies of the nearby wharves where fish were being unloaded off recently arrived ships. It is through this kind of innovative angle that Brayton finds fresh points of entry to much-studied plays. I also liked his description of The Tempest as “a play set in the marine environment—off the coast, in the water, on the beach, and in the intertidal zone” (51). The rush of prepositions here accords Brayton’s writing a striking immediacy—a link perhaps to, even a performance of, phenomenology’s emphasis on being in the world, which in this particular context invites us to be in the play, on and under its surfaces, as critics.
What I really admired was the importance of things to Brayton’s analysis. We learn about dried salt cod, crabs, oysters, and pickled herring as well as about ropes and wharves. Caliban, famously mistaken for a fish by the jester Trinculo, is understood from this perspective not just as “savage” (The Tempest, 1.2.427) but quite literally as “salvage” (58)—as an object claimed as individual property following a shipwreck, akin to the bottles of drink so readily appropriated by Stephano and Trinculo from their sinking vessel. Even though, as Brayton points out, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first usage of the word “salvage” to 1645, there is great mileage in thinking about Caliban as “a piece of existential flotsam” (58) in this way.
There are some thought-provoking uses of illustrations, in particular a series of engravings of beached whales from the late sixteenth century. The “increasing [End Page 157] verisimilitude” (130) of these images begins to tell one set of stories about the early modern relationship to the ocean and the astonishing natural wonders it contained, as does the 1617 pamphlet Brayton examines in considerable detail, A true report and exact description of a mighty sea-monster or whale, cast upon Langer-shore ouer against Harwich in Essex (131). Here I can see most clearly the direct line Brayton wants to draw to the present. When I was writing this review, images of a sperm whale carcass on a French beach were reproduced in the European press, serving as a marker of the ocean’s continued capacity to surprise and astound even in the midst of modern urban living.
Chapter 6, “Shakespeare Among the Fishmongers,” makes an analogous case for the ocean’s presence in the heart of early modern London, in the fish loaded onto its wharves and sold in...