We’re only three weeks away from SAA, and I’ve been happily swimming through the flood of papers for my Oceanic Shakespeares seminar. In the next few days I’ll be responding to the authors individually, but I also want to explore a few larger questions and structures that the papers point toward as a whole.
The single largest question the seminar raises for me is the relation between the two terms in its title: what might it mean to connect the vast world ocean to the works, diverse and poly-appropriated though they are, of a single author? I’m hoping that this seminar can help us move past Will-centricity, not only by opening up the vast array of other materials available to salty scholars of this period, from Camoens to Haywood to Joost Von den Vondel and many others, but also by pushing literary culture up against what Whitman calls the “crooked inviting fingers” of the surf. We’ll talk in Boston about how this might happen.
But first, some short introductions / questions for each of the three groups of papers.
These papers have me returning to questions of the sea as cultural contact zone, a space both “free” in Grotius’s sense and also endlessly connected. They also make me wonder about nationalism and inter-European rivalries, remembering that Grotius’s Mare Liberum was itself part of the Dutch struggle against Spain; free seas are not apolitical spaces.
I also recently ran into a few lines from everyone’s favorite Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt, that captures an Anglophilic vision of the oceanic globe that we Shakespeareans are perhaps more familiar with from John of Gaunt —
The case of England is in itself unique. Its specificity, its incomparable character, has to do with the fact that England underwent the elemental metamorphosis at a moment in history that was altogether unlike any other, and also in a way shared by none of the earlier maritime powers. She truly turned her collective existence seawards and centered it on the sea element. That enabled her to win not only countless wars and naval battles but also something else, and in fact, infinitely more—a revolution. A revolution of sweeping scope, of planetary dimensions. (Schmitt, Land and Sea, Simona Draghici trans.)
I don’t think we need to believe all or even any of that in order to use it to consider the legacy of oceanic English globalism from Shakespeare to Conrad and beyond. But I think it’s worth talking about.
Salty Aesthetics and Theatricality:
This is my sub-section as respondent — Joe Blackmore has Wet Globalism, and Jeffrey Cohen Fresh Water Ecologies — and it’s leading me to my favorite salt-water theorist, Eduoard Glissant, who writes about the sea as a place of “rupture and connection,” and also a “variable continuum” (Poetics of Relation, 151). His vision is also historical; he talks about the slave trade as the defining core of “creolization in the West…the most completely known confrontation between the powers of the written word and the impulses of orality” (6). To live in the post-Columbian West, for Glissant, means inhabiting and traversing oceanic space.
The pressure of maritime exchange and metaphor on aesthetic forms makes up the common subtext of this sub-set of papers. Water proves slippery; it’s hard to pin wetness down, on the Shakespearean stage or in anti-theatrical discourse. I wonder if these papers, and the seminar as a whole, might want to push toward some specific suggestions about the aesthetic force of the oceanic: it’s an agent of change, flowing and shifting, a threat to fixity or rigid conceptions of form, but also — and here I think there’s an interesting counter-current in these papers — something that’s mostly not-quite present, at least not fully. Aesthetic forms dive into the ocean but also surface and leave it. We see wet bodies on stage but not the ocean itself.
Fresh Water Ecologies:
The third group wonderfully focuses our attention back to dramatic particularities — two of the three essays are on Hamlet, which I’m currently teaching — and on the function of fluid spaces in eco-political demarcations. The sea and rivers in these essays comprise ecological and political challenges, with the pirate’s legacy looming large in Denmark. Reading several figures from Shakespeare as deeply watery or maritime — Hamlet, Ophelia, Hotspur — these papers connect watery spaces to human experiences. They make me think, as several other papers do also, about plot and principles of narrative connection. Northrop Frye once joked that in Greek romance, shipwreck was the “primary means of transportation.” What happens when we historicize the plot-ocean of classical romance so that it becomes, very literally, the stage of history?
The oceanic structure of the vortex or coastal whirlpool figures in both of the Hamlet papers, though somewhat differently. I wonder if this recurrent feature, produced by the encounter between mobile ocean and steadfast land, might serve as a metaphor for the disruptive but aesthetically patterned consequences of bringing land and sea together. We often think of this encounter in terms of the beach, which Greg Dening has done so much to turn into a rich metaphor for cultural encounters. Vortices have a different, less friendly aesthetic; they are less human places. We might be able to do something with them.