My first trip to Greenwich was in May 2007, when I was a greenhorn oceans scholar and nobody was yet talking about #bluehumanities. When I arrived in London that spring, the Cutty Sark, that glorious historical remnant of the clipper trade, had been damaged by arson the night before. “Shipwreck!” barked the headline on the free daily as I emerged bleary-eyed from the DLR. I was starting a book on shipwreck, and I took it as an omen. I was glad to see the ship looking good this year.
Some 16 years later – suspiciously matching the gap of time in The Winter’s Tale! – I was back this past weekend for a conference on two of my favorite things. Shakespeare and the Sea was organized by Laurence Publicover (Bristol), Anjna Chouhan (formerly of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, now Warwickshire Libraries), and the National Maritime Museum. It brought together a varied group of (mostly) in-person and (some) remote speakers, including not just academics but also theater makers, public outreach professionals, and students from several different stages in the educational journey. We had a half-dozen panels, keynote talks from me (Fri) and Emma Smith (Sat), a round-table, a dinner, a tour of the interesting history of Dulwich College’s imperfect First Folio, and quite a few other things. I saw old friends and made new ones, learned from every paper I heard, and doubtless bothered everyone with my over-enthusiastic questions at pretty much every session.
The Shakespearean strain of #bluehumanities represents a point of origin for me. Many of the things I love about oceanic and watery thinking, which I started discovering around that early summer in Greenwich, overflowed again during these past few days. Rather than try to summarize each of the papers, I’m going to try a recap-by-overview, an effort to see in the papers and presentations a set of seaways to move this kind of scholarship forward. The most exciting thing about the weekend was hearing all sorts of brilliant and energetic work from new voices. I have all kinds of personal, and more recently professional, reasons for engaging with these ideas – but it was thrilling to learn how other people approach similar and often very different questions. I was deeply heartened by the creativity shown in the presentations, and the efforts that people are making to develop new ways of understanding, communicating, and sharing ideas.
So – here’s my attempt at a thematic reading of the surging waters of this intense weekend —
The sea as physical and symbolic matrix
A large number of presentations engaged with the sea through its overlapping physical and metaphorical forms. One of my favorite lines from Melville, and an epigraph in Ocean (2020), describes the wisdom of the great waters as a “two-stranded lesson.” That multiplicity was repeatedly on display this past weekend. Kirsten Sandrock’s reading of “Lear’s Hurricane” linked the play’s inner world to storms like the massive rotating beast Hurricane Lee, which is, right now, churning its way toward me in the mid-Atlantic. (At the moment, the storm seems as if it’ll pass over Bermuda toward the end of the week – but who knows where the cone of probability will turn?) Erich Freiberger, a philosopher who teaches at Jacksonville University who was paired with Sandrock on the opening panel, offered a reading of Plato’s Ship of Fools as an allegory of the political plot of Hamlet. Someday I’d like to dig deeper into the maritime poetics of that play, including its enigmatic pirates – and I’ll certainly engage with Freiberger’s speculative and structural reading.
Two-thirds of the second panel – Tamsin Badcoe’s gorgeous reading of “drowned revenants” in The Tempest, Albumazar, and The Sea Voyage, and Theodora Loos’s survey of maritime images in Shakespeare’s Sonnets – continued to explore the sea as both real and ideal. The “star to every wandering bark” (Sonnet 116, which I’m sure I’m not the only person to have read aloud as part of a friend’s marriage ceremony) describes both how early modern sailors took celestial heights to calculate latitude at sea, and also represents emotional stability in chaotic conditions: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds / Or bends with the remover to remove.” Badcoe’s reading of Albumazar, a 1615 play I don’t know, contained the glorious line, “the sea hath taken order” – if I heard it right (?) – that she connects to the play’s overt focus on astrology and her longstanding interest in imaginative systems for ordering the disorderly spaces of the ocean.
A subsurface current over the weekend was the running conversation between a focus on new materialism and the micro-engagement of human bodies and watery spaces, which have long been central for me, and more direct forms of political engagement with the urgencies of Anthropocene / Capitolocene devastation in the present. For some time, I’ve been having this conversation with Dan Vitkus, a brilliant oceanic Shakespearean from the University at California at San Diego. Just a day or two before heading off to London, I read his latest published chapter, which contains a refreshingly direct attack on me and my new materialist eco-buddies (“Red-Green Intersectionality Beyond the New Materialism: An Eco-Socialist Approach to Shakespeare’s The Tempest“, just out in the new collection Intersectionalities of Class in Early Modern Drama, eds R. Arab and L. Ellinghausen). His critique does a great job putting pressure on the political challenges of the “entangled” eco-modes that I continue to profess, and that I extended in my talk in Greenwich. But I am happy to report that after a couple pints at the Plume of Feathers in very hot English weather after the first day of the conference, all differences were resolved into a red-blue-green haze of happy concord.
The panel with Dan’s sharply argued paper on the contrasting labor of merchants and sailors in Shakespeare combined with two other glimpses into premodern labor in and around the sea. Mollie Carlye’s project on sea shanties and songs, with special focus on the legacy of Stan Hugill, was fascinating, and I especially appreciated the musical clips. I was happy to learn that Mollie, who is based in Aberdeen, has already been in touch with the sea music folks I know down the shoreline at Mystic, CT – but I was also saddened to learn, from googling his name so I could give it to her after the panel, that the great Don Sineti, whose enormous baritone voice could make the least well-trained sailor (ie, me) jump to it, passed away this past January 2023. Michael Davies, a historian working with dramatic sources, explored the complex structures of the East India company shipyard at Blackwall.
Migration in the 16th and 21st centuries
One of the most important and heartbreaking oceanic stories today involves the hazards of migration by sea, especially efforts to enter Europe via the Mediterranean. Scholars who are enthralled by the sublime aesthetic joys of the sea – in which group I very much include myself – often do not do justice to the suffering and cruelty the waves conceal. My favorite part of Emma Smith’s erudite and imaginative keynote, which closed out the conference on Saturday, was the directness with which she juxtaposed the cruel “Stop the Boats” policy of the current UK government with the experiences of the shipwrecked twins in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s twins, as she carefully shows, can be connected to modern migrants in many ways, not least of which being their final solidification of their stay in Illyria through marrying into local elites. Her careful parsing of source texts and geohistorical contexts transformed this romantic comedy into something richer, a play that asks empathy for experiences that it mostly does not directly show. I often teach this play in dialogue with the experience of immigration, asking my students in the great borough of Queens, NY, to reflect on their family’s global trajectories in relation to Shakespeare and the 21c Med. I can’t wait to have Smith’s new edition of Twelfth Night to advance this reading even more in a few years!
Before this keynote, the poet Jenny Mitchell read a powerful Middle Passage poem, “Lost Child,” which set the emotional stakes for the lecture, and also for the conference as a whole. It reminded me of the amazing image that Edouard Glissant relates about New World and Old European oceans – the Med, Glissant writes (in Poetics of Relation), is an inner sea that concentrates, but the Caribbean “explodes the scattered lands into an arc.” Looming Atlantic and global pressures echoed in Mitchell’s poem and informed not just the reading of Twelfth Night but also the larger projects of oceanic studies.
Water as connection
Another powerful circulating current flowing through the weekend was the connecting force of oceans and watery movements. Alys Daroy, Zooming in from Perth in Western Australia, explored the “Blue Eden” conjured by Shakespeare’s maritime poetics and the ways theater-makers can produce comparable experiences. Liz Oakley-Brown, who I’d not met outside the twittersphere before this weekend, treated seaweed as connection, surface, and perhaps even media form. Chloe Preedy from the University of Exeter gave voice to the forces included in “Shakespeare’s Unruly Seas.” The final panel that I attended on Saturday featured a pair of new voices – Jiamiao Chen, a grad student at the University of Bristol and Annabelle Higgins, a high school student about to face her A levels – speaking powerfully about religion in Pericles (Chen) and the sea as boundary space for Shakespeare’s younger characters (Higgins). I was particularly happy to have heard this panel, and to think about how these new voices may reshape our understandings of the poetics of Shakespeare’s seas.
Water, performance, and pedagogy
Doug Clark’s typically brilliant and engaging talk about “Sea Green Shakespeare” was both a clever jab at me, in my Professor Blue mode, and also a subtle evocation of how water assumes different colors and meanings. My now somewhat mouldy argument about the “blue” of oceanic studies providing a counter-challenge to the “green” of 2000s-era ecostudies feels as if it might need some updating! More water colors, please!
I’ll also mention briefly two other people whose work I did not hear presented, but who I chatted with over dinner for a wonderfully long time Friday night. Morgan Daniels, who teaches at Arcadia University’s London Center, spoke eloquently about teaching while walking through the streets of London, which can mean either engaging with “psychogeography” or just “walking around.” I am not sure exactly what his “Radio Ariel” talk was about, but I would like to know at some point! I also had an extended chat about public humanities and outreach with conference co-organizer Anjna Chouhan, whose upcoming project, A First Folio for Children, sounds deeply fascinating. I also loved her idea of working with the “narrow boats” culture of canal hobbyists in the greater UK!
I missed a few talks – the wages of simultaneous sessions – but I was happy to have met so many new people as well as re-connecting with old friends such as Francesco Borge, from the University of Oviedo, and Jemima Matthews, now at King’s College London.
Ocean as resistance
My own talk explored muddy waters in Antony and Cleopatra, with a final turn toward Julietta Singh’s notion of “unthinking mastery.” One great question that I got immediately after the talk was from Erich Freiberger, who wondered how I square my focus on unmastery and human vulnerability with the Anthropocene’s evidence of humanity’s destructive power and the need for political and ecological redress. That’s exactly the right question, and it’s the question that Dan Vitkus has been posing, and also what Elizabeth DeLoughrey poses in her recent critique of the blue humanities. It’s a good question, because both sides of the discourse carry value. The tension between a post-human ecostudies that refuses anthropocentrism and rejects fictions of mastery, on the one hand, and the urgent need to redress the scars left by centuries of capitalism and human cruelty on the other, requires saying yes to both. The trick, of course, is that it’s hard to do two things at once.
On my ways in and out of Greenwich, I transferred from the Underground to the DLR at Canary Wharf, and twice I spied people swimming a race course around floating cones in the canals. Canary Wharf has long since sprouted glass-glittering high-rises, and in some ways the greenish water there resembled an enclosed pool more than an open river or sea – but it also looked good, given the heat! No time to swim on this short trip, alas, despite having found a good indoor pool in Greenwich on previous excursions and also hearing, via my visiting Australian colleague Rebecca Olive, who I met for a drink after seeing Macbeth at the Globe on Thursday, about the glories of the Hampstead Heath Ponds, where I’ve not yet been. Another time!
Water always overspills the categories we distinguish as “literal” and “figurative,” as if this dynamic substance – sometimes-fluid, sometimes-solid, occasionally vaporous – underwrites our basic human experiences of and ideas about change. I’m still buzzing from this flowing, surging, splashing conference – looking forward to see what mighty rivers flow out from all these ideas in the fullness of time!