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Reading Shakespeare’s Seas: Keats, Melville, and King Lear
Dr Tamsin Badcoe and Dr Laurence Publicover
Not only are many of Shakespeare’s plots punctuated by—and even structured through—sea-voyages and shipwrecks; in addition, his poetry is suffused with metaphors drawing upon the sea and sea-faring. In the nineteenth century, British and American Romanticists engaged that sea-rich language to explore, amongst other things, matters of identity, relationships between the individual and the state, and different forms of consciousness.
This paper examines the ways in which authors, John Keats and Herman Melville, read, engaged with, and re-wrote the sea-images encountered in Shakespeare’s King Lear—a play which grants significant symbolic significance to the Dover coast, and is haunted by the prospect of a second flood. For Keats, it will be argued, Shakespeare’s play shapes the poet’s response to the coastal geographies of Margate and the Isle of Wight; during a period of travel and uncertain poetic labour, recorded in Keats’s intimate letters, the playwright is imagined as a presiding figure, and the sea of Lear gives surprising form to a month of restlessness, creativity and doubt, out of which some of Keats’s best sea-poetry emerges. Melville, meanwhile, fashions his anti-hero Ahab, who does battle with a creature lurking beneath the waves, through an idiosyncratic reading of Shakespeare’s tempestuous king, drawing upon the watery chaos of Lear’s storm scenes to replay them aboard Ahab’s ship, The Pequod. Both Keats and Melville, we argue, demonstrate an awareness of, and respond to, the strange ways in which the powerful, destructive sea fired Shakespeare’s imagination.