A Tempest or What You Will for a Shipwreck

Last Monday I introduced some students to the game of “Shakespeare Hangman”.

The word they had to get was “Shipwrecked”. They failed to get the “w” and “r” before they were hanged. I then left them with a homework question, namely:

“Which Shakespeare play opens with a shipwreck?”

Of course, I had in mind The Tempest, which begins,

Act I Scene i:
A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard. A ship is seen

A Ship-master and a Boatswain

MASTER. Bos’n!
BOATSWAIN. Here, master: what cheer?
MASTER. Good: speak to th’mariners: fall to’t – yarely – or we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir.

There then follows much tempest tossed-bestirring until the ship splits and the crew are cast up on Prospero’s island.

That is what I was thinking of. And also, I admit, of Toyah Wilcox rather improbably playing Miranda in Derek Jarman’s 1979 film version of the play.

However, this Monday, when I saw my students again and got around to asking them about their homework, they came up with something unexpected by confidently asserting that the answer was Twelfth Night: Or What You WIll.

Well yes, I suppose it could be argued that the action of the plot begins with the shipwreck that separates the twins, Viola and Sebastian. Nevertheless, the shipwreck is not experienced by the audience as an event on stage; it is only reported by the Captain in Act I Scene ii when he informs Viola that her brother was swept away bound to a mast:

Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat… I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself –
Courage and hope both teaching him the practice –
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.

The opening of the play, however, is attended with music, not with the noise of storm and tempest:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die…

Yet, there is one mention of the sea, to which the spirit of love is likened in its ability to receive (which reminds one of Juliet, whose “bounty is as boundless as the sea”) but not to prevent the higher sentiments from falling “into abatement and low price, Even in a minute…”

Valentine’s speech in the opening scene also neatly juxtaposes the words “water”, “brine” and “dead brother” when he describes Olivia’s protracted mourning:

…like a cloistress she will veiled walk,
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye-offending brine: all this to season
A brother’s dead love…

Thus we are prepared for the captain’s report that Viola’s brother was washed away upon the (briny waters) of the sea.

However, I stick to my guns and assert that it is the Tempest and not Twelfth Night that claims the prize for being the play that opens with a more emphatic shipwreck!

Turning to the word “shipwrecked”, it does not occur in either Twelfth Night or The Tempest. Nor, it seems, does the word “shipwreck”.

So, here is a question to leave with. The word “shipwrecked” seems to have cropped up only a couple of times in Shakespeare’s works, at least according to Schmidt’s Lexicon, so in which two plays does the word  “shipwrecked” appear?

1 Comment

  1. Answer

    1. “their shipwrecked guests,” Comedy of Errors, 1, 1 115.

    2. “Shipwrecked upon a kingdom, where no pity,” Henry 8, 3, 1, 149.

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