Fathoming the Deep in Early Modern Tragedy
This event is free to attend and open to all and will be followed by a drinks reception in the Courtyard Café, Palace Green Library.
Abstract: In Shakespeare’s 'Hamlet', Guildenstern tells Claudius—who has sent him to spy on the prince—that Hamlet is not ‘forward to be sounded, / But with a crafty madness keeps aloof’ (3.1.7-8). Recent scholarship on maritime culture has helped illuminate the second of Guildenstern’s maritime metaphors: Hamlet keeps his inquisitors at arm’s length, just as a vessel stays ‘aloof’—on a course ‘close to the wind’, usually to avoid a hazard—in order to avoid shipwreck. But due to its focus on the sea’s surface, such scholarship has been less helpful in unpacking Guildenstern’s first metaphor. He figures the mysterious Hamlet as an ocean bed that has not been ‘fathomed’—has not had its depth measured by a lead line.
As Paul Hammond has argued in 'The Strangeness of Tragedy' (Oxford, 2009), tragedy is a genre consistently concerned with how individuals become incomprehensible to both others and themselves. In this paper, which marks an early step in a new project on oceanic depth in early modern culture, I will demonstrate how this aspect of tragedy is articulated through the language of watery depth. Bringing tragedies by Middleton and Shakespeare into dialogue with texts concerned with the maritime practice of ‘sounding’ and ‘dredging’, I will argue that plays imaginatively dive into the alien deep in order to suggest profound matters that are glimpsed rather than fully comprehended, just as fathoming offered early modern navigators an inexact sense of their geographical location and of the sea beneath them. Further, I shall demonstrate, tragedies’ images of ‘bottoms fathomless’ (The Changeling, 5.3.120) can suggest the psychic hell to which characters’ ethical transgressions have led them.
Dr Laurence Publicover received his PhD from the University of Bristol in 2010, and then worked as a Teaching Fellow in Renaissance Literature at the University of Leeds before returning to Bristol in 2012. His research, which focuses on early modern theatre, literary geography, and the sea in culture, has been published in journals including Essays in Criticism, Renaissance Studies, and Cahiers Élisabéthains. Dr Publicover is at the point of completing his first book, 'Dramatic Geography', which will be published by Oxford University Press as part of the series Early Modern Literary Geographies. He is co-founder and co-convener of the interdisciplinary ‘Perspective from the Sea’ research cluster at the University of Bristol, and his next project will examine the representation of oceanic depth in early modern literary culture (especially tragedy).
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