Saturday, July 3, 2010

Lost at Sea exhibition : The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750

John Davis. The seamans secrets. London, 1626.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., proposes an interesting free exhibition which runs until September 4 : Lost at Sea, the Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750

On display are the tools early modern mariners used—from maps, astrolabes and compasses to books, symbols, and stories—to plot locations and understand their place in the world, both literally and figuratively.

Exhibition curator Steve Mentz (personal website) is Associate Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City.

He is the author of At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean (2009), two additional monographs, and numerous articles on Shakespeare, ecological criticism, maritime culture, and related topics.
He was the recipient of a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library which, he reveals in his book’s acknowledgments, “contains more real salt than many think.”

Mentz examined what the ocean takes away, what it gives back and its changing meaning in the world. Instead of sailors once strolling through Manhattan, there are now bankers and lawyers. Mentz said, "In New York, the ocean isn't the heart of the city anymore."

Often, the ocean provides instability, Mentz said, and gives back the natural vision of the world.
"The ocean represents our alien globe," Mentz said.
In Shakespeare's time, the bottom of the ocean could never be touched, but people could reach descriptions of the ocean through the use of the lead line, an early navigating device that measures the depth of the ocean.
"We never reach the bottom, but we see what's there," Mentz said.

There are also ocean phrases that have entered everyday language. Mentz referenced "the bitter end" and "by and large" as coming from sailors' terms. The word "fathom" also has both the definition of discerning a hidden meaning and a measure of underwater depth.

He talked to Shakespeare's use of the ocean in "The Tempest" and specifically, Ariel's song in the first act. With Ariel's song, "The ocean is everywhere and nowhere," It song insists that people look closer at the things at the bottom of the ocean and how the ocean changes them.
Ariel's song is narrative and metaphorical, since it draws Ferdinand away from death and transforms powers of the magic of the ocean. As Mentz said, "We never find the treasures that the song promises."

In "The Tempest," Prospero educates Miranda of the sea, discusses their exile by sea and the current sea storm that washes people upon their island. Unlike "King Lear", "The Tempest" never shows death by drowning. While "King Lear" addresses land division and fuels much of the plot, there are sea storms and oceanic references, including four places in the play where the earth gives way to the sea.

On the ecological aspect of the ocean, Mentz provided "The Five Rules of a Blue Cultural Studies" which include :
  • "The world is not our home",
  • "Ecology won't keep us dry",
  • "The ocean rules the weather",
  • "Our only inexhaustible resource is language" and
  • "Shakespeare isn't dead. He isn't even past."
Links :
  • 'At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean' review