our new museum

Shakespeare and the Sea

The Mary Rose Museum has been involved with Shakespeare Week, a national scheme run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, since its inception. Despite the fact that Shakespeare himself would never have seen the Mary Rose, as he was born in 1564, nearly 20 years after King Henry VIII’s famous warship sank, the collection gives a unique insight into the Tudor age.


Inspired by our partnership, our then Chief Executive, Rear Admiral John Lippiett, lent us his copy of ‘Shakespeare and the Sea’ by A F Falconer (1964), now sadly out of print. We knew the sea features heavily in Shakespeare’s work. Many of his most famous quotes use the imagery and language of the sea and seamanship.


This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle….
This fortress built by Nature for herself….
This precious stone set in the silver sea… (King Richard II)


By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap to pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon, or dive into the bottom of the deep, where fathom-line could never touch the ground, and pluck up drowned honour by the locks. (Henry IV Part 1)


Shipwrecks (in which we are particularly interested!) and storms feature in Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, Pericles and The Tempest. One theory on the sinking of the Mary Rose is a gust of wind catching the sails, not quite a tempest! Another theory echoes the words of the Bosun in The Tempest trying to control the nobles on board his ship:


“No man is to speak but the officers…so as…things may be done without noise and confusion.”

One account of the sinking of the Mary Rose by an eyewitness, Sir Peter Carew, blames the men: “Sir George Carew [Vice Admiral on board the Mary Rose and Peter Carew’s cousin] … answered that he had the sort of knaves that he could not rule….as the common proverb goes…the more cooks, the worse pottage.”


We were surprised at the depth and detail of Shakespeare’s use of the sea. In his introduction, Falconer writes: “That Shakespeare, on coming to London…brought with him knowledge of the sea and the navy can be seen in his earliest plays.” Officers, men, navigation, battle strategy, gunnery, parts of a ship, sailing, rigging, tides… “[Shakespeare] draws on all this knowledge with great ease and readiness, not only in making incidents and characters true to life but in nautical imagery and figures of speech.” Falconer and others, such as Charles Spencer in The Telegraph Online My bard hunch holds water (2012), have speculated about how he could have obtained this realistic and accurate knowledge if not through practical experience.


The Mary Rose collection helps bring this aspect of his work to life. Here are just a few we like….


In Henry V Act 3, the voyage to France is wonderfully described – it could easily describe King Henry VIII’s warship, Mary Rose, sailing across the Channel with her green and white streamers flying.


The Mary Rose, from the Anthony Roll
Image courtesy of the Magdalene College Library, Cambridge

Suppose that you have seen

The well-appointed King at Hampton pier

Embark his royalty, and his brave fleet

With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning.

Play with your fancies, and in them behold

Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;

 Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give

To sounds confused;

 behold the threaden sails,

Borne with th’ invisible and creeping wind,

Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,

Breasting the lofty surge. O, do but think

You stand upon the rivage and behold

A city on th’ inconstant billows dancing;

For so appears this fleet majestical,

Holding due course to Harfleur. Follow, follow!

Though not quite contemporaneous, the Mary Rose and her collection are a surprising source of reference for Shakespeare fans. Why not come and see us when the museum reopens in Summer 2016 and see for yourself?

You can find downloadable resources on ‘Tudor reading and writing; the evidence from the Mary Rose’ and ‘Props from Shakespeare’s Plays – 13 objects from the Mary Rose’ and more information on events around the country at www.shakespeareweek.org.uk


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