Melville and Shakespeare

21 Apr

In my former life, studying English in college and teaching it at various high schools, I gained a certain familiarity with Shakespeare.   I always enjoyed reading the Bard, and seeing good performances of his works is one of my Very Favorite Things.   I hope to introduce my children to this love someday soon.

Skimming Philbrick’s work on Moby Dick let me in on the little fact that Melville shared a similar love for Shakespeare, and it became obvious to me early on that one of his favorite works must have been Macbeth.

My first clue was way back in Chapter 32.  You remember it – the chapter on Cetology that I took issue with earlier.   At the very end of the chapter, as I was reading along, it started to sound very familiar.  Melville is going on about various types of whales with all manner of “uncouth names.”   Then he says this:

But I omit them as altogether obsolete; and can hardly help suspecting them for mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing.

It was the “signifying nothing” part that took me back to Macbeth.  Remember this famous quote?

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Rather misquoted, but it must have come from Shakespeare, right?

So that was my first clue, but I like the second reference even better.   Remember the witches in Macbeth?   Their main purpose was probably foreshadowing Macbeth’s demise, although they are fun to watch as well.  Like Shakespeare, Melville uses plenty of foreshadowing, as we’ve already discussed.    The witches give Macbeth some interesting predictions about his death that make him think he is invincible, since the predictions seem so impossible.   Remember?  “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d  be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.”   And this one?  “Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”    Macbeth thinks that his vile deeds will not come back to haunt him, for after all, how could the distant woods come to the castle?  And everyone is “born of a woman,” so therefore, I can’t be harmed by anyone!   Those of you who have read this play know that the woods DO come to the castle and someone not (technically) born of a woman does serve up Macbeth’s head.  He is not invincible after all.

Now let’s see how Melville works this into Moby Dick.   Ahab is the character feeling invincible here.   Not only invincible, but perhaps even immortal!  (Chapter 117)   There are also strange predictions here, made by “the Parsee,” that lead Ahab to this conclusion.   These things couldn’t possibly happen, therefore, my quest must be possible, and I will not perish.  Or so thinks our Captain.    The Parsee predicts that Ahab will see two caskets before he dies, one not made of mortal hands, and one of American wood.    Ahab’s response?  “Ha!  Such a sight we shall not soon see!”   He also predicts that he will preceed Ahab in death, but then re-appear.   The third prediction is that “only hemp can kill thee,” which Ahab thinks means death by hanging at the gallows.  None of these predictions seem very likely, so with a laugh of derision, mad Ahab proclaims himself “immortal on land and on sea.”   As we know (or have guessed), Ahab is not immortal, just as Macbeth was not.

Well, what do you think?   Do you see the similarities?  Are you convinced?  Perhaps you can find some more similarities between Macbeth and Moby Dick.  I’d love to hear them!


Posted by on April 21, 2012 in Moby-Dick


Tags: , , ,

11 responses to “Melville and Shakespeare

  1. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    April 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Does anyone else feel a bit intimidated by Jeannette’s brains? Or is it just me?

    Three. Syllable. Wow.

    Nathaniel Philbrick told us there were traces of Shakespeare to be found, so I looked for them with all my heart — to no avail. Anytime Ahab went on a long, drawn-out rant packed with “thees” and “thous” I wrote “Shakespeare?” in the margin.

    So no, I did not see any similarities, but I’m suddenly looking forward to working through Shakespeare with you when we reach it on the WEM list!

    • Christine

      April 21, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Jeannette impresses me all the time. I too thought the “signifying nothing” quote seemed familiar, but I had to google it to figure out from which play it came.

  2. Christina Joy

    April 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Yes, Jeannette regularly blows us away. Super impressive is that woman, worthy of many a three syllable wow.

    It seems that actually being able to recall things might be a necessary skill in this exercise, and since that rarely occurs (is Keira Knightley in this book?) I’m unable to participate, Jerry, on the other hand mentioned Shakespeare several times while we were reading.

  3. Jeannette

    April 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    You three are too kind. I think my recall is aided by memorization (yes, an Honor’s English teacher actually made us memorize the whole “Tomorrow” soliliquy) and by actually teaching it. Now I feel as though I should memorize some good quote from each work we read. Maybe that would wake up the memory area of my brain and aid in more recall! You are all extremely intelligent company on this quest. Oh, and have I mentioned witty as well?

    On the Shakespeare note – I read some criticism when I finished that mentioned several connections to King Lear, which, although I read the play, I completely missed. Guess that one didn’t stick as well. I’m looking forward to reading him again in the drama section – in about 10 years or so. 🙂

  4. Norma Carey

    April 21, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Would you believe I have many copious notes in my Moby Dick copy which go back to my days at MSU and American Thought and Language- (1961) Some examples that were in my margin notes were first of all that Ahab is the ultimate tragic figure, victim of his own egoism. Chapter 37 is full of Shakespearean language and there is the dramatic soliloquy of Starbuck in Chapter 38. Chapter 107 – The carpenter is an example of a humorous minor character in a Shakespeare play. Chapter 117, Shakespeare’s MacBeth – motivations of witches’ prophesies. Chapter 119 – “I own my speechless, placeless power…” is a reference to King Lear. Chapter 121 more dialogue like Shakespeare’s plays where the subordinate players talk about the main plot. Chapter 135 – another soliloquy. (Just a few sightings but definitely much Shakespearean influence)
    Looks like Dr. Seuss had something going there!

  5. Christina Joy

    April 21, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Jerry said that the main thing was the soliloquies, and the fact that some of the chapters are set up almost as dramas with stage instructions.

    He also pointed out to me that the title of Chapter 31 “Queen Mab” is a reference to Mercutio’s soliloquy in R&J that calls the deliverer of dreams that same name. In Chp. 31 Stubb tells Flask about his dream of Ahab’s kick.

  6. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    April 22, 2012 at 11:52 am

    After reading these comments (and looking up “soliloquy”), I feel much smarter.

    • Adriana @ Classical Quest

      April 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

      Oh — one more thing — Jeannette, I LOVE the idea of memorizing one good quote from each work we read.

  7. Jeannette

    April 22, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks, Norma for all your contributions! That’s a lot of Shakespeare. My version has zero notes or comments, so I appreciate it. Adriana – I think I’m gonna do it! Now to decide what to memorize out of almost 600 pages of Moby Dick.

  8. Sam

    April 25, 2013 at 10:37 am

    I like all of these ideas and am writing a comparative essay on the two authors. One more thing to look at would be the character “Pip” in Moby Dick as a “wise fool” that Shakespeare often used. This is mostly shown in the dabloon chapter when he realizes that meaning is in the eye of the beholder and also mentions a few times about the crews ultimate demise.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: