Word of the Day: Whale

August 7, 2010 in Word of the Day

This is the latest in a long and fruitful liaison between this series of articles and all the fauna of Shakespeare’s works. If you join us here, do venture back and hunt down Shakespeare’s parrots, sharks, lapwings, and – if one accepts cooked animals – capons.

Now, the whales. Nine of them no less, although none of them are presented on the stage. Two of the occurrences are, in fact, about a whale in the sky. I refer of course, to the increasingly ludicrous menagerie that Polonius and Hamlet see in the shape of clouds:

HAMLET Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS By the mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
HAMLET Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET Or like a whale.
POLONIUS Very like a whale.

Brief aside for keen Shakespeare naturalists: here are two of the six appearances of the word ‘weasel’, and, similarly, two out of six Shakespearean camels.

Back to the whales, about which there is much more to inspire than the obviously ironic emphasis on their cetacean spines. They are for example, notorious examples of large and very hungry creatures, feeding endlessly on a diet of frail and helpless plankton. They thus helpfully illustrate many a situation of exploitation. Parolles, in All’s Well comes up with this inspired equation of virgins and protozoans:

PAROLLES My meaning in’t, I protest, was very honest in the behalf of the maid; for I knew the young count to be a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds.

Whilst in the rather more maritime Pericles, the hungry whale appears not once, but twice, not this time as a virgin devourer but as a “rich miser” who “plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful”, and then, free from metaphor, as a “belching” part of the ocean that Pericles fears will swallow his wife’s corpse.

‘Swallow’, ‘belch’, ‘devour’, and big-backed are not only ways of describing whales, but also of portraying people. It is Mrs Ford, in The Merry Wives of Windsor who asks, “What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?” The person in question here is – who else? – Falstaff, a man well-deserving of such a gargantuan comparison.

Completely at the other end of the scale from Falstaff, we have one example from Troilus and Cressida, and one from Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the former, the whale is used to describe Hector’s non-Falstaffian valour, whilst in the latter it is the whiteness of whalebones that Berowne uses as a measure of Boyet’s brilliant teeth.

Last but not least, King Henry IV seizes upon the whale as an image that unites both body politic and the humours of his own son, the future king.

KING HENRY His temper, therefore, must be well observed:
Chide him for faults, and do it reverently,
When you perceive his blood inclined to mirth;
But, being moody, give him line and scope,
Till that his passions, like a whale on ground,
Confound themselves with working. Learn this, Thomas,
And thou shalt prove a shelter to thy friends,
A hoop of gold to bind thy brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood,
Mingled with venom of suggestion–
As, force perforce, the age will pour it in–
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong
As aconitum or rash gunpowder.

The “hoop of gold” rather neatly returns us to the whale-watcher with whom this odyssey began: Polonius – himself, like Henry IV, an anxious father – and his most famous speech.

POLONIUS Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.

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