A wave o’th’sea

My posts have been few and far between of late, as I am nearing the end of my thesis, and pouring my energies into making three years of thinking and reading presentable. I couldn’t, however, resist a little post about these lines from The Winter’s Tale. Florizel is watching Perdita.

FLORIZEL When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’th’sea, that you might do
Nothing but that, and own no other function.

These lines are well known, and well loved, not least by me. In one of the little moments of serendipity which sometimes occur when reviewing and rewriting,  I’ve also found a way to make them into a kind of emblem of my doctoral research. Throughout the thesis, I’ve tried to characterise what changes in the way people understood Shakespeare between the time of Garrick and that of the Romantics. Two uses of the phrase “wave o’th’sea” now help me do this.

First, Hogarth’s. In his Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth uses these lines from The Winter’s Tale to show that Shakespeare, many years before this painter, had also observed how “the beauty of dancing” resided in its “serpentine lines”. In other words, Shakespeare – although he never used the term – understood Hogarth’s concepts of the line of beauty and the line of grace, and so writes elsewhere of “bends adornings” and the fascinating pleasure of “infinite variety” that can be found in the physical spectacle of the dance hall or the professional stage.

Against Hogarth’s use of a “wave o’th’sea” we may set Hazlitt’s, who weaves the phrase into one of his most famous comments on Hamlet.

We do not like to see our author’s plays acted, and least of all, Hamlet. There is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage. Hamlet himself seems hardly capable of being acted. Mr Kemble unavoidably fails in this character from a want of ease and variety. The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of ‘a wave o’th’sea’.

The contrast with Hogarth is striking. Whereas the eighteenth-century writer finds in Shakespeare’s Florizel words that characterise the beauty of physical presence, of performance, Hazlitt finds an expression of the inscrutability of Hamlet’s character. A “wave o’th’sea” denotes variation and fascination in both cases, but, in the latter, is attached to character, to the inward world, and not, crucially, to the stage.

From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century therefore, the line of Shakespearean beauty changes its location and its nature. It moves inward and becomes a matter for the mind.


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