Will on Rowing – Not so Much…, or He said ‘Poop’ Twice!

london 160029 April 2016

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

Now and then, an article on HTBS leads to another one by the same author or by someone else as a response, comment or just a continuance to the first piece. As I studied Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre within my literature studies at the University of Lund in Sweden way back when, I cannot let go of Tim Koch’s entertaining piece last Saturday, on 23 April, on the great Bard’s (probable) birthday and the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 – Tim is right, what a rotten luck to die on one’s birthday.

Under no circumstances am I – or do I pretend to be – a Shakespeare expert or researcher, but I dare say that most subjects of human life, situations and conditions have been microscopically examined in Shakespeare’s works by scholars – except rowing. Why this deficiency, I hope will be revealed in this article.

Wills globeDuring the 1960s, Lieutenant Commander Alexander Frederick Falconer of the Naval Reserve published two books about the sea in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Shakespeare and the Sea (1964) and A Glossary of Shakespeare’s Sea and Naval Terms including Gunnery (1965). In the latter book, Falconer lists 834 maritime and naval words and terms – marked in bold here – including sea creatures, i.e. Leviathan (‘Name of an aquatic creature [mythical or real] of enormous size’), Mackerel (‘A seafish, Scomber scomber’), Mermaid (‘An imaginary being, in part resembling a woman, inhabiting the sea. A siren’) and Salmon (‘A large fish belonging to the genus Salmo’).

In the Introduction of A Glossary, Falconer writes:

It is of unusual significance that Shakespeare not only knew much about the sea and ships but also the Royal Navy as well. This has not had any attention hitherto, but it is very important because it enabled him to create unique scenes in Henry VI, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Pericles which depend on an understanding of naval ceremony, naval strategy and the duties and characteristic ways of officers and men.

Of course, we do have to remember that the Bard lived at a time when England fought a drawn-out naval war with Spain, which did not end with the Royal Navy’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. According to Falconer, Shakespeare was the first playwright to depict the Royal Navy in dramas and plays. In his plays, he proved to have had great knowledge of the different parts of a vessel and how to navigate and sail, using the correct vocabulary to steer and tack a large war vessel.

William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623Falconer points out in both his books that Shakespeare could not have known these naval terms and words by merely looking them up in a dictionary – like the writer of this article has done in A Glossary – as the first work in English on the subject was published seven years after the Bard’s death, in 1623, by Sir Henry Mainwaring, Seaman’s Dictionary or Nomenclator Navalis. Instead, Shakespeare must have learned them first hand.

Going through the 834 words in A Glossary, 15 of them might be potentially connected to rowing, although not in a sport context. Allow me to start by re-publishing the example in Tim’s article on 23 April, the barge scene with Cleopatra from Act II, Scene II, in Antony and Cleopatra, as we will find some of the words on Falconer’s list there (marked in bold):

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

Cleopatras bargeThese seven lines from Antony and Cleopatra give us eight words found in A Glossary, and out of these eight, four have a connection to rowing, as explained by Falconer:

Barge, ‘a vessel propelled by oars’ – word also to be found in Henry VIII, Act I, Scene II; Act II, Scene III; and Pericles, Chor. 220; Act 5, Scene I.

Oar, ‘a long wooden pole or lever, consisting of shaft, loom and blade, used to row or propel a boat or vessel’ – also in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II, Scene III; and The Tempest, Act II, Scene I:

Bove the contentious waves he kept, and oar’d
Himself with his good arms in lusty stroke
To the shore,

Stroke, ‘a single pull of the oar in rowing’ (see above).

Beat, ‘to cut the water in rowing’.

How about the rest of the ‘rowing words’ in A Glossary? Let us go through them one by one.

Boat, ‘a small, open vessel propelled by oars or sail, a ship’s boat’ – in The Comedy of Errors, Act I, Scene I:

The sailors sought for safety by our boat,
And left the ship, then sinking-ripe, to us:
My wife, more careful for the latter-born,
Had fasten’d him unto a small spare mast,

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II, Scene III:

Lose the tide, and the voyage, and the master, and
the service, and the tied! Why, man, if the river
were dry, I am able to fill it with my tears; if the
wind were down, I could drive the boat with my sighs.

In Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene II:

True, madam: and, to comfort you with chance,
Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself,
Courage and hope both teaching him the practise,
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.

In Henry VI, Act IV, Scene VI:

To hazard all our lives in one small boat!

In Richard III, Act IV, Scene IV:

The Breton navy is dispersed by tempest:
Richmond, in Yorkshire, sent out a boat
Unto the shore, to ask those on the banks
If they were his assistants, yea or no;

In Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene III:

How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat

And also in Act II, Scene III:

Light boats sail swift, though greater hulks draw deep.

In Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene I:

That when the sea was calm all boats alike

In King Lear, Act III, Scene VI:

Her boat hath a leak,

In Othello, Act II, Scene III:

My boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene VI:

O Antony,
You have my father’s house, – But, what? we are friends.
Come, down into the boat.

In Cymbeline, Act II, Scene IV:

Proud Cleopatra, when she met her Roman,
And Cydnus swell’d above the banks, or for
The press of boats or pride: a piece of work

Also in Act III, Scene I:

With rocks unscalable and roaring waters,
With sands that will not bear your enemies’ boats,
But suck them up to the topmast.

And in Act IV, Scene III:

These present wars shall find I love my country,
Even to the note o’ the king, or I’ll fall in them.
All other doubts, by time let them be clear’d:
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.

In Pericles, Act III, Scene I:

To those that cry by night, convey thy deity
Aboard our dancing boat; make swift the pangs
Of my queen’s travails!

In Sonnet 80:

Or, being wrack’d, I am a worthless boat,

Ferry, ‘a ferry boat, a vessel which transports passengers and goods from one bank or shore to another’ – in The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene IV:

Bring them, I pray thee, with imagined speed
Unto the tranect, to the common ferry
Which trades to Venice.

Ferryman, ‘one who keeps, or looks after, a ferry. One who transports passengers and goods in a boat from one bank or shore to another’ – Richard III, Act I, Scene IV:

O, no, my dream was lengthen’d after life;
O, then began the tempest to my soul,
Who pass’d, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.

GalleyGalley, ‘a fighting ship propelled by oars but also having a mast for sails’ – in Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene III:

Would you’ld pardon me;
I do not without danger walk these streets:
Once, in a sea-fight, ‘gainst the count his galleys
I did some service;

In Othello, Act I, Scene II:

Something from Cyprus as I may divine:
It is a business of some heat: the galleys
Have sent a dozen sequent messengers
This very night at one another’s heels,

And in Act I, Scene III:

My letters say a hundred and seven galleys

And also in the same Scene:

A messenger from the galleys.

In Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene VI:

Aboard my galley I invite you all

And in Act IV, Scene XI:

Is forth to man his galleys. To the vales,

Galley and Gallias, the later ‘a fighting vessel, built to sail and to row, with guns on the upper deck and rowers on the lower’ – are both found in Taming of the Shrew, Act II, Scene I:

Gremio, ‘tis known my father hath no less
Than three great argosies; besides two galliases,
And twelve tight galleys: these I will assure her,
And twice as much, whate’er thou offer’st next.

gondolasGondola, ‘a long, narrow craft, with prow and stern tapering to a point, used chiefly on the canals of Venice’ – in The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VIII:

But there the duke was given to understand
That in a gondola were seen together
Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica:

Gondolier, ‘one who rows a gondola’ – in Othello, Act I, Scene I:

Transported, with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,

Pull, ‘to row (Royal Naval usage)’ – in All’s Well That Ends Well, Act II, Scene III:

Even as soon as thou canst, for thou hast to pull at
a smack o’ the contrary.

Rudder, ‘a broad, flat framework of wood or metal attached vertically to the stern post of a vessel for steering it’ – in Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene X:

Naught, naught all, naught! I can behold no longer:
The Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral,
With all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder:

And in Act III, Scene XI:

Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings,

Waftage, ‘a vessel for conveyance of goods or passengers; conveyance across water by ship or boat’ – in The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene I:

A ship you sent me to, to hire waftage.

And in Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene II:

Like a strange soul upon the Stygian banks
Staying for waftage. O, be thou my Charon,
And give me swift transportance to those fields
Where I may wallow in the lily-beds
Proposed for the deserver!

Westward-ho, ‘the cry of the Thames boatmen going up the river’ – in Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene I:

Then westward-ho! Grace and good disposition
Attend your ladyship!

In Falconer’s A Glossary is also the word Scull, but it does not refer to anything in the rowing and sculling world of today. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida it means ‘a school, shoal, or large number of fish swimming together’.

It is not obvious in all situations or scenes in Shakespeare’s plays if, for example, Boat means a watercraft that has a sail or if it is a rowboat? The same thing with Ferry, is it sailed or is it rowed? The way Waftage is explained in A Glossary, ‘a vessel for goods or passengers’, it might be sailed or rowed, though as Troilus mentions Charon, the ferryman of Hades, to take him ‘to those fields/ Where I may wallow in the lily-beds’, we know that it is a rowboat, not a sailboat, as Charon uses a boat with an oar to take the souls of the dead across the Styx and Acheron. The ferryman in Richard III, Act I, Scene IV, also alludes to Charon.

It is pretty clear that the above quotes prove that there is not a lot of ‘rowing’ going on in Shakespeare’s works to make it worth doing research for more than a short essay – and honestly, you do not really have to do research because you just read this on HTBS, so let it be said – HTBS was first!

A Thames Waterman.
A Thames Waterman.

Being interested in Shakespeare, his work and rowing, I am a bit disappointed that there is not more of the latter in his works. After all, were not the Bard and the spectators coming to see his plays obliged to hire the services of the watermen, who ferried passengers from one shore to the other on the Thames? Surely, one measly little scene in one play could be offered on that era’s men who plied their oars so others could enjoy the Bard’s entertainment.

I leave to others to do research on ‘rowing’ in works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. If you would like to play it safe, go with the second-rated poet John Taylor, ‘The Water Poet’.

The Sculler_ Taylorjpg
‘The Water Poet’ is a safe bet when doing research on ‘rowing’ and ‘sculling’.

Lastly, For Tim and others, who are dying to know more about poop, not only did Shakespeare use this word in Antony and Cleopatra (Poop is the aftermost and highest deck in a vessel, and also a cabin built on the after part of the quarter deck, or the deck of this cabin, as in Antony and Cleopatra – ‘The poop was beaten gold,’), he also has Falstaff to use the word in Henry IV, Act III, Scene III:

Do thou amend thy face, and I’ll amend my life:
thou art our admiral, thou bearest the lantern in
the poop, but ‘tis in the nose of thee; thou art the
Knight of the Burning Lamp.

Or, as Tim probably would say: ‘He said poop again!’


  1. In charmed good humour do I stoop
    to seek the waftage of the poop,
    but learn (my search being happy hostage),
    the poop sits at the end of waftage.

  2. For those of us who know, we are not surprised of Tom E. Weil’s skill to write poems. After all, the ‘E’ stands for Eliot, as in T.S. Eliot to whom Tom is related.

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