|Clarkson Stanfield Shakespeare Cliff Dover, 1849|
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
I’ve learnt subsequently that to Shakespeare scholars Will-never-saw-the-sea is an old chestnut, and probably true. Apparently there are notorious examples of Shakespeare getting it wrong about the sea, though I have no chapter and verse. I hope to come across these one day. Must look up The Tempest.
But could someone who had never seen cliffs, I ask myself, have written the cliff passage in King Lear? Intending to do away with himself, the blind Gloucester asks Edgar (his son but he doesn’t know it) to lead him to Dover.
There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep:
Bring me but to the very brim of it ...
Edgar fools his father into thinking he is at the cliff edge and describes the scene:
Here's the place! - stand still - how fearful
And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eye so low!
... half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire: dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
In homage to this passage, Dover boasts a Shakespeare Cliff. The Dover museum website tells us that samphire is one of those plants which abound on chalk grasslands and even on the cliff face. The Rock Samphire is a native perennial with small yellow florets, and was once a favourite vegetable, the leaves and stalk of which were cooked and eaten like asparagus. Samphire gatherers collected the plant by attaching themselves to a rope suspended from the cliff top. In 1768 a highwayman escaped from confinement in Dover Castle down a cliff by way of a rope left by a samphire gatherer.
The museum offers the additional information that in medieval Dover, Sharpness Cliff was a place of execution. The prosecutor had to double as executioner and throw the thief off the cliff.
But I digress. Could Shakespeare have written those lines without ever seeing a cliff, that’s the question. Hm. Maybe. And perhaps the same applies to the beetling cliff in Hamlet? Horatio fears the ghost will lead the prince there to his death and warns him in these words …
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
Talking of what Shakespeare saw or didn’t see, there are no cliffs near Elsinore, so this passage gives the lie to the notion that Shakespeare ever went there, an idea that’s explored in the Elsinore guidebook. For more on this see my visit to Elsinore in 2009.References Lear Act IV, Scene 1; Hamlet Act I, Sc 4