Enter Mariners, wet.
MARINERS All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!
BOATSWAIN What, must our mouths be cold?
GONZALO The King and prince at prayers, let’s assist them, for our case is as theirs.
SEBASTIAN I’m out of patience.
ANTONIO We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards. This wide-chopped rascal – would thou mightst lie drowning the washing of ten thousand tides!
GONZALO He’ll be hanged yet, though every drop of water swear against it and gap at widest to glut him.
(A confused noise within) Mercy on us! – We split, we split! – Farewell my wife and children! – Farewell brother! – We split, we split, we split!
ANTONIO Let’s all sink wi’th’King.
SEBASTIAN Let’s take leave of him. Exit [with Antonio].
GONZALO Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground – long heath, brown furze, anything. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death. Exit. (1.1.50-68)
The bear in the Winter’s Tale gets much more attention, but this stage direction is every bit as theatrically intriguing, as Anne Barton explored in her essay about realism in the late plays, ‘Enter Mariners, wet’, in her Essays, mainly Shakespearean. If we think of the Globe, or the Blackfriars – and assuming that this isn’t a stage direction added by Ralph Crane, the scrivener or scribe, who prepared this text for publication in the Folio in 1623 and seems sometimes to have expanded or added stage directions – how wet were these sailors exactly? how did they get wet? (and, indeed, how did they get dry again, although there would be plenty of time for them to do so). There are at least two of them, and they might be the same Mariners who appeared earlier in the scene; they probably are. But at some point, backstage, they’ve apparently been dunked. What would be most practical? No running water back stage, obviously – and it would be folly to have a large container of water in a relatively small, crowded space. No water sprays either. The temptation is to imagine a group of actors standing stoically still while a bucket of water is emptied over them. But that seems highly unlikely, backstage c. 1611 – messy, unpredictable, cold, dangerous for costumes. So – perhaps a splash of water over the face and hair, from a basin or cup, and a change from a dry shirt into a pre-wetted one? Which can then be peeled off and replaced with a dry one – and probably a fresh costume, if these Mariners are going to reappear as, say, Trinculo and Stephano, or as spirits, or in the masque.
The Boatswain seems to accept that it’s desperate and that disaster is inevitable, with that vivid (and apparently proverbial) image of our mouths being cold – like the nutshell, this has a small-scale, human immediacy, of choking on icy water. Prayer is the only possibility now – admiration for Alonso and Ferdinand, who have not only done as they were told and got out of the way, but are already praying in their cabin – but Sebastian and Antonio continue to establish themselves as nasty, cynical, and violent, blaming the Boatswain, insulting him for daring to tell them what to do (wide-chopped = big-mouthed) and also calling him a pirate, in effect – pirates were executed by being hanged on the shore below the high tide mark, so that they were symbolically drowned, usually by three tides. The common sailors are heard recommending prayer and, from off-stage (and these are presumably voiced by the actors playing Ferdinand and Alonso), making poignant farewells to their families, as well as praying, while Antonio and Sebastian lash out. (Are they drunk? Not impossibly.) The last word – he likes that – goes to Gonzalo. And it’s a poignant vision – he’d like just a bit of rough land, nothing special, but anything would be better than all this sea. He’s devoutly resigned to his fate – The wills above be done echoes the Lord’s Prayer – but he would still rather die a dry death. (And that’s part of the point of the Mariners, who entered wet; they stand for the fate of all the crew and passengers.) We split, we split. The stage probably won’t break apart, unless the budget is enormous, but the ensemble scatters (who exits when, and where, is uncertain).
And so ends the first scene of The Tempest. A questioning, and an inversion, of social hierarchies, at least at first: the king is not in control, and then no one is. A snapshot of social tension and social realism, set against the absurd theatrical challenges of staging a ship, at sea, in a storm. A disorientation of the audience, who must also be all at sea. A voyage, to a new world, in this in-between state, and place, of the theatre.