Experts' Articles Underwater Heritage

Hark! Do you hear the sea?



The 2018 film A Quiet Place2 scares the bejesus out of you! The blind creatures having seized planet Earth attack and kill their human preys by even the slightest sound they make. These creatures make humans acutely aware of sound, persuading them to move awfully stealthily to be able to survive on planet Earth. The film’s huge success, and critical acclaim for its extremely “new concept” and “original storyline” was so much so that it soon followed a sequel A Quiet Place Part II3 in 2020 and is now gearing up for yet another spin off A Quiet Place: Day One.4 Well, to us humans, in the Anthropocene, the idea indeed seems new and original and of course intriguing (given all the fuss surrounding the film) because we haven’t quite stopped to look around at other forms of life on planet Earth. For the habitat underwater, situation akin to the one in the films isn’t dissimilar.

Sound drives life underwater, be it for the largest living creature on planet Earth, the blue whale or what makes their diet, the minute zooplanktons.5 Human-generated underwater noise interferes with crucial life functions of aquatic animals, ranging from communication between individual aquatic species underwater, schooling behaviour, foraging, mating, avoiding predators, feeding and so on leading to changes in behaviours, migration patterns and reduction in populations. It doesn’t stop at that, even seabirds are affected.

Now equipped with this knowledge that sound dominates the underwater domain mustn’t we also wake up to the fact that we are increasingly proving to be the creatures seizing the underwater realm and threatening that habitat, especially with Blue Economy dominating world dialogues? The undertakings that represent blue economy include maritime shipping, fishing and aquaculture, coastal tourism, renewable energy, water desalination, undersea cabling, seabed extractive industries and deep-sea mining, marine genetic resources, and biotechnology.

What do we do about the situation at hand then? Look to technology for solutions? Raise funds for research? Call for United Nations’ intervention? Convene meetings at national and international level? Respond to activism and activists? Well, all of these we have tried, and we continue to engage with. What then is the answer? Is there a missing link? How can it be bridged?

In a time where divisive political rhetoric is embraced, bridging the numerous divides that exist in the world we live in is impracticable until the unwittingly divided world of art and science becomes one. This is rather complex a matter and not simplistic as it is suggested. Centuries of conditioning has played its part in concretising the belief that art and science are opposite realms. And so, the Art and Science worlds function in isolation today whether it is due to how they are positioned in academia, or it is labouring to address global challenges, affecting sustainable development.

We needn’t look far for examples: Even the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations fail to acknowledge the role of art in tackling climate change.6

It fails to perceive that the present climate change crises were and are driven by science and commerce-led greed, and art, on the other hand, for centuries, for the most part, have spoken the language of conservation, nurture, kindness, beauty, love, compassion, and such, along with, let us not forget, propagating great scientific discoveries7. When the frequently used coinages Mother Earth and Mother Nature are born from art, why then is there a marked bias in attitudes towards art disciplines? This, essentially, stems from the hierarchical structure of disciplines where Science subjects are positioned higher up in ranks followed by Social Sciences, and then Art subjects and Sports at the very bottom.

In the context of underwater acoustics and habitat degradation, what role can the coalescing of art and science play? Well, let us go back a bit in time and begin by examining sound from the earliest surviving literature and how sensitive mankind used to be to sound and sound groups. Yes, there, indeed, was a time when human beings were immensely more sensitive to sound and soundscapes than today. Noise pollution is not a new problem that we are faced with. We have been presented with it even before amplifiers came into existence, making it the mighty and unending problem that it poses as, today.

Considering that in India there exists a mine of surviving literature, especially those driven by sound from 1500 to 500 BCE, it shouldn’t be too hard to perceive the magnificent world of sound for Indians. Contrarily though, present-day India is far removed from the world of sound — of emotion-laden prosody of speech. Further, the Indian city Moradabad ranks second as the noisiest place in the world. So, the challenges, indeed, are global.

There are three aspects to sound which are strictly observed in ancient Sanskrit poetry, and I wouldn’t be off the mark when I suggest that the same aspects would not be foreign in other languages too when literarily delved into. So, with Ancient Indian literature on the one hand let us also examine the works of the most popular literary writer in the world, today — William Shakespeare, whose work has inspired different intellectual movements in the world, posthumously, including the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century.

This particular discourse will draw attention to Ancient Indian literature, passed down and preserved through oral tradition, along with the orality of early modern England, which also explains Shakespeare’s preoccupation with sound.

Shakespeare’s world of sounds has been recognised as an intriguing factor of his text and stage and is explored in great depth and rather imaginatively by Bruce R. Smith in his work titled, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Smith writes,

Listening, as opposed to looking, seems especially apt with respect to early modern England, as a collectivity of cultures that depended so extensively on face-to-face communication. […] The rhetorical basis of Renaissance criticism suggests that the dominant term in early modern culture, even at the highest levels, was in fact “orality” not “literacy.”8

But before we dive into the deeper realms of sound let us be informed that the authors of ancient Indian literature will be addressed ‘Ancients’ as we move along and let us also consider the following three aspects of sound from Ancients, which reflect in Shakespeare’s literature, as well:

  1. Vibrations – Dhvani: Vibrations are a perpetual phenomenon of our life whether as speech or call or musical or even Air is the medium of sound for humans while water for underwater life. The medium determines the speed and vibrations, which dictates loudness as well as speed, measured indecibels and hertz, respectively. Syllables form the basis of sound we are set to explore among sounds in Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare’s text amplifies alliterative assonance and consonance of sounds. These sound patterns are essential as dramatic device in creating Shakespeare’s language.
  2. Time-Kālá: Shakespeare’s preferred metrical template is the iambic pentameter9, which also informs us that the number of syllables is measured to five beats of da-Dum (one heartbeat). This quantification, at first, suggests simple arithmetic, however, in composing there are more arithmetical aspects in poetry, known or unbeknown to poets, verses are composed with vibrational qualities to serve a verse’s orality, aural features as well as the subtle experience of its synchronised vibrations; for it to be articulated, heard, and While Shakespeare did write in prose and use other metrical patterns occasionally, we will primarily explore iambic pentameter, it being Shakespeare’s preferred metric styles.
  3. Word-Padam: So, what does a word or verse communicate, ontologically? The formerly discussed Vibration and Time contribute to making of meaning: Artha or sense from definitions, such as vāchyārtha (literal meaning), lakshyārtha (implied meaning) and vyajnārtha (suggested meaning), according to the ancients.
The acoustical features of Shakespeare’s text alone communicate amply, to suggest that the aural stylistic components in his language contribute fully and coherently to the making of meaning. The Shakespearean sound qualities in verses, and the texts’ literal as well as implied and suggested meanings are similar to making of meaning in Sanskrit texts.
Wes Folkerth in his work The Sound of Shakespeare writes:
The following exchange between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It expresses Shakespeare’s  awareness of the close links between sound, space, and our affective life, that part of our subjective  world which we often experience as profound, and beneath the surface:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love. But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of  Portugal.

Or rather bottomless, that as fast as you pour affection in, it runs out. (4.3.205-10)

Rosalind professes that she is ‘deep’ in love, a phrase she uses to describe her emotional  capacity. Her love is of such a depth that it ‘cannot be sounded’, since it has no discernible bottom or limit. At the same time she also suggests a recognition, one expressed throughout Shakespeare’s works, that we naturally access the register of deeply subjective experience primarily through sound, through the practice of sounding out ourselves and others. Rosalind’s love also ‘cannot be sounded’ because she has adopted the persona of Ganymede while in Arden, through which she is unable to express her true identity to Orlando.


While in this exchange Folkerth alludes to sound in Shakespeare’s work, it also demonstrates Shakespeare’s deep connection with the water world. Literal aside metaphorical references too alluding to waterbodies are plenty in Shakespeare’s texts. This too is an example where metaphorical reference to waterbodies coalesce with sound in Shakespeare’s text.

There is not one play, from all of his surviving plays, where Shakespeare has refrained from making references to the water world. The nineteenth century English poet John Keats in a letter dated 14 September 1817 to the sisters Jane and Marianne Reynolds writes:

Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best? It is very fine in the morning when the Sun

‘Opening on Neptune with fair blessèd beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams’10

Keats, perhaps, recalls these lines from his memory (from the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and probably why he misquotes ‘salt green’ as ‘salt sea’. Shakespeare, evidently, influenced Keats immensely and he faithfully gauges Shakespeare’s remarkable fascination with the water world as well as his ability to map the many mysterious moods and nature of seas’ phenomenal aspects.

Oceans and seas had become an indispensable part of human life by the sixteenth and seventeenth century. London had emerged as the centre of shipping of the early modern England. Julie Sanders in her work titled The Cultural Geography of Early Modern Drama writes:

Not only was the river [Thames] a focal point in terms of activity — trade and transportation were hugely dependent on it — and a major sight on anyone’s journey through London, but the sonic, olfactory, and haptic, as well as optic, experience of it would have struck the imagination forcefully … presumably, in case of the open amphitheatres, on the Bankside, such as the Globe, where the sound of the Thames could be heard as an undertow to theatrical performances.11

Daniel Brayton notes in his work titled Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration:

Shakespeare had no knowledge of embryonic development or biochemistry, but he presciently shared Cramer’s and Patton’s insights about a profound ontological connection between human life and the global ocean: just as we are part of this watery world, the ocean is part of our being. The salinity of human blood, sweat, and tears is the same as that of seawater, a chemical link between humanity and the ocean that Shakespeare points out poetically: “Were our tears wanting to this funeral, | These tidings would call forth their flowing tides” (I Henry VI, 1.1.87). These lines evoke a somatic linkage between human life and the marine environment. The poet could not have known of the chemical and biological dimensions of human ontology, nor could he have known much about the vast submarine world to which “we” (human beings) have only had much empirical access since the mid nineteenth century, yet the newly discovered global ocean was nevertheless for him an essential feature of human life.12

Consider Othello’s words when overcome by jealous rage:

Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic Sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. (III.iii.456-63)13

Othello, who is a military commander, serving as a general of the Venetian army, compares the sea’s steadfastness to himself. Here again Shakespeare draws from the rhythmical ebb and flow of the sea, indicative of sound. However, Shakespeare’s seas are not always steadfast. The seas have proven to be rather unpredictable and deceptive too, on many occasions. Even the best of calendars could not determine the fate of ships once out in the ocean. Merchants engaged in maritime trading were always at risk. The ‘merchant-marring rocks’, ‘sea storms’, ‘tempest’ ‘shipwreck’ and many more navigational problems frequently feature in Shakespeare’s text.

When Antonio in the play The Merchant of Venice informs his dear friend Bassanio, Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea14, we also subsequently learn that he is speaking of his ships due to arrive in Venice, From Tripolis, from Mexico and England, | From Lisbon, Barbary and India? (III.ii.268-70)15 But soon the audience are informed of shipwrecks through Salarino:

Why, yet it lives there uncheck’d that Antonio hath
a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas;
the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many a tall ship lie buried. (III.i.2-6)16

Shipwrecks are a common occurrence in many of Shakespeare’s plays. For instance, Calrence’s dream in Richard III, Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks; | A thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon; (I.iv.24-5)17 or in Twelfth Night Antonio saying, ‘rude sea’s enraged and foamy mouth,’ (V.i.74)18 or several times in Julius Caesar and The Tempest. While all these speak of the rude nature of the sea it also points to a burgeoning maritime industry from eight centuries ago19.

Shakespeare makes numerous other references to the sea and sailing pointing to trade and trade relationships: merchandise, gold, riches, precious stones, people, culture, diplomacy and so on, across and via the waterbodies are often featured details in his plays.

India, although not a country as it is today but as a region, also figures in Shakespeare’s text, primarily for her material riches. For instance: In 1Henry IV Mortimer says: And as wondrous affable and as bountiful | As mines of India. (III.i.164-5)20 and Norforlk in Henry VIII, says: Made Britain India:

every man that stood | Show’d like a mine. (I.i.21-2)21 and Othello says: Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away. (V.ii.345) 22and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania clearly refers to trade with India, via the sea:

And, in the spiced Indian air,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood, When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind; 

and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise. (II.i.124-134)23

In The Twelfth Night when Maria says, more lines than is in the new map with the | augmentation of the Indies (III.ii.74-6)24, the likeliest reference of this is to the English Cartographer Edward Wright’s map of 1599.25


Figure 1 A plat of all the world: projected according to the truest rules being far more exact than either the plain-card or the maps of the world, by Edward Wright

In the map lines are quite many, but around both the West and the East Indies, and in the text too both the Indies are referred to, particularly the East Indies, as the ‘utmost Indies’, ‘East Indies’ and ‘India’.

In The Tempest when Trinculo says, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. (II.ii.32)26, the reference here is to Columbus’ mistakenly identified Native Americans, who were brought from North America and displayed by their masters for a fee, in England. And so, is the case in, Henry VIII, when Norfolk says, some strange Indian with the great tool come to | court, the women so besiege us? (V.iii.32-3)27. Along with contextualising these early modern impressions and attitudes, when Shakespeare’s text registers these fallacies, it is important to consider that for his audiences, at the time, these were current and quickly relatable portrayals.

Deducing, therefore, that the maritime industry, over many centuries have contributed significantly to shaping the socio-economic and political forces of the world we live in, is not by any stretch of the imagination an exaggeration. However, to many, new age economic terms such as “blue economy” might make it appear like it is a thing of today, when colonisation, generational amnesia and technological evolution have and are rapidly eroding cultural, regional and indigenous knowledge systems which promoted sustainable practices. With respect to world oral history and oral tradition, studies overtime conclusively suggest that Language, be it any, contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more. Indigenous knowledge is key here. The coinage — Blue Economy — therefore, is relevant if and only if it signifies rethinking and reorienting sustainable practices by including and acknowledging sustainable practices with art as an essential component of a broad and balanced plan towards sustainable development. Kaitylin J. Rathwell and Derek Armitage’s research highlight “six underlying mechanisms through which art and artistic processes mediate knowledge system bridging.”28

Although our relationship with ocean and coastal spaces dates back to prehistoric times our knowledge repertoire appears to be eroding at a rapid pace, and as a result knowledge development process is falling into a uniformity trap where “information” is increasingly replacing intergenerational, intragenerational and transgenerational experiences and knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is key to sustainable climate solutions. Indigenous knowledge exists amid us in oral literary form, folk art forms such as songs, dance, craft and so on but is often dismissed by mainstream scientists as primitive superstition and myth and seldom recognised as knowledge:

  • India’s Chipko Andolan of the 1970s was one of the first successful ecological movements in the world. It was led by the indigenous people of Uttarakhand, mainly women.
  • A study that explored the history of the Amazon Rainforest found that indigenous people “coexisted with, and helped maintain, large expanses of relatively unmodified forest” for millennia … “Some propose that human influences played strong roles in the enrichment of ‘hyperdominant’ trees”29 that now dominate the forest were planted by prehistoric human
  • A more recent example is the unfortunate and tragic European colonisation of Americas which witnessed systemic destruction of indigenous knowledge systems, genocide, and Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is a metaphorical representation of the brutalities of colonisation told through its characters Prospero — the oppressor — and Caliban — the oppressed, a victim of colonisation, who is immeasurably exploited and abused. The play opens with the line “On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise | of thunder and lightning heard.”30 Here the suggestion of sound of the ship at sea and thunder builds the atmosphere of the play for audiences. By plainly stating “tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning” Shakespeare is setting the tone for his play by tapping into the collective memories of his audience who could quite easily recall the sound of thunder while also imagining the accompanying sound of a ship at sea. In the play the inhabitant of the island, Caliban, is made to forego his experience-based knowledge and is taught Prospero’s (the coloniser’s) ways of life, imposed as the only right information. And towards the end of the play when Prospero sets sail to leave the island and retire in Milan, his brother Antonio can be heard saying that Caliban “Is a plain fish and no doubt marketable”31 This, again, is indicative of the advent of slave trade and human zoos that Europe had begun as a market in the sixteenth century.

Shakespeare’s polysemic text, riding on sound details, frequently induced by its subjunctive, packs many punches allowing, at times, even theorematic resolution to inquests, especially, in the case, of sound … much like that of the Ancients. His sonnets 8, 17 and 38 talks of “well-tuned sounds” and of his verse as “stretched metre of an antique song” and further still, he mocks “rhymers” who cannot compose “eternal numbers to outlive long date,” like he can. This could quite easily convince any that Shakespeare was not merely experimenting with sound from a conceptual understanding, but as if he too like the Ancients knew more than we, in the Anthropocene, are able to trace.32

The Ancients’ overarching objective to put emphasis on sounds in words and verses in Sanskrit over its meanings is a subject of considerable interest to many Indologists. So, are the Sanskrit verses without meaning? Not entirely, it is a question of literal meaning as opposed to implied or suggested meaning. However, it is important to note that the lexical semantics of words in early Sanskrit texts is a pleasing derivative of sound groups. Before conclusions are drawn, let us be cognizant of the fact that there’s more to the syntax of Sanskrit; the Ancients, having prioritised sound over meaning, formulated the syntactic arrangement of words in Sanskrit verses based on vibrations. Jones states, ‘The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined then either.’33

The purpose behind such a design is perceived as scientific; of sound waves produced and of frequencies, of vibrations, and in turn its many impacts on the living and the non-living.34 Such aspects of sounds are applicable to life underwater too and extremely detrimental to habitat underwater and eventually to human health and our environment. The ocean has remained a symbol of the “boundless” to us all for centuries. In ancient Indian texts too centuries ahead of Shakespeare’s time the quality of excess is attributed to “Samudram” (water bodies). When Juliet speaks of her unending love for Romeo she says it is “as boundless as the sea” My love as deep; the more I give to thee, | The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.137-141)35

But how about we consider the ocean’s finiteness? Yes, there is such a thing as that. What we are witnessing in the Anthropocene are over polluted, choked, dried, drying, and overfished waterbodies where every new life is challenged.

Ecocriticism is the answer to us at a time such as this. As Ursula Heise explains in her essay, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism, that the remedial approach is a “triple allegiance” to “the scientific study of nature, the scholarly analysis of cultural representations, and the political struggle for more sustainable ways of inhabiting the natural world.”36

Dismantling and competing to bring Art to the top in ranks or to rearrange the existing hierarchical structure is a rather dangerous attempt at fixing the problem. The problem is the nature of division of disciplines: it is founded on bias and competition for ethnic, racial, cultural and economic supremacy through academia where, for now, Western particularity is at the centre. While this predicament challenges universal applicability of any or every other far more efficient knowledge management recourse, it is one that can be reoriented. Accepting the interconnectedness and oneness in the perversely separated disciplines — art and science — and addressing the need for inclusive and equitable learning environments for better learning outcomes will revolutionise sustainability efforts. It, additionally, is also about fostering minds to survey and contemplate outside the scope of learning offered at centres of formal education.

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Ms Lakshmi Krishnakumar

About Author

Ms. Lakshmi is the founder and director of O trust, based in Delhi formed few years ago with poetry at its center, to overcome barriers in learning and to evolve a level playing field for people in art and science fields.  She is a Shakespearean Scholar, a writer and theatre director.

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