'Old Antiquities and New Features'. Melville's Style and Literary Influences in 'Moby Dick'

Essay, 2014

10 Pages, Grade: 1st


ABSTRACT: The ambition of this short literary essay is two-fold. Firstly, it aims to briefly explore some of the literary sources used to shape and create Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, 'Moby Dick.' A multitude of literary sources could be suggested to influence Melville’s work but the principle works focused upon in this discussion are William Shakespeare’s tragic play 'Macbeth' and John Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’. By drawing upon linguistic and symbolic parallels present between 'Moby Dick' and these two works, the essay aims to show how Melville alludes to classical sources to create a refreshingly modern piece of work. The second goal of the essay is to explore in greater detail Melville’s use of language in ‘Moby Dick.’ Several critics have noted in past discussion that Moby Dick’s triumph lies embedded in its sophisticated verse, with Richard Brodhead crediting a large portion of the novel’s greatness to be owed to the author’s powerful command on the English language. With this view in mind, the essay examines some of Melville’s own linguistic accomplishments in order to decide whether “more persistently than anything else – more persistently than it is the heroic, or philosophic, or whatever – Moby-Dick is a book in love with language” (Brodhead, 1986).

‘But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvelous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed’ - Melville, 1992 [1851], p.71

This short excerpt from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick perhaps does not occupy position amongst the most remarkable of lines to be taken from Melville’s most celebrated work. Typically, past discussion concerning the tale of the diabolically passionate Captain Ahab in his monomaniac quest to destroy the notorious White Whale has been more dedicated toward exploring larger passages of the text in order to assess the literary inspirations resting behind its formation. Yet, in these two short sentences, I believe that Melville is able to effectively allegorize the literary spirit of his own creation. Within the context of the novel, these lines are simply intended to outline the appearance of Ahab’s ill-fated ship, the Pequod. However, out-with their familiar literary setting, they can be taken as an appropriate metaphor for Melville’s work in its entirety. Moby Dick presents a novel constructed from an array of classical materials and literary forms, which form the base of its figurative framework.[1] By compounding a variety of classical works into the textual space of Moby Dick alongside a modern adventure, Melville successfully adorns ‘old antiquities’ with ‘new and marvelous features’ to produce an exceptional piece of work which paradoxically both ‘reflects, and yet transcends, genre’ (Post-Lauria, 1990, p.316). In spite of its poor critical reception following its initial release in 1851, Moby Dick was able to sustain a new foothold in the literary imagination of modernists in the succeeding century.[2] Renewed interest in Moby Dick corresponded with renewed interest in its potential influences, which will form the basic focus of this essay and propel its discussion forward. It should be made plain from the outset that this discussion will be unable to explore every literary creation which aided Melville in creating his ‘wicked book.’ However, it will propose to examine in greater detail the influence of Shakespeare and Milton’s works upon Melville during his construction of Moby Dick, both of which have been evidenced by a collection of Melville’s notes to have played crucial roles in influencing his masterpiece. Further to this, the essay will probe deeper into the ‘nervous, lofty language’ (Melville, 1992 [1851], p.76) of the novel in order to identify coded meanings embedded within its narrative fabric. Whilst the discussion of the essay will be less concerned with interpreting the book’s ‘fantasia of themes’, it will concentrate its energies towards exploring some of Melville’s stylistic endeavours to assess whether, more so than all other components which make it a remarkable piece of literature, Moby Dick presents ‘a book in love with language’ (Brodhead, 1986, p.6).

In Chapter 31 of Moby Dick, a clear link to one of Melville’s long established literary influences can be sourced within the chapter title. Whilst references to varying literary sources are peppered throughout Melville’s work, distinct parallels to the plays of William Shakespeare make one of the most frequent appearances in Moby Dick. Chapter 31, in which the shipmate Stubb recounts to Flask a peculiar dream concerning Ahab, is titled ‘Queen Mab’ in a nod to Act I, Scene IV of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, in which Mercutio relays to Romeo a peculiar dream concerning a Fairie Queen of the same title. Melville’s fascination with Shakespeare’s work has been well documented by an array of critics in past discussion.[3] Alongside the discovery of various notes placed in Melville’s large volume of Shakespeare during the construction of Moby Dick, a study of his personal letters illuminate the profound influence Shakespeare’s writings had upon his vocabulary and aestheticism when drafting Moby Dick.[4] A principle point of recognition between Melville’s creation and Shakespeare’s works is clearly illuminated in Moby Dick’s powerful and lofty language. Excerpts of Shakespearian verse appear so frequently embedded throughout the narrative fabric of the novel that to match each parallel to its original counterpart would occupy the focus of a much greater study. Having stated this, Edward Rosenberry identifies that Moby Dick’s principle allusions to Shakespeare are to be sourced in the plays of King Lear and Macbeth (Rosenberry 1969, p129).[5] The latter play certainly occupies a strong position within the vocabulary of the novel, with phrases such as ‘multitudinously’ and ‘toil and trouble’ offering a subtle nod to the tragedy of Macbeth.[6] Further to this, Chapter 19, titled ‘The Prophet’ openly invites comparison of Moby Dick alongside the opening scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which the weyard sisters prophesize the future of the ill-fated anti-hero. In Act I Scene I of Macbeth, the witches chant: ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ whilst awaiting the arrival of Macbeth (Bate and Rasmussen , 2007, p.1863). In a similar vein, the witches’ paradoxical chant is reconfigured in ‘The Prophet’ by Melville through the voice of a ‘beggar-like stranger’ named Elijah (Melville, 1992 [1851], p.96). In Shakespearian tones, the stranger remarks to Ishmael: ‘Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be after all’ (Ibid). Whilst the language between the two prophecies may not correlate entirely, Melville’s stranger does appear to possess a familiar paradoxical rhetoric which is trademark of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse. Elijah’s further remark to Ishmael regarding Ahab’s nickname being ‘Old Thunder’ (Ibid, p.95) could also be suggested to cement the bond between the two works further, as the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play is accompanied by the dramatics of thunder and lightning. Alongside these notes of admiration towards Macbeth, the complex characterization of the Pequod ’s Captain Ahab strikes a chord of similarity with the over-ambitious protagonist of Shakespeare’s play, whose pursuit for absolute power results in high tragedy. Julian Markel notes in Melville and the Politics of Identity that similarly to the tragic Shakespearian hero, who becomes further alienated from the social culture surrounding him due to his monomaniacal pursuit for power, Ahab too isolates himself from society on the high seas in his ‘predestined course’ to seize power of the White Whale. Echoing the dramatic rhetoric of Macbeth in Act III, Scene IV of the play, that ‘I [Macbeth] am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as to go o’er’ (Bate and Ramussen 2007, 1892), Ahab dramatizes his own moral predicament into Shakespearian verse: ‘So far gone am I on the dark side of earth that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight’ (Melville 1992 [1851], p.). Further to Melville’s playful re-drafting of Shakespeare’s dramatic language, Moby Dick strikes another familiar chord with the works of the playwright by means of its stylistic composition. Shakespeare has often been credited as the first writer to recognize the power of comedic interlude when juxtaposed against scenes of emotional tenor as a means of intensifying dramatic potential (Rosenberry 1969, p.129). In awe of this technique, Melville adopted a similar formula for Moby Dick, positioning chapters of comedic entertainment between those of dramatic action. An example of such can be clearly traced in ‘Stubb’s Supper’, in which light-hearted tones of mockery and sarcasm concerning the subject of how to appropriately cook whale meat is used to buffer the more sombre chapters located at Moby Dick ’s heart. Synonymous to the Pequod itself, which utilizes the heads of both a Sperm Whale and a Right whale on either side of the cannibal craft in order to keep afloat, so too does Melville in an ode to Shakespeare keep his tragic novel balanced with buoyant elements of comedy.


[1] Nina Baym identifies Moby Dick to submit itself to no single genre, but rather to possess an abundance of forms, such as sermon; short story; occasional, scientific, political, and moral essay; satire; dictionary; encyclopedia; drama; dramatic monologue; manual; travelogue; character; tall tale; and prophecy (Baym, accessed: 21/04/14).

[2] Qualities of intrigue for modernists, such as ‘fragmented form, symbolic structure and stylistic thickness’ (Brodhead, 1986, p.18) reawakened a desire to explore the previously forgotten novel, as its previously ‘chaotic’ peculiarities were enthusiastically re-branded as ‘marks of greatness’ (Ibid.).

[3] Charles Olson was among one of the first to explore the parallels between Shakespeare’s plays and Melville’s work, and his study still remains one of the most influential. For further reading, consult Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville (1947).

[4] One such letter which indicates Melville’s admiration of the playwright was sent to the American publisher Evert Duyckinck, in which Melville writes: ‘Dolt & ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William. Ah, he’s full of sermons-on-the-mount, and gentle, aye, almost as Jesus.’ (Wright 1949, p.1).

[5] Whilst this study chooses to focus upon the latter of Shakespeare’s works in comparison with Moby Dick, Julian Markels’ Melville and the Politics of Identity: From King Lear to Moby Dick offers an engaging study of characteristic parallels between Captain Ahab and King Lear.

[6] George R. Stewart notes that Melville’s choice of ‘multitudinously’ in connection with his subject matter in Moby Dick recalls the maddened image of Lady Macbeth in Act II Scene II of Shakespeare’s tragic play and subtly develops Melville’s motif of madness, building up to Ahab’s later howl: I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! (Melville, 1992 [1851], p.171).

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'Old Antiquities and New Features'. Melville's Style and Literary Influences in 'Moby Dick'
University of Strathclyde
English Literature
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Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Literary Influences, sources, influence
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Lindsey McIntosh (Author), 2014, 'Old Antiquities and New Features'. Melville's Style and Literary Influences in 'Moby Dick', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/306203


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