Shakespeare On Planes

April 9, 2016


A colleague of mine, under the pseudonym ‘Jack Cade’, has written a significant (tongue-in-cheek) piece on the growing field of Shakespearean Aeronautics, below:


Shakespeare On Planes


It is a fact not always universally acknowledged that the Bard of Avon as well as being an incisive commentator on human nature also demonstrates a prescient and detailed knowledge of modern aviation. From the historical standpoint which utilises Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogical imagination, in which the temporal relationship between intentionality is dispersed synchronically, the Shakespearean influence on such planes as the Hawker Tempest is obvious. However what is less well known is the detailed knowledge demonstrated within his plays of aeronautical engineering and prototypical aviation genetics.

As Shakespeare himself tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘My soul is in the sky’. (Act V. Scene I). Let us take the often cited example of the so called ‘cockpit’ in which pilots sit. The term is first used in Shakespeare’s famous Henry V to describe the legendary ‘wooden O’ in which the ‘vasty fields of France’ might fit. Shakespeare’s clear conception here is the maximisation of space utility in which the ‘casque’ or ‘pilot’ can readily cram not only his body, but his entire navigational apparatus (no doubt Shakespeare knew something of early SatNav technology, but that is for another article).  Of course, the word ‘cockpit’ was later stolen my mariners to describe the small cramped spaces below decks of 17th century British naval vessels. Whilst sitting in the cockpit, the Shakespearean expert may well pay attention to the so-called ‘canopy’ above his head, described in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida as referring to that space in which the ‘kites and crows’ might dwell – synonyms of course for enemy pilots. In fact, this knowledge of aviation code-words is itself encoded most famously in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Let us look at an example of the operational commands to pilots including weather analysis contained in the codified first letter of each line of a short passage highlighted below:

TA -Traffic Advisory; MI – ‘Shallow’ (weather warning) or DP (‘Deep’); I (‘I should inform you further’);  ALT – approach and landing test; TIS – (‘It is’) NBW (‘north by west’) FM ‘From’ (‘followed by time weather change is to begin’); BAC (‘Bleed Air Control’ or possibly ‘BACON’ – Shakespeare’s own codename for his other work as a scientist); T ‘time’ (‘the very minute’); O (OBEY).

T Then Prospero, Mafter of a full poore cell,

A And thy no greater Father.

MIra. More to know

D Did neuer medle with my thoughts.

Pros. ‘Tis time

I I fshould informe thee farther: Lend thy hand

A And plucke my Magick garment from me: So,

L Lye there my Art: wipe thou thine eyes, haue comfort,

T The direfull fpectacle of the wracke which touch’d

T The very vertue of compaffion in thee:

I I haue with fuch prouifion in mine ART

S So fafely ordered, that there is no foule

N No not fo much perdition as an hayre

B Betid to any creature in the veffell

W Which thou heardft cry, which thou faw’st finke: Sit

F For thou muft now know farther. downe,

Mira. You haue often

B Begun to tell me what I am, but ftopt

A And left me to a booteleffe inquisition,

C Concluding, ftay, not yet. Prof. The howr’s now come

T The very minute byds thee ope thine eare,

O Obey, and be attentiue.

The text of The Tempest was of course performed onstage in November 1611 with actors being prompted to pronounce the syllables of each codified line to the highly trained Elizabethan pilots in the audience. The matter of the play itself also concerned the flight paths and world-wide information gathering of ‘Ariel’ (Prospero’s Messenger) and no doubt contained additional flight information for the formal training of the burgeoning Shakespearean air force.  Given that such training must have been top secret it is no surprise that the knowledge contained within the Shakespearean texts was codified. The character of Ariel (the name itself of course a precursor of the modern variant ‘aerial’) was a clever metaphorical field manual to modern aerial warfare considerations, long before the use of barrage balloons and suchlike of the Napoleonic era.

Ariel is literally an ‘air demon’, a sprite used as messenger and instigator of his master Prospero’s ‘magic’ (or strategic realisation). Ariel justly states his use of cloud cover in order to facilitate his strategic advantage: ‘I come…to ride /On the curl’d clouds/ to thy strong bidding task Ariel and all his quality.’ The strong hint at the additional members of the secret air force in that phrase ‘all his quality’ is indeed surprising.

Another revelation is the sheer technology available to Shakespeare’s aviationary crew – indeed that Ariel arrives amid ‘thunder and lightning’ is hardly a surprise when the speed at which he travels is clearly above Mach 3. We read within the play that Ariel could put a girdle ’round the Earth in forty minutes’. As Ariel himself points out, such speed can sometimes have disastrous consequences for early aviators when the no doubt wooden structures (early precursors to the ‘Mosquito’) caught fire: ‘Now in the waist, the deck, in [the] cabin, I flamed amazement: sometime I’d divide and burn in many places.’ As always, Shakespeare shows a humane understanding of the horrific consequences of failures in design of the early aviation technology. While the ever present attractions of aviation remain, as Ariel himself states he feels “free as mountain winds” when aflight, Shakespeare is careful to provide caution however – as Ariel observes: “the wind bloweth where it listeth.”

Given the incredible power of aviation technology in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare needed to keep things secret and he knew the importance and value of intelligence. As he states in A Midsummer Night’s Dream no doubt referring to a new prototype ‘Hermia’:  “I will go tell him of Hermia’s flight: /Then to the wood will he to-morrow night/ Pursue her; and for this intelligence/If I have thanks, it is a dear expense.’ Shakespeare knew too the uncompromising struggles of modern military air warfare, as he states in the Third part of Henry VI, a pilot who crashes can no longer count on careful treatment from his foe: ‘Bootless are plaints and cureless are my wounds, no way to fly, nor strength to hold out flight,/ the foe is merciless, and will not pity’ (2.6).

Given the amount of innovative work in the field of aviation Shakespeare contributed, he would no doubt be shocked to know that in a modern context, his flight information guide ‘Arial’ has been reduced to a mere ‘type’ for word processing purposes.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Images of Matter

"Words are but the images of matter" --- Francis Bacon | Exploring the materiality of language in the early modern world and beyond

Will Pooley



research education, academic writing, public engagement, funding, other eccentricities.


Research English At Durham

Nature Writing in Wales

A Creative & Critical Writing PhD Sketchbook

Dr Charlotte Mathieson

Website of Dr Charlotte Mathieson

Shakespeare Institute Library

Info on Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and other useful library and research stuff.


Group for Early Modern Studies


Anne Sophie Refskou

We Are Cardiff

A blog about Cardiff, its people, and the alternative arts and cultural scene!


Cities. Culture. Regeneration. PhD Musings.

Lets pay more tax

Elspeth Jajdelska

Dr Johann Gregory

My Academic Portfolio

Dr Alun Withey

Welcome to my blog! I am an academic historian of medicine and the body, and 2014 AHRC/BBC 'New Generation Thinker'. Please enjoy and let me know what you think.

Thinking in Arden

Blog posts, mainly Shakespearean

The 18th-Century Common

A Public Humanities Website for Enthusiasts of 18th-Century Studies

%d bloggers like this: