“Very like a whale” is the shortest quote listed in the extracts at the beginning of Moby-Dick. It originates in Act III scene ii of Hamlet in a conversation between the titular character and Polonius, chief counselor to the play’s central antagonist, Claudius. Although the quotation is brief, applying its full context to Moby-Dick can have a considerable effect on the interpretation of the novel. When analyzed further, the quote gives evidence that Melville’s intent is to put forward a story that mirrors that of the Shakespearean masterpiece, and thus has similar structures to that of a play: every person moving within the narrative is playing a particular role in the larger story, and ultimately do not have freewill because in a play the script has already been written.
Within the first few pages of the story, Ishmael muses:
“Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces—though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, included me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment (Melville 7).
When first reading this passage, an initial interpretation may be that Melville is immediately setting up the theme of fate and predestination in Moby-Dick. After reading it again with the Hamlet quote “Very like a whale” in mind, certain aspects about the language Ishmael uses become more relevant. For example, he likens the Fates to a stage manager, a position in theatre filled by someone who is essentially in charge of running the technical aspects of a production. He also uses archetypes of theatrical genres to give a frame by which his life on the sea can be compared, including high tragedy, genteel comedy, and farce. By specifying different categories of plays, the character of Ishmael is saying, with an edge of humor, that he has been coaxed into believing he has free will, but in fact his fate has already been written, and he is acting out a “shabby part” in a whaling voyage. By doing so, Melville is making the broader point that Ishmael’s story, as framed by the Hamlet quote, is one of tragedy. Moreover, since Ishmael is cognizant of the way in which “the Fates” control his life, he can be seen not as a character simply filling the role of the protagonist, but of an actor aware that he is “performing a part”.
Furthermore, by selecting a quote from Hamlet, specifically, Melville brings on connotations specific to the tragedy and the characters within the scene the quote is taken from. Most traditionally, theatrical productions interpret the character of Polonius in one of two ways: as being an ignorant sycophant and general prat, or as a man who is very much aware of the consequences of his actions. His longwinded rambles can be characterized as foolish or wise. Productions are able to pull off either characterization because Shakespeare’s language allows for either portrayal of Polonius. As for Hamlet, one of his most defining qualities is his emotional isolation from the world. He is young, clever, observant, and yet his narrative is cloaked in darkness, anguish, and general gloom. He is also incredibly verbose: he has five soliloquies and several monologues. Together these two characters are similar to Ishmael. Like Polonius, Ishmael frequently digresses into topics that are not always pertinent. Like Hamlet, he is a wanderer, he feels alienation, and he is often left a mystery to the audience despite being the central character to the story. Because of these connections, Melville’s use of “Very like a whale” in the Extracts of the book not only sets up for the reader that Moby-Dick will use Shakespearian literary devices that make its function be similar to that of a play, but it also brings a foreshadowing of confliction to the character of Ishmael. This is because it is Hamlet who ultimately kills Polonius, which can therefore provide evidence that Ishmael himself is his own worst enemy.
Finally, within the context of the quote (Hamlet and Polonius are assigning shapes to “yonder cloud”), the cloud is not actually a whale, but “like” a whale. This distinction can be applied to Moby-Dick in that it supports the idea the Melville is comparing the whale to a far-off figure that represents more than its physical nature, but rather danger, fate, and the unknown. It also strengthens the notion that everyone within Moby-Dick is aware that they are playing a part, including the great whale itself.