“Very like a whale” is the shortest quote listed in “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. Furthermore, Melville’s use of “Very like a whale” in the extracts is done so to compare Moby-Dick to Hamlet in a dual capacity: the story to that of a tragedy, and the nature of the protagonist, Ishmael, to the nature of the speakers of the quote—Hamlet and Polonius.
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. After reading it again with the 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. Further examples of the theatrical nature of the book can be found in chapters 39 and 40. Both are set up as a pieces of a staged scene, with designated dialogue and precise stage directions such as “Foresail ruses and discovers the watch standing, lounging, leaning, and lying in various attitude, all singing in chorus” (Melville 187). Additionally, Melville applies the form of a play not only in moments somewhat more lighthearted as found in chapters 39 and 40, but also during moments of seriousness, such as when the novel begins to reach its foreboding climax. Chapter 127 begins with a stage direction and is made up entirely of dialogue. It also includes a soliloquy by Ahab, who contemplates “how immaterial are all materials! What things are real are there, but imponderable thoughts!” (Melville 574-575). Thus, Meville weaves characteristics of theatre throughout both important and trivial moments of Moby-Dick to enhance the reading of the novel as a piece of drama where the characters have no control over their fate.
Furthermore, by implementing aspects of theatrical structures to Moby-Dick, Melville is also making the broader point that Ishmael’s story is not only inspired by Shakespeare, but by Hamlet specifically. Therefore, the inclusion of “Very like a whale” sets up for the reader that the novel, like Hamlet, is a tragedy. This is demonstrated not only through the catastrophe and carnage following the final confrontation with the White Whale, but by the foreshadowing of these tragic events all throughout the novel. Chapters before his death, the indefatigable Ahab says “So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me” (Melville 575). Thus, this moment demonstrates to the reader that Ahab himself is in the final stages, or twilight, of his life, and is aware of it. Additionally, despite surviving the ordeal, as the protagonist Ishmael also realizes the predestination of disaster. “For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place;” Ishmael states, “but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill” (Melville 203). This moment displays Ishmael’s explicit knowledge of doom for the Pequod. Consequently, by combining the concept of both theatre and tragedy to Moby-Dick, Melville allows Ishmael to be 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 the part” (Melville 7) that is foreshadowed in darkness.
Additionally, the relevance of “Very like a whale” is also applicable to an interpretation of Moby-Dick that compares its characters to those found Shakespeare's works. It can be argued that the most transparent example is the character of Ahab. His obsessive personality, hostility, and iron-will are easily analogous to both Macbeth and Richard the III. In fact, Ahab’s “ivory leg bears as distinguishing a mark” as Richard III’s own deformities (Brown 3). However, an association between Shakespeare and Melville that is not always discussed is Ishmael’s likeness to Polonius and Hamlet, the speakers of the “Very like a whale” moment. Upon further inspection, however, the ways in which Moby-Dick’s hero is a legitimate combination of Polonius and Hamlet becomes clear.
To expand, Ishmael is similar to Polonius in that both men frequently digress into topics beyond what is expressly pertinent to the story. An example of this in Hamlet is evident in Polonius’ first lines in the play. Instead of simply bidding his son Laertes farewell, the Lord Chamberlain goes into a longwinded speech specifying how Laertes should act and what to do while he is abroad, including a few grand statements about life in general: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loss both itself and friend / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry” (Hamlet I:iii). As for Ishmael, his verboseness is no more apparent than in “Cetology”, a chapter devoted entirely to the meaning of its title: the science of whales. Ishmael states “This whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa whale, and the Physeter whale, and the Anvil Headed whale, is the present Cachalot of the French, and the Pottfisch of the Germans, and the Macrocephalus of the Long Words” (Meville 149). Here Ishmael is, like Polonius, going into very specific details about matters that are related to the narrative of his story, but not expressly important to its theme and purpose overall.
In addition to parallels in verbal traits, Ishmael also contains shades of Polonius’ character in the way he functions in Moby-Dick. As Podhoretz writes “Polonius is an exceedingly difficult character to play. He's a sneak and a spy, and Hamlet takes him for a fool” (36). In fact, Polonius spends his final scene watching Hamlet from behind a curtain in the Queen’s room (Hamlet III:iv). The concept of spying is particularly similar to Ishmael’s function in that, like Polonius, he spends a large portion of the novel in the background as more of a witness to the story than the character at the center of it. While Moby-Dick begins as a dark, adventurous story with the clever, mysterious Ishmael ast its center, within the first 200 pages Ishmael begins to fade. Chapter 37 begins with “The cabin; by the stern windows; Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out” (Meville 182). It continues to follow Ahab in first person, with no mention of Ishmael’s presence at all. From “Sunset” on, Ishmael is almost entirely in the background of the story, taking in the scene in front of him, much like the character of Polonius.
Continually, Ishmael also has many similarities to the character of Hamlet. Both are sensitive wanderers who feel alienation from their social circles. While it has been written that “Hamlet is an Elizabethan vision of a mystery, a mystery having to do with the ambiguous predicament of a gifted and sensitive individual involved in the inscrutable workings of providence in history” (Warhaft 194), this exact opinion can be applied to an interpretation of Melville’s Ishmael. In fact, the sense of mystery is particularly similar for Ishmael; his motivations and inner thoughts are often indefinite to the reader despite being the central character to the story. The novel begins with one of the most famous opening lines in American literature: “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 3). However, by the end of the story, some 600 pages later, the reader has not gained a clear depiction of Ishmael’s true nature. “So we may call him Ishmael,” emphasizes Dumm, “but that begs the question of who he is and who he has been. Thus Ishmael’s injunction to call him by that name may itself be understood as a demand or plea that will help him evade the ghost of his former self” (400).
This sentiment of blurred identity, and the implementation of a protagonist with ambiguous intentions, is also central to the character of Hamlet. As Warhaft points out, Hamlet does not have “an objective correlative, that is, [it] lacks a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” (194). This is illustrated by Hamlet himself who establishes his emotional ambivalence about finding revenge over the death of his father when he famously declares “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mid to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a seas of troubles / And by opposing end them” (Hamlet III:I). An example of this mirrored ambiguity appearing in Moby-Dick can be found when Ishmael describes the whiteness of the whale in the chapter of the same name. He states “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own” (Melville 204). Conversely, he also states “This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds” (Meville 205). Thus, just like Hamlet is often unclear about his motives towards the central plot of the play (avenging his father’s death), so is Ishmael towards the theme at the forefront of Moby-Dick—the nature and meaning of the White Whale.
Because of these connections, Melville’s use of “Very like a whale” in “Extracts” not only sets up for the reader that Moby-Dick will use Shakespearean literary devices that allows it to function similar to that of a play and a tragedy, but it also acts not only as foreshadowing the fate of the Pequod, but of the character of Ishmael specifically. Although Ishmael is a blend of Polonius and Hamlet, there is a significant divide between the characters; Ishmael is defined by being the sole survivor of the tragic encounter with the great whale while both Hamlet and Polonius are dead by the end of the play. However, Ishmael’s connection to Polonius and Hamlet is still substantial because it is Hamlet who kills Polonius. This can be applied to Melville in that on a symbolic level the Ishmael who tells the story of Moby-Dick is profoundly different than the one who boards the Pequod. Therefore it can be argued that Ishmael undergoes a symbolic death at the end of the book, with the narrator being reborn out of the experience of chasing the great whale.
To conclude, although Moby-Dick has over one hundred chapters and features a variety of long, dense passages, the inclusion of four words in the extracts of the book have as significant an impact on the book as any of its soliloquies. This is because the phrase “Very like a whale” allows the reader to interpret the story as being similar to a Shakespearean play and compare it as such: its protagonist to a combination of Polonius and Hamlet, and its theme to that of tragedy. With this in mind, the reader can gain new insight into the influence of "the Fates" on the outcome of the story, and a new appreciation of the complexity of Ishmael. In short, “Very like a whale” lets the reader know from the very beginning that Moby-Dick is a book cloaked in a doom of Shakespearean proportions.
Dumm, Thomas. “Who Is Ishmael?” The Massachusetts Review 46.3 (2005): 398-414. Print.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.
Podhoretz, John. “Bill Murray's Polonius”. The Weekly Standard 5.36 (2000) Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Magnum Books, 1968. Print.
Warhfat, Sidney. “The Mystery of Hamlet”. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 30.3 (1963): 193-208. Print.