The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/Sea Coast of Bohemia
Sea Coast of Bohemia.
For years Shakespearean critics have been puzzled by that famous passage in the “Winter’s Tale”, where the immortal William speaks of the alleged sea coast of Bohemia. The critics have known Bohemia as a continental country, hundreds of miles away from the sea, and Shakespeare has therefore been adjudged guilty of ignorance of geography. The “sea coast of Bohemia” has given rise to a large amount of fruitless speculation, the disputants not being sufficiently acquainted with Bohemian history. Says Mr. Jaycox in Bentley’s:
“Voltaire, and critics like Voltaire, have made a mock at Shakespeare’s geography, in giving Bohemia a sea coast. Little boys on a very low form indeed can join in the laughing chorus. Even parish and workhouse schoolchildren, under an uncertificated master, may no doubt be found to appreciate the jest. Who would ever have supposed the swan of Avon could be such a goose?
“Put what construction upon it we please, the stubborn fact holds good that the third scene of the third act of his “Winter’s Tale” is, as they say across the Atlantic (and we are beginning to say on this side of it) “located” in Bohemia; a “desert country near the sea”. And that scene opens with Antigonus asking a mariner who accompanies him: Thou art perfect, then, our ship hath touch upon The deserts of Bohemia?
“Of which the mariner is perfect, or well-assured, an assurance that will suffice to keep his memory green, among severely disposed map-masters, as the greenest of green hands in the plainest of plain-sailing geography. Let the mariner tell that to the marines.
“As for Shakespeare himself—did the poor man know no better? Was he so benighted a barbare as to really imagine Bohemia a sea-girt region? The answer, whether negative or affirmative, is but of slight interest to those who study, and therefore love him. They are as little upset by it as by the fact that in the same play Julio Romano is made contemporary with the Delphic oracle. Shakespeare did but follow Robert Green’s novel of “Pandosto” in which we read how Egistus, King of Sicily (the original of Polixenes) who in his youth had been brought up with Pandosto, King of Bohemia, being desirous of proving that neither lapse of time nor distance of place could diminish their former friendship, “provided a navy of ships and sailed into Bohemia to visit his old friend and companion.” Ben Johnson oracularly pronounced Shakespeare to have been wanting in art and referred, in his conversation with Drummon of Hawthorden, to the shipwreck in Bohemia. . . where is no sea near by 100 miles.” Mr. Collier is of the opinion that Taylor, the water-poet, meant to ridicule a vulgar error of the kind, when he laughs at an alderman who “catches me by the yoll, demanding if Bohemia be a great town, whether there be any meat in it, and whether the last fleet of ships be arrived there.”
Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s notion of a sea coast of Bohemia serves apparently at all times, and for all time, to give a point to the pens of our ready writers. Heaps of allusions to it might be piled together from the periodical press. Take as samples the two that most recently chance to have fallen in our way. The Times’ military correspondent during the Seven Weews’ German war of 1866, adverting to the burden that Bohemia had to endure from the hostile presence of the Prussian soldiery, advised every Englishman to “bless the sea and the waves thereof, and be thankful that his coast is more substantial than that which Shakespeare assigned to Bohemia.” And again, Professor Henry Rogers, in relating the means by which John Hus became spiritually affiliated to Wickliffe, remarks of the latter—whose ashes, in Fuller’s quaint allegory, were conveyed from the Avon to the sea coast of Bohemia—“But that his doctrine should have been conveyed to Bohemia would have seemed as little likely as that any particle of his dust should reach it, in default of that seaport on the coast of Bohemia which Shakespeare has created there in spite of geography.”
The truth is that the sea coast of Bohemia, generally supposed to have been a mere creature of fancy and imagination, once was a reality. It is true that, at the present day, Bohemia, situated as is in the heart of Europe, does not touch the sea anywhere, and owns no seaports of her own; in her days of glory, however, under the King Přemysl Otokar II., she really had a sea coast and harbors on the Adriatic. Let us hear what Mr. Robert H. Vickers, the historian of Bohemia, says in his essay on Přemysl Otokar II.
“The wise annotators and critics of Shakespeare, including such eminent names as Voltaire, Ben Johnson, Saint Beuve, Thorold Rogers, Charles Knight, Southey, Sterne and the Times, of London, have attempted to apologize for the immortal William. But the poet was right. Bohemia extended to the Adriatic, and included the ports and harbors and coast for a considerable distance, the boundary being nowhere fixed. It was not only possible but was a constant occurrence for navigators to pass by sea direct from Sicily to the “desert of Bohemia”, between the years 1262 and 1276. Again, Ottokar, and Conrad and Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufen line, were all personally acquainted and may be said to have been brought up together. The supposed incidents, then, of the Winter’s Tale may be placed with but slight poetic allowance during the period of Conrad’s rule over Sicily. Although the years do not exactly correspond, yet there is no blunder in Shakespeare’s description of a ship touching at the desert of Bohemia during that period.”
The sea coast of Bohemia will now, we hope, be admitted to have been a reality.