More properly known as Ariel’s song from The Tempest, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ is about Ferdinand’s father, who is believed to have been the victim of a shipwreck and lie at the bottom of the ocean in Shakespeare’s play. Although it’s often known as ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, the song actually begins quite differently. Let’s take a closer look at this song and offer some words of analysis …
Full Fathom Five
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
The watch-dogs bark.
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
‘Full Fathom Five’ is a song about Ferdinand’s father, who is believed to have been the victim of a shipwreck and thought to lie dead at the bottom of the ocean in Shakespeare’s play. The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most enchanting and enchanted plays: a fantasy or ‘romance’ featuring a magician, the ‘monstrous’ offspring of a wicked witch, fairies, a lavish masque, drunken conspirators, young lovers, and much else.
The Tempest begins, appropriately enough, during a storm at sea, which sees Antonio and his crew washed ashore the very island where Prospero, Antonio’s exiled brother, the man he usurped, dwells with Miranda, the sprite Ariel, and Caliban, a wild native of the island. Ariel is a fairy spirit who serves the magician and former duke Prospero. Ariel was formerly a slave of the witch Sycorax (who was also the mother of Caliban), and when the witch died, Ariel was left imprisoned inside a cloven pine tree until Prospero arrived and freed him. In gratitude for this act, Ariel agreed to serve Prospero.
Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, the King of Naples, is the first person washed ashore on the island after the shipwreck, and hears Ariel’s enchanted singing. Ferdinand believes his father to have been drowned in the tempest. Miranda catches sight of Ferdinand and is immediately smitten, and Ferdinand is similarly bowled over by Miranda’s beauty. Prospero intends to imprison Ferdinand, but Miranda entreats him not to.
‘Full Fathom Five’ appears in Act 1 Scene 2 of the play, where Ariel sings it to Ferdinand. The young prince responds:
The ditty does remember my drown’d father.
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes. I hear it now above me.
If you enjoyed this analysis of ‘Full Fathom Five’, you might also enjoy our pick of the best speeches and soliloquies from Shakespeare’s plays.