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Full fathom five thy father lies

“Full fathom five thy father lies” is a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It appears in Act I, Scene 2 and is spoken by the spirit Ariel. 

The phrase is part of what is known as “Ariel’s Song” in the play. Since Shakespeare coined the phrase, it has appeared in numerous other novels, short stories, songs, and films. This is due to the mood the line evokes—one of mystery and fear. The poet’s use of alliteration and allusion in the single line of text also makes it hard to forget. 

Full fathom five thy father lies meaning


Meaning of “Full fathom five thy father lies” 

The phrase is used in “Ariel’s Song” and is about Ferdinand’s father, Alonso, the King of Naples. It refers to the depths at which Ferdinand’s father’s ship is wrecked. It is lying at the bottom of the ocean, thirty feet below the surface, or at least that’s what Ferdinand interprets from the song.

At the beginning of the play, Ferdinand has washed ashore on Prospero’s island and falls in love with Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Prospero wants to imprison the young man, but his daughter pleads with him not to as she has immediately fallen in love with him. 

Important Vocabulary to Know 

  • Fathom: a unit of measurement— around six feet or 1.8 meters. It is used in reference to the depth of water. In the quote, the spirit Ariel is referencing “five” fathoms, or 30 feet of water. 


Where Does Shakespeare Use “Full fathom five thy father lies?” 

This famous quote is from The Tempest. In Act I, Scene 2, and is spoken by Ariel, a spirit who lives on the island with Prospero and Miranda. Ariel owes a debt to Prospero, who freed him from a tree when the latter arrived on the island. He became his servant after previously serving a witch—Sycorax. Ariel sings the line in verse passage of the play. Here is the quote in context

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.

Ariel sings these lines to Ferdinand and he replies with: 

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.

Ferdinand does not understand where the words are coming from. He refers to them as “no mortal business, nor sound.” They are not part of what the “earth owes.” He hears the sound “now above” him. This is not the only time throughout the play that Ariel is described incorporeally. He is a spirit and is not always visible to the characters. 

Interestingly, while the quote is most commonly included in the above passage, the song actually begins a few lines earlier with these less-commonly quoted lines: 

Come unto these yellow sands, 

And then take hands. 

Curtsied when you have, and kissed 

The wild waves whist. 

Foot it featly here and there, 

And sweet sprites bear 

The burden. Hark, hark! 

Burden dispersedly, within: Bow-wow. 

The watchdogs bark. 

Burden dispersedly, within: Bow-wow. 

Hark, hark! I hear 

The strain of strutting chanticleer 

Cry cock-a-diddle-dow.

Ferdinand’s response to these lines is just as baffled. He says: 

Where should this music be? I’ th’ air, or th’ earth? 

It sounds no more; and sure it waits upon 

Some god o’ th’ island. Sitting on a bank, 

Weeping again the King my father’s wrack,

This music crept by me upon the waters, 

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air. Thence I have followed it, 

Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone. 

No, it begins again.

It’s clear in these lines that Ferdinand is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death. He attributes the song to a god of the island who is mourning the kings’ death by drowning as he is. It’s easy to hear his sorrow in the lines. 

Why Did Shakespeare Use “Full fathom five thy father lies?” 

Shakespeare used this line as part of “Ariel Song” in The Tempest. It uses a few different literary devices that have made it as well-known today as it is. Most importantly, the use of alliteration. The quote includes four words that start with the letter “f.” This makes the line very pleasing to hear read aloud and to read to oneself. It also makes the line quite easy to remember. (This is a feature of most of Shakespeare’s best-known quotations.) 

Since Ariel is singing, as he does throughout much of the play, it makes sense that Shakespeare uses this highly lyrical language. There is also an element of mystery to this line due to the use of the archaic word (or at least rarely used word) “fathom.” It suggests that something terrible has happened to this father figure, but without context, one might not understand entirely what that “terrible” thing is.

What’s especially interesting about this quote is that when it’s delivered, Alonso isn’t dead. Ariel suggests that he is, but it’s later revealed that the King of Naples is alive and searching for his son. It’s Ferdinand who is actually believed dead by more people. His father is very relieved to find his son alive on the island.

FAQs

Who says, “Full fathom five thy father lies?”

William Shakespeare included this quote in his play, The Tempest. It is part of what is known as “Ariel’s Song” and is sung by Ariel to Ferdinand after he washes ashore on the island. He interprets it to mean that his father, the King of Naples, has drowned.

Is “full fathom five thy father lies” alliteration?

Yes, the repetition of the “f” sound in this quote is a great example of alliteration. It occurs four times within six words and is one of the major reasons that this quote is so well-known. As part of a song, the playwright’s use of alliteration makes sense.

What does “full fathom five thy father lies” mean in The Tempest?

It means that Ferdinand’s father is underwater. His ship rests five fathoms, or thirty feet, under the surface, or at least that’s what Ariel says. Both Ferdinand and Alonso are under the impression that the other has drowned.


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