Werewhale is an unfinishable neo-Jacobean closet drama dedicated to William Shakespeare’s King Lear. It prefers to be a play, but is in fact closer to an unversed epic or opera. Similar to another neo-Jacobean play, Death’s Jest-Book by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Werewhale is a failed play that is forceful, random, and demands to be read.
The dedication page clues us into the parallels between Shakespeare’s king and Colobulus, King of Everything, of the Werewhale play. Archaic Child, the presumed son of Colobulus, is the son King Lear never had. He is also, I assume, the central character, despite the play’s title. Werewhales come and go, but Archaic Child scratches his brief life across the chalkboard timeline of this drama. He is the most living and breathing character in this literature.
Christian Heinrich Heineken as the Source for Archaic Child
From what spring sprung Archaic Child? We must look back to North Germanic legend. The Terrible Tot of Lübeck, also known as the infant scholar, must be the source for the play’s sanest character.
Life of Christian Heinrich Heineken
Christian Heinrich Heineken, one of the Europe’s first recorded child prodigies, was born in Lübeck in 1721. He could speak by 8 months, and before a year was out, he had read the Hebrew bible. The next year, he conquered the New Testament in Latin, and committed the entire bible to memory. By three, he had written a history of Denmark. By four, he was dead.
Heineken appears to have been able to read in German, French, Latin, and possibly Hebrew and Danish. He could recite over 1,500 French proverbs, and had as complete of an understanding of world history, theology, mathematics and anatomy as one could have in the 1720s. He was said to have diagnosed his own fatal condition—celiac disease—and calmly accepted his fate.
Archaic Child as the Terrible Tot of Lübeck
The play is set in a world in which all women have fled in protest over the gross mistreatment of Werewhales, former gods now relegated to impractical servants, by the incumbent king, Colobulus. Four years have passed since the flight, and the cast of the Werewhale is as 100% male as the play’s observable world apparently is. The aged king, desperately in need of an heir in a world without childbirth, seeks a possible illegitimate male child aged at least four. By preemptively naming whomever may be found as his heir, the king starts the action for the play. Thus, Colobulus’s search for his unknown heir leads his unnamed Messenger, from a long lineage of unnamed messengers, to uproot the unnamed Archaic Child from an oft-mythologized region of the Kingdom of Everything known as the Muffin, a nearly unsurmountable, sparsely populated backwater on top of a plateau.
The Messenger finds a child that he assumes would look like the king “without all of his beards”. The child, something other than what was expected by the Messenger, foreshadows his own death with his opening proclamation, “In darkness we are made—alone, yet, not. As I was in birth, I am in recent life. And night for me turns metaphor—far too early for a child of four.” Isolated in the womb of his own cerebral primacy and in a mindless and childless world, the Heineken-like four-year-old is also diagnosing his own impending death.
How Archaic Child Goes Beyond Heineken
However, Archaic Child has diagnosed the deaths of others, according to the cataloguing of his early accomplishments that he recites to the Messenger:
I ascertain the anatomy of the sun and the operation of its lesser orbs, including our own. I have mathematically deduced the likely cause of death of every individual inhabitant of this Muffin. I can sigh in every language. I have cured the common cold. I am conversant in all human history. I have mastered tasseography, physiognomy, geomancy, belomancy, gastromancy, unrequited erotomancy, and I have invented dozens of other mancys. And I understand psychology enough to nearly read one’s mind[…]
Yet, despite this, he confesses that he’s never learned to read, which makes his previous accomplishments all the more inconceivable. With this, the Messenger takes fiction’s greatest illiterate to a sort of boarding house to teach him to read, while he awaits transport to King Colobulus.
The Education of Archaic Child
Archaic Child digests his reading lessons as easily as he can point out the flaws in the language he’s learning. While flustered with the impotent letters, such as P and K in words–like knight, for example–, Archaic Child reflects the world of the play when he complains to the Messenger, “And you state many words which I took to begin with N and now thou tellst me an impotent P leads the vanguard.” His complaints of linguistic impotence come amidst a world soon requiring childmaking potency in the face of extinction.
Moreover, when the Messenger hands Archaic Child a letter to read for practice, his student asks whom Colobulus is. When told that Colobulus is the child’s father, Archaic Child rightly says, “I do not know what that is.” As presumably the youngest living child, and a master of foresight, the child forecasts a rather ordinary word as unknowable for their time.
In the end of his lesson, the mentee absorbs the mentor when the Messenger confesses in an aside, “In but an hour’s time he has near attained my level of literacy and confuses me so that I must assume him to be my better.” That said, the messenger retires from teaching, wishing his bright student a “good night”, while Archaic Child linguistically dubs his nameless teacher a “good knight.”
Archaic Child’s Self-Education
Having received the only tutelage of his life, Archaic Child returns to his autodidactic schooling. Like Lübeck’s infant scholar, the Terrible Tot of Everything seeks a literary reputation. Whereas, Heineken wrote a history of Denmark, Child desires a reputation as a poet. However, he faces the conundrum of using the written language he just learned to create meaning that is both his meaning and intelligible for others when he says, “And my meaning is much more the difficult, for I must maintain my enjoyment in this task while allowing base brains to understand.” The problem between authors and general reader is simply grasped.
Child then moves on to more foreshadowing, possibly realizing that he can never have an audience for his work. He delves into a more childlike attempt at writing, shadowed by the tinge of mortality and writes:
“C-O-R-P-S-E”. “Corpse”. There. Must I always spell it thus? Surely, I could amend, “my corpse.” If I take away the pulseless E, I get two loafing letters: “Corps”. Bah! Though, the corps stores our future corpses for seedless battlefields. No, I shall amend it further— “corpsographer”, “corpsemonger “, “heavencorpse”, “Corpsicle”, “Corpsette”, “Corpslet”. No. I shall keep it a “corpse” but call it a corpsey.
Thus, announcing his independence from the standard rules of the English language, Archaic Child announces that he will slay the agon of Jonathan the Jobless, a poet whose poetry he has memorized. He vows to make the poems, “more strange and vital for our times.” Yet, the Diminutive Poet of the Blank Page feels incompatible with the traditional forms of poetry:
I do not care for odes, for I praise nothing; nor elegies, for I miss nothing; nor laments, for I know not sadness; nor epigrams, for I see nothing memorable in them; nor pastorals, for I know not beauty in the world; nor sonnets, for I know not the same in my own species. What then? Epic? I have not time nor heroes. And I have not morals for many other forms. Yet, I must write a poem. I shall form it in my own image, and shadow all that was, as if I were a statue surrounded by a halo of suns.
The last line sums up the dream of every poet. Yet, we are never permitted to hear or see a single line of his invention. We are given only the single word on a blank page: corpse.
Archaic Child’s Journey to Fulfill his Diagnosis
Knowing he must die at age four, Archaic Child then considers how he should go. He is unaware that the harebrained cousin of the king, Lord Anphony Phigmuphining—a maniac of the highest order and the former heir—is hoping to kill the latest heir atop the Muffin before he can be returned to the dying king, who is slowly suffocating with unstoppable beard growth.
Oblivious to an approaching choice demise, noticeable by the constant earthquakes caused by an oncoming Werewhale led by Lord Phigmuphining, Archaic Child opts to lambaste a quack auctioneer claiming to be selling everlasting life, “Dost thou propose to sell hell itself? Or make immortal those whom in but mortal seconds make this Muffin a Muffin worth deserting? Immortality should not be democratically given, nor desperately bought. Had I the height and strength only years can give, I’d brain thee.” A populist, Archaic Child is not, and he has no desire to dwell in a world led by popularity or wealth.
Yet, in this quack, our infant scholar finds the only individual who might know what Archaic Child is:
Archaic Child: Then why should I be any different from any other boy of four?
Auctioneer: I know not. Perhaps in thine countenance I see the very image o’ authority that one in wealth and power beholds. Or in the loudness and shadowing of this Muffin I see in thee a midget of great affluency.
Archaic Child: You almost made me smile for the first time in my life. But, nay, vendor, get thee gone, for if a toddler can be trusted, a delay of significance could put an end to thine everlasting life.
Yet, the auctioneer’s death is not diagnosable for Child, since he knows more than he seems. We learn in an earlier scene that he had sold the Werewhale to Lord Phigmuphining and his mute cohort, Deadspring, at his auction. As such, the auctioneer knows what is coming. The Archaic Child, not privy to that knowledge, misdiagnosis the auctioneer’s future by predicting the he would die with everyone on the muffin top, which prompts the auctioneer to battle Archaic Child in a strange philosophical rant on the nature of existence.
Just as Archaic Child had confused the Messenger such that the nameless servant had to assume Archaic Child to be his better, now the Auctioneer has done the same to the Terrible Tot. The auctioneer clearly understands this unique world, “It’s strange enough to be anything, as it is strange to be nothing, me lad. To make sense o’ things be the highest measure o’ insanity. Tis better to have no sense, and so be the reflector o’ this world […]”
After a continued philosophical debate and a discussion on the necessity of Werewhales in the world, absurdly in the midst of an increasingly deafening Earthquake and expanding shadow of an oncoming Werewhale, the auctioneer diagnoses the child as the creator of his own corpsing, which harkens back to Child’s writing.
Archaic Child is understood by the auctioneer, who seemingly knows all things. Archaic Child attempts to scare the Auctioneer by getting him to think about the approaching Werewhale. The auctioneer responds with another nonsensical bit of pseudo-existentialism:
Anon, me boy. Can I not just dream this loudness, and shadowing, away? Yes, although not for thee, for me I see clearest day and hear not a thing ‘cept me self. And if I wish it, the smallest pebble doth speaketh to me, and thou say’st nothing at all, for thou hast changed places, and handy-dandy, thou art a pebble and it be a babe. And if my foot be a crown, I crown it thusly. Now all must bow to the ground. Bambino, thou art scattered about me like a molting chicken. So many of thee now, though no notice taken. Is not this world real to me? I prick myself and I feel only pleasure, for now I choose it to be such. And what am I to the sand? If they do not know me, what credence have I to say that I exist? Such pomposity! Humankind, mind, and gods, have not compatibility, I tell thee straight. To think it thus makes the brain depraved, me thinks.
Despite these ramblings, Archaic Child seems attracted to speaking to an individual that could teach him something, even if he cannot understand it. He then wants the auctioneer to live, perhaps so he won’t be intellectually alone in the world. Yet, the auctioneer ignores him and continues with his surrealistic philosophy, as the sound of the Werewhale’s approach increases, making the dialogue more and more inaudible. Finally, Archaic child cries out, and changes his diagnosis of the auctioneer’s fate:
Archaic Child: Flee, lunatic! The shadowy figure doth emerge above the rocky bourn.
Auctioneer: Nay, babe. I shall not die, but if I must, it best be in the ‘morrow.
Archaic Child: Carry on.
The auctioneer, who lives only in the present, understands this world too much to die by a trifling regional apocalypse. The diagnosis, “Carry on,” plays on the word “carrion”, the decaying flesh of dead animals. Thus, the meanings and the auricular similarities of two words once again expose the shortcomings of the language or the complexity of the play. In a dialogue shouted through the noise of a constant earthquake, the diagnosis could be misinterpreted. Nevertheless, the auctioneer then agrees it is time for him to flee, and with foresight of his own, the master of reality and unreality tells the Archaic Child to trust not in the image of the Werewhale, “Thou wilt find nothing in it.”
The nameless child now alone in the loudness, asks himself, “And why do I feel he makes more sense than I?” He then wonders what it is like to fear; fearing that he himself is fearless—aphobaphobic, as he puts it. Unable to move, he briefly considers sense and nonsense. Then moves on to the five senses, trying to determine, which sense predominates. Lost in language and philosophy, Archaic Child, reaches the critical point of survival. After comically, informing us that he forced his own premature birth, which he now regrets, he decides to contradict human nature and toddle towards the shadow of the Werewhale.
Unlike, Heineken, Archaic Child’s death at four will be a death of his own choosing.
Archaic Child Declines to Die via Werewhale
In the second act of Werewhale we never see Archaic Child. However, now ingested by the Werewhale, he is able to communicate with the outside world through his recently learned skill: writing. Sending letters out of the mouth of the Werewhale, he tricks Lord Phigmuphining, who has recently killed everyone on the Muffin in an attempt to kill Colobulus’ heir, into thinking that the silent Werewhale can communicate by writing with his mouth. The mute cohort Deadspring and the guards seem to think otherwise, but the happy, delusional Lord Phigmuphining will only accept that he has the only mouth-writing Werewhale in existence.
Ultimately, Archaic Child uses his cunning to deceive Phigmuphining into catapulting the Werewhale off the Muffin:
Guard 1: I thinketh the Werewhale is rebelling! We can hardly hold him. Another letter!
Phigmuphining: Deadspring, retrieve the letter from beneath the dancing Werewhale.
Guard 2: It is not dancing, my liege.
Phigmuphining: It is singing, and yet moving; therefore, it is dancing. Speak not, base Guard. (reads) “There has never been a suicide without reason. Throw me off the Muffin, thou barnacle bewhoring buffoon.”
Guard 1: (struggling with werewhale) Me thinks it doth not like what its self writes.
Phigmuphining: Cease, too, Guard. It is merely agog for our endeavor. Although, I see not the logic in wanting to lunge to its death, nor do I see how the werewhale writes within the mouth.
Phigmuphining: No doubt, Deadspring, thou and the werewhale think the selfsame plan. Or shall I say, the three of us, for I have discerned the plan. The three of us wish to martyr the werewhale upon the enemy. A valiant sacrifice, and ingenious plan, to make certain my victory. Bassoonists play! (Werewhale’s whalesong and struggle blares out the bassoons). Stay in rhythm, Werewhale, if you wish to sing along.
At this point, royal armies under Lords Dearthworth, Blightlight and Gracewilt, having arrived late in an attempt to stop Phigmuphining, find themselves at the base of the Muffin, unable to scale it. A perfect target. As such, Phigmuffinging orders, “Guards, grease the werewhale, so as to ignite it at the point of departure, and so creating it aerially aflame, and so burning, cause further wreckage upon impact, and make certain our victory.” In an elaborate, maximalist order, Phigmuphinging turns the Werewhale into a Weapon of Mass Destruction with Archaic Child within.
However, soon realizing that they won’t be able to get down easily without the Werewhale, he changes orders to have his own army enter the mouth of the Werewhale with the idea that they’d run out to safety before the Werewhale explodes after landing. Deadspring and the soldiers seem doubtful of the plan, but Phigmuffining is undeterred in his final order, “All troops maneuver into this baleened orifice, post haste! Bassoonists play! Play till your reeds break!”
Archaic Child now faces his attempted murderer and his bassoon-only minstrels.
Archaic Child in the Belly of the Whale
Joseph Campbell, a scholar of epic literature, broke down the usual trials of a hero’s journey throughout various epics worldwide. One part of this trial is the “belly of the whale,” which is generally portrayed symbolically rather than literally. It derives from Jonah and the whale from Biblical lore. The hero is separated from his or her known world and would appear to have died to those outside of it. Within the temple of the belly of the whale, the hero awaits renewal or transcendence. In many cases, the hero faces his or her worst fear.
For Archaic Child, the “belly of the whale” is quite literal. It is only here that we know for sure that he had been writing the letter within the mouth of the Werewhale in Act 2. It is here where he faces his attempted murderer. And it is here where he clearly defines that he wants to be the youngest person to ever purposely committed suicide.
Phigmuphining, sitting with his bassoonists inside the whale, observes the object of his invasion, “And what is this? A child with eyes as old as glacial stone. No doubt, Deadspring, either an agog volunteer for our cause or an undigested leftover from werewhale meals past.” Phigmuphining is unaware that he is looking at his assassination target. Likewise, Archaic Child, is unaware he was ever specifically targeted.
The dark comedy continues as Phigmuphining attempts to recruit Archaic Child in their quest to kill the heir of Colobulus. However, the process is not easy. First he inquires if he and the child are on the same page, “Deadspring, what have we here? Come now, terrible tot, are you one of us? Did you wish the death of the unknown heir?” The text reveals another homage to the Terrible Tot of Lübeck, and Archaic Child responds, “Of course, fop.”
As the interview process continues, Phigmuphining asks if he had any feelings for those the Werewhale killed on the Muffin. When he responds in the negative, Phigmuphining rather hypocritically scolds the Child by saying, “Mend your speech a bit, anonymous child, for it is intelligent to love. Know you that. You too, Deadspring. You see, boy, we only wished to kill the heir. The others were merely in the way, and any of them could have been the heir for he was unknown to us. We were merely laboring in our work, so you cannot say that we did not love those we killed.”
Following the scolding, Phigmuphining inquires what Archaic Child wants in life. He responds by saying that he only wants to know everything, and feels that he now does. Phigmuphining makes weak attempts to prove to him that he does not know everything, discussing the wonder of novelties. Archaic Child adds to the discussion, as bored creator of novelties who finds the joy of novelty fleeting:
Archaic Child: […] Everything is a novelty the first time and some are greater than others. And when you’ve seen the best of those you’ve seen it all before. What I never saw, I designed myself, like that Luminatorium you demolished with this werewhale, and other such things that I anonymously devised atop the Muffin.
Phigmuphining: I am sorry.
Archaic Child: No worries, when it was built it had served its purpose that moment and was obsolete the same.
Naturally, for someone as self-absorbed as Phigmuphining, he asks the opinionated prodigy what Child thinks of him, but is told that he is only, “a counterfeit, unserviceable for me. You are doing nothing new.” Phigmuphining, who cannot weep for others, weeps for himself and seeks the comfort of his voiceless and forced friend, “Deadspring, he debases our efforts and near causes me to weep. Ah, I shall still knight thee and make you Keeper of my Seal.”
Archaic Child refuses the future commission. Phigmuphining, similar to what Alexander the Great offered to Diogenes of Sinope, promises Archaic Child that he will grant any request he wants. Whereas, Diogenes asks for Alexander to get out of his sunlight, our young hero seeks only darkness of his own choosing:
Archaic Child: […] Here is my ambition, you shoulder-clapper. I am determined to be the youngest to ever commit suicide by his own design.
Phigmuphining: That is it? I think you waste your talents. Would you not wish to depose me when you’re older? No, better, I shall call you mine own and you shall be mine own unknown heir and child.
Ultimately, Archaic Child reluctantly joins Lord Phigmuphining, if only to get him to stop crying. Overjoyed, the villain promises to knight everyone in the world when he becomes king.
Morte d’Archaic Child
We don’t see Archaic Child again until the enflamed Werewhale lands. Phigmuphining’s army runs out and clashes with the royal armies. Amid the battle, Archaic Child meanders between sword wielding knights and poleaxed soldiers. He spots a blunderbuss, which he decides is his key to escaping mortality, and picks it up.
Meanwhile, the Messenger, the first to ever take notice of the child, will also be the last to see him. He announces that he’s been spotted and runs towards the heir. Archaic Child, staring into the funnel of the Blunderbuss, mentions only that he’s grown too old before most his teeth have grown, and fires the weapon, ensuring that he, like Heineken, would die at the age of four.
The reader or observer would, perhaps, have expected to see a four-year-old saved in the last moment, but Child’s inaugural foreshadowing is too strong for things to be otherwise, and he would not have it otherwise.
Only in the moments between the firing of the blunderbuss and his death, does Archaic Child reach some sort of novel experience, “What—what am I now? What is this turning? Am I losing all I’ve learned here? Leaving my faults for this faulty sphere alone. Alone? I am now. They could never miss me.” Then suddenly, the last face he sees is the face that taught him to read. The Messenger, crying out, “Child!,” is given Archaic Child’s final response, his mind drifting back to his brief schooling, as he tries to spell the only name he’s known, finally finds a reason for tears, “C—H—I …(gasps)….What is wisdom? — Tears (dies).” One wonders what went on in Heineken’s mind as death drew near.
Soon after, the heart of the wrecked Werewhale explodes, killing both armies. The Messenger, “the only one Death forgot,” has miraculously survived unscathed. He collects Archaic Child and, not wishing the birds to eat him, history to know him, his presumed father to find him, or gravediggers to bury him, places him in the remainder of the Werewhale’s “immortal heart” to cradle him in his sleep.
At the end of Act 3, the Messenger returns to the castle, and on learning that the king has died, finds it best to inform the nobles that a “werewhale depopulated the Muffin” and that no child was found. With the king and all heirs dead, discussion moves to succession, ultimately resulting in the crowning of a servant Werewhale through the foresight of the auctioneer. As kingmaker, the auctioneer has returned the Werewhale to a place of prominence once again, thereby opening the possibility of a return by the women who had fled four years before.
It is uncertain whether Archaic Child could enjoy this world, even with renewed procreation possible. The play makes us wonder if Christian Heinrich Heineken’s own mental isolation would have eventually made him as world weary as his offshoot, Archaic Child. Lastly, will the tale of Werewhale’s Infant Scholar ever be put into print? I hope that it will not.
The author of the unfinishable Werewhale play wishes to remain anonymous