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Shakespeare at sea

Did it happen?

Dr Laurence Publicover

Dr Laurence Publicover

Senior Lecturer in English

University of Bristol

The evidence surrounding the performance of Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 during the third East India Company voyage is teasingly uncertain. Most of the journal of William Keeling, the voyage's commander, has gone missing (only its first page survives); all we have, then, are two nineteenth-century transcriptions of the relevant parts of that journal (or of some other, intervening text). 

While differing in some minor particulars, potentially due to difficulties in deciphering Keeling's handwriting, or simply due to a lack of care on the part of one or both of the authors, the two transcriptions offer the same basic information: that on September 5, 1607, Lucas Fernandez, an African man who spoke Portuguese, was given breakfast on one East India Company ship, the Hector, before being entertained by a performance of Hamlet aboard a second ship, the Red Dragon. 

The Evidence

The first text recording this episode is an article published in 1825 in the European Magazine and signed 'Ambrose Gunthio', probably a nom de plume. The second is an 1849 account entitled Narrative of Voyages towards the North-West, in Search of a Passage to Cathay and India, 1496–1631, written by an East India Company archivist named Thomas Rundall and published by the Hakluyt Society, of which Rundall was a member. Also with minor variations, both texts record two further performances of Shakespeare during the voyage, though on these occasions without an audience beyond the seafarers themselves: first a staging of Richard II at the end of September 1607, and then a second performance of Hamlet the following March. This final performance, both texts record, Keeling allowed as a means of keeping his men 'from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep'.

These two transcriptions raise a number of difficult and enticing questions.

  • Are they the result of forgery?

  • To what purpose would someone invent these performances?

  • Is the 1849 text dependent on the 1825 text?

  • If so, why are the two texts not identical?

  • If, in one way or another, they record performances that genuinely took place, then why do the other extant journals of the voyage make no reference to them -- and why are the relevant pages of one of those journals also missing?

  • What kind of performances are we talking about?

  • Were the plays abridged?

  • Was the performance of Hamlet translated into Portuguese for Lucas Fernandez?

  • Were the actors officers, or ordinary sailors, or both?

  • What edition of Hamlet would have been used, the shorter 1603 quarto or the longer 1604 quarto?

In the absence of hard evidence, we can only speculate on these questions, filling in gaps with what we do know about Shakespeare-related forgeries, other instances of early modern performances before ambassadors, shipboard cultures, the aims of the East India Company, and the man who supposedly recorded and commanded these performances, William Keeling. 

The Scholars

Perhaps surprisingly, it took some time for Shakespeare scholars to pick up on and think about the 1825 and 1849 texts and the claims they made. In 1898, the eminent scholar Sidney Lee dismissed the entries as being based on a forgery; in 1923, the equally eminent F. S. Boas defended them as genuine. Since then, a number of major Shakespeare scholars have discussed them. The critical history is clearly and elegantly summarised in an essay called 'Drama at Sea: A New Look at Shakespeare on the Dragon', written by Richmond Barbour and Bernhard Klein and published in the 2018 Cambridge University Press collection Travel and Drama in Early Modern England: The Journeying Play, edited by Claire Jowitt and David McInnis. We would direct any interested readers to this excellent piece, which has been foundational to our research towards The Hamlet Voyage, though noting that it – like other pieces to which we link here – sits behind a paywall. 

As well as recounting the history of critics, scholars, and creative writers who have taken an interest in these documents, and in addition to offering their own view that we are likely never to be certain of what did or didn't happen on the Red Dragon, Barbour and Klein situate the possible performances within the context of other forms of diplomatic 'theatre' during the third East India Company voyage. Also extremely helpful for understanding the context for this historical episode is Barbour's book The Third Voyage Journals, which gathers and interprets extant documents that both help us understand why drama might have been performed on this journey and tell a fascinating story in their own right. A recent collection of essays that illuminates why a voyage's commander might have wished his men to put on a play is Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea, whose authors point to the value of shipboard performances in terms of raising morale and strengthening bonds between seafarers – or, as Keeling is supposed to have put it, in keeping them 'from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep'. 

The John Payne Collier Theory

One relatively popular theory worth noting here is that the accounts can be laid at the door of the notorious forger John Payne Collier. This theory, initially advanced by Sidney Lee, has been most fully elaborated by Bernice Kliman in a 2011 article published in the journal Shakespeare Quarterly; it is not, however, generally supported by Collier scholars, and it has been challenged in a more recent essay by Graham Holderness. Perhaps inevitably, Holderness argues, given the slender and enigmatic nature of the evidence, those who have thought about this strange episode in theatre history have brought to it their own concerns (and sometimes prejudices). 

Whatever did or didn't happen, the episode is helpful to think with. For some earlier commentators, the performance of Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone offered an early instance of Shakespeare being taken across the world to help 'civilize' that world; in more recent times, it has been regarded as marking the advent of the 'global' Shakespeare we know today and offered a starting point for considering how Shakespeare's plays have been co-opted into colonial thinking and curricula – and how non-European peoples have reworked and reimagined Shakespeare. Graham Holderness himself, like Rex Obano, author of The Hamlet Voyage, uses the episode as the basis for a work of fiction, while John N. Norris published a poem, 'Hamlet at Sea', in 1985 which envisaged the performance thus: 

'Even the groundlings up in the shrouds
Have it by heart and join in,
Rogues and peasant slaves in chorus.
Ophelia is acted by the ship's boy
To much witty play upon her name.
And the Bosun, being so majestical,
Is the Ghost'
Hamlet at Sea
John N. Norris, 1985

Further Reading

In addition to the works listed and linked to above, readers can find further essays and interventions below (we are once again indebted to the Barbour and Klein essay for this bibliography). Please do email us if there is anything significant we have missed!

Frederick S. Boas, Shakespeare and the Universities, and Other Studies in Elizabethan Drama (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1923), 84–95

G. Blakemore Evans, ‘The Authenticity of Keeling’s Journal Entries on “Hamlet” and “Richard II”’, Notes & Queries 196 (1951), 313–15

Sydney Race, ‘The Authenticity of Keeling’s Journal Entries on “Hamlet” and “Richard II”’, Notes & Queries 196 (1951), 513–15

G. Blakemore Evans, ‘The Authenticity of the Keeling Journal Entries Reasserted’, Notes & Queries 197 (1952), 127–28

E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), vol. II

P. E. H. Hair, ‘Hamlet in an Afro-Portuguese Setting: New Perspectives on Sierra Leone in 1607’, History in Africa 5 (1978), 21–42

Ania Loomba, ‘Shakespearean Transformations’, in Shakespeare and National Culture, ed. John Joughin (Manchester University Press, 1997), 109–41

Gary Taylor, ‘Hamlet in Africa, 1607’, in Travel Knowledge: European ‘Discoveries’ in the Early Modern Period, ed. Ivo Kamps and Jyotsna Singh (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 223–48

Patricia Akhimie, ‘Strange Episode: Race in Stage History’, Shakespeare Bulletin 27, no. 3 (2009), 363–76

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