On 5 September 1607 Hamlet was played on the deck of the English ship Dragon somewhere off the coast of Sierra Leone.
The audience included a number of local African notables who were provided with a running commentary in Portugese the lingua franca of the Guinea coast. Hamlet was also performed a second time, as well as one performance of Richard ii.
The Dragon was an East India company ship commanded by William Keeling. This was the third voyage of the Dragon. The intention was that the ship would sail for Indai but the ship failed to reach Aden.
Keeling later went on to the Moluccas.
This could be interpreted as evidence, if any more was needed, of Shakespeare’s superstar status as a playwright in the early Jacobean. Actually, the story is a little more prosaic. The Dragon had put in for repairs having become separated from the other East India company ships in the fleet.
The performance was organised by the master, who must have been some sort of Shakespeare nut to have the scripts of Hamlet and Richard II to hand, to distract the crew and stop them engaging in other less salubrious acts.
Under the circumstances, he could just as well have chosen the work of another less well known Jacobean playwright. And of course it wasn’t about culture, it was to keep the crew busy.
What it does speak of is the degree to which theatre had entered popular consciousness – the fact that Keeling could get his crew to perform a play shows a degree of buy-in on their part. It also shows how horizons had expanded over the previous fifty years.
When Henry VIII died England was still a very provincial place where people lived in houses of wood and daub, and where there was no real engagement with the outside world other than the Flemish wool trade. The Spanish and Portugese voyages of discovery had made little or no impact. In fact it could be argued that Renaissance court of James IV of Scotland fifty years earlier was much more in the spirit of the Renaissance than Henry’s court.
Fast forward fifty years and one sees a massive expansion of horizons with the East India company sailing to Surat, black people living in London, and the beginnings of global trade …
[update 01 January 2017]
Shakespeare (and other English dramatists) were a little more widespread than I realised – on the back of trading links companies of players traveled to the various Hanseatic ports of northern Europe to play and perform, sometimes in English, sometimes in German prose translations, something that has given us the Gdansk Shakespeare theatre of today.
I guess the parallel would more have been with these small student companies that sometimes pitch up in unlikely places than a more formal tour …
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