November 20, 2017
Hamlet in AfricaOn this day in 1607 Hamlet was performed on board the merchant ship "Red Dragon," anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone. Scholars regard this amateur, one-show-only production by the ship's crew as the first staging of a Shakespearean play outside of Europe, one that predates any New World Hamlet by about 150 years. Even if all went "trippingly on the tongue," it is anyone's guess what sense the bard's most puzzling play could have made to the four local chiefs who attended the premiere -- with filed teeth, nose rings, tattoos in the shape of exotic animals, and no English.
While an odd moment in theatrical and colonial history, it was not unique -- Spanish explorers took theater with them to Mexico, and French Jesuits played to Great Lakes Indians. Still, who would dream of transplanting Shakespeare's doubting Dane, one of the rarest Renaissance flowers, to tropical Africa in 1607, and why?
Scholar Gary Taylor ("Hamlet in Africa 1607," available in the 2001 essay collection, Travel Knowledge) is one of the most recent to try to puzzle this out. He points out that the "Red Dragon" was becalmed for over a month while on its way round the Cape, and that the East India Company thought any such pastimes good for bored men. They were also good for sick men and businessmen: friendly relations with the natives meant that 100,000 scurvy-fighting lemons were taken aboard, as was a quantity of "elephants' teeth."
But, again: Hamlet? It is long, awash in puns and philosophical speculation, even inappropriate: Why remind sailors facing an 85% mortality rate of graveyards? Why parade leaders who are smiling serpents (Claudius), blowhards (Polonius) and power-fools (Fortinbras)? Why, near the start of an unpredictable and interminable voyage into a real "undiscover'd country," even whisper the famous doubts:
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
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