On 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:
...And thus the native hue of resolution
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.
Of course, such lines were not then famous -- Hamlet was just a few years old, Shakespeare still very much alive. Captain William Keeling was less cultural ambassador than theater enthusiast, one keen on the Bard's recent hit. And he could not have known where the winds would not blow him, or be expected to have his second cooks and first mates in constant rehearsal, ready "either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited." Too, Hamlet must have at times seemed a good choice for a maritime matinee -- Laertes being told that "the wind sits in the shoulder of your sail," Hamlet being rescued by pirates, the desperate Ophelia floating "mermaid-like" for a final moment:
But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Whatever the Captain's motives, or the efforts of a cabin boy-Ophelia and a heroic interpreter, such moments may not have hit the pathos-mark as far as the four local chiefs were concerned. In a 1966 article entitled "Shakespeare in the Bush," the anthropologist Laura Bohannan describes her attempt to tell Hamlet to a group of Tiv elders in present-day Nigeria. The elders were receptive -- becalmed, in this case, by the rainy season and much beer -- but skeptical. They pooh-poohed much that troubled Hamlet, and balked at most of the play's cultural premises -- Chief Claudius was not only right to marry Gertrude but a fool to not marry many more -- and did not think much of a young, female anthropologist's tale-telling:
"Sometime," concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, "you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom."
The tribal elders might have quoted Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."