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Drama at Sea: A New Look at Shakespeare on the Dragon, 1607-8

Klein, Bernhard and Barbour, Richmond (2018) Drama at Sea: A New Look at Shakespeare on the Dragon, 1607-8. In: Jowitt, Claire and McInnis, David, eds. Travel and Drama in Early Modern England: The Journeying Play. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 150-168. ISBN 978-1-108-47118-3. (doi:10.1017/9781108557771) (Access to this publication is currently restricted. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:64735)

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The East India Company’s third voyage, 1607-10, has long claimed the attention of critics – not, however, for its historic status as the first English sea voyage to reach India, but for the possibility that its crewmen made the first stagings of Shakespeare outside Europe. References to three shipboard performances of Shakespeare plays in west and east African waters – twice of Hamlet, once of Richard II – appeared in the 19th century in two separate locations, each time offered as verbatim extracts from the long lost logbook of the expedition’s flagship, the Dragon. This unusual conjunction of theatre, travel and maritime initiative has sparked critical debates over the authenticity of the 19th-century references and over the status of these stagings in relation to London’s theatres and Britain’s early imperial endeavours.

Both debates have been sharply revived in two recent critical interventions on these stagings. First, Gary Taylor’s 2001 article in Travel Knowledge (ed. Singh and Kamps) read the shipboard staging of Hamlet as the enabling condition of a precolonial, Anglo-African cultural encounter. Second, Bernice Kliman’s 2011 article in Shakespeare Quarterly offered new evidence in favour of classifying the 19th-century sources as forgeries. Both articles advance sophisticated arguments, but neither is wholly satisfactory or conclusive: Taylor’s imagined shipboard performance of Hamlet misrepresents the maritime context, mistakes the Dragon for the Globe, and invokes questionable 16th-century ethnographic writing to propose African responses to the play; Kliman treats the 17th-century material unconvincingly and cannot finally prove that the 19th-century sources are forged.

The purpose of this essay is to take the debate over “Shakespeare at Sea” in a new direction by revisiting the full range of sources available for the voyage. The six journals by mariners and merchants that survive almost complete, four of them first published by Richmond Barbour in The Third Voyage Journals (2009), show that the question of what constitutes “theatre” in the context of early 17th-century deep sea voyaging can neither be answered by collapsing decks and stages into each other, nor by dismissing some sources as forgeries. Instead the essay will contextualize and historicize the voyage as a whole, exploring the notion of “drama at sea” not only in relation to Shakespeare but more widely in terms of key issues such as theatricality and performance, maritime routine and ritual, corporate discipline, and our own critical practice in studying cross-cultural encounters.

Item Type: Book section
DOI/Identification number: 10.1017/9781108557771
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Bernhard Klein
Date Deposited: 25 Nov 2017 11:28 UTC
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2023 10:47 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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