Bard on Board

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 one of Elizabethan England’s most puzzling plays, its hero one of the rarest of Renaissance flowers, could have made to the four local chiefs who attended the equatorial premiere — with filed teeth, nose rings, tattoos in the shape of exotic animals, and no English.

Scholar Gary Taylor points out (“Hamlet in Africa 1607,” available in the 2001 essay collection, Travel Knowledge) 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 and sea-trading men: friendly relations with the natives meant that 100,000 scurvy-fighting lemons were taken aboard, as was a quantity of “elephants’ teeth.”

In a 1966 article entitled “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the anthropologist Laura Bohannan describes her similar attempt to tell Hamlet to a group of Tiv elders in Nigeria. The elders were receptive — becalmed, in this case, by the rainy season and much beer — but skeptical. They pooh-poohed the Prince’s troubles, balked at many of the play’s cultural premises, and tossed aside most of the hallowed interpretations:

“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.”

__ On the Road was published on this day in 1957. Kerouac enjoyed Shakespeare, and was particularly fond of Hamlet. He once recorded passages from the famous soliloquies, and entries in his writing journal show that he not only identified with the melancholy-mad Prince but saw him in his novel:

My life is like a river of meditations. I sit motionless for an hour straight, wandering through my mind as one picking berries and packing them in proper boxes, all for ‘later consumption’ of some kind…. And all for what? What is knowledge? — What is knowledge?… To stop wasting time! — To write and write! — Go out with more women! — Meet more people! — Walk the streets at night! — Eat … see … dream … go to excesses … never mind the sad, dull restraints…. (Came to some conclusions thereby about Moultrie [Dean Moriarty] in On the Road; imagine a hitch-hiking, penniless, mystical Hamlet.)