This site will look MUCH better in an updated browser that supports web standards, but its content is fully accessible to any browser or Internet device. Use the Site Map to navigate.

« Page 3 of 3: 1 | 2

Hamlet in Africa 1607

What did Hamlet mean to the English?

The crew of the Red Dragon performed two plays, Hamlet and Richard II; both plays are preoccupied with sovereignty, political legitimacy, and the administration of justice. Captain Keeling carried with him a commission from King James himself, which did "hereby straitly charge and command all and every person and persons employed, used or shipped in this voyage in any of the said ships to give all due obedience and respect unto you during the said voyage." Keeling was authorized "to chastise, correct and punish all offenders and transgressors in that behalf according to the quality of their offences ... And for capital offences, as for willful murder (which is hateful in the sight of God) or mutiny (which is one offence that may tend to the overthrow of the said voyage) ... We do hereby give unto you the said William Keeling during an the time of the said voyage or during so long time as you shall live in the same, full power and authority to use and put in execution our law called martial law in that behalf." [93] A ship at sea is a little kingdom, and Keeling was its king; indeed, the leader of a previous English voyage to Sera Lyoa, in 1582, was repeatedly (sarcastically) called "our little king." [94] Keeling's commission from the East India Company expected him, "having procured him sufficient authority from our sovereign lord the king's majesty for that purpose," to "so behave himself, as he may be both feared and loved." [95] Fear and love are, of course, the two prerequisites of political authority, recognized by Machiavelli among many others.

The maintenance of authority was, for Keeling and his fellow officers and merchants, not simply a theoretical problem, or a legal fiction; it was a practical reality of long voyages, including this one. On October 28, Captain Hawkins recorded that Keeling came to speak with him: "the reason was for that we were then drawing into a colder climate, which would prejudice [the health of our men, if provision of warm clothes were not made for] them, whereof some of his men had already complained." On December 17, Hawkins recorded the men's "discontent for not putting in there [at Saldania Bay], and by the scanting of our allowance which our small spare of water would enforce us to be so cast down, as it might work the utter overthrow of the voyage." [96] A ship at sea is, as writers from Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad and William Golding have recognized, a microcosm of human society; a play, too, is a microcosm of human society, and the two microcosms intersected, perhaps very powerfully, in what we might call the Red Dragon Hamlet.

After all, Hamlet has sailors in its dramatis personae and a sea voyage in its plot -- indeed, several sea voyages. The Danish ambassadors to Norway go and return by sea, Laertes travels by ship to Paris, the Norwegian army led by Fortinbras must cross the Baltic Sea to attack Poland, Hamlet travels by sea with pirates, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue by sea to England, and the English ambassadors return by sea to Denmark; at the end of the play, the stage is dominated by Fortinbras, his soldiers, and the ambassadors from England, who have all traveled here by sea. When someone says "Hamlet" in the twenty-first century, sea voyages are probably not the elements of the play that immediately come to mind. But they are obviously elements of the play that would have seemed particularly interesting to the crew and cast of 1607. And 1 can't say that the cast and crew of 1607 was wrong. The play's language-including some of its most famous lines-repeatedly encourages such preoccupations. Not just "to take arms against a sea of troubles" or "That undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveler returns," but also the "impress of shipwrights" and "the moist star, Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands." And on and on: "My necessaries are inbarqued ... as the winds give benefit and convoy is assistant" ... "the wind sits in the shoulder of your sail" . . . a cliff "looks so many fathoms to the sea and hears it roar beneath ... the fat weed That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf" ... "your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth" ... "with windlasses . . . by indirections find directions out" ... "I'll board him presently" ... "I am but mad Northnorthwest; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw" ... "enterprises of great pitch and moment, with this regard their currents turn awry" ... "Haply the seas, and countries different, with variable objects in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion" ... "Neptune's salt wash" ... "If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones" ... "I lay worse than the mutines in the bilbo" . . . " mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is the mightier" ... "but yaw neither in respect of his quick sail." Ophelia, of course, dies by drowning, after floating awhile Mermaid-like," and the gravediggers argue "here lies the water, good, here stands the man, good, "----surely you can imagine a sailor/actor on a deck/stage, in 1607, speaking these lines-"if the man go to this water and drown himself, it is willy nilly, he goes, mark you that, but if the water come to him, and drown him, he drowns not himself." One of their shipmates had, only a few days before, done exactly that: gone to this water and drowned himself.

I don't mean to imply that Shakespeare wrote this play with a shipboard performance on his mind. But it is worth reminding ourselves that London was, in Shakespeare's lifetime, a major international port city, and that ocean-going ships sailed up the Thames to within sight of the Globe theatre. Britain until recently could only be reached by sea, and could only exert an influence on the rest of the world by sea. The summer of 1607, when Hamlet was performed in Africa, is also the summer when the English founded, at Jamestown, their first permanent colony in America. In Shakespeare's lifetime, English national identity was being defined by the circumnavigations of Drake and Cavendish (who both stopped in Sera Lyoa), by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, by the voyages of the East India Company.

It was also being defined by an increasingly complicated relationship to Europe, a relationship always mediated by the sea. In the sixteenth century, English political and religious life was dominated by a struggle between competing European influences (Catholic Rome, Protestant Germany). Hamlet and Horatio were students together at Wittenberg, a university most famously associated with Martin Luther. Indeed, Hamlet is Shakespeare's most European play; it is saturated with references to "this side of our known world." Set in Denmark, it is based upon a Viking saga, written down in the twelfth century by Saxo Grammaticus, first published in Paris in 1514; that Latin original was translated into French by Francois de Belleforest in 1570; Shakespeare's play derives, directly or indirectly, from that French translation. And Shakespeare's Denmark is conspicuously allied to France: Laertes begs permission to "return to France," Polonius sends a servant named "Reynaldo" to visit Laertes in Paris, Claudius describes the visit to his court of "a gentleman of Normandy," the king bets "six French rapiers" that Hamlet will win the wager, and Hamlet imagines himself wearing shoes adorned with "Provencal roses."

When Keeling's expedition carried Hamlet in its cargo, it was not bringing along a play by Shakespeare, or even an English play; it was bringing along a European play, a play that, literally and symbolically, represents Europe. In the first scene, Denmark and Norway stand on the brink of war; later, Denmark aids Norway in its attack on Poland; Hamlet is shipped to England, which owes tribute to Denmark. Claudius is guarded by "Switzers," and "The Mousetrap" is "the image of a murder done in Vienna"; "the story is extant, and written in very choice Italian" (and probably based on the murder of the Duke of Urbino in 1538). The characters' names mix Danish (Rosencrantz, Guildenstern), Latin (Claudius, Horatio, Marcellus), Italian (Barnardo, Francisco), and Greek (Laertes, Ophelia). They speak of Julius Caesar and Aeneas and "when Roscius was an actor in Rome," of Mount Olympus, Alexander the Great, the siege of Troy. They drink wine from Germany and swear "by St. Patrick" of Ireland.

The Europe that Hamlet represents was racially prejudiced. [97] Hamlet expects the devil to "wear black," and Laertes invokes "the blackest devil." Hamlet describes the intentions of a murderer as "thoughts black," and imagines the soul of Claudius "as damned and black as hell"; Claudius agrees, describing his own sinful heart as a "bosom black as death." Hamlet says that his own evil "imaginations are as foul as Vulcan's stithy"-that is, they resemble a blacksmith whose face has been darkened by soot and smoke. (Blacksmiths were, by contrast, among the most revered figures in West African society.) [98] Contrasting his mother's first husband with her second, Hamlet describes the detestable second husband as a "Moore," which at the very least puns on the word for Muslim, blackamore, negro. Most importantly, the violent murderer Pyrrhus, in the player's speech, is as black as the Africans in that 1607 audience: his "sable arms, Black as his purpose, did the night resemble." You may think this simply means he wore a suit of black armor, but Hamlet specifies that Pyrrhus has a "black complexion" which has been "smeared" with blood. Whether or not Homer testifies to the presence of African warriors at the siege of Troy, Shakespeare imagined one. And the one he imagined is a figure of inhuman savagery.

Shakespeare scholars until recently have paid almost no attention to the prejudices implicit in such language. As a teacher at the University of Alabama, where one-sixth of our undergraduates are African-American, I cannot help but be embarrassed by such images, because I read them now through the eyes of my black students. And I read them, too, through the ears of those four Africans attending Hamlet in 1607. Of course, none of them spoke English; they heard the play's language mediated through a running translation into Portuguese, and perhaps another running translation into Temne, the local African language. [99] This was, indeed, probably the first translation of the play into any language, and certainly the first into Portuguese (by more than two centuries). [100] One can only hope that the translator discretely omitted the more offensive phrases in Shakespeare's text. [101]

But the issue of color raises a much more general issue:

What did Hamlet mean to its African audience?

In a famous essay called "Shakespeare in the Bush," published in 1966, the American anthropologist Laura Bohannan described her attempt to ten the story of Hamlet to a group of Tiv tribesmen in what is now Nigeria. They repeatedly objected to her account, certain that she must have got the story wrong, because some of the details simply did not make sense the way she told it, and the details that did make sense to them, made a sense that would have been incomprehensible to an early modern Englishmen-for the Tiv interpreted the story in terms of their own very unEuropean customs, which naturally they believed to be universally valid, because "people are the same everywhere. [102]

There was no anthropologist on board the Red Dragon to record the reactions of that first African audience, and we cannot simply project the beliefs of the Tiv elders in 1966 onto Temne spectators in 1607: the cultures of Africa are multiplied across space and time. Nevertheless, we do know something from early accounts of the people of Sera Lyoa about their customs and beliefs. They would have understood king-poisoning, a king's fondness for wine, a son carrying an image of his dead father and extravagantly mourning him, the importance of a king's counsellors, the outrage over scanted funeral ceremonies for a nobleman, kneeling to show deference to a sovereign, and the complex relationships of war, alliance, and tribute among neighboring states. [103] Spectators with a history of ritual political cannibalism no doubt relished the wit of Hamlet's famous line about the whereabouts of the dead Polonius: "not where he eats, but where he is eaten."

But other local customs fundamentally departed from the customs prevailing in Shakespeare's play. Most significantly, the African spectators would have found the position of Claudius, at the outset of the play, perfectly comprehensible: "Sons do not inherit but the brother, and from the brother the nephew, the son of the original owner of the inheritance." [104] Indeed, this had just happened in the spectators' own kingdom, which had passed from Farim Xere to his brother Sacena, then to Xere's son (Sacena's nephew), Farim Buré. [105] In Sera Lyoa, Claudius would have been the proper legal heir after the death of his brother Hamlet Senior; Hamlet junior would have had no reason to complain that Claudius had "popped in between th'election and my hopes," or to describe him as a "cutpurse of the empire and the realm." All Hamlet junior had to do was wait patiently for Claudius to die, for he would automatically inherit the kingdom from his paternal uncle. Unlike innumerable English critics, the Temne would not have been puzzled by Hamlet's "delay," but by his senseless impatience.

Other aspects of the play would have been equally confusing. The Temne believed in an afterlife, but not in hell; they ritually secluded young women that European observers often called "nuns," but "get thee to a nunnery" would have meant "go to a place where you will be initiated into womanhood by being taught various sexual practices, and undergoing clitorectomy"; what Hamlet expresses by wearing black they would have conveyed by shaving their heads; they would have found nothing incongruous about Claudius drinking rowdily so soon after his brother's death, because they commemorated their own dead with "great parties" featuring "eating and drinking- excessively," making so much noise that "for the spice of eight days no one can sleep by night or day." [106]

And what would they have made of English sexual customs? "The men do not worry much if their wives go to others for pleasure, for when they are found to have committed adultery they have to pay with money. [107] So a Portuguese observer recorded sometime between 1506 and 1510; in 1582 these attitudes were still in place, according to an English report: "If a man be taken in adultery, having a wife, he shall fine [=pay a fine] for it; but she shall go free, because he (said they) might have had enough of fleshly appetite with his wife, but the woman not of one man." [108] In 1616 Alvares reported that Temne men regularly acted as panders for their own wives and daughters. [109] So much for Hamlet Senior's obsession with Gertrude's adultery, and Hamlet junior's disgust with female sexuality generally: the Temne did not expect sexual fidelity from women and would have found the outrage of Shakespeare's men strange, or perhaps even ridiculous. But although Gertrude's adultery should not have surprised them, her presence would have been puzzling for other reasons: in their culture, "when the king dieth, his concubines or wives shall be put to death with him." [110] Gertrude, the dead king's wife, should not be alive to remarry.

Hamlet's experience is only universal if you make the assumptions that Shakespeare made. And Shakespeare's African spectators, in 1607, would not necessarily have granted all his assumptions.

Actually, it occurs to me, there was an anthropologist on board the Red Dragon, that September 5. But the anthropologist was not white. These English seem to have learned, or cared, little about Sera Lyoa customs and beliefs. After all, Shakespeare treats Danes as though they were just Englishmen with odd names; he does not recognize the existence of a Danish culture significantly and legitimately different from English culture. ("All the world's a stage, And all the men and women ... Englishmen.") No, the astute and respectful observer, comparing an alien culture to the multiplicity of possible human worlds — Mandi, Temne, Cape Verde, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English — was not a Westerner voyaging to the uttermost ends of the earth: the ethnographer was "the negro, Lucas Fernandez."

A cynic might object that my respect for Fernandez, like the respect he earned from his English visitors, simply and chauvinistically reflects the fact that he spoke a European language, and therefore had become Europeanized, "one of us," the victim of "linguistic imperialism"-as though a language were some sort of cookie cutter, imposing its fixed shape upon an unyielding mass of dough. But languages do not teach themselves, and those who learn them are agents, individuals intelligently mastering obstacles in order to increase their own linguistic capability and authority, and in the process reshaping and adapting the discourse they appropriate. [111] By learning Portuguese, or other languages, he was not replacing his Tenme mother tongue, but supplementing it; like Englishmen who knew both English and Latin, Fernandez knew both Tenme and Portuguese (and probably other languages); he was bilingual, and he helped contribute to the development of the modern Luso-African Crioulo language born of both tongues. Bilingualism gave Fernandez and his people an advantage over their European trading partners-whom they regarded not as oppressors, but suckers. "The natives ... regularly and commonly say that the whites are like flies: despite the danger of falling in, they are always attracted by honey." [112] In the end, we can only conjecture what that performance of Hamlet, in the summer of 1607 on a ship anchored in a bay off the coast of Africa, meant to its audience. But we can answer, for ourselves,

What does that long-ago performance of Hamlet mean to us now?

In 1607 there were no European forts in this part of Africa; Sera Lyoa was not a colony; it was not suffering from an economic monopoly imposed by military force. As modern historians have observed, in this part of Western Africa in "the seventeenth century ... commerce was relatively free and differentiated." [113] That balance, as we know, would not last. Portuguese racial tolerance was replaced by Spanish color prejudice, after the union of the two Iberian monarchies in 1580; after 1630 a new long cycle of drought debilitated indigenous agriculture; increasingly African elites paid for prestige commodities by selling their own people into New World slavery. [114] But all that was in the future, a future made by people other than William Keeling and Lucas Fernandez. Keeling and Fernandez did business together. Both peoples profited from the encounter.

And some of them learned from each other. Not all of them, of course. One striking feature of this encounter is the fact that we can witness it from so many individual perspectives. The slave-merchant Captain John Hawkins, after his own experience of Sierra Leone, comprehensively reviled "the Negro (in which nation is seldom or never found truth." [115] One of the merchants on Keeling's ship recorded in his journal that "This people are very lusty men, strong and well-limbed, and a good people and true; they will not steal as others of their color will do in other places." Prejudice here runs up against experience, and though the prejudice does not entirely yield, it admits exceptions. Indeed, the English journals express, if anything, more prejudice against Catholic Europeans than against the African infidels. "And in all that time of our being here we had no injury offered to any of our people: but all the kindness that might be expected"-l wish he had stopped here, but he didn't: "all the kindness that might be expected at the hands of such a black heathen nation." [116] But even that last belated reflex spasm of bigotry is itself a testimony to the overcoming of prejudice: the point of the sentence, a point which its distorted syntax cannot conceal, is that the Englishman did not expect any kindness from "such a black heathen nation," and what he got instead was "all the kindness that might be expected" of any civilized people.

And the English reciprocated. Whether or not the African spectators understood Hamlet in the way that Shakespeare or Keeling's actors intended, they surely understood one thing: that the English were inviting them to join in that community formed by actors and their audience. "We gave the tragedy of Hamlet." The English were offering Hamlet as a gift to their guests. And their guests, in turn, were "giving an audience," giving the English an opportunity and excuse to perform. Noticeably, the three recorded performances of plays on this voyage all took place when there were guests on board: someone from shore or someone from another ship. The purpose of such visits, as Keeling recorded in another journal, was "to increase affection." [117] So both sides, African and European, black and white, were getting something, and giving something. Something voluntary and superfluous, something that did no harm, something meant to cause pleasure, something translated from one people to another. "Over all this the Master of the Dragon presides." [118]

What better epitome for this moment of civilized multicultural exchange than Hamlet? And what did these civilized men do after they had celebrated and internalized Shakespeare's most famous play, after their self-consciousness had, as Harold Bloom declares, come to "identify with Hamlet"? They went out in the woods "all together" and bonded, as men will, by brutally and mortally wounding, without provocation, a magnificent, intelligent, wild animal. What better after-piece for a play that ends, "Go, bid the soldiers shoot"?

«Return to: Page 1 | Page 2

[93] Register of Letters, 112-13.

[94] Madox refers in Latin to Captain Fenton, the "general" of the expedition, as "our little king" (Diary, 168,169,172,174).

[95] Register of Letters, 115.

[96] Hawkins' Voyages, 372, 374.

[97] See, for instance, Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (London: Oxford University Press ["on behalf of... the University College of Sierra Leone"], 1965); Winthrop P. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

[98] Brooks, Landlords and Strangers, 33-46.

[99] Generally, in dealing with Europeans the Africans who understood Portuguese would "then explain to the others what they have heard": see Hair, "Barreria ... 23.2.1606," 95. However, all the African spectators may have understood Portuguese; Alvares notes that "Some of them, such as the nobles and those who have been brought up among our people, understand Portuguese, and these listen without saying anything" in order to deceive the whites, who think the Africans don't understand what they are saying (Ethiopia Minor f. 56v, ch. 2, p. 8). Farim Buré for instance, understood Portuguese, although he apparently allowed the English to assume that he did not-perhaps because local sovereigns preferred to speak through intermediaries (Almada, Sierra Leone, ch. 18, par. 4).

[100] Otherwise, the first recognized translation of Hamlet into Portuguese was Oliveira Silva's text for a performance in Brazil by Joao Caetano in 1835; the first translation published in Portugal itself was by Dom Luis (king of Portugal) in 1877. See Eugenio Gomes, Shakespeare no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Ministry of Education and Culture, 1961). My thanks to Michael Warren for this reference.

[101] Alvares (f. 54-54v) notes that "the language most commonly used today is the native Temne language," which differs from European languages in its treatment of plurals and tenses; he also complains that "native interpreters ... never express what they are translating sufficiently exactly. Furthermore, even the best interpreters here ... are ignorant concerning the figures of speech, especially metaphors" (ch. 2, pp. 3-4). Although Ternne is as capable of metaphor as any other language, the metaphors of Christian belief (with which the missionary Alvares was chiefly concerned) would certainly have been confusing to non-Christians', and in general the metaphors that seem "natural" in one culture often seem bizarre in another.

[102] Laura Bohannan, "Shakespeare in the Bush," Natural History, 75 (1966), 28-33.

[103] Alvares, Ethiopia Minor: poisoning, f. 55 (ch. 2, p. 4),56v (2,8); wine, f. 57 (2,10); images of dead parents, f. 64 (5,6); son mourning father, f. 72v (8,5); the king's counsellors, f. 58-58v (3,2); elaborate funerals, f. 68-68v, 73-73v (6,3-4; 8,7-8); kneeling, f. 61v (4,2-3). For an overview of their complex inter-state politics, see Brooks, Landlords and Strangers, 299-305. All these practices are amply documented, and sometimes more clearly explained, in other contemporary sources; I cite Alvares only because he was present in the estuary at the same time as the English.

[104] Valentim. Fernandes, Description de la Côte Occidentale d' Afrique, ed. Th. Monod, A. Teixeira da Mota, R. Manny (Bissao: Centro de Estudos da Guine Portuguesa, 1951), 81-97; excerpts translated in Christopher Fyfe, Sierra Leone Inheritance (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 28. This practice, recorded at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was still in place after the Mane invasions, in 1582: "if the king die, leaving his sons under years of discretion to govern, then he appointeth the eldest of his kindred to be his protector, who shall govern the kingdom; but if the king's son during this protector's life come to his years, yet he, the protector,, will be king during his own life" (August 22, in Madox, Diary, 308). Alvares, early in the seventeenth century, makes the same observation repeatedly: ff. 58, 68v, 89v (3, 1; 6, 4; 15, 5-6).

[105] Alvares, Ethiopia Minor, f. 89v (ch. 15, pp. 5-6); Almada, Brief Treatise, 15:1 (and note), 18:12 (and note)

[106] Alvares, Ethiopia Minor: afterlife, ff. 63, 67 (5, 1; 6, 1); "nuns, " ff. 66, 69v-70 (5,11; 7,2-4); funerals, 73-73v (8,7-8). On funeral parties, see also Fernandes, ff. 132, 132v; Donelha, Sierra Leone, 118; Almada, BriefTreatise, 15, 6.

[107] Fernandes, trans. Fyfe, 28.

[108] Madox, Diary, 307 (transcript of John Walker's diary).

[109] Alvares, Ethiopia Minor, ff. 62v, 7 1 v (4,4; 8,4); see also, Almada, BriefTreatise, ch. 14, par. 5. Virtually all observers report the Tenme practice of hosts offering male guests the use of one of their wives.

[110] Madox, Diary, 307; Alvares, Ethiopia Minor, ff. 72v, 73v (8,6; 8,8-9); Donelha, Sierra Leone, f. 15 (p. 117). Widely reported in early sources.

[111] See Janine Brutt-Griffler, English as an International Language: Historical, Linguistic, and Pedagogical Dimensions, Bilingual Editions and Bilingualism (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2001), ch. 4.

[112] Alvares, Ethiopia Minor, f. 78v (10,8).

[113] Boulegue and Suret-Canale, History of West Africa, 1, 509.

[114] Brooks, Landlords and Strangers, 57, 183-88, 318-19.

[115] P. E. H. Hair, "Protestants as Pirates, Slavers, and Proto-missionaries: Sierra Leone 1568 and 1582," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 21 (1970): 215.

[116] Hearne and Finch, f. 10v (Hair, English, 42-3).

[117] Strachan and Penrose, Keeling and Bonner, 59 (February 21, 1617). Keeling's 1617 journal records dozens of such social visits between ships (35, 59, 61, 69, 71, 72, 74, 77, 87, 89, 94, 104, 108, 109, 110, 116, 118, 1'33, 134, 135, 144, 150, 151, 158, 161, 165). No play performances are recorded-perhaps because the London office did not approve of Keeling's 1607 experiment.

[118] John N. Morris, "Hamlet at Sea," in A Schedule of Benefits (New York: Athenaeum, 1987). My thanks to Peter Holland for calling this poem to my attention. As poets are permitted to do, Morris gets many of the facts wrong.

Alabama English HomeUA Home Page
A&S Home
 courses faculty undergraduate graduate links