Shakespeare at sea--cultural 'supercargo'

Richmond Barbour

Four hundred years after the Red Dragon and the Hector left Britain for India, the journals kept by captains and others onboard remain little known and mostly unpublished. Buried in those journals is a wonderful bit of literary history: the first performance of a Shakespeare play outside Europe occurred on one of the ships.

The trip was the third voyage of London’s East India Company, and was remarkable for a number of reasons. It was England’s first to reach India. Its rich returns consolidated the fortunes of the nascent corporation. And, if the surviving transcripts of General William Keeling’s journal are genuine, as most scholars have inferred, his crew staged Hamlet and Richard II on the outbound journey.

“Keeling’s men, doubling as an amateur troupe of traveling players, happened to initiate the global export of the canon that eventually became a major tool in the cultural work of colonization,” said Richmond Barbour, a Research Fellow and associate professor of English at OSU. He is the author of Before Orientalism: London’s Theatre of the East, 1576-1626 (Cambridge UP, 2003).

Five detailed journals of the voyage of the Red Dragon and the Hector are preserved in the British Library. Two of the journals, by the ships’ captains, have been published, though in editions heavily expurgated by an “imperial enthusiast.” The remaining three, said Barbour, are more thorough in important ways and far more frank about the conflicts and traumas of the expedition.
In his Center research project, “The Third Voyage: The East India Company Journals, 1607-10,” Barbour intends to include the diaries, Company minutes and correspondence, notes, and an extensive introduction to “illuminate this critical expedition as never before. . . . The Third Voyage stage productions raise important questions about communal dynamics at sea, and the relations between theaters and ships, recreation and labor, cultural artifacts and material history.”

Barbour examined the journals while researching a different project at the British Library. “I became convinced that publishing them rather than transcribing them for personal use would do a service to other scholars and make for a compelling book. These journals are far richer in details and often more revealing about the impasses, breakdowns, and human costs of the journey than the texts available in print.”

In 1600, England was a tiny, marginal power attempting, boldly yet belatedly, to state a seaborne claim to the immensely lucrative trading networks in the East that more robust European rivals presumed theirs.

“The journals survive because the London merchants urgently needed information about routes, peoples, and markets there. While they illuminate the circumstances of Shakespeare’s production by an amateur troupe of traveling players, the documents disclose a comprehensive spectacle of disciplined resolve, blundering, confusion, tragic loss, resourceful adaptation, and in London, irresistible profits.”
As London’s increasing traffic with the exotic “East” excited the imagination of poets and playwrights, the economic and cultural contradictions of this expedition elaborated those of a nation poised to turn an insular mythos of exceptionalism into a motive for imperial striving, what another scholar has described as “this British transition from marginality to global power.”

“The Third Voyage marks a pivotal advance in the transition, and Shakespeare’s inclusion offers some leverage on the question of how the English came to think, and act, big.” Further, the inclusion of Shakespeare “frames the voyage as an intriguing test of the cultural materialist premise that art and literature do not merely reflect, they also help to produce, history.”