In September 1607, Hamlet and Richard II were performed aboard the Red Dragon. The Red Dragon, captained by William Keeling, was an East India Company ship travelling from England to India and the Spice Islands during the third voyage of the East India Company. Apparently, the Red Dragon and the Hector, another ship travelling to the East Indies, were anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone so their crew could recover form a serious bout of scurvy. During their recovery, the captain put his crew on a diet of citrus fruits and allowed performances of Shakespeare’s plays for entertainment. Earlier in September 1607. Hamlet was performed aboard the Red Dragon. Keeling recorded in his diary:
We had the Tragedy of Hamlet: and in the afternoon we went altogether ashore, to see if we could shoot an elephant.
A few weeks later, Shakespeare’s Richard II was performed on board the Red Dragon, and on 3 March 1608, when the ship was anchored off the coast of Yemen the following year, Keeling wrote:
I invited Captain Hawkins to a fish dinner and had Hamlet acted aboard me, which I permit to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.
In Hamlet, drama of another sort occurs on board a ship when Hamlet is taken prisoner by ‘a pirate of very warlike appointment’. In Act 4 Scene 6, Horatio hears that some sailors have arrived at Elsinore with letters for him, and he soon finds out the sailors have been sent to him from Hamlet. Horatio reads of a dangerous encounter on the seas between the pirate and the Danish ship carrying Hamlet to England. No doubt the crew of the Red Dragon would have been equally interested in this encounter as they performed the play while anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607:
God bless you, sir.
Let him bless thee too.
He shall, sir, an’t please Him. There’s a letter for
you, sir. It comes from the ambassador that was
bound for England — if your name be Horatio, as I am
let to know it is.
[Reads the letter]
‘Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this,
give these fellows some means to the King.
They have letters for him. Ere we were two days old
at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us
chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on
a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded
them. On the instant they got clear of our ship; so
I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with
me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they
did: I am to do a good turn for them. Let the king
have the letters I have sent, and repair thou to me
with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I
have words to speak in thine ear will make thee
dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of
the matter. These good fellows will bring thee
where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their
course for England; of them I have much to tell
thee. Farewell. He that thou knowest thine, HAMLET.’
Come, I will make you way for these your letters
And do’t the speedier, that you may direct me
To him from whom you brought them.
(Act 4 Scene 6)
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