Monday, 12 December 2016

Shakespeare at sea: the ship's concert 1

The ship's concert tradition goes back a long way, although in Shakespeare's plays sea voyages tend to be stormy and perilous, reflecting the reality for those wind-driven ships.

"Thou God of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell;
……O! still
Thy deafening, dreadful thunders…"  Pericles, Act III

So Gertrude the Queen describes Prince Hamlet as:
 "Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier."   Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act IV

The first recorded performance of Hamlet took place at sea in 1607, on board the East India Company ship, the Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone.


Woodcut of The Red Dragon c. 1595
(from the Dutch E. India Company archives, 1645-6)

The sailor audience would be keenly aware of the risks when Laertes is urged aboard by Polonius -
"The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, and you are stayed for" - and later Hamlet too is  hastened on his sea voyage by Claudius, the king:

"The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
The associates ready and everything is bent for England!"

When Hamlet, safely back on land in Denmark, describes his narrow escape and rescue by pirates, did the sailors cheer and exchange anecdotes?
"…a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour;  in the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner…."

The Red Dragon began life in 1595 as the Earl of Cumberland's flagship,  a 38 gun 'privateer' ship, for raiding on the Spanish Main, and was given its name The Scourge of Malice by Queen Elizabeth I.  

In 1601 it was sold to the newly formed East India Company, renamed the Red Dragon and sailed for the Indian Ocean under the command of James Lancaster.



Sir James Lancaster c. 1600: (the ship may be one he captained in the Armada 1588) 
  © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Red Dragon's third East India Company voyage was captained by William Keeling, and it is surviving accounts from him and his sailors which record the plays performed.

Later in the voyage, the entertainment was Shakespeare's Richard II, but even this tale of English wars and treachery two hundred years before would have extra meaning for sailors, far from home on a round trip voyage which would last two to three years.  As the play opens, Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk are banished and sent into years of exile:

"Must I not serve a long apprenticehood
To foreign passages, and in the end,
Having my freedom, boast of nothing else
But that I was a journeyman to grief?"        Richard II, Act I

King Richard himself, returning from Ireland, marks the moment of landing in Wales:

Aumerle: "How brooks your Grace the air,
After your late tossing on the breaking seas?
Richard:   " I weep for joy to stand upon my kingdom once again.
Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand."               Act III


King Richard II with his patron saints,  The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395-9
© National Gallery, London

 This folding devotional panel painting  was probably King Richard's personal portable altarpiece.  It has his emblems on the exterior side and the angels also are wearing his white hart device, and would have been taken on campaigns, such as his trip to Ireland.

And John of Gaunt's speech in Act II of the play might mean as much to the homesick sailors in the Red Dragon, sailing on distant oceans:

"……this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
…...
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,  
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune,……"


Detail from the National Gallery's Wilton Diptych, showing a castle on an island, discovered during conservation in 1992


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