Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Strange Episodes: Race in Stage History

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Strange Episodes: Race in Stage History

Article excerpt


Sept 4 Towards night, the kinges interpreter came, and brought me a letter from the Portingall, wher in (like the faction) he offered me all kindly services. The bearer is a man of marvailous redie witt and speakes in eloquent Portugues. He layt abord me.

Sept 5 I sent the interpreter, according to his desire, abord the Hector, whear he brooke fast, and after came abord mee, where we gave the tragedie of Hamlett. (1)

("Keeling's Journal," Hair 1981, 34)

To begin with this particular epigraph, an entry from the journal of Admiral William Keeling, a seasoned East India Company man, is to rehearse a rather indelicate editorial act. I might have begun by situating the journal entries as those of the chosen General of the East India Company's third voyage. I might have further noted that the Company's objectives on this third voyage involved locating a market for English woolens somewhere beyond the Cape of Good Hope--on the Arabian sea or perhaps Socotra, Aden, or Surat (Keay 73-4). Eventually, though, I would be obliged to point out that the highlight of Keeling's official account of the voyage is set not in the East Indies, but in West Africa, Sierra Leone, where the fleet spent some thirty-eight days awaiting the recovery of sailors afflicted with scurvy and negotiating with Portuguese-speaking Africans for fresh victuals. Even without such exposition the passage seems to speak for itself: "Hamlet!" it says, "Shakespeare!" "Africa!" In effect, the editorial decision to flame Keeling's nonchalant account--another day, another performance of Shakespeare--produces a show-stopper. Literary critics, historians, and cultural theorists alike have summoned up this ghost that, for all its suggestive potency, implies more about the summoner than about anything else.

In the course of this essay I examine a good deal of the textual history of the first recorded performance of"the tragedie of Hamlett," staged aboard a ship anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607. In the case of the Hamlet 1607 performance, an episode in Shakespearean stage history that remains largely unsubstantiated, it is the editors of the extant records who have become, time and again, engaged in the cross-racial casting of this ephemeral and possibly apocryphal production. As I will show, the editorial and interpretive work that produces stage history may also usurp the role of actors and audiences in authorizing representations of race.

In suggesting that both actors and audiences participate in cross-racial casting I employ Antonia Nakano Glenn's definition of casting as "an ongoing communal process of authorizing representation," a process that entails "setting forth expectations of 'type' and judging the fulfillment of those expectations" (414). (2) The highly evocative, visual vocabulary of stage history is a racially coded one, capable of "casting" actors and audiences of past performances. Scholars and editors are thus not just the chroniclers but also the agents of ideological change. Their approaches to textual transmission and description may go beyond interpretation, foreclosing meaning by suggesting the social uses of past performances as fixed. More than a review of the modes and methodologies of textual scholarship, this essay represents an attempt to identify an ethics of critical reporting.

I begin with a reading of the critical prose of those scholars who have alternately buried and revived the account of a 1607 performance of Hamlet in Africa. I then recontextualize the purported "strangeness" of the event by reading it alongside a body of travel writing that features performance-as-diplomacy in episodes of encounter. Finally, I offer some strategies for evaluating the role of stage history in the production of race as static and monolithic.

Strange Episodes

Almost invariably, the Hamlet 1607 account is introduced in terms of its peculiarity, rarity, absurdity, or all of the above. …

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