During Shakespeare’s lifetime exploration by ship was a huge endeavor. Not just in England, but all across the world countries like Spain, the Netherlands, and many many others were all in an international race against one another to explore, find, and claim new lands for their home countries. 

This exploration was done by ship, and the sailors on those journeys often spent months on the ocean. While it only makes sense to think they did something for entertainment during those long travels, there is surprisingly little in the way of information about exactly what sailors, crew, and passengers used for fun. 

One surprising and long debated entry in an Elizabethan maritime logbook indicates one way they have passed the time, is by performing plays.

In 1607 Captain William Keeling of the Easy India Company ship, Red Dragon, was on a voyage to the Spice Islands when he wrote an entry into his logbook about what the sailors did to pass the time while they were anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone while waiting out an outbreak of scurvy. 


The entry reads, 

We had the Tragedy of Hamlet: and in the afternoon we went altogether ashore, to see if we could shoot an elephant.

Keeling records another Shakespeare play, Richard II, being performed later that same month just a few weeks later, and making the logbook even more tantalizing for Shakespeare scholars is yet a third entry the following year, in March of 1608, when Keeling records a repeat performance of Hamlet while the ship was anchored off the coast of Yemen. 

That entry reads, 

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.


Copyright status of the manuscript and unpublished Materials: The 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended) states that unpublished literary and artistic works remain in copyright in the UK until at least 31 December 2039. Therefore important parts of the library’s collection remain in copyright, including very old manuscripts. However for unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, the Library believes this material to be very unlikely to offend anyone. As an institution whose role it is to support access to knowledge, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK under the Public Domain Mark. [Note from Cassidy: In keeping with the Folger’s mission whose document this is, I am including their recommended identification information here.]

Document-specific information
Creator: William Keeling
Title: Dragon: Fragment of journal, William Keeling
Date: March 12, 1607- April 17, 1607 
Repository: The British Library, London, UK
Call number and opening: IOR/L/MAR/A/III, wrapper & fol. 1r-v


William Keeling was a real Captain, and he did sail on the Red Dragon. This page is from the last remaining portions of the logbook purported to have recoreded the first known performance of Hamlet. However, the logbook no longer contains that entry, or any additional entries This artifact is housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library. View their entry and more history here. 

Wood-cut of the Red Dragon, captain Lancaster, in the Strait of Malacca, anno 1602–From the Dutch collection of East-India voyages, 1645–6. Source

While it makes sense to think a play would be a logical choice on board ship, the reliability of Keeling’s journal is widely, and intensely, debated by scholars today. 

You see, we do not have Keeling’s journal in its’ original physical form today. Instead, the accounts I quote to you from Keeling’s journal are part of excerpts recorded well after the fact, in 1822. 

For that reason, and several others, questions have been brought up about whether Keeling ever wrote that entry to start with.

1596, Portrait of Sir James Lancaster, the Captain for the Red Dragon’s first voyage. Source

Depending on which scholars you read on this topic, some historians believe staging a production of Hamlet would have been a great way to instill discipline and stave off idleness amongst the crew. Others claim this instance of Hamlet is the first performance of reader theater–where they perform a play while reading the text. Perhaps the leading scholar on this bit of history is Bernice Kliman who wrote an article claiming that the Red Dragon performance was not, as everyone believed, the first known performance of Hamlet, because –as she wrote–according to research by Andrew Thrush, historian of early English voyages, does not find any instance of a shipboard performance by English sailors.

Kliman’s research has been well received, and the current theory among top Shakespeare scholars is that the Red Dragon performance of Hamlet is indeed a forgery. And it remains to be discovered what, if any, onboard ship entertainment was enjoyed by sailors of the early modern era and whether any of those entertainments featured Shakespeare. 

Which is pretty exciting, really, because what fun to explore!

That’s it for this week, I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new abotu the bard. I’ll see you next week!

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

Want to learn more? Here are some research resources to get you started.

BEST OVERALL PLACE TO START: The only surviving page of Keeling’s journal is at The Folger. See it here and read their description of his account. 

Maritime Performance Culture and the Possible Staging of Hamlet in Sierra Leone by James Seth Source

P. E. H. Hair’s Sierra Leone and the English in 1607: Extracts from the Unpublished Journals of the Keeling Voyage to the East Indies, Occasional Paper No. 4 (Freetown: Institute of African Studies, University of Sierra Leone, 1981)

André Donelha, An Account of Sierra Leone and the Rivers of Guinea of Cape Verde, ed. Avelino Teixero da Mota, trans. P. E. H. Hair (Lisbon: Junta de Investigates Cientificas do Ultramar, 1977)

Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor et al., William Shakespeare:A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 396–420

“Master William Keeling, another of our principal merchants,” The Voyage of Sir Henry Middleton to the Moluccas 1604–1606, ed. Sir William Foster (London: Hakluyt Society, 1943), lxxxviii (quoting Middleton’s commission from the Company)

The Journal of John Jourdain, 1608–1617, ed. William Foster (Cambridge, UK: Hakluyt Society, 1935), xxix.

A Journal kept by m[e William Hawkins in] my voyage to the East I[ndies, beginning the 28 of] March a0 1607 …”, in The Hawkins’ Voyages during the reigns of Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, and James I, ed. Clement R. Markham (London: Hakluyt Society, 1878), 379.

The Register of Letters etc of the Governour and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies 1600–1619, ed. Sir George Birdwood and William Foster (London: 1893; reprint Quaritch, 1966), 199 (Commission, item 11).

Barbour, Richmond (June 2008). “The East India Company Journal of Anthony Marlowe, 1607–1608”. Huntington Library Quarterly. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. 71 (2): 255–301. doi:10.1525/hlq.2008.71.2.255. ISSN 0018-7895.

Boulger, Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh. The story of India (1897 ed.). London: H. Marshall & Son.

Corney, Bolton; Middleton, Sir Henry (1855). The voyage of Sir Henry Middleton to Bantam and the Maluco Islands; being the second voyage set forth by the governor and company of merchants of London trading into the East-Indies (1855 ed.). London: Hakluyt Society.

Dulles, Foster Rhea (1931). Eastward ho! The first English adventurers to the Orient (1969 ed.). Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press. ISBN 0-8369-1256-X.

Foster, Sir William (1998). England’s quest of eastern trade (1933 ed.). London: A. & C. Black. ISBN 9780415155182.

Hackman, Rowan (2001) Ships of the East India Company. (Gravesend, Kent: World Ship Society). ISBN 0-905617-96-7

Grey, Charles. The Merchant Venturers of London : A Record of Far Eastern Trade & Piracy During the Seventeenth Century (1932 ed.). London: H.F.& G.Witherby.

Kamps, Ivo; Singh, Jyotsna (13 January 2001). Travel Knowledge: European “Discoveries” in the Early Modern Period (2001 ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-22299-8.

Markham, Clements R, ed. (1877). The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies. New York: Burt Franklin. OL 23357754M.

Nichols, John (1823). The progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth : among which are interspersed other solemnities, public expenditures, and remarkable events during the reign of that illustrious princess : collected from original MSS., scarce pamphlets, corporation records, parochial registers, &c., &c. : illustrated with historical notes. 3 (1823 ed.). London: John Nichols and Son.

Sutton, Jean (1981). Lords of the East; The East India Company and Its Ships (1981 ed.). London: Conway Maritime Press. 

Southey, Robert; Bell, Robert (1834). The British admirals: With an introductory view of the naval history of England. 3 (1834 ed.). London: Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman (etc.). Available on Google Books Here.

Strachan, Michael; Penrose, Boies. The East India Company Journals of Captain William Keeling and Master Thomas Bonner, 1615–17 (1975 ed.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hamlet in Africa by Gary Taylor (use his sources!) https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-349-62233-7_23