Updated: Aug 14
In honor of International Pirate Month, we’ll discuss the rocky pirate situation during Shakespeare’s time & how this influenced his plays!
Note--While reading, keep in mind Shakespeare lived between 1564 & 1616, writing his most famous works around 1590-1613. Therefore, he witnessed firsthand the following evolving attitudes toward English piracy.
Elizabeth I: Pirates Turn from Criminals to Heroes
Let’s begin in 1558. Following Mary’s death, Elizabeth I became the new monarch of a very troubled England. Besides its population being torn over religious differences, England’s defense was shabby, and its treasury was nearly nil. To combat this financial crisis, Elizabeth turned to sea robbers & began licensing them with letters of marque...legalizing pre-approved piracy!
Fun Fact #1: Although letters of marque were nothing new, they were typically used against the enemy during wartime. Elizabeth’s letters of marque were therefore a break from tradition, as they were mainly issued for the purpose of looting Spanish ships. During the earliest years of her reign, England and Spain were not officially at war.
Fun Fact #2: Today, we refer to State-approved burglars as privateers. However, the first known usage of the term occurred in 1641. So what were they called during Elizabeth’s reign? Most of them were Sea Dogs, a branch of privateers who focused on plundering the Spanish.
James I: Pirates Transition from Beloved to Executed
During Elizabeth I’s reign, privateers acquired wealth for England by depleting the Spanish navy. Thus, they were heavily supported by the State -- issued venture funds, given honorable titles, & generously rewarded upon success… But this all came to an end when Elizabeth kicked the bucket in 1603. Under the rule of her successor, King James I, all looting at sea was considered criminal behavior. In fact, James’ anti-pirate effort was so potent that more pirates were hanged during his 22 years of reign than were throughout the entire previous century.
Quite the sudden shift of events...
SHAKESPEARE & PIRATES
As pirates were clearly a “hot topic” during his lifetime, it’s no wonder the Bard was such a fan of incorporating them into his work. At times, he depicted them in a positive light; on other occasions, he… didn’t-- much like the monarchy’s shifting attitude towards them. Today, let’s hone in on the pirates in Hamlet.
In Hamlet, off-stage pirates play a crucial plot role: saving Hamlet from the execution his uncle secretly planned for him in England & helping him return to Denmark. Consequently, the pirates are positively portrayed. Precisely how this portrayal impacts the play’s political message is determined by whether Hamlet’s pirate encounter was prearranged.
Version 1: Prearranged
In the Second Quarto (1604-1605), in a letter to Horatio, Hamlet tells the tale:
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 turn for them. (4.6.15–21)
His kind representation of the pirates as “thieves of mercy” added to his acknowledging, “they knew what they did,” suggests this encounter was prearranged. Furthermore, interpretation of “crafts” in line 208* (“When in one line two crafts directly meet”) of Act 3 Scene 4 is vital to determining if the confrontation was premeditated. If “crafts” refers to a ship & stratagem, then it can be assumed that Hamlet suspected Claudius wanted him gone & would send him out to sea. With this prediction in mind, Hamlet plotted to have the pirate ship’s crew “capture” (rescue) him.
Between Hamlet’s sympathetic characterization of the pirates as “thieves of mercy” and their role as heroic rescuers of the prince, the positive perception of pirates in Hamlet is seen by some scholars as Shakespeare’s discreet notion of opposition towards King James’ harsh, indiscriminate handling of all English pirate affairs.
*Note: This line appears in the Second Quarto but not in the First Quarto (1603) or First Folio (1623).
Version 2: Unexpected
As previously noted, Q1 & First Folio do not contain line 3.4.208, weakening the argument that Hamlet preplanned the pirate rendezvous.
If this meeting was indeed spontaneous, then the pirates’ “mercy” becomes even more astonishing, perhaps hinting more aggressively at the Bard’s discontentment with King James’ piracy policies.
“By 1623 James’ lack of decisive action in his daughter’s support in the Palatinate had left his foreign policy looking inept, many of his most powerful courtiers urged war with Spain, and rex pacificus [“peacemaker king”] was increasingly perceived as a policy of weakness by his more warlike subjects. As a result, ambiguously heroic pirates, whose unplanned yet precisely timed and well-executed intervention at sea transforms the political landscape, appear even more attractive as serviceable tools of a more aggressive foreign policy, notwithstanding the king’s often-expressed hostility to such a breed of men.”1
Discussion: For length’s sake, we’ve only included one example of Shakespeare’s pirates in this article. Are there any other pirates in the canon you’d like us to discuss?
Written by Mariela Rivero
Edited by Laura Yumi Snell
Jowitt, Claire. Shakespeare’s Pirates: the Politics of Seaborne Crime.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.