Performance and publication
The Sea Voyage was licensed for performance by the Master of the Revels on 22 June 1622. The Sea Voyage was acted by the King's Men; the second Beaumont/Fletcher folio of 1679 provides a partial cast list of the original production, which includes Joseph Taylor, William Ecclestone, Nicholas Tooley, John Lowin, and John Underwood, all members of the troupe.
The shares of the two collaborators, Massinger and Fletcher, are relatively easy to distinguish, due to Fletcher's distinctive pattern of linguistic usages. Cyrus Hoy observed that Fletcher's hand dominates in Acts I and IV, as Massinger's does in Acts II, III, and V. There is some crossover in the portions, though scholars are divided as to whether the play was revised into its final form by Fletcher (as Hoy thought), or by Massinger.
The play begins with a storm, and features a desert island and castaways at a banquet, just as in The Tempest. In addition to Shakespeare's play, the collaborators consulted recent accounts of actual explorations, including those of William Strachey and John Nicoll.
In the Restoration era, The Sea Voyage was revived by the King's Company in an adaptation called The Storm. The adapted version premiered on 25 September 1667, with both King Charles II and Samuel Pepys in the audience, as Pepys records in his Diary. Pepys liked the play so much — especially the added songs and dances — that he saw it again the next evening. The King's Company staged the play to beat the competition: William Davenant's and John Dryden's adaptation, The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island, would premier on 7 November the same year. Another adaptation of The Sea Voyage, titled The Commonwealth of Women, was produced by Thomas d'Urfey in 1685. D'Urfey's version proved even more popular after the turn of the eighteenth century, being performed in 1702, 1707, 1708, and 1710. D'urfey made the hero an Englishman instead of a Frenchman, and an honest pirate to boot, anticipating Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance by nearly two centuries.
The play opens on a ship at sea, caught in a storm; the ship's Master and sailors struggle to cope, while the vessel's commander and passengers make their way on deck. Albert, a French pirate, is the captain; he is accompanied by a heterogeneous group of compatriots, including Lamur, a "usuring Merchant," Franville, "a vain-glorious gallant," and Morillat, "a shallow-brain'd Gentleman." Also present are the captain's friend Tibalt, and his love interest, Aminta. Aminta was captured by Albert, but he has since fallen in love with her, and respects her virtue and chastity. He also set out in search of her missing brother Raimond, before the storm struck.
The ship struggles to reach a nearby island; the crew toss overboard cargo, belongings, even treasure, in an attempt to lighten the load. The second scene shifts perspective to two men stranded on the same island. Two Portuguese castaways, Sebastian and his nephew Nicusa, have long suffered privation on this barren rocky island; they watch as the ship endures the storm, and they see the survivors make their way to the beach. Their conversation reveals that they were victims of a pirate attack, which divided them from another Portuguese ship that carried Sebastian's wife and other members of their family.
The Frenchmen meet Sebatian and Nicusa, but behave with hostility and menace; while the French fall to fighting over treasure the two Portuguese have salvaged, Sebastian and Nicusa escape in the Frenchmen's ship, leaving the new arrivals behind. The French crew find that the island is as bleak and inhospitable as Sebastian and Nicusa had indicated; they are soon suffering severely from hunger and thirst. There is abundant material concerning this privation, perhaps intended as comedy; at one point, Lamure, Franville and Morillat (brawling, cowardly, greedy, selfish, etc. represent man's base instincts) are ready to kill Aminta and eat her, before she is rescued by Tibalt and Albert.
Sebastian and Nicusa had informed the French that they sometimes heard sounds of other people, but were never able to locate and reach these mysterious individuals. Albert and Aminta also hear these sounds, and Albert swims across a "hellish river" to find them, though he is suffering from wounds sustained in brawls with Franville and company. (The geography of the play's fictional location is confused at best; the islands are separated by a river, or else a "black lake".) The people Albert finds are a community of women, living without men like Amazons. Led by a fifty-year-old woman named Rosilla and her daughter Clarinda, the women have developed a strongly anti-male ideology under their leader's tutelage; but they also realize that they need men to propagate a new generation, and the younger women are curious about, and eager for contact with, the new arrivals. Rosilla bows to the popular will enough to allow some contact: the women can meet the men, choose partners from among them if they will; of any children born from such contact, the girls will be kept and the boys returned to their fathers. Clarinda is excited about this arrangement, since she has fallen in love with Albert—which creates a conflict with Albert's commitment to Aminta. And there is much flirting and chivalric-style courtship among the men and women.
The plan quickly falls through when the Frenchmen try to court the women with jewels taken from Sebastian's treasure — and the women recognize their own possessions. The Amazons imprison the men, and appear to be planning their execution. But a new ship arrives to change the situation. Aminta's brother Raimond has captured/rescued Sebastian and Nicusa while searching the seas for Aminta. Sebastian and Rosilla are husband and wife, and the two branches of their family are happily re-united. It is revealed that the Portuguese colonists in the New World have been oppressed by French pirates, which generated the initial conflict situation. Along with the reunion of Sebastian and Rosilla, Raimond and Clarinda form a couple, which helps to palliate the resentments of the two groups, French and Portuguese; and Albert and Aminta are free to marry as well.
The Sea Voyage is one of the shortest plays in the canon of Fletcher and his collaborators; The Tempest, concomitantly, is the second-shortest play in Shakespeare's collected works. The reason may be that both plays devote a greater-than-usual proportion of their theatrical space and time to their special effects.
Along with Fletcher's The Island Princess, The Sea Voyage has attracted the attention of some late twentieth century critics and scholars as part of the literature of colonialism and anti-colonialism.
- Logan and Smith, p. 76.
- In The Tempest, Shakespeare strands his castaways on a magic island, and can magically keep their clothing dry — "On their sustaining garments not a blemish" (I,ii, 218). To some modern critics, this is pure theatrical pragmatism: soaking the characters would have been inconvenient for the actors, and probably ruinous for their expensive costumes. In The Sea Voyage, in contrast, Fletcher lands his people on a prosaically non-magical island, and makes them appropriately damp: "Wet come ashore, my mates...how weak she is, and wet!" (I,iii,1–6); "I'll dance till I'm dry" (I,iii,22). This raises questions about the staging of the original production; were the actors drenched in fact, or did they just pretend to be wet?
- Scheil, pp. 57–9.
- Sprague, p. 232.
- Though not absolutely the shortest; that distinction belongs to The Nice Valour.
- With a length of 2064 lines, only The Comedy of Errors, at 1776 lines, is shorter.
- Jowitt, Claire (2003). Voyage Drama and Gender Politics, 1589-1642: Real and Imagined Worlds. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 192–94. ISBN 0719054516. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
- McMullan, Gordon (1994). The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher. Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Press. pp. 240–45. ISBN 0870238922.
- Beaumont, Francis; Fletcher, John (1994) . "The Sea Voyage". In Bowers, Fredson (ed.). The dramatic works in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon. 9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-36188-0. OCLC 165144652.
- Hadfield, Andrew. Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance, 1545–1625. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998.
- Jowitt, Claire. Travel Drama and Gender Politics, 1589–1642: Real and Imagined Worlds. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003.
- Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
- McMullen, Gordon. The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher. Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
- Oliphant, E. H. C. The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher: An Attempt to Determine Their Respective Shares and the Shares of Others. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1927.
- Scheil, Katherine West. The Taste of the Town: Shakespearean Comedy and the Early Eighteenth-Century Theater. Lewisburg, KY, Bucknell University Press, 2003.
- Sprague, Arthur Colby. Beaumont and Fletcher on the Restoration Stage. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1926.