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Mapping How Shakespeare Saw the World

A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library looks at the Bard’s plays through maps from the 16th century and beyond.

The first modern atlas was called "Theater of the World," created in 1570 by mapmaker Abraham Ortelius. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)

The first modern atlas was created in the late 16th century, and was called Theater of the World. It included more than 50 pages of maps of places around the world, which Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius likened to a stage where human life played out

For William Shakespeare, the world was, in fact, a stage, across which his tragedies, comedies, and dramas unfolded. From Verona, Italy, where Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story played out, to Egypt, the setting of Antony and Cleopatra’s affair, Shakespeare’s plays have taken readers across the globe. His understanding of the world, however—and that of the mapmakers and other playwrights of his time—differs from how we see it today.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, the nonprofit Norman B. Leventhal Map Center has put together “Shakespeare Here and Everywhere,” a collection of 30 maps and images from the 16th century and beyond of places where Shakespearean plays were set. The exhibit, which runs from September through February, features countries including Denmark, Spain, and the more far-off and “exotic” Egypt.

“We wanted to better [people’s] understanding of what the world was like during Shakespeare's time,” says Stephanie Cyr, an assistant curator at the map center. “How Shakespeare saw the world around him, how his contemporaries did, and how his theater audience understood not only their familiar world of London, but the world at large.”

By Shakespeare’s time, the likes of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Bartolomeu Dias had all set sail and explored several places, from Canada to South America to the tip of South Africa. Shakespeare himself, however, is said to have never left England. He, like other moderately wealthy Englanders who had access to books and maps, gathered his information through other sources, “whether those were history, or classical writing, or his fellow playwrights,” says Cyr. "People heavily borrowed stories from other people, and thats how information—factual or not—was disseminated.”

Mapmakers did that, too, which is why California, for example, was often mapped out as an island. Cyr adds that people knew the Mediterranean region the best, but the farther away from home a country was, the scarier those countries were depicted as. “The maps produced before Shakespeare’s time were incorporating that sort of imagery of barbarianism and cannibalism,” she tells CityLab.

“Cyprus Insula,” 1650. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)

Cyr and her team wanted to present a broad collection. They chose maps that would help illustrate the character of the place and that were related to plays in which geography was significant to the plot. Included, for example, is a 1650 map of Cyprus, where much of the fighting between the Venetians and the Turks took place in Othello. Cyprus was symbolic of the ways war and love intersected in the play. The outpost was known then for its barbaric and warlike character, as well as being the birthplace of Venus, the goddess love. Not coincidentally, Cyprus plays a significant role in the demise of the protagonist’s wife in the play, Desdemona, who is accused of sexual infidelity.

“We have this great map where way on the outside of the Mediterranean, there’s a little island with Venus down in the corner, riding on her seashell and being stabbed in the heart by arrows,” says Cyr. “Cyprus also happens to be where Othello kills Desdemona.”

The exhibit also features a 1584 map of Egypt, a country that Cyr says Shakespeare used to show “otherness” in Antony and Cleopatra. In the play, Cleopatra is portrayed as a “foreign power that struck fear,” as Cyr puts it, and Antony is accused of “throwing away his Romaness” when he leaves the Roman Empire to join her in Egypt.

Though created to honor Shakespeare, the exhibit also shines a spotlight on the mapmakers and the role they played at the time. They created the settings, says Cyrus, for imaginations to run wild. “Maps have story. But they’re created by people, so they also have biases,” Cyr says. “So mapmakers were setting people up for their understanding of a place.”

"Turcici Imperii Descriptio," 1570. This map depicts the ancient city of Troy (in modern-day Turkey), where Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is set. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)
"Magnifica Illa Civitas Verona; Colonia Augusta Verona Nova Gallieniana," 1572.  Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, Italy. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)
“Daniae Regni Typum Potentissimo Invictissimoque,” 1629. This map of Denmark, where Hamlet is set, depicts the country’s different social groups through drawings of men and women in different dress. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)
"Europae," 1570, illustrates Europe and Africa. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)

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