A new exhibit honouring the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has opened at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.
“Shakespeare’s Here and Everywhere” is among numerous events around the world celebrating Shakespeare’s legacy and is 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. The exhibit examines the Bard’s most famous works through historic maps and images. It aims to show how authors, mapmakers and readers during Shakespeare’s time saw the world around them.
The first modern atlas- Theater of the World was created in the end of the 16th century and comprised 50 pages of maps of places around the world, which Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius likened to a stage where human life played out.
But William Shakespeare used the world as a stage where his tragedies, dramas and comedies 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. However his understanding of the world along with the mapmakers and other playwrights is quite different from the modern vision.
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. So like any other wealthy Englander he had an access to the maps and books and collected all the information through these sources. At those times people often borrowed the stories from others and neglected the fact they might have been factual or not. So did the mapmakers, that’s why California was often shown in a map as an island. Stephanie Cyr, an assistant curator at the map center, says that people knew the Mediterranean region the best, while the further from a country was the scarier they were depicted.
Cyr and her team aimed to present a rich collection so they chose maps illustrating the character of the place related to the plays, where geography played an important role in the plot. For example the 1650 map of Cyprus – where the fight between Venetians and Turks took place in Othello. Cyprus also happened to be the birthplace of Venus and plays a significant role in the demise of the protagonist’s wife in the play, Desdemona, who is accused of sexual infidelity.
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.
In spite of the fact that exhibition was created to honor Shakespeare, it also gave a credit to mapmakers and their role in that time. “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.”