William Shakespeare (1564–1616), arguably one of the greatest playwrights of all time, relied on geographical description to help colour his histories, tragedies and comedies.
Born and raised in the English countryside of Stratford-upon-Avon, his works were first written and performed in the city of London, England, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Shakespeare, however, did not limit himself to England when setting his 38 plays.
His characters fictionally inhabited at least 14 modern-day countries by some counts. Today his plays, more than any other playwright living or dead, are performed and read in nations around the globe.
Shakespeare set 10 of his plays—all of them categorized as histories—in London, England. When people refer to Shakespeare’s ‘history plays’, they are usually speaking specifically about the plays set in medieval England.
Typically, the histories tell more about society during Shakespeare’s time than about life in the past time when the plays are set. One exception to the English group is The Merry Wives of Windsor; it is a comedy, and it takes place in Windsor.
London, England: Westminster Palace
Parts of Henry VI took place in London’s Palace of Westminster. Due to a devastating fire in 1834, only some of the Palace, such as Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower, which we’re looking at now, might appear as it did during Shakespeare’s time.
Next to England, Italy is the most popular setting of Shakespeare’s plays. Eight of his plays take place in various locations around that Mediterranean country.
There is no surviving evidence that Shakespeare himself ever visited Italy, but it is known that literature from Italy was commonly translated into English and read in England.
Verona, Italy: Juliet’s House
Two Gentleman of Verona and Romeo and Juliet are both set in Verona. It is ‘Juliet’s balcony’, however, that sends tourists flocking to the city. Reportedly, thousands of letters are sent to the fictional character, revealing their writers’ own tragic love stories.
Three of Shakespeare’s plays—King Lear, Cymbeline and Macbeth—are set in ancient Britain, in the period before the Roman conquest (ad 43) when the islands were populated by Celtic tribes. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other characters...
Inverness, Scotland: Inverness Castle
In Macbeth, nearly every scene is set in ancient Scotland. Castles have stood on the site of the current Inverness Castle since the 11th century. None of them were Macbeth’s, but the city of Inverness is strongly tied to the play nonetheless.
...the kings and queens of these plays either bear little resemblance to their historical counterparts or they are completely fictitious. Shakespeare’s ancient Britain was conveniently ‘long ago and far away’, a place where he could make anything happen.
Shakespeare’s audience was familiar with tales of ancient Rome, so it is no surprise that he set 4 of his dramas in that setting. During the 5th century ad, Rome comprised an area somewhat larger than modern-day Rome. In Titus Andronicus...
...Shakespeare was vague as to exactly when and under whose rein his characters were ruled, but in Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, we see references to a Roman culture in agreement with historical accounts.
Rome, Italy: The Forum
Act 3, scene 2 of Julius Caesar opens in the Roman Forum, which was, in ancient times, an open area surrounded by government buildings and market stalls. Tourists today can look at the ruins and imagine the characters of the play.
Athens 2004 (2016-11-27) by Kisa_MarkizaThe Olympic Museum
Four of Shakespeare’s dramas are set in ancient Greece, a region roughly comprising modern-day Greece and Turkey. Comedy of Errors is set in Ephesus, Turkey, which was an important trading city. Troilus and Cressida is set the ancient city of Troy...
...which was located on the west coast of modern-day Turkey. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timon of Athens are both set in Athens, Greece. Ancient Greek civilization flourished in the 5th to 4th centuries BC.
The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin ChurchThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Athens, Greece: The Parthenon
The ruins of the Parthenon, a temple to the goddess Athena, remain as a testimony to the greatness of the Ancient Greek civilization. Shakespeare’s lead characters lived in this Athens, a bustling city of merchants, royals, and powerful gods.
Denmark and Other Locations
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is arguably one of the most famous lines of literature invoking a setting. It has become synonymous with the idea of corruption. None of Shakespeare’s other plays are set in Denmark—the location is tied exclusively to Hamlet.
Spain and Austria are also one-play locations (Love’s Labour Lost and Measure for Measure, respectively), and, as in the case of Denmark, the association has added to their popularity as tourist destinations.
Helsingør, Denmark: Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle
Prince Hamlet, the eponymous lead character of the play, is the scion of Elsinore Castle, which was probably modelled after the real-life Kronborg Castle. Historians believe Shakespeare was provided with authentic details about castle life when he met with members of the Danish nobility.
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