‘Worlds Elsewhere’: Shakespeare’s imagination roaming far and free

'Worlds Elsewhere' by Andrew Dickson

William Shakespeare is a global phenomenon. In the four centuries since his death, the British playwright’s works have appeared at times and places where we might least expect them. Why is this so? Shakespeare was no world traveler. So then why do his plays appeal to and resonate with so many different peoples?

Andrew Dickson set out on a personal journey to answer this question, traveling across four continents and six countries. He even visited the Folger Shakespeare Library, to see the 82 First Folios in our collection. The fruit of his travels appears in a new book, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe, published April 5 by Henry Holt.

In the excerpt below, Dickson writes of the international flavors that permeate Shakespeare’s plays. Although much of what we know about Shakespeare tracks him in a limited geographical space—Warwickshire (where he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon) and London, a hundred miles to the southeast—his “imagination roamed far and free.”

Here we pick up with Dickson in Worlds Elsewhere:

“Taking advantage of the worlds opened up by a grammar-school education and the Elizabethan explosion in publishing (especially travel publishing), he made innumerable voyages of discovery.

Via the historians Halle and Holinshed, he trod the bloody territory of his own country through the Middle Ages and beyond, filling out their chronicle accounts with a cacophony of Welsh, Scottish and French voices. Despite Ben Jonson’s gibe about his older colleague’s  ‘smalle Latin and lesse Greeke’, Shakespeare raided classical sources with magpie enthusiasm, reading Ovid and Virgil in the original and English translation, and exhibiting an impressive knowledge of Roman comedy and the tragedies of Seneca. He scoured Plutarch’s Lives – in a version that had been translated via French – for the traces of Caesar, Coriolanus, Cleopatra and Antony on their journeys through the ancient world. The sonnets and narrative poems show the heavy imprint of Dante and Petrarch. On his shelves at various times were copies of Montaigne’s Essais, collections of Italian and French tales (some read in their original languages) and accounts of journeys around North Africa and the Mediterranean and to the Americas.

Little wonder the plays Shakespeare wrote bestride the world. His characters hail from Tunisia, the Levant, Algeria, India; his dramatic imagination roams restlessly across France, Denmark, Austria, Turkey, Greece, covering a veritable gazetteer of far-flung destinations. He has a particular passion for Italy: Padua (The Taming of the Shrew), Venice (The Merchant of VeniceOthello), Verona (The Two Gentlemen of VeronaRomeo and Juliet), Sicily (Much Ado About Nothing); and, behind it, for ancient Rome (Titus AndronicusJulius CaesarCoriolanus, parts of Antony and Cleopatra).

In fact, he seems actively to have avoided writing about the Britain of his own lifetime: the plays Shakespeare does locate in the British Isles are either distanced by time (the English histories) or by theme  (the ancient Britain of King Lear, feudal Scotland in Macbeth, the Roman invasion-era Cymbeline).  In arresting contrast to  born-and- bred Londoners such as Ben Jonson,  Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, whose plays place on stage the city  in which they lived and breathed, Shakespeare sets only one full script,  The Merry Wives of Windsor, in anything resembling the Elizabethan world he knew.

On a microscopic level, too, the scripts are littered with tiny but telling references to what Coriolanus calls ‘a world elsewhere’. Macbeth’s Witches make fleeting mention of the disastrous far-Eastern voyage of the Tiger, one of whose shipmates went on to found the East India Company; Henry V’s prologue glances at the Earl of Essex’s campaign in Ireland; Love’s Labour’s Lost pokes sly fun at the inept diplomacy of Ivan the Terrible. Hamlet frets that his fortunes will ‘turn Turk’. In Measure for Measure we hear gossip about ‘China dishes’. The ‘Indies’ – in Shakespeare’s time America as well as the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia – make a fleeting appearance in several texts, notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Oberon and Titania wage a fairy-tale war over an enigmatic boy ‘stolen from an Indian king’. No fewer than five plays – Dream, Henry VI Part III, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and Richard II – mention that remotest location of all from England, the ‘Antipodes’.

Shakespeare was not merely indulging his own curiosity about worlds elsewhere (or those of his audiences); as scholars have recently begun to understand, he reflected the world as it was changing around him.  Though England lagged far behind colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal, international trade had begun to make its presence felt by the end of the sixteenth century, particularly in London, where the Royal Exchange became a nexus for merchants from across the globe. In 1600, the East India Company was founded to capitalise on the spice routes through Arabia and towards Asia, while other joint-stock companies soon thrust west towards the Americas. In 1603 the Scottish James I took the throne, accompanied by his Danish queen, Anne, ushering in a new, more geopolitically open era after the combative defensiveness of the Elizabethan period.

As well as experiencing this first upsurge in global trade – spices, silks, tobacco, exotic foodstuffs – Shakespeare and other Londoners jostled among a melting pot of immigrants, including people from the Jewish diaspora, Spanish ‘blackamoors’, former slaves from North and West Africa and religious refugees from the European continent. Simply by strolling down to the docks or around St Paul’s, nicknamed ‘the whole world’s map’ by one contemporary writer, the playwright could have heard half the languages of Europe. The expansion of British influence is attested to by the extraordinary fact that in the summer of 1603, around the time Shakespeare was writing Othello, a small clutch of Native Americans were shipped across from Chesapeake Bay and ordered to paddle their canoe up the Thames for the amusement of spectators.

Shakespeare (who, as a Warwickshireman, was himself an alien of sorts) seems to have been particularly intimate with the city’s expatriates. As well as reading French and Italian, he knew people who could correct his grammar: from around 1602 he lived with the family of a French Huguenot refugee, Christopher Mountjoy, and his wife in Bishopsgate in the City of London, an area known for the diversity of its residents, teeming with Flemish, Dutch and French families. He was apparently on nodding terms with the Italian translator of Montaigne, John Florio, and perhaps acquainted with the Bassanos, a family of Italian Jewish musicians.

Soon after moving in with the Mountjoys, in 1603, Shakespeare for the first time became a royal servant, putting him into contact with visitors not only from mainland Europe but from far beyond. Ambassadors and tourists from elsewhere in Europe came to see his plays at the public theatres; at court, meanwhile, his newly renamed King’s Men played more often than any other company, including for foreign dignitaries.

If Jaques is right to suggest in As You Like It that ‘all the world’s a stage’ – the phrase is held to be the motto of the original Globe – then the stage was also a way of reflecting the world back at these increasingly diverse audiences. The Swiss doctor Thomas Platter, who came to London as a tourist in 1599 and witnessed the first-known performance of Julius Caesar, claimed that the theatre was the means by which Londoners found out what was happening abroad: ‘the English,’ Platter remarked, ‘for the most part do not travel much, but prefer to learn foreign matters . . . at home.’”

Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Dickson

Related: Shakespeare Unlimited: Shakespeare’s France and Italy

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