‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the problem of the Bohemia seacoast

Much has been made of Shakespeare’s decision to have a key plot point of The Winter’s Tale rely on the nonexistent shoreline of Bohemia, a land-locked country in Central Europe. Without this fantasy coast, there would be no place to leave the baby Perdita, nor an easy way for the teenage princess to escape with Florizell 16 years later.

Some people attribute this geographical gaffe to Shakespeare’s lack of formal education; others will defend it as a conscious choice to highlight the fairy-tale nature of the piece, or pedantically point out that there was a small window of time when Bohemian territories stretched to the Adriatic Sea.

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, the presence of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale leads to some fascinating connections with items in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection. Here are just three examples of how a Shakespeare play can be a starting point for new journeys of discovery.

Pandosto: The Triumph of Time

Where did Shakespeare get the idea to include Bohemia in the first place? Blame Robert Greene, a well-known name to Shakespeare biographers. A playwright and pamphleteer who spent a fair amount of time hobnobbing with the Elizabethan underworld, he is the credited author of the posthumous Greenes groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of repentance, which features the first recorded reference to Shakespeare. Greene was apparently no fan, referring to our man William as an “upstart crow” possessing a “Tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide” who believed himself to be “the only Shake-scene in a country.”

Source material for Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

Greene was also the author of Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (first published in 1588), a romantic novella that provided the source material for The Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare made a few alterations to the storyline, including changing character names, radically revising the ending, and swapping Bohemia and Sicilia within the world of the story. Bohemia’s seacoast, however, wasn’t something that Shakespeare added. According to Greene’s story, the Sicilian king “provided a navy of ships and sailed into Bohemia to visit his old fi’iend and companion” and later there is a description of mariners catching sight of “the coast of Bohemia.”

Map of Bohemia from Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theatre of the Whole World)

Map of Bohemia from Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theater of the World)
Something that could have cleared up this whole Bohemia-seacoast problem was the Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theatre of the Whole World). Ushering in “the Golden Age of Netherlandish Cartography,” Abraham Ortelius’ world atlas is considered the first of its kind, compiling a number of different mapmakers’ works to present a picture of Western world knowledge through gorgeous maps and accompanying text—including an entry for the very land-locked Bohemia.

First published in 1570, it was translated into multiple languages and was notable for acknowledging its source material at a time when nary a thought was given to questions of intellectual property. Ortelius continued to expand and re-issue the atlas until his death in 1598; it continued to be a popular and relied-upon atlas until 1612.

Charles Kean’s 1856 production of The Winter’s Tale

While the imaginary Bohemian coast is often joked about, few people let it significantly affect their relationship with the play—but not Charles Kean. The 19th-century actor-manager was a stickler for the rules, and if a seacoast was required in the story, well, then, better change the location to somewhere more accurate. And that is how “Bohemia” became “Bithynia” in his 1856 production of The Winter’s Tale at the Princess’s Theatre in London.

Costume illustrations from Charles Kean’s 1856 production of The Winter’s Tale

Kean was notorious in pursuing what he felt was “authenticity” in his productions—sometimes at the cost of the play itself. Having decided that The Winter’s Tale took place in 330 BC Greece, he cut everything from the script that didn’t support the setting, rounded out his huge cast with real livestock, and insisted that scenic and costumes designs originate from detailed study of ancient history. The visual splendor of Kean’s Winter’s Tale was partially preserved in this souvenir program displaying all the characters in their Grecian-styled costumes.

Moreover, a bit of the working process can be glimpsed in designer George Scharf’s sketchbook, which includes this sketch of Mamillius in a letter to Mrs. Kean, with notes about the “ancients” and their preferences for bare feet as well as avoidance of using their left hands.

Mamillius was played by a very young Ellen Terry, who recalled both joy at being given a small toy push-cart (copied from a vase) as a prop and embarrassment when she tripped over said cart on opening night, landing flat on her back.

And that is how a simple question about a mysterious coast in The Winter Tale leads us to discover an early modern pamphleteer’s romantic novella, the world’s first modern atlas, and a costume designer’s notes. Each opens its own door to a new path of exploration.