British Museum blog

The role of maps in Shakespeare’s England


Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections, British Library

The most obvious place a person in Shakespeare’s England would have encountered a map would have been in a Bible. Protestant Bibles in particular contained maps to prove the veracity of the scriptures, and this tells us a lot about the role of maps in society. Maps were used sometimes (but not often) to get from A to B, and from about the 1520s onwards for administration purposes, but most of all they were regarded, quite consciously, as stages for human history.

If you were lucky enough, you might have been invited into the home of a merchant. It’s quite likely you would have seen wall maps adorning his parlour and his dining room. The most common maps would have shown the Holy Land as well as maps of the continents of the world. These maps were not there to show where his ships were travelling – their purpose was to show that its owner was a man who knew about the world.

Most wall maps served propagandas purposes. On the whole maps, whatever their size, were much more useful for merchants than for seamen. The merchant could use them for planning purposes but, as English sailors told the authorities repeatedly in the 16th century, charts weren’t much use once you were actually at sea because in the northern Atlantic it was usually so misty you couldn’t see any coastlines: it was far more practical to navigate using a plumb line to measure the depth of the sea, rather like a mole on land.

So rather than maps being navigational tools, maps – when not being used for practical purposes on land – tended to be symbolic, and educational. In 1570 the first modern atlas of printed maps was published, called The Theatre of the Lands of the World. This idea of the world as a stage, picked up by Shakespeare, was around long beforehand.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme England Goes Global:
Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal

Find out more:
The unveiling of Britain – maps of the British Isles
Maps at the British Library
Maps at the National Maritime Museum
British Library

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  1. From childhood, I felt fascinated by maps.. and had this feeling that knowing them would make me knowledgeable about that country/world! So, I too agree that perhaps the ancient merchants too showed their wealth of knowledge in terms of maps.

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