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Mapping How Shakespeare Saw the World

A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library looks at the Bard’s plays through maps from the 16th century and beyond.
The first modern atlas was called "Theater of the World," created in 1570 by mapmaker Abraham Ortelius.
The first modern atlas was called "Theater of the World," created in 1570 by mapmaker Abraham Ortelius.Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

The first modern atlas was created in the late 16th century, and was called Theater of the World. It included more than 50 pages of maps of places around the world, which Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius likened to a stage where human life played out

For William Shakespeare, the world was, in fact, a stage, across which his tragedies, comedies, and dramas 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. His understanding of the world, however—and that of the mapmakers and other playwrights of his time—differs from how we see it today.