Answer to Map #54

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Answer: This week’s map was a dot map on which each dot marked the location of a scene from a play by William Shakespeare.

Collectively, Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays feature scenes set in fifteen modern countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Fortunately, there are several sources that have done the legwork to track down and map these locations. In making our map, we borrowed from two maps, choosing what we thought to be the most accurate bits from each. Those maps were the one at “No Sweat Shakespeare” and one made on Google Earth by a helpful Internet user with the screenname “H21.” If you compare these two maps, you’ll notice that there are some significant differences between them. That’s because Shakespeare was sometimes imprecise and sometimes unclear in his descriptions of his settings. It actually requires a remarkable amount of thought and effort to put together a map of his plays.

First, we have a few plays whose settings are basically unknown. The Tempest was set on a fictional island. It was inspired by a wreck in Bermuda, but it was probably set somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Cymbeline was set in a wide variety of places in ancient Britain; it is possible to guess where some of these locations were, but not all. Similarly, in King Lear, we can guess some of the locations, but others are simply labeled “a heath” and “another part of the heath.”

In other cases, Shakespeare specified an interesting country worth having on our map, but we have to guess exactly where to put the dot. The dot in Syria is there thanks to Antony and Cleopatra, which is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to be set on three continents. Act III, Scene I is set on “a plain in Syria.” This direction presumably refers to the entire region of Greater Syria, rather than to the modern country of Syria, but we put the dot in Syria anyway. In Othello, there are scenes set in “a seaport in Cyprus,” “a castle” on Cyprus, and “Cyprus, a street.” We just put one dot for the whole island. And in The Winter’s Tale, the action alternates between Sicily and Bohemia. We put one dot for each place (the other dot in Sicily is in Messina, which is the setting for Much Ado About Nothing). The problem is that Shakespeare describes Bohemia as “a desert country near the sea.” This doesn’t really sound like a good description of the Czech Republic, but we gave it a dot anyway.

One curious case is that of The Merchant of Venice. Most of the play is, of course, set in Venice (which is also the setting for the first scene of Othello). But one of the characters, Portia, is from the nearby town of Belmont, and Act I, Scene II takes place there. There is a city in southern Italy named Belmonte, but scholars don’t think this is the setting for The Merchant of Venice. Belmonte got a dot on the No Sweat Shakespeare map, but not on our map.

Tuesday’s hint mentioned that lots of great battlefields had dots on this map. That’s because Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays about rulers who led troops into battle. The Battle of Actium is featured in Antony and Cleopatra, the Trojan War is the setting for Troilus and Cressida, the final act of Julius Caesar takes place at the Battle of Philippi, and the title character of Henry V inspires his troops before the Battle of Agincourt. We intentionally omitted from the hint another battlefield that appears on the map but which would have given too much away. Henry V gives his famous “one more unto the breach” speech before the Siege of Harfleur, a relatively minor engagement in the Hundred Years’ War which is best known today because of Shakespeare’s play. That’s one of the problems with writing hints about Shakespeare: his works are so well known that certain places are very closely associated with what he wrote about them.

Friday’s hint mentioned Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark. Shakespeare, who called this castle “Elsinore,” used it as the setting for Hamlet. Shakespeare never went to Denmark (or, indeed, pretty much anywhere else he wrote about), and he didn’t know much about the castle itself. But the play has nevertheless been a boon to the local tourism board. Hamlet is often performed in the castle’s courtyard, including by such great actors as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. And if you look up Kronborg Castle on Denmark’s national tourism website, you’ll be invited to “visit the home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”

Finally, we want to offer a word of caution to the overenthusiastic map solvers who guessed that the dots referred to places mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays. We still gave you the points, but you should know that Shakespeare mentioned a whole lot more places than there are dots on this map. One quick way to know this map is different is that Shakespeare actually mentioned America in Act III, Scene II of The Comedy of Errors—so, if we were going to show you all the places he mentioned, we would first have to get a bigger map!

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