Mapping “the Scottish Play”
Celebrating Shakespeare’s Quatercentenary

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In the late-16th century when William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was creating plays and poetry, two of his Continental contemporaries ”“ distinguished geographers and mapmakers Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) and Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) ”“ were creating maps and atlases in Duisburg and Antwerp respectively.

Mercator, also a fine engraver, calligrapher and mathematician, was the first person to coin the term ”˜Atlas’, producing his world atlas in instalments between 1585 and 1595, but it was his friend and rival, Ortelius, who is credited with first producing in 1570 what we recognise today as a world atlas – a bound volume of printed maps covering the world. Ortelius gathered the maps for this from many different sources, all fully attributed, and published as his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum ”“ the theatre of the world. Interestingly, Ortelius may also have been the first to suspect, and record his view, that from their closely-matching shapes, the Atlantic coastlines of Africa, America and Europe were once joined, but were ”˜torn apart’ at some point in the past. He proved to be well ahead in his thinking, given that ideas of continental drift and subsequent acceptance of plate tectonics theory did not gain full scientific approval until the mid-20th century.

These three celebrated men, Shakespeare, Mercator and Ortelius, lived at a time when the art and science of mapmaking had shifted from its earlier important Mediterranean bases, notably in Italy, to the Low Countries. With the strong cultural and trading links across the North Sea at that time, their respective publications would have been known both sides of this great waterway. It is interesting too to reflect that Shakespeare’s first theatre in London, built in 1599, was named The Globe, and that the first word of the title of Ortelius’s world atlas was Theatre.

Shakespeare’s ”˜Scottish play’, Macbeth, written between 1599 and 1606, includes reference to a number of locations having powerful resonance ”“ Cawdor, Birnam, Dunsinane and MacDuff’s Castle. To mark his Quatercentenary we feature images of early maps from our Collections showing these. See if you can spot the above place names in the images. 

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Shakespeare’s dates are almost identical too to those of one of Scotland’s most important early map-makers, Timothy Pont (ca 1565-1614), whose manuscript maps of Scotland produced in the late 16thcentury were later to provide the basis for what is often referred to popularly as the ”˜First Atlas of Scotland’, published in Amsterdam in 1654. The surviving manuscript maps are held in the National Library of Scotland.

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