Walking with Will: A Shakespeare 400 Celebration

The Complete Walk is a free event taking place on the South Bank on Saturday 23rd April (10am-10pm) and Sunday 24th April (10am-8pm).  For more details and a map, see http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/special-events/the-complete-walk.

CELIA                     Didst thou hear these verses?

ROSALIND            O, yes, I heard them all, and more too; for some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.

CELIA                     That’s no matter: the feet might bear the verses.

ROSALIND            Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse.

(As You Like It 3.2.1275-80)

People have been making jokes about metrical and anatomical feet since the dawn of time.  Or at least since the ancient Greeks, whose word πούς had the same double signification.  The Romans inherited both the word – pes – and the pun, and took to it with gleeful enthusiasm.  Shakespeare himself was not above a good ‘foot’ joke, as the wonderful (prose) passage in which Celia and Rosalind mock Orlando’s attempts at love poetry demonstrates.

It is appropriate, then, that for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare’s Globe is staging a ‘Complete Walk’ all down the South Bank.  The idea is that this weekend (23rd-24th April), members of the public can walk from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, going from screen to screen watching a specially-made short film for each play.  In approximately 5000 steps (2.5 miles) you can take your own journey through Shakespeare’s works, while literally following in his footsteps along the Thames.

Each of the films combines archive footage with scenes that have been shot for them in the locations hovering in Shakespeare’s imagination as he wrote.  Of course, there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever set foot on foreign soil, and his geographical nous has frequently been (often rather smugly) called into question.  A prime example is the infamous coast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale – Ben Jonson was only the first in a long line of critics to point out that Bohemia is in fact land-locked.  The eighteenth-century editor Thomas Hanmer, indeed, was so distressed by Shakespeare’s demonstration of his ignorance, that he altered ‘Bohemia’ to the suitably-coasted ‘Bithynia’.  But in this case the last laugh may belong to Shakespeare – there is considerable contemporary evidence that invoking the ‘coast of Bohemia’ was akin to referencing the Swiss Navy.

Another claim that is frequently made is that all of Shakespeare’s settings are effectively thinly-veiled disguises for Elizabethan London.  This is, of course, to a great extent true.  However, it is also clear that Shakespeare did conceive of differences between his locations, from Milford Haven to the islands of the Mediterranean.  The Complete Walk rather brilliantly allows walkers to experience this double-vision, layering the imagined landscape onto the one in which Shakespeare’s own feet were firmly rooted.

If Shakespeare had never left England, what were the sources from which he drew inspiration for his foreign places and people? Any answers to that question will necessarily be speculative, but can be fascinating.  There are some clues in the plays themselves.  In Twelfth Night, for example, Maria describes how Malvolio ‘does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies’ (3.2.74-6).  This map has been identified as one by Edward Wright, which appeared in Hakylut’s Voyages in 1599:

Edward Wright, 'A chart of the world on Mercator’s projection’ (c.1599). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Wright, ‘A chart of the world on Mercator’s projection’ (c.1599). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare may have seen a copy of Georg Braun’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published between 1572 and 1617, which contains beautifully illustrated maps of nearly all the cities which feature in his plays.  The map of Alexandria is suitably exotic, with palm trees and camels wandering around outside the walls.  Within the city, ancient ruins stand alongside newer buildings.  There are no pyramids, but interestingly there is a structure labelled ‘obeliscus’ – it has been argued that Shakespeare conceived of pyramids as obelisk-like structures, and that this is how he thought of Cleopatra’s monument in Antony and Cleopatra.

Braun & Hogenberg, view of Alexandria, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1588-1617). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Braun & Hogenberg, view of Alexandria, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1588-1617). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messauod, by an unknown artist (c.1600). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messauod, by an unknown artist (c.1600). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While Shakespeare’s London might not quite have been the cosmopolitan melting-pot it is today, trade and politics brought people and objects from the far corners of the earth.  In 1600, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud was the Moroccan ambassador to Elizabeth’s court.  Some scholars have suggested that he personally inspired the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s Othello.

However that may be, there was a growing sense by the turn of the century that London was at the centre of a network of geographical possibilities that were rapidly opening up.  Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, completed in 1580, was emblematic of this.  In fact, Geoffrey Whitney included in his Choice of Emblems (1586) an emblem for Francis Drake entitled ‘Auxilio divino’, showing cords from his boat encircling the globe, held at one end by a divine hand.  Looking at this image, it is difficult not to think of Puck’s exuberant boast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes’ (2.1.547-8).

'Auxilio Divino', from Geoffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586). Source: https://www.mun.ca/alciato/whit/w203.html.

‘Auxilio Divino’, from Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblems (1586).

Even in these days of high-speed air travel, we still can’t quite approach the speed of Puck.  Though we may be on average better-travelled than Shakespeare, few people walking along the South Bank even in 2016 will be lucky enough to have had the opportunity to visit all of the places which Shakespeare chose for the locations of his plays.  The Complete Walk will bring them all to London, to the very heart of Shakespeare’s theatrical world, so that borne by our own feet we can visit them, in a twenty-first century embodiment of the imaginative potential of Shakespeare’s verses.

Carla Suthren is a PhD candidate at the University of York working on Shakespeare and the Renaissance reception of Euripides.  She has been working as a research assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe for the Complete Walk project, focusing on images that might have inspired Shakespeare’s works.

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