The settings of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays cast a wide net across Europe. The majority are set outside of England, providing his audiences with intriguing, foreign lands and allowing for flexibility in expressing social and political commentary. Our free, downloadable map of Shakespeare’s plays features the locations and dates of his comedies, tragedies, and histories across Europe, which can serve as a helpful resource in your classroom to show how each location lends itself to different types of plays.
Let’s take a look at five ways in which you can reference our Shakespeare map during your lessons or classroom activities.
1. Explaining Historical Context
When teaching Shakespeare’s plays, it’s important to note that Shakespeare wrote to entertain. While many of Shakespeare’s plays feature historical elements, their historical accuracy is often dramatized for the sake of performance. Because Shakespeare’s plays were being performed in public theater, the audience was composed of a wide range of economic, educational, and social levels. Therefore, the characters Shakespeare included in his plays hail from a variety of different backgrounds and social classes to make them relatable to the audience.
Additionally, many of the characters are created with stereotypes and prejudices that would fit the audience’s understanding of a place and its people. Why exaggerate history? Shakespeare produces a historical bias in his plays that favor the Queen and the Tudor dynasty.
Examples of the historical events exaggerated for the stage:
- Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays and Richard III were part of “The War of the Roses,” that portrayed the conflict between the House of Lancaster and The House of York. While the War of the Roses was a real event, historians claim that there were no actual roses involved as symbols for the houses. In fact, The War of Roses was not coined until the 19th century, and the struggle between the two houses had been known as the “Cousins’ War.”
- One of Shakespeare’s most monstrous characters is Richard III, who is depicted as a relentless murderer in the interests of his own ambitions. While Richard III was responsible for the execution and murder of several people during his rule, Shakespeare exaggerated the long list of ghosts who haunt him in the play. For example, there is no proof that King Richard III murdered his wife, Anne, or King Henry IV.
2. Analyzing Shakespeare’s Commentary
Although Shakespeare’s plays reflect the cultural, social, and political conditions of the Elizabethan Age, Shakespeare could not explicitly critique the monarchy without being accused of treason or slander. Therefore, Shakespeare used foreign settings to mask his criticism of Christian orthodoxies and political ideologies of England. For example, by setting plays in Rome, Shakespeare could discuss sensitive issues like the political assassination of Julius Caesar.
Examples of Shakespeare’s commentary:
- In both Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts murder and regicide as means of obtaining positions of power. Setting these types of violent scenes in foreign countries allowed Shakespeare to criticize powerful leaders without being prosecuted for treason or having his plays censored.
- In King John, Shakespeare explored the issue of what establishes a “right” to the throne of England, which alludes to the doubts of legitimacy regarding both King John and Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
3. Exploring the Setting of Comedies
A majority of Shakespeare’s comedies are set throughout contemporary Italy and the Mediterranean. During the 17th century, English writers were fascinated by their Italian neighbors and regarded them as passionate, devious, and often violent people. The Italian stereotype leant itself to the comedic elements in his plays that feature tangled plots of love and mistaken identity. In Shakespeare’s characterization of different Italian cities, Verona became associated with love (Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona), while Padua was a place of learning as described in The Taming of The Shrew.
Reoccurring themes in Shakespeare’s comedies:
- Appearance vs. reality – Elements of mistaken identity or disguise to advance the plot and characters
- Fate and fortune – The influence of fate, fortune, or some obscure force that changes characters’ course of action
- Love and romance – Characters that fall in love and must overcome various obstacles in order to be together—or die trying
4. Exploring the Setting of Tragedies
Shakespeare’s tragedies include a protagonist, or tragic hero, battling internal or external obstacles. A majority of Shakespeare’s tragedies are based on historical figures, but because the sources of the stories were foreign and ancient, they are almost always classified as tragedies rather than histories.
Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies are set in Great Britain and Scandinavia (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth) or around contemporary Italy (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus). There were many social and political similarities in classical Rome and 17th century England, in which Shakespeare could reflect familiar stories to his audience that resonated with their experience living in Elizabethan England. The Roman tragedies raise questions about the consequences of political overthrow and the duty of citizens and their government.
Reoccurring themes in Shakespeare’s tragedies:
- Death – Conclusions often end in death to comment on human morality or to resolve conflicts in the plot
- Tragic flaw (hamartia) – A character trait that leads to a fall from power or eventual demise
- Revenge– Often motivated by uncontrolled jealousy that leads to tragic consequences
5. Exploring the Setting of Histories
Shakespeare wrote ten historical plays that explore political themes of power and divine right with blended elements of tragedy and comedy. All ten history plays are named for and about English monarchs who ruled between the 12th and 16th centuries: Kings John, Edward, Richard II, Richard III, and Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Henry VIII. The history play explore the nature of kingship and what grounds are justifiable to oppose or overthrow it. While the majority of history plays are set in medieval England, they reflect the contemporary context of Shakespeare’s time and may be perceived as warnings to not repeat mistakes of the past.
Reoccurring themes in Shakespeare’s histories:
- Ambition – A motivator for characters to pursue positions of power or to overthrow those who currently possess it
- Corruption – Characters who are corrupted by nature or circumstance that leads them to abandon their moral constraints
- Succession – Who or what dictates kingship and how is one able to obtain that power
Want more Shakespeare? Check out our other Shakespeare resources to use in your classroom: