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Updated 10:00 AM October 16, 2006




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U-M maps add controversy and depth to the Bard's plays

Like so many Shakespeare plays, maps from the Bard's late 16th century England also project historical or contemporary themes of wealth, prestige, power and controversy.
This map of the Bermuda Islands, part of the Clements exhibition, appeared in atlases sometime between 1630 and 1635. The islands were the setting for Shakespeare's lone apparent allusion to America in his play, "The Tempest," a work some critics allege Shakespeare did not write. (Photo by Lin Jones, U-M Photo Services)

In conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company's residence, the Clements Library has mounted a selection of maps from its rich cartographic collections that reflect some of the geographical information available to educated Britons of Shakespeare's time. Titled "Shakespeare's Worlds in Maps," these images also record a few of the contemporary events that helped create a part for England on the international stage.

"With so much maritime activity, conflict and exploration under way during William Shakespeare's lifetime, it seems puzzling that, with one possible exception, the Americas do not figure in his plays," said Brian Dunnigan, curator of maps at the Clements.

That exception appears to be "The Tempest," a play some contend was based on a notorious 1609 shipwreck off the Bermuda Islands. Whatever the source of inspiration for "The Tempest," some critics contend Shakespeare did not even write the play. The Clements exhibition of maps makes no judgment one way or the other, but does offer a map of the islands that appeared in atlases sometime between 1630-35.

Under Elizabeth I, maps published in atlases often were known as "theatres", a common use in the Renaissance. Among the exhibits at the Clements is John Speed's 1613 atlas "The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine," providing a view of London, the center of Shakespeare's dramatic career. In the foreground of this map appear two theaters, one Shakespeare's own Globe, and both easily identified as they stand out from the surrounding structures.

Just as the playwright's London is provided, so is a 1579 atlas of England and Wales that shows the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, north and west of Oxford, the place of Shakespeare's birth and death. But on this early map, the town is designated as "Stretford."

From a 1486 map of the ancient world to those of the Roman Empire, the New World, New England and Jamestown, the Clements exhibition offers a treasure of woodblock and copper-engraved maps, some colored by hand with watercolors.

The free exhibition continues through Dec. 22. The Clements, located at 909 S. University, is open weekdays 1-4:45 p.m. or by special arrangement. For more information call 764-2347.

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