A belated celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday
—though in my defence nobody seems to know the date anyway—
in which I realise too late that Shakespeare and travel writing have little in common…
And I’ll be sworn ’tis true: travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em.
—Antonio, The Tempest
‘Say it, Othello.’ Picture the scene: a shabby-chic rooftop café somewhere, all nursing warm beers. The Moor is holding forth over a small pot of hummus: ‘battles, sieges, fortunes… hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach…’
It seems all your companions are equally well travelled. To your left, two women are comparing souvenirs. The Queen of the Fairies, waving a bottle of Hoegaarden, is showing off her latest: ‘a lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king’.
She is interrupted by a bearded lady, who proudly displays a severed thumb. ‘Yes, all the way from Syria… In a sieve I thither sailed, like a rat without a tail—it’s the only way to really see the place…’
You try a #humblebrag of your own. ‘This one time in Hampi, I swallowed a bug the size of a cat.’
Othello stares at you, and continues with his story:
of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
Shakespeare has a way with the world. As a cold, bored schoolchild, I was tickled by this playful geography—though today, as a sometime travel writer, it seems dangerous to admit.
In Shakespeare’s lifetime, arguably the first great age of globalization, travel literature was almost as popular as it is now—and the playwright devoured it. His plays meander all over the map, from the castles of Denmark and Scotland to Vienna, Ephesus, and Fair Verona. Today, inevitably, a whole host of tourist companies have cashed in to offer Shakespeare tours.
But this geography is both evocative and slippery. After all, Shax didn’t actually travel outside England himself. Nobody is even really sure why his theatre was called The Globe. Sometimes his locations seem thin and almost interchangeable: deserts, wilds, blasted heaths and vasty deeps. The Tempest is set on a mysterious cloud-laced island—the Mediterranean? Bermuda? Ireland?—on the brink of dissolving into thin air. Ben Jonson, more of a details man, noted tartly that Shakespeare had located a ‘shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles’.
Then there are Shakespeare’s funny foreigners themselves, from Amazons to Othello’s Anthropophagi. He is hardly a documentary realist, or a cuddly liberal cosmopolitan: his world is stuffed with pirates, savages, witches, fairies, dukes, changelings, embittered Jews, perfidious Frenchmen, and rumours of mountain folk ‘Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em / Wallets of flesh’. (He appears to draw the line at unicorns.) Nor is his history any more accurate: his Cleopatra pauses to play billiards.
What is the hold of Shakespeare’s sense of place, then? Should we worry, with Jonson, about his relaxed attitude to authenticity? Certainly this isn’t travel literature as we know it—though great travel writers from Marco Polo to Bruce Chatwin have also been accused of telling porkies.
There is certainly something thrilling about the potential for wonder in the Shakespearean world. There can be no such words as HERE THERE BE DRAGONS in the age of Google Maps. Tall tales must be that bit shorter.
But only lazy writing is really about dragons in the first place. Shakespeare’s plays are not about the destination—but neither are they about ‘the journey’, as the cliché goes. Sure, his characters are stormed, shipwrecked, and jump off cliffs. Unlike most pre-millennial travel literature, though, only rarely do we see them actually en voyage. Instead we see people, in all their infinite variety, grappling with the cultural vertigo that comes from strange places, metamorphosis, and the inevitable comparisons with home.
It’s a curiously fitting vision for the twenty-first century. We, at least of we of the wealthy tourist class, are all castaways, constantly remaking ourselves (and swapping gender roles?). But it’s also an age when travel is banal, and Puck’s words are (almost) true:
OBERON: We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon…
PUCK: I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
So I guess the lesson I took from all those schooldays with Shax was really quite simple. No matter where you are, go forth and chat with all the perfidious Frenchmen and bearded ladies you can find.*
* Author’s note: I wrote this a while before Eurovision, but… I rest my case.