Shakespeare 400

To commemorate 400 years since William Shakespeare’s death, Dr. Louise Wilson, Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, has been delving into the treasures of Special Collections to share with you some of the books we hold here at Liverpool Hope University that Shakespeare would have been very familiar with.

Abraham Ortelius. Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theatre of the countries of the world). 1584.

The locations of Shakespeare’s plays range across the early modern known world, including Lebanon (Tyre), Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, and Denmark; however, for Europeans, there were still parts of the world that remained unexplored in Shakespeare’s time and America was a newly discovered continent. Imaginative accounts of the places, people, and creatures yet to be seen feature in the plays, especially Othello and The Tempest.

Abraham Ortelius. Theatrum orbis terrarum. Africae ff.4 (B567)

The latest geographical knowledge was charted in the Theatrum orbis terrarum, the first ever atlas, produced by the Flemish geographers Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator, and the printer-publisher Christophe Plantin. It was published in Antwerp in 1570 and became a bestseller throughout early modern Europe. The atlas was published in 33 editions over 41 years and translated into six other European languages from its original Latin. Earlier books of maps had relied on the ancient Greek geography of Ptolemy. This atlas brought together the latest knowledge of the world from seafaring, including the recent European discovery of the Americas.

Othello woos Desdemona with stories of the people and places he has seen as his soldiering took him to far-flung places:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,                                         (caves)
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak – such was my process –
And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads                                   (man-eaters)
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

(Shakespeare, Othello, I.3.141-146)

B567_Scandia90_Halfbeast creature

Abraham Ortelius. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. ff. 90 (B567)

But it is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, set on an imaginary island in the Mediterranean with strong hints of the New World of America, which most fully explores the limits of European geographical knowledge and the potential for imaginative encounters with mythical creatures that still populated the waters and blank spaces of scholarly maps like Ortelius’. The sorcerer Prospero’s spirit, Ariel, is told to transform himself into ‘a nymph o’th’sea’ (I.2.302) and the island is home to a native creature, Caliban, whose mother was imprisoned by Prospero when he landed there. Caliban is variously described by the Europeans as a ‘tortoise’, ‘savage’, ‘fish’, ‘monster’, ‘mooncalf’ and ‘puppy-headed’. He, however, knows the wonders of the island and shares his knowledge with the shipwrecked Italian men he encounters:

I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries;
I’ll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough.
I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow,
And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts,
Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee
To clust’ring filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee                          (hazelnuts)
Young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?                   (2.2.157-69)

B567_TerraSancta97_Ship & Halfman

Abraham Ortelius. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. ff.97 (B567)


John Gerard. Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants. 1636.

Shakespeare’s plays and poems are full of references to plants and the natural world. In the early modern world, plants, flowers, and herbs were known for their practical (medicinal and culinary, in particular) and symbolic properties; for example, the herb rosemary was associated with the Virgin Mary and remembrance. While this kind of knowledge had been popular for centuries, it was formalized in the early modern period in books called ‘Herbals’, which contained practical information on the history, cultivation, and use of plants, illustrated with lavish woodcuts, and Shakespeare would have consulted them for the botanical references in his work.

B410_title page

John Gerard. Herball, or General Historie of Plants. Title page (B410 Folio)

The most famous Elizabethan herbalist was John Gerard. His Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants was first published in 1597 and reprinted and expanded many times during the seventeenth century. Much of it is a translation of the Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoens’ herbal of 1554 (a 1559 edition is in Liverpool Hope’s Special Collections), but Gerard added plants from the New World into an English herbal for the first time. The portrait of Gerard on the title-page shows him holding a potato plant, which had only been introduced into England in 1586.

B410_Potato plant

Portrait of John Gerard from the title page of Gerard’s Herball. (B410 Folio)

In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita (a princess brought up as a shepherdess) distributes symbolically chosen plants to members of the sheep-shearing feast, including rosemary, rue, carnations and ‘gillyvors’ (gillyflowers, pinks) in Act Four, Scene Four, just as Ophelia famously does in Hamlet, giving out rosemary, pansies, rue, fennel, columbines and daisies (Act Four, Scene Five).

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John Gerard. Herball or the Generall Historie of Plants. p. 1260. (B410 Folio)

The colour and perfume of roses perhaps hold the greatest significance for Shakespeare. Juliet argues that ‘that which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet’ (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.43-44) and Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) claims ‘I have seen roses damasked, red and white, / But no such roses see I in her cheeks;’. Although Sir Walter Scott may have introduced the term ‘Wars of the Roses’, Shakespeare’s use of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster to symbolise the two royal houses in his history plays associates the plants and political allegiance:

Plantagenet: Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honour of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this briar pluck a white rose with me.
Somerset: Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth,
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me. (Henry VI, Part One, 2.45.27-33)



John Foxe. The Actes and Monuments (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs). 1576.

The Actes and Monuments (more popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) was a vast and hugely influential early modern text. Foxe published a short version in Latin in 1559, but the first English version was published in 1563 and relates, with woodcut illustrations, the deaths of Protestant martyrs throughout English history, including 300 executed when Catholicism was briefly restored under Mary Tudor from 1553-58. Subsequent editions of Foxe’s book were expanded and the two-volume 1570 edition had more than 2,300 pages. The Church of England decreed that this 1570 edition should be placed in every cathedral church and made available to all congregations to consult; as a result, it became very widely known and had an enduring influence on opinions of Catholicism in England.


John Foxe. The Actes and Monuments. 1576. p. 664 (Gradwell Collection)

Shakespeare drew on The Actes and Monuments for his history plays, including sections of Henry VI, Parts Two and Three and Henry VIII. One Protestant martyr detailed in Foxe may have been the inspiration for one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, Sir John Falstaff, Hal’s roguish companion in Henry IV Parts One and Two, resurrected owing to popular demand in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare appears to have come under pressure from Oldcastle’s influential descendant, Lord Cobham, the Lord Chamberlain from 1596-97, to change the name from Oldcastle to Falstaff, but residual indications of the earlier name remain in the texts: Hal refers to Falstaff as ‘my old lad of the castle’ in Henry IV, Part One (1.2.40), and critics have noted that the two-syllable ‘Falstaff’ does not fit the metre of the play as well as the three-syllable ‘Oldcastle’; moreover, one speech prefix ‘Old.’ appears in Henry IV, Part Two and the Epilogue protests ‘Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man’.

Liverpool Hope’s Special Collections holds two early editions of The Actes and Monuments (the third and sixth editions). The image above of Sir John Oldcastle’s martyrdom is taken from the third edition in the Gradwell Collection.



Raphael Holinshed. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587.

Much of the action of Shakespeare’s history plays, as well as his plays set in ancient Britain including Macbeth and Cymbeline, is based on the accounts in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Although it carries Holinshed’s name, the Chronicles was in fact the product of a number of scholars and printers. Its two volumes were first published in small folio format in 1577; a second edition appeared in 1587 in the more prestigious large folio format. The woodcut illustrations from the first edition had gone, and so had several passages on contemporary history which fell foul of the censors, but all sections had been expanded and updated.

The Chronicles was the most influential book of Tudor historiography in Shakespeare’s time, and was used widely by other major Elizabethan writers including Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene.

Liverpool Hope holds the three-volume 1587 edition which belonged to the antiquarian and archaeologist, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 2nd Baronet (1758-1838).


Raphael Holinshed. Chronicles. Title page (B467 Folio)



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