William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 and died in April 1616. His active career as a playwright and writer spanned from approximately 1588 to 1612. During those twenty-four years, Europe was going through a period of unprecedented global expansion as it established the hegemony it was to maintain for centuries.
By way of illustration, between 1606 and 1612, Shakespeare’s productions included King Lear, MacBeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles and The Tempest (Bloom, 1985, p. 191). During that same short period the English founded Virginia (1607), the French founded Quebec (1608), the Spanish founded Santa Fe (1609), and the Dutch founded New Amsterdam/New York (1612) (Palmer and Colton, 1978, p. 948). Ultimately, global expansion was a key aspect of political developments during this period.
Consequently, maritime voyages of discovery and the heroics of individual explorers were subjects of popular discussion and popular art at the time. Critics have suggested that the plotting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where a ship founders on an island peopled by survivors of a previous mishap, was directly inspired by events relating to global exploration (Wills, 1995, p. 37). The following brief discussion will detail the events of discovery and exploration that were ongoing during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Interestingly, during Shakespeare’s lifetime the English had only recently ‘discovered’ Russia via the White Sea. Commercially, it remained a new development where they predominated. However, during Shakespeare’s lifetime the most important English discoveries were being made in North America, predominantly in the illusive search for the ‘northwest passage’ to the riches of China and the spice producing regions. The search for the Northwest Passage began with Frobisher’s first voyage in 1576, launched when Shakespeare was twelve. While initial discoveries of gold proved unfounded exploration in the region of Baffin Island and Greenland was continued in 1585 by John Davies.
As Shakespeare’s career reached its apogee, the ill-fated explorer Henry Hudson met his end. In 1607 and 1608 Hudson led expeditions searching for a northeast passage north of Norway and Russia. In 1609, while working for the Dutch, he explored his namesake the Hudson River in a voyage that led directly to the establishment of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan three years later. However, in 1610, Hudson sailed for the Northwest Passage. Icebound over the winter, he announced his intention to continue the quest. His mutinous crew refused and set Hudson, his son, and a handful of loyal sailors adrift in a small boat in the bay that now bears his name (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 1988, p. 1019). Thus, as Shakespeare’s career reached its climax, British explorers were actively searching for both a northeast and a northwest passage through the Arctic to Asia.
At the same time they were exploring the possibility of settling areas in North America between the French settlements in the St Lawrence and the Spanish dominions. The first was in Virginia (1607) and eventually a string of settlements “were established in a long string from Newfoundland to Barbados”(Parry, 1961, p. 106). Uniquely, these British settlement attempts were joint-stock enterprises given legitimacy by a royal charter. According to Parry, discussion of the benefits, costs and complications of exploration and settlement in North America was “the subject of careful and detailed discussion” during the first decade of the seventeenth century (1961, p. 106). It is intriguing to contemplate Shakespeare’s attitude on this pressing contemporary issue.
One aspect of the underside of the global advances England was making was the development of the slave trade. English involvement in the New World slave trade from Africa commenced in 1562, two years before Shakespeare’s birth and flourished during his lifetime (Swisher, 1998, p. 170).
The English were by no means alone in the race for discovery. Their continental Catholic enemies, the Spanish and French, were also active. In the Americas, Spain had established dominion throughout South (Cortez, 1530) and Central America (Pizzaro, 1521) with the only exception being Portuguese settlement in Brazil. The discovery of silver in Peru in 1545 and subsequent discoveries of gold enriched the Spanish treasury. During Shakespeare’s age ‘authorized’ pirates such as Sir Francis Drake became famous for raiding the Spanish galleons as they returned to Spain (Parry, 1961, pp 60-64).
To the North of the British, the French were active in the St Lawrence area (as noted earlier Quebec was established in 1607). Cautiously the French were pressing inland from their tenuous shoreline establishments in the Maritimes and along the St Lawrence. Samuel de Champlain was beginning three decades in the New World and establishing the basis for the French fur trading empire (Parry, 1961, pp. 121-122).
The Portuguese were also extremely active in India and throughout the east at the time. In the closing decades of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese led by Diaz and da Gama had been the first to ‘turn’ the horn of Africa and reach India by sea (Palmer and Colton, 1978, p. 102). Portugal, the smallest of the European powers, had been one of the first European nations to vigorously pursue exploration. It maintained colonial interests in Brazil, India, and South Asia/Malaysia.
Ultimately, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, all the major European powers viewed exploration and expansion as an imperative. In Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and England it was viewed as the foundation of commercial prosperity and a key element of government policy.
Clearly, as the above commentary has firmly established, the major European powers, including England, were firmly committed to exploration and colonization or, at least, commercial exploitation during Shakespeare’s lifetime. However, another, equally important form of discovery was also ongoing. As Europe was expanding the boundaries of the known world and extending its dominion over the globe, a mental revolution was also underway and the universe as a whole was being redefined.
Shakespeare’s productive life is neatly placed in the midst of the century between the publication of Copernicus’ Revolutions of Heavenly Orbs (1543) and the death of Galileo (1642) (Kuhn, 1957, pp. 224-226). Thus, even as Europeans explored the globe, they were also redefining the structure of the solar system as well as digesting the idea that the earth was not the center of the solar system. The Ptolemaic system was losing its ascendancy after centuries of being unchallenged.
This scientific or cosmological revolution was also an important aspect of ‘exploration and discovery’ during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Adjusting the earth’s place in the cosmos was as important a development as the spectacular advances that were being made in the exploration of the surface of the earth itself during Shakespeare’s productive years. In conclusion, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Europe was experiencing a period of unprecedented global expansion and erudition, as it established the hegemony it was to maintain for centuries.
Bloom, Howard “Chronology” in William Shakespeare, The Tragedies Chelsea House Pubs: 1985, p. 191.
The Canadian Encyclopedia Hurtig Pubs: 1988.
Kuhn, Thomas S The Copernican Revolution Harvard University Press: 1957.
Palmer, R R and Joel Colton A History of the Modern World Alfred A Knopf: 1978.
Parry, J H The Establishment of the European Hegemony: 1415-1715 Harper & Row: 1961.
Swisher, Clarice “Chronology” in Readings on Macbeth Clarice Dwisher ed. Greenhaven Press Inc. 1998, pp. 170-174.
Wills, Gary Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth Literary Research Inc: 1995.