From the brothel-pocked streets of contemporary Vienna to the shadowy castles of feudal Scotland, the settings of Shakespeare’s plays are often exceptionally vivid. They also reveal an ear sharply attuned not only to the social and political scene in Elizabethan England, but also to the broader currents running through a Europe whose fortunes and catastrophes were becoming increasingly intertwined.
Visiting these various settings provides much scope for chin-stroking reflection, then – as well as the chance to whisper, "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" beneath Juliet’s balcony. Or, "O what a piece of work is man!" in a vaulted Danish fortress. Those feeling empowered can even try a little, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!" among the ruins of the Roman Forum. And for the long-winded thespian, a 14th-century Scottish castle where "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day…" Little might be known about the legendary bard, but his soul is strewn all through Europe, waiting to be uncovered.
Not a great deal is known about Shakespeare’s early life in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he lived through his childhood, adolescence and early twenties before taking off to pursue his love of the stage in London. He was baptized in the Church of the Holy Trinity in April 1564, and grew up in a house in the town that has been open to visitors and literary pilgrims for more than 250 years, and remains a beautifully preserved, hugely evocative museum today. In 1582, while still living in the city, he applied for a license to marry Anne Hathaway, perhaps the culmination of a love affair that resonates through so many of the plays, both comedies and tragedies, he would later write. Soon after, Shakespeare made the necessary move to London, but following his successes in London’s booming theater scene he chose to buy the second-biggest house in the town, New Place, which is where he died in April 1616. Stratford itself is a pretty, rural English town, set on the banks of the River Avon, and visitors can watch a production of Shakespeare’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Sometime between 1587 and 1592 - five years in which Shakespeare disappears entirely from any historical record - the young actor and dramatist moved to London. He entered a theater industry shaken by the plague, but which recovered swiftly and, by the mid-1590s, was booming. It was concentrated on Bankside, an iconic stretch along the south bank of the River Thames, where a string of legendary Elizabethan theaters - The Rose, The Globe, The Swan - were situated. They were placed here because it fell just outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and so morally questionable practices - bear baiting, prostitution and playhouses - could exist with greater freedom. When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, attending the theater was a rowdy affair, with none of the hushed reverence we now associate with the art form; people may have talked, heckled and even thrown fruit during early showings of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These days, of course, Shakespeare has been drawn tight into the establishment embrace: you can visit memorials in Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral, and attend plays in the rebuilt Globe Theatre, where standing tickets can be bought for a fiver.
"Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark," Marcellus whispers to Hamlet early in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. In fact, Denmark was flourishing during Shakespeare’s day, as is evidenced by Kronborg Castle, a magnificent Renaissance fortress overlooking the ship-strewn Sound separating Sweden and Denmark. Constructed in the 1570s in the town of Helsingør (often pronounced Elsinore), Shakespeare seized on this striking new castle and made it the setting for his drama about a legendary Danish Prince. You can tour the evocative setting for Hamlet, muse on suicide in its opulent banqueting hall, and watch actors perform the play at the castle’s annual Shakespeare Festival.
Shakespeare drew on the history of ancient Rome for two of his most brutal explorations of the nature of power, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Following in the playwright’s imaginative footsteps will take visitors to some of the city’s most evocative archaeological sites. Among the fragmented ruins of the Largo di Torre Argentina, visitors can find the spot where it is believed Caesar was murdered by a cabal of elite conspirators. Here, in Shakespeare’s play, Caesar utters the line that invests him with a final, melancholy heroism: ""Et tu, Brute? - Then fall, Caesar." Then, it’s a short walk over to the Roman Forum, where Mark Antony delivers his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, a funeral oration for Caesar which deploys the power of language to turn the tide of popular opinion against the violent conspirators.
Riding through rough Scottish heathland on his return from a successful campaign against the Irish, Scottish noble Macbeth is accosted by three bedraggled and bearded women. Each addresses Macbeth by a different title: the first by his current position, Thane of Glamis; the second by a more prestigious title, Thane of Cawdor; and the third declares that he "shalt be king hereafter!" These words ignite a terrible ambition in Macbeth, who proceeds to wreak murderous havoc in pursuit of the Scottish crown. Much of the play’s darkest and most sinister action takes place in Glamis Castle, where Macbeth is spurred on to murder Duncan by his ruthless wife. You can visit this castle today, a beautiful turreted stone structure set in the rolling green foothills of the Angus Glens. You can also visit Cawdor Castle, which doesn’t appear in the play, and Inverness Castle, which according to legend was built by Malcolm after he had defeated the traitorous Macbeth. Even if the latter two only have a shaky connection to Shakey’s play, they are worth visiting simply for their setting among the wild and dramatic Scottish Highlands.
Shakespeare’s gloriously surreal comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream moves between the ordered, hierarchical world of Athens and a magical and subversive forest that lies just beyond the city’s bounds. In Athens, the strict father Egeus strives to make his daughter, Hermia, marry the man of his choice. Hermia, however, loves another, and runs off into the woods with him. Entering this forest brings the lovers into the realm of the fairies, magical creatures who, despite their powers, struggle with similar incompetencies and tensions as the humans back in Athens. A topsy-turvy night unfolds: men are turned into donkeys, love zings unpredictably back and forth, and androgynous fairies toy with masculine desire, until the human lovers tumble back into Athens and the happy order of marriage. The play’s Athenian world, elegant, ordered and colourful, is reflected in classical sites such as the Theater of Dionysus, the Temple of Hephaestus, and the ruins-dotted National Garden. Stepping into the wilder, fairy-filled world of the forest, however, can only be done through your own imagination.
Venice exerted a powerful and conflicting hold on the English imagination in Elizabethan England. Trade, largely propelled by Venice’s aptitude in shipping, had made the city-state one of Europe’s richest societies, and turned it into a cosmopolitan center of international exchange - precisely, in fact, what many of England’s more forward-thinking citizens envisaged for their own society. On the other hand, in tension with this desire for trade, development, adventure and affluence, there was a fear that this very internationalism could erode England’s national character and threaten its traditional power structures. In the play, these latter fears are concentrated and directed with startling antisemitism at the Jewish character of Shylock. The gleaming world of Renaissance Venice that so drew the daydreams of Shakespeare’s England can be explored today in sites such as the Doge’s Palace, residence of the Venetian Republic’s ruler, and the streets that composed the Venetian Ghetto, which is still a center of Jewish life in the city.
Based on an old Italian folk tale set in Verona, Shakespeare’s decision to retain the city as the location for Romeo and Juliet has left the city synonymous with doomed love ever since. Visitors to Verona can visit the real-life settings where the play’s most famous moments, being entirely fictional, never took place. But they still hold a certain evocative power, especially if you’ve been enraptured by the play’s quick-moving narrative, and perhaps sensed in it a metaphor for your own failed first romance. There’s the Casa di Giulietta, with its small stone balcony beneath which lovers queue to kiss in the summer months. A short stroll will then take you to Romeo’s House, with a fortress-like appearance that reflects the faction-riven political scene which drives the play’s ultimate tragedy. And you can finish your fictional tour by shedding a few tears at Juliet’s Grave, in the chill and atmospheric San Francesco al Corso monastery.
Messina is a somewhat unusual setting for a play scribed in Elizabethan England, and the decision to set the entirety of Much Ado About Nothing in the city has even led some Shakespeare scholars to speculate that the playwright may have been born there. But in many ways Messina’s sun-baked Sicilian scenery provides an ideal backdrop to the play’s meticulously handled plot, in which the all-consuming passion of two younger lovers runs alongside the slower, wittier, wiser courtship of Benedick and Beatrice. A sign close to the picturesque Messina Cathedral commemorates Shakespeare’s decision to set his play in the city.
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays, rife with role-playing, disguise, uncomfortable comedy, and hypocrisy. Gone are the villains and heroes, the discernible values and clear-cut endings of many of his other narratives; this is a farrago of conflicting interests and perspectives, where sincerity dissolves in the necessity for deception. As you might imagine, then, it’s not particularly flattering to the self-image of its setting, the city of Vienna, at the time the seat of the Holy Roman Empire: venereal disease streams through the streets, spread by its amoral citizens and the brothels that seem to pop up on every corner. Into this pustulent mess Duke Vincentio, the city’s ruler, descends, adopting a disguise so he can slink through the city’s fecund underworld and try to figure out a cure for this outbreak of immorality. Of course, the Vienna of Measure for Measure shares some - for the morally inclined - uncomfortable similarities with the London of Shakespeare’s day, where brothels thrived beyond the city’s limits. The historical Vienna of Shakespeare’s play can be explored today at museums including the excellent Kunsthistorisches Museum, and at the Hofburg Palace, the site of a seat of government since the 13th Century.