2016 is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and some poetry. Only about a dozen of his plays are partially or completely set in England, his home. Experts believe that he never left England. How could Shakespeare know so much about other places without ever having travelled out of England?
His history plays about Kings named Henry, Richard, and John are set in England. But plays like The Life and Death of King John, are also set in places like France. King Lear unfolds completely in England. Macbeth, his shortest play, takes place mostly in Scotland, but there are scenes in England too. As You Like It occurs partly in the Forest of Arden. William Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden. Ardennes is in Belgium and Luxembourg. There are extensive forests there. Did Shakespeare want to honor his mother by naming a place in his play after her? Did he travel to Ardennes and walk in the woods? Probably neither.
His first play, The Comedy of Errors, was set in Ephesus. Ephesus was an ancient Greek City. Would confusion about identity be funnier if taking place in, say, York? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of fancy and fairies and occurs in Athens. Shakespeare set a few other plays in Greece.
Last year Ruth & I were in Illyria. This was a large kingdom in what is now The Balkans. Twelfth Night takes place in a city in Illyria and on a seacoast near it. The Romans established a province in Illyricum, and it replaced the ancient, independent kingdom of Illyria. We learned a lot about Illyria when we were in Albania. How did William Shakespeare know about this place?
Most of Shakespeare’s out-of-England plays took place in Italy. I can think of at least a dozen, most notably Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was clearly very intelligent. Intelligence is often accompanied by a good memory and considerable imagination. It’s conceivable that he talked to many people who had been to Italy. He was writing his plays in an important seaport, London. It would not have been hard for him to absorb details about Italy (Othello is the Moor of Venice) while never actually leaving there. Although his plays took place mainly in places other than England, his perpetual home, in all cases the setting was a dramatic device to create interest in his characters. His plays are not about Denmark, Vienna, ancient Rome, etc. They’re about people who happen to be in those places while speaking very fine English as the events of the play unfold there. One learns nothing about Vienna while reading Measure for Measure.
William Shakespeare was not a travel writer. He was a recorder of the human condition. It is not a stretch to conjecture that he decided that his plays would have more interest to his audiences if he set them in exotic locations to stimulate their imaginations and, perhaps, help them to learn something about the world.