Alexander M Gross

Literature | Language | Culture

Writing Sample

The following is a sample of my writing on Shakespeare and the cultural contexts of his works, taken from my doctoral dissertation. The extract is from a chapter which identifies and evaluates the overarching Renaissance ethos of Shakespeare's playhouse during the period 1599-1608 - the Globe on London's Bankside.

"The Atlas of your spheare":
Global iconography in early modern Europe

The association of the term Atlas with cartography was a late sixteenth-century innovation. After the Greek scholar Ptolemy of the second century AD, the most significant figure in geographical science was Gerardus Mercator, born in Flanders in 1512. A protégé of the Dutch polymath Gemma Frisius, whom he assisted in the construction of a terrestrial and celestial globe in 1534-36, Mercator established himself as a distinguished cartographer and prolific producer of maps. In 1585 he published the first part of his magnum opus, for which he collected maps of the known world from his own oeuvre and from his contemporaries. The completed Mercator Atlas, published in 1595, was the first collection of maps to be given that name, although an image of Atlas holding a terrestrial globe had earlier been used by Antonio Lafreri (d. 1577) on the cover of his Geografia Tavole Moderne di Geografia (see fig. 1 below). The Mercator Atlas represents a consummation of almost two hundred years of cartographic developments that ensued from the first Latin translation (c. 1406-07) of Ptolemy's Geographia.

Fig. 1: Title page of "Geografia Tavole Moderne di Geografia" (1560-67) by Antonio Lafreri

The Ptolemaic opus is seen as “the atlas in embryo” (Campbell 188), and after it was first printed in Bologna in 1477, new maps were added in important editions including the Berlinghieri edition of 1482, the widely disseminated edition printed that same year at Ulm, Germany, and the Strasbourg edition of 1513, compiled by the renowned cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (1470-1520). This latter edition of Geographia followed Waldseemüller's famed Universalis Cosmographia (1507), a large wall map of the world in twelve sections printed from woodcuts (see fig. 2). His achievements are testaments to a changing world; indeed, the Universalis Cosmographia is regarded as “the map that named America” thanks to its dedication to the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (d. 1512), set forth in the accompanying text Cosmographiae Introductio. As Eila Campbell explains in an article entitled “The Early Development of the Atlas,” the map did much to cement inchoate ideas of the New World, which for some years had wavered between fact and fiction:

The discoveries of Columbus did not at first affect the essential feature of the world map, namely, the tripartite land mass comprising Europe, Africa and Asia. It was only when the outline of a new continent began to emerge that the map of the world was seriously affected. Amerigo Vespucci's narrative of his voyages along the north-east coast of Brazil was incorporated by Waldseemüller in [Cosmographiae Introductio]. Waldseemüller realised that the cartographical implications of the Portuguese and Spanish discoveries were too real to be ignored. (189)

Fig. 2: "Universalis Cosmographia" (1507) by Martin Waldseemüller (1470-1520)

With the continued exploration of terrae incognitae and concurrent advances in cartography throughout the sixteenth century, the discipline grew steadily into a significant part of European culture. In Antwerp in 1570, Mercator's contemporary Abraham Ortelius (1527-98) completed and published the “first bound collection of maps to warrant, although it did not bear, the title of 'atlas'” (ibid. 191). The striking title chosen by Ortelius was in fact Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or “Theatre of the World.” Its innovative title page illustration is suggestive of a classical theatre proscenium, and an explanatory poem informs that it depicts Europe as sceptred empress on top of the world, with Asia, Africa, and America represented below (see fig. 3). This particular compendium had a widespread appeal; it was translated into several languages, and via numerous editions it grew from a total of 70 maps in 1570 to 167 in 1612. As such, it is a conspicuous attestation to the currency in sixteenth-century Europe of the “theatre of the world” conceit which would give rise to Jaques's famous maxim "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players" (As You Like It 2.7.139-40), or Antonio's avowal: "I hold the world but as the world, Graziano– / A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one" (Merchant of Venice 1.1.77-79).

Fig. 3: Title page of "Theatrum Orbis Theatrum" (1612 edition) by Abraham Ortelius (1527-98)

The close association of the world of the Renaissance theatre with that of cartography is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the striking image known as Fool's Cap World (see fig. 4). The combination of the theme of the Fool with the developing world map creates a visual metaphor of “the universality of human folly” (Whitfield 78), and is suggestive of theatrum mundi. Even Macbeth, ostensibly of another time long before the Renaissance, is no stranger to the notion of life imitating art, as evidenced by his contempt for the transitory nature of life, on- and offstage:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

                                       (Macbeth 5.5.23-27)

Fig. 4: "Fool's Cap World" (ca. 1590). Artist, place, and precise date unknown

Alongside Universalis Cosmographia in 1507, Waldseemüller also produced a set of gores for terrestrial globes (see fig. 5), and as with cartography, interest and expertise in the construction of globes spread throughout Europe during the period, aided by improved print technologies and new discoveries. The oldest extant terrestrial Globe is the Erdapfel, produced by Martin Behaim (1459-1507) in Nuremberg in 1492, and the process was refined in the sixteenth century principally by Frisius, who instructed both Mercator and John Dee (1527-1608). Frisius had insisted as early as 1530 that the mounted globe was “indescribably useful and necessary for everyone,” but perhaps the most perspicuous insight into the importance of these developments in contemporary culture, and the esteem in which the associated paraphernalia was held, may be found in Dee's Preface to Euclid:

While some, to beautifie their Halls, Parlers, Chambers, Galeries, Studies, or Libraries with; other some, for things past, as battles fought, earthquakes, heavenly firings, and such occurrences in histories mentioned: thereby lively as it were to view the place, the region adjoining, the distance from us, and other such circumstances […] Some, either for their owne journeyes directing into farre landes: or to understand of other mens travailes. To conclude, some, for one purpose: and some, for an other, liketh, loveth, getteth, and useth, Mappes, Chartes, and Geographicall Globes.

An important point to draw from this much-quoted extract is the great variety of uses for cartographic instruments, as they were evidently fashionable status symbols as much as dependable for practical use.

Fig. 5: Set of gores for the production of terrestrial globes (1507), by Martin Waldseemüller

In an English context, the successful circumnavigation of the Earth completed in 1580 by Sir Francis Drake (d. 1596) was an event which intensified still further the interest in narratives of exploration, in maps, and in terrestrial globes. The symbolic importance of the globe is evidenced by its appearance in portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, such as the so-called Sieve Portrait, dated 1583 (see fig. 6). Detail on the globe situated behind the Queen shows the British Isles illuminated by the artist, and several ships traversing the Atlantic. Bate and Thornton point to the significant identity of a background figure:

The globe with ships plying west suggests the foundation of a new western empire: the badge on the central figure is that of Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591), who […] was a financier of that foundational gesture of British empire-building, the circumnavigation of the Globe by Sir Francis Drake. (37)

An inscription on the globe reads tutto vedo et molto mancha (“I see all and much is lacking”; ibid. 287, n. fig. 27); the portrait employs the symbolism of the terrestrial globe to commemorate Drake's achievements, but at the same time it points towards further territorial expansion and Elizabeth's perceived destiny of global dominion. It therefore substantiates Jerry Brotton's affirmation that “it is precisely upon the figure of the globe, as both a visual image and a material object, that many of the social and cultural hopes and anxieties of the period came to be focused” (21).

Fig. 6: The "Sieve Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I, dated 1583

Responding to what was by then a palpable fashion for globes, a London merchant named William Sanderson in 1587 commissioned the first English celestial and terrestrial globes. The task of construction fell to Emery Molyneux (d. 1598), who was personally acquainted with several explorers of the period, and his creations are now known as the Molyneux globes. Completed in 1592, they were “by far the largest globes produced in Europe since antiquity,” and their prestige “announced the arrival of England as a global empire while transforming the globe itself into an English symbol” (Cohen 968). Adam Max Cohen has ably demonstrated what he calls an “Englishing” of the globe in terms of the features added by Molyneux that differentiated his terrestrial globe from its continental predecessors:

A red line and a blue line wind around the globe to denote the routes of the English circumnavigators Sir Frances Drake and Master Thomas Cavendish. The lines resemble red and blue ribbons wrapping a gift, which is appropriate because the globe announces itself as a gift to Queen Elizabeth in a long dedication. (970)

Looking at contemporary documents and reactions to the appearance of the Molyneux globes, it would seem that the fascination for such new technologies among the Elizabethan literati can hardly be overstated. In 1594, the mathematician Robert Hues (1553-1632), who had participated in the circumnavigations led by Cavendish, published an exhaustive study of the Molyneux globes entitled Tractatus de globis et eorum usu (“A treatise on globes and their use”). This was an influential work that appeared in thirteen editions across Europe by 1663 (Cohen 974). In a dedicatory preface to Sir Walter Raleigh, Hues makes clear his admiration for the globe:

I hold it very superfluous to goe about to prove that a Globe is of a figure most proper and apt to expresse the fashion of the Heavens and Earth as being most agreeable to nature, easiest to be understood, and also very beautifull to behold. (Tractatus de Globis 16)

Shakespeare around this time imaginatively employed the image of globes signifying uncharted territory, in the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece:

Her breasts like ivory globes circled with blue,

A pair of maiden worlds unconquerèd,

Save of their lord no bearing yoke they knew,

And him by oath they truly honourèd.

                                                        (Lines 407-10)

The mention of “globes circled with blue” recalls the exploits of the circumnavigators, as depicted on the Molyneux globes.

The pan-European fascination for globes at the end of the sixteenth century is epitomized by the Mercator Atlas. Its title page, which shows five different globes, bears a depiction of the mythological Atlas resting a globe on his knee with another at his feet (see fig. 7). The plinth is inscribed with the words Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura (“Atlas, or the meditations of a cosmographer on the making of the world and the shape in which it was made”; trans. van den Berg 34). Atlas himself–founder of astronomy and cartography–is depicted as the cosmographer, apparently using the larger completed globe as a guide to inscribe the smaller, or perhaps completing a set of celestial and terrestrial globes. The image in its context conflates two important themes discussed in this chapter: the prominence of globes as cartographic instruments, and Renaissance theories of man as determiner of his own fortune. The power of human knowledge and discovery enables the cosmographer in effect to create the world, by inscribing the boundaries of the known world onto the blank canvas of the globe. In this sense, the Mercator Atlas–like the Molyneux globes–is a monument to the developing confidence of Renaissance intellectuals to separate “the mind as subject from the world as object” (ibid. 35).

Fig. 7: Title page of Gerardus Mercator's "Atlas" (1619 edition)
Gross, A. M.


  • Bate, Jonathan, and Dora Thornton. Shakespeare: Staging the World. London: British Museum Press, 2012.
  • Brotton, Jerry. Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997.
  • Campbell, Eila M. J. “The Early Development of the Atlas.” Journal of the Geographical Association 34.4 (1949): 187-95. ProQuest.
  • Cohen, Adam Max. “Englishing the Globe: Molyneux's Globes and Shakespeare's Theatrical Career.” Sixteenth Century Journal 37.4 (2006): 963-84. JSTOR.
  • Hues, Robert. Tractatus de Globis et Eorum Usu. 1594. Trans. John Chilmead. 1638. Ed. Clements R. Markham. 1889. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Cam. Library Collection.
  • Van den Berg, Kent T. Playhouse and Cosmos: Shakespearean Theater as Metaphor. London: Associated UP, 1985.
  • Whitfield, Peter. The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps. London: British Library, 1994.

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