Today’s post is by Alexandra Hewitt, who is studying for the MA in Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Studies at the University of Birmingham.
“They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.”
(Charles, As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 1)
John Speed’s 1611 map of Warwickshire provides a glimpse into Shakespeare’s home county as he himself would have visualised it. So important was Warwickshire to the bard that it features in a number of his plays; the Forest of Arden, presented in the northern section of the map, provides the mysterious setting for a number of scenes of hilarity from As You Like It.
This artistic and intricately detailed map not only offers a view of Shakespeare’s place of birth as his contemporaries would have imagined it, but provides a sense of a typical early modern rural English county. The map is divided into two by the River Avon, with the Forest of Arden at the top and mainly pastureland in the south. The map highlights all the towns of Warwickshire such as Stratford-Upon-Avon, Coventry and even Birmingham. Interestingly, on Speed’s map Birmingham is shown about the size of the small market-town of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Hard to imagine when today it is England’s second largest city! Town plans for Warwick and Coventry can be seen in the top left and top right of the map detailing the buildings and streets of the towns. Warwick is highlighted for its imposing castle, and Coventry as it was the main market-town in the Warwickshire of 1611. Coats of arms surround the map paying homage to the Earls of Warwick, the leading noble family of Warwickshire. This map provides a wealth of detail, giving clues as to population and the significance of the different towns and villages in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
You could stare at this map for hours, not just for its intricate detail, but for also for its artistic design. The borders, titles and coats of arms are all elaborately and rather grandly decorated, as if it were to be presented to someone rather distinguished. Yet this particular map is just part of a rather fantastic, comprehensive atlas created by John Speed entitled Theatre of the Empire of Greate Britaine. John Speed was a highly regarded contemporary historian who is appreciated now for his wonderfully decorated maps. Theatre of the Empire of Greate Britaine, first published in 1611, contained the first set of individual county maps for Wales and England, as well as a number of maps outlining certain areas of Scotland and Ireland. In 1627, Speed created the first world atlas produced by an Englishman, Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, making him one of the most influential scholars of early modern England. The work of John Speed reflects the Renaissance boom in cartography as European powers explored far and wide, competing for New World discoveries. Shakespeare and his audiences were very much aware of this exciting world of exploration as a significant number of his plays contain sea voyages, ship-wrecks and references to exotic lands.
The work of Speed and other early map-makers must have provided English people with a visual representation of land to inform their own sense of local and national identity. Also in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection is another map of Warwickshire (this time including Leicestershire) produced in 1576 by Christopher Saxton. His were the very first county maps of England and Wales, which informed the work of later cartographers.
Despite the cost associated with such an impressive volume, Speed’s Theatre was a success and was republished in many editions. So, when the readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio read about the Forest of Arden, it may well have been Speed’s rendering of the Warwickshire landscape that came to mind.
 Shakespeare’s Treasures Exhibition Handbook, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, February 2014