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Gerard Mercator's 1587 World Map

This month’s featured image is a segment from Gerard Mercator’s 1587 world map. It is a minimised version of Mercator’s 1569 cartographic masterpiece that allowed mariner’s to plot their voyages in a straight line. However, Mercator’s son, Rumold, reduced the map to the double hemispherical form so that it could adorn wealthy merchants’ walls.

Condensing the world to a viewable size preoccupied the English Renaissance. In 1570, Abraham Ortelius created the first atlas called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. His reference to an atlas as being a ‘world theatre’ stems from his insight that geography is ‘the eye of History’ (Ortelius cited in Gillies 71). Ortelius implies a world view personalised by the past successes of great empires and individual conquerors. An attitude exemplified in Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine Part One (1590):

TAMBURLAINE….I will confute those blind geographers,
That make a triple region in the world,
Excluding regions which I mean to trace,
And with this pen reduce them to a map,
Calling the provinces, cities and towns
After my name and thine, Zenocrate. (IV.iv, lines 74-79) 

According to the early modern critic John Gillies, the ‘triple region in the world’ ambiguously alludes to both the Isidorian map (a T-Cross divides the world into Asia, Europe and Africa) and the fifteenth-century Ptolemaic map in which ‘the initial meridian of longitude will pass through Damascus’ (Gillies 56). In this context, it is not only past geographers that are blind, as Tamburlaine blindly castigates all cartographers except himself. He even reduces the world  to a single utopic area in which ‘the provinces, cities and towns [are] [a]fter my name and thine, Zenocrate’. Despite the impracticalities of asking directions to Zenocrate from Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s map also reveals the absurdities of individualism – the egotistical need to personalise everything.

12th Century Isidorian Map

However, there is more at stake in Tamburlaine Part One than customising the world by renaming countries after favourite pop stars and decorating it with emoticons, it is also useful for ‘[t]he jewels and the treasure we have ta’en’ (I.ii, line 2). The early modern map is like a shopping catalogue detailing the whereabouts of the world’s exotic treasures and goods. Therefore, map-making and colonial gain become inseparable. Along the vertical axis of the 1636 edition of Mercator’s Atlas, for instance, is a hierachical graphic depiction of the heavens, followed by the sun and moon and then Europe balanced on an ornmental dais receiving exotic goods from the lowly Asia, America (the recently discovered New World) and Africa. Yet Tamburlaine’s map and Mercator’s Atlas are not just pictorial representations of continents, countries, cities and towns. They also suggest that authorship and ownership of a map(s) is the equivalent of a property contract; albeit on a global scale.

In The Tempest (1611), Shakespeare implicitly questions the ownership of the play’s magical, mysterious, unnamed and unmapped island. The Italian Duke and practioner of the dark arts Prospero naturally claims the property. However, before Prospero even set foot on the island, it already had an indigenous settler called Caliban. In a battle of magic and wits, Prospero is Caliban’s superior but only because Caliban is closer to nature than Prospero whose power stems from his books. Although the play does not state what is exactly in Prospero’s prized books, they are ‘presumably his books on magic as well as on liberal arts’ (Vaughan & Vaughan 160). I also want to suggest that one of Prospero’s books is an Atlas given the play’s preoccupation with sailing and exploration. Indeed, Caliban has already mapped the island by using physical landmarks when he reminds Prospero that ‘I….showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle:/The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile’ (I.ii, lines 338-9). Caliban’s inventory is a would-be coloniser’s checklist so that, before enslaving the local population, the coloniser knows where to find water, salt and a place to settle and grow crops. My suggestion that Prospero owns an Atlas relies on a significant similarity between Prospero and Caliban that may imply further connections. Prospero is the usurped rightful Duke of Milan, and Caliban was originally ‘mine own king’ (I.ii, line 343) of the island. Therefore, while Caliban relies on his memory to map the island, it is perhaps feasible that Prospero maps the island in one of his books.

Prospero Writing

The idea of Prospero actively writing in his books is developed in Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play called Prospero’s Books. Sir John Gielgud plays the aging Duke who spends the entire film creating the script for The Tempest. Rather than mapping the island, Steven Marx argues that Prospero is the link between ‘Genesis [the first book from the Old Testament], The Tempest and Prospero’s Books’ because they ‘all tell the story of an old magician creating a world, seeing it is good, and not so good, fixing it as best he can, and then, with difficulty releasing it from his control’ (Marx: http://www.hull.ac.uk/renforum/v1no2/marx.htm). I have my reservations about comparing Prospero to God, but, as I am arguing, for the English Renaissance ‘creating a world’ is not much different to mapping it. The image of Sir John Gielgud holding a quill against blank paper recalls how a Godlike Tamburlaine will ‘with this pen’ reduce whole countries ‘to a map’.

A map’s power to shape events is perfectly illustrated in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear (1606):

LEAR: Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom; and ’tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburdened crawl toward death. (I.i, lines 35-40)

The juxtaposing of ‘our darker purpose’ with ‘Give me the map’ indicates cartographic power. Without having to physically demarcate land, Lear can divide his English kingdom into three portions for each of his daughters – a symbolic act that has disastrous consequences. Yet Lear’s projection of his intentions on to a map, which equates as an unburdening of his regal responsibilities in preparation for retirement, also reveals a map’s limitations. R. A. Foakes notes that Lear’s map of Britain (especially a large one) has great visual impact on the stage in order to represent both ‘Lear’s power as King, and reduce it to a sheet of paper which he may easily tear up and destroy’ (Foakes 10). As the play goes to great lengths to demonstrate, Lear is nothing without his graphic facsimile of his kingdom. He foolishly or arrogantly relinquishes a binding Faustian contract that has the power to destroy as well as create. 

Mercator’s Atlas reproduces and reduces a world to conquerable chunks. It not only allows early modern adventurers such as Sir Walter Ralegh to navigate it, but also to fantasize about cities made from gold. To paraphrase Ortelius, a map is the eye of the early modern imagination.

Mercator’s Map of England, Scotland and Ireland


Foakes, R. A. ‘Introduction’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 1-151.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Marx, Stephen. ‘Progeny: Prospero’s Books, Genesis and The Tempest. Renaissance Forum. Vol. 1: No. 2 (Sept. 1996), http://www.hull.ac.uk/renforum/v1no2/marx.htm.

Ortelius, Abraham. The Theatre of the Whole World. 1606. Ed. R. A. Skelton. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum: Amsterdam, 1968 cited in Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference, by John GilliesCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine Part One. 1590. Tamburlaine Parts One and Two. Ed. Anthony B. Dawson. London: A&C Black, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611. Eds Virginia Mason Vaughan & Alden T. Vaughan. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1999.

Vaughan, Virginia Mason & Alden T. Vaughan. ‘Introduction’. The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. 1611. Eds Virginia Mason Vaughan & Alden T. Vaughan. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1999, 1-138.


Gerard Mercator’s 1587 World Map, http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/thumbnail/223764/1/Double-Hemisphere-World-Map-1587-2.jpg.

12th Century Isidorian Map, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/01/Diagrammatic_T-O_world_map_-_12th_century.jpg/95px-Diagrammatic_T-O_world_map_-_12th_century.jpg.

Prospero Writing, http://www.hull.ac.uk/renforum/v1no2/study.mov.

Mercator’s Map of England, Scotland and Ireland,  ucblibraries.colorado.edu/…/past/Gloriana.htm.