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England Goes Global

Episode 1 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Monday 16 April 2012

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, returns to Radio 4 with a new object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 1. ENGLAND GOES GLOBAL - How Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe changed the way Shakespeare's audiences viewed the world and their country's place on it. For the first time, England was engaging with the whole world.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • Drake's Circumnavigation Medal

    Date: 1589

    Size: 67mm diameter

    Made in: Britain

    Made by: Michael Mercator

    Material: Silver


    Created around the time that Shakespeare began his theatrical career in London, this object reveals how his generation was the first to conceive of a world whose limits were known.


    This medal depicts Sir Francis Drake's voyage around the world - the first Englishman and only the second man in history to have done so. Suddenly, the world looked like a very different place if you were English.


    The 1580s and 1590s saw English figures joining the great adventure of exploration, exploitation, trading and looting that marked the European age of discovery – bringing with it exotic goods and even more exotic tales that would fire the public imagination.


    This object is from the British Museum


    Watch a video of Drake's Circumnavigation Medal


    British Museum Blog: The role of maps in Shakespeare's England by Peter Barber, British Library  

  • Quotations

    'We the globe can compass soon/Swifter than the wandering moon.'

    A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 4 Scene 1  


    'She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.'

    The Comedy of Errors, Act 3 Scene 2

  • Background

    • The first English terrestrial globes were produced in 1592 and became widely known
    • There is only one mention of medals in the whole works of Shakespeare - Leontes in The Winter's Tale, Act 1 Scene 2
    • In the 1570s, there was a government inspired project to create maps of all the different counties of England
    • Maps were instruments of power rather than practical things for finding your way around
    • In 1570, the first book of maps was published, titled The Theatre of the Lands of the World
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