This is a contemporary image of the London in which Shakespeare lived and worked for much of his life. As we can see, it is substantially smaller than contemporary London: at the time, the population was roughly 200,000, compared to over 8.6 million in 2016. Nevertheless, this concentration of people made it susceptible to outbreaks of disease and most famously the ‘Black Death’ of bubonic plague.
London was then navigable chiefly by the River Thames, which brought much of the trade which made the city wealthy. As can be seen in this bird’s-eye view, it was crossed by the medieval structure of London Bridge, which included various buildings and shops across its length, as well as being simply a thoroughfare. At various points in Shakespeare’s life – 1565, 1595, and 1608 – the river froze in winter.
Where does the view appear?
It forms part of an opulent atlas of the world’s cities, the Civitates orbis terrarum, first published in six parts between 1572 and 1617, and printed in this early 17th-century edition (c. 1600–23).
This ambitious collection of 546 engraved views of cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and Mexico was edited by the German Georg Braun and largely engraved by Frans Hogenberg. They relied heavily on first-hand drawings and engravings produced by over a hundred other artists like the Flemish Joris Hoefnagel.
Shakespeare and London
Besides being the location in which much of Shakespeare’s work was written and performed, London also features in the work itself. Shakespeare paints a particularly vivid portrait of the city’s varied social life in Henry IV Parts I and II. Chiefly in the scenes around Falstaff, we see the ‘low’ life of the brothels and taverns, in contrast to the more restrained and upper-class life of the court. It is perhaps more this section of society that we see in the foreground illustration of the map.