The view is 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.
In Shakespeare’s day, Vienna was one of the capitals of the Holy Roman Empire, an alliance of Catholic countries controlled by the powerful Habsburgs. The view depicts the city enclosed in its medieval walls, with the Cathedral of St Stephen at its centre. The moat and fortifications surrounding the town were built to strengthen its defences, sometime after the city was besieged by the Ottoman Turks in 1529. The suburbs were also pulled down to make room for a glacis, a wide strip of land around the town which exposed attackers to missiles.
In his choice of a Germanic setting, Shakespeare was led by his source – Cinthio’s story set in Innsbruck, now in Austria.
But although Shakespeare clearly locates the play in Vienna (1.1.22), many critics have suggested that it has more in common with London under James I. The comic lowlife characters – the brothel-owner and pimp – come straight from the shady underworld of Jacobean Blackfriars, with the hapless constable Elbow attempting to impose law and order. The foreign setting, which is both like and unlike London, lets Shakespeare ask awkward questions about life at home without referring to England directly.
However, Shakespeare’s first audiences, in their Protestant realm, might also have viewed Vienna as a centre of Catholic power, which therefore posed a threat to their country. With this in mind, the problematic view of puritanical rulers, nuns and friars acquires particular resonance.
In recent years, directors have exploited the idea of Vienna as the home of Freudian psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who studied and practised there, pioneered the theory that humans are driven by unconscious sexual and aggressive desires. These need to be channelled, but not repressed, for society to work well.
This idea was central to productions of Measure for Measure by Jonathan Miller in 1974 and Trevor Nunn in 1991, both set in Freud’s Vienna.