Democritus and Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse (Dutch, ca. 1603–October 1634). Oil on canvas. Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing philosopher and the weeping philosopher, were a popular subject for early modern painters, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, and many others. The philosophers are usually shown, as here, viewing a globe.

Democritus and Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse (Dutch, ca. 1603–October 1634). Oil on canvas. Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing philosopher and the weeping philosopher, were a popular subject for early modern painters, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, and many others. The philosophers are usually shown, as here, viewing a globe.

The aged are inclined to live in the past. In 1576, when Thomas Platter was seventy-seven, he published a charming autobiography. It would be admired centuries later by Goethe. Platter was the son of Swiss peasants. In Europe, the explosion of printing begun in the fifteenth century made advanced education available beyond the traditional literary elite, and Platter had learned seven languages and ended as a schoolteacher in Basel. As a legacy of his success, both of his sons, Felix and Thomas, became physicians. In 1599 the brothers were well enough off to partake of the new fad of international tourism, and they traveled to London. In his travel diary the younger brother, Thomas, describes attending a play “very pleasingly performed” on September 21. The drama was a tragedy concerning the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Felix is sometimes remembered for being one of the first to articulate a theory of germs. Thomas is remembered for having attended a play.

The performance took place in a theater constructed that same year, south of the Thames, and young Tom Platter’s mention of it is the earliest that remains. Its construction was a triumph for the theatrical company that played there, called the Chamberlain’s Men. They were recovering from a perilous stretch. Just months before, they had lacked any place to perform. Their aged impresario, before his recent death, had invested aggressively in an upscale venue called Blackfriars, but the venture was thwarted by NIMBY protests, nearly wiping out the group’s finances. The company was now in the hands of his sons, and their only hope of bringing in funds was to mount a few blockbusters. But how? Previously the group had performed in a theater located in the sketchy northeastern suburb of Shoreditch, “a disreputable place, frequented by courtesans,” according to a contemporaneous account. Called simply “The Theatre,” it had been built in 1576 (the year the elder Thomas Platter completed his autobiography). But its disagreeable landlord refused to renew the company’s lease. They were locked out.

So, on December 28, 1598, a group of actors and workmen armed themselves not with play swords of tin or wood but with lethal cutting weapons—“swords, daggers, bills, axes, and such like.” As they huddled in the shadows waiting for nightfall, snow was driving down, and it was bitter cold. This was the era of Europe’s “Little Ice Age.” Among them was the actor and playwright Will Shakespeare, who was a shareholder in the company. Under cover of darkness, protected by their armed muscle, they methodically dismantled the theater and transported it, piece by piece, on groaning horse-drawn wagons to a warehouse near the Thames.

Using those timbers, the group erected their new venue south of the Thames. But now they faced a new threat. As a result of the popularity of the Theatre, playhouses proliferated under Elizabeth’s reign, beyond all precedent. In the face of such competition, the generic title would no longer serve to distinguish the company’s home. The desperate entertainers, their fortunes depending on the risky venture’s success, cast about for a new name—they were rebranding. The name they came up with was “The Globe.”

What led the Chamberlain’s Men to choose the name “Globe” for their new theater? True, the playhouse was round (or at least, it suggested circularity; it was in fact probably a many-sided polygon), like a representation of the earth’s sphere—a “wooden O,” Shakespeare called it. More significantly, it was a world within the world, a mirror to the greater globe and a representation or miniaturized version of it. A microcosm. Shakespeare built upon the new brand in a comedy he probably wrote in 1599, when the theater opened to the public. As You Like It the title promised. The play alludes to “the wide and universal theatre,” a phrase the company must have hoped would describe the Globe. “All the world’s a stage,” the play’s dialogue advised, “and all the men and women merely players.”

A couple of years before, in another Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sprite Puck boasted that he could circle the globe in half an hour, and the actor playing him could easily do the same around the new Globe Theatre, whose circumference was probably about a hundred yards, the length of an American football field. It was a globe nested within a globe. By the end of the seventeenth century, some theater-goers carried with them emblems of such nesting, in the form of miniature globes. There is an example made in 1679 in the British Library. It is really two globes, one nested inside the other: a celestial globe serves as a case for a terrestrial globe less than three inches in diameter. According to the manufacturer (who priced the globe at a modest 15 shillings), the small size was intended to make the globe “portable for the pocket.” (Today our pocket maps reside within smart phones.) Pocket globes continued to be popular into the nineteenth century. Why would a theater-goer want to carry a globe in his pocket?

Pocket globe, ca. 1679, by Joseph Moxon (English, 1627–1691). Engraving on copper. British Library, London. Moxon’s pocket globes, which he is said to have introduced around 1659, became something of a craze. Priced around 15 shillings, their affordability no doubt contributed to their popularity. This globe would have appealed to seventeenth-century British sensibilities, as it showed the routes of Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish.

Pocket globe, ca. 1679, by Joseph Moxon (English, 1627–1691). Engraving on copper. British Library, London. Moxon’s pocket globes, which he is said to have introduced around 1659, became something of a craze. Priced around 15 shillings, their affordability no doubt contributed to their popularity. This globe would have appealed to seventeenth-century British sensibilities, as it showed the routes of Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish.

We might think of maps as matter-of-fact representations of spatial relationships, but they are more (and less): they document our understanding of the world even as they advise us how to navigate through it. They schematize our vision of our place relative to others at the same time as they serve as vehicles for the imagination. But flat maps face formidable obstacles in rendering a spherical world. There is no simple way of converting a sphere into a rectangle. Cartographers essentially must choose between two approaches: either present the sizes of land masses accurately (called equal-area projections), or present their angles accurately (called conformal projections). Preserving angles means that any two intersecting lines will have the same angle as on a globe.

At the local level, in a map of a small area, such as a city, the problems are minimal, but in a map of the entire world they create enormous distortions of one sort or another. One of the most familiar world map projections, the Mercator projection, was created in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), who was then teaching at the university in Duisburg (in modern Germany). To present the (more or less) spherical world as a rectangle, he stretched the poles—which on a globe are simply points through which all of the meridians pass—to a width equal to that of the great circle of the equator. In effect, he converted the sphere of the earth into a cylinder. The result is a map that grossly distorts scale. Centuries of schoolchildren formed the impression, sitting in rows of desks facing Mercator projection maps, that Greenland is as large as South America (I was one). In fact, it is one-eighth the size.

Why would a map that so misrepresented the world become so popular? Because the early modern world was a world of maritime globalism. On a Mercator projection, a navigator could lay a straightedge between two points and draw what is called a rhumb line. Rhumb lines maintain a consistent angle relative to meridians. Because of the curvature of the earth, they are arcs, but the Mercator projection conveniently enables them to be displayed as straight lines. So a navigator could connect two points on a Mercator map, measure the angle with a protractor, and set off confident of arriving at the desired destination. Try this on an equal-area map and you could end up hundreds of miles off course.

If the main concern were to show the sizes, shapes, and proximities of land areas, there are many better approaches. One of the most innovative was created in 1943 by Buckminster Fuller, who projected a world map onto an icosahedron (a twenty-sided polyhedron). The map can be folded into something approximating a globe and unfolded into a (rather ungainly) flat map. Fuller claimed that his map best showed the relative sizes and true shapes of land masses. The map intended to place the continents in proximity to each other, demonstrating what he called “one island earth.” He did not want the map to have a particular up-down orientation, because showing north at the top of maps reflected, he said, cultural bias.

Dymaxion world map, 1943, by Buckminster Fuller (American, 1895–1983). It is difficult to represent a sphere on a rectangle. Fuller’s map shows the adjacency of the earth’s land masses, with minimal size distortion.

Dymaxion world map, 1943, by Buckminster Fuller (American, 1895–1983). It is difficult to represent a sphere on a rectangle. Fuller’s map shows the adjacency of the earth’s land masses, with minimal size distortion.


A solid ball is a kind of shape that mathematicians call a three-dimensional manifold. Intuitively it seems to be the simplest of the possible arrangements of three dimensions—this is called the Poincaré Conjecture, which troubled mathematicians for a century before seemingly being proven in 2002—but other forms are possible, such as the donut shape that mathematicians call a torus. At a certain scale it becomes difficult from a particular point on such a body to be certain what its shape is. That’s why people like the Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving  can even today insist the earth is flat. And such was the challenge for many people in the early modern period, as they struggled to comprehend the true magnitude and shape of the globe. From a local point of view the world appears to be a simple plane (setting aside features like mountains and valleys), so it is difficult to recognize while standing in some flat field that one could set off west and end up returning to the same spot from the east. A two-dimensional world map makes it appear as if by stepping off the map on the left one immediately steps onto the map on the right.

Maps tell us not just where we are, but also who we are. Pocket globes, which were too small to be of much practical use beyond situating geographical elements broadly, branded their bearers as cosmopolitan. “Fingering the curves of the globe would be a way to mark yourself in coffee-house conversation as worldly,” says scholar Katherine Parker, “an important image for merchants, clerks, aristocrats, and even upwardly mobile naval officers.”

The Geographer, 1669, by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675). Oil on canvas. Städel Museum, Frankfurt. A young geographer is surrounded by the spoils of the incipient colonialism of the newly global world. The globe on his cabinet shows the Indian Ocean, where the Dutch East India Company was intervening to take control of the Indonesian spice trade. The Indian Ocean was also the route through which the Dutch reached East Asia, and the geographer wears a Japanese silk robe. His work rests on an Ottoman carpet.

The Geographer, 1669, by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675). Oil on canvas. Städel Museum, Frankfurt. A young geographer is surrounded by the spoils of the incipient colonialism of the newly global world. The globe on his cabinet shows the Indian Ocean, where the Dutch East India Company was intervening to take control of the Indonesian spice trade. The Indian Ocean was also the route through which the Dutch reached East Asia, and the geographer wears a Japanese silk robe. His work rests on an Ottoman carpet.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime the world first became truly global, with the Americas actively connected to Asia, Europe, and Africa. He riffed on this in what might be his first play, A Comedy of Errors, in which, in a bit of broad comic business that the actors must have made much of, he scandalously depicts a maid, “spherical, like a globe,” as a world unto herself:

In what part of her body stands Ireland?

Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

Where Scotland?

I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.

Where France?

In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war against her heir.

Where England?

I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin, by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.

Where Spain?

Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.

Where America, the Indies?

Oh, sir, upon her nose all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.

Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

Oh, sir, I did not look so low.

International maritime exploration and trade resulted in a world in which regular interchange, of ideas as well as goods, connected all of the world’s inhabited continents. This lively maritime trade brought luxury items from the East to consumers in Europe in exchange for American silver from Peru and Mexico. Before long, slaves from Africa would be another hotly traded commodity. Gradually the fantastic quality of the obscure fringes of the world, formerly peopled by cyclops, two-headed creatures, cannibals, dwarves, and marvelous hybrids of all sorts, shrank in the face of increasing knowledge of foreign parts. Even as distant lands were being made more present, opportunities being opened, and the world seeming more vast, the globe was also becoming diminished.

Terrestrial globe, 1623. China. Lacquer and pigments on wood. British Library, London. Known simply as “The Chinese Globe,” this is the oldest extant globe made in China. It was a collaborative work between European Jesuits and Chinese literati. The Chinese text explains the concepts of longitude and latitude, and discusses astronomical observations. It incorporates knowledge about the magnetism of the earth from Chinese sources, which were more advanced on this topic than those in the West. Synthesizing Western and Asian knowledge, this might be regarded as the first “global globe.”

Terrestrial globe, 1623. China. Lacquer and pigments on wood. British Library, London. Known simply as “The Chinese Globe,” this is the oldest extant globe made in China. It was a collaborative work between European Jesuits and Chinese literati. The Chinese text explains the concepts of longitude and latitude, and discusses astronomical observations. It incorporates knowledge about the magnetism of the earth from Chinese sources, which were more advanced on this topic than those in the West. Synthesizing Western and Asian knowledge, this might be regarded as the first “global globe.”

Missionaries, ambassadors, merchants, and adventurers led the way in the new globalism, but political states had a stake in the maps they created. “Political persuasion,” says professor of geography Mark Monmonier, “often concerns territorial claims, nationalities, national pride, borders, strategic positions, conquests, attacks, troop movements, defenses, spheres of influence, regional inequality, and other geographic phenomena conveniently portrayed cartographically. . . . The map is the perfect symbol of the state.”

Such was the case in China. Its long cartographic tradition nearly always shows China at the center, surrounded by tributary states and barbarians, who are usually given short shrift in the maps’ annotations (a fascinating exception is the Selden Map, an early seventeenth-century trade map rediscovered in the Bodleian library in 2008). Nor is much attention given in most Chinese maps to scale. According to cartographic historian Cordell D. K. Yee, the Chinese understood scale in map making but simply did not consider it important. What was important was mapping political hierarchies. Chinese maps were often the work of landscape painters and calligraphers—because of the spatial economy of written Chinese, maps often contained small essays explaining their significance.

But in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Chinese confidence in their supremacy was eroding. The Ming dynasty—one of the world’s oldest, having begun in the mid-fourteenth century—was showing increasing strain. Governance was hamstrung by conflict between the literati class and the dissolute and reclusive Wanli emperor (an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare), who mostly remained holed up in his grand palace complex with scores of eunuchs, wives, servants, and concubines. But now, thanks to the new maritime traffic, adventurers, diplomats, traders, and missionaries were spreading throughout the world, and the Portuguese had succeeded in establishing a base in Macau. Among them was a group of Jesuits who were committed to converting the Chinese. The most famous of these was an Italian, Matteo Ricci, who arrived in Macau in 1583, established connections with Chinese literati, and lived in that country until his death in 1610 (around the time Shakespeare was composing The Tempest, based on a shipwreck in Bermuda).

In the early years of the Ming, China had explored the far reaches of the world in giant ships under the direction of the Muslim eunuch Zheng He, but Chinese decision makers had concluded that there was little in distant parts that was up to their standards, and they had officially curtailed such oceanic expeditions. An illicit maritime commerce based in south China was winked at, but it extended mainly from Southeast Asia to Japan, leaving much of the world unmapped by the Chinese. So Ricci and his fellow Jesuits armed themselves with celestial and geographic knowledge derived from the new scientific developments and explorations of the Europeans.

The European astronomical refinements impressed the Chinese, whose emperor derived authority from the “mandate of heaven.” With the long-lived Ming dynasty showing clear signs of decay, it was worth scrutinizing the skies for augurs of change. And the distant world kept knocking on Chinese doors. The Portuguese had been first, but now the Spanish had become involved through their outpost in the Philippines. Even upstart nations like Shakespeare’s Britain were starting to dip their toes in distant waters.

So Ricci found a keen audience for his geographic and astronomical knowledge. In 1584 (when Shakespeare was twenty) Ricci, with the help of Chinese colleagues, produced a large woodblock-printed Chinese-language map of the entire world. Exceptionally detailed and annotated, it was a state-of-the-art achievement that eventually came even to the attention of the emperor himself. Ricci was called to the capital (he was the first Westerner to visit the Forbidden City), where, in 1602, around the time Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That Ends Well, he created an even grander and substantially updated map. It incorporated Asian knowledge of the world obtained from Ricci’s Chinese colleagues as well as new geographical information that had arrived from Europe.

The map (which was printed from its blocks many times, though only six copies remain in existence) showed China at the center of the world, which was just good diplomacy (though a unique innovation in the context of Western cartography). The Ricci map is the oldest extant Chinese map to display the Americas, and it does so pretty well. One source of the Ricci map’s fascination is its abundance of annotations. They tell of such matters as the flowered landscape of Florida, the excellent wines of Madeira, and the feathered adornments of Amazonians. Elements of the fantastic appear in mentions of one-foot-tall dwarves hunted by cranes, nocturnal people with mouths in their necks, and other wonders of the world’s obscure margins.

Democritus, ca. 1629, by Diego Velazquez (Spanish, 1599-1660). Oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm. Musée Des Beaux-Arts, 822.1.16.

Democritus, ca. 1629, by Diego Velazquez (Spanish, 1599-1660). Oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm. Musée Des Beaux-Arts, 822.1.16.

So globes became popular at the same time the world became global. As theater-goers listened to characters in Shakespeare’s plays talking about “peering in maps for ports and piers and roads” (The Merchant of Venice), “think of the world” (Julius Caesar), “we the globe can compass soon” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), “this world’s globe” (Henry VI Part 2), “little O o’th’earth” (Anthony and Cleopatra), “he does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies” (Twelfth Night), or “this goodly frame the earth” (Hamlet), what did they think about their place in the world? With the new global world both greater than it had seemed, with new contacts daily delivering previously unknown ideas and goods, yet also smaller, as the realms of fancy began to shrink, and England’s place on the map appearing tinier than before, how did they respond?

According to Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, the new globalism reinforced British patriotic pride. Under Elizabeth’s rule Sir Francis Drake had completed the second circumnavigation of the world. “In consequence,” MacGregor says, “the world looked suddenly different. Its limits were known: it could be mapped and plotted.” Discussing a silver medal bearing a map of Drake’s journey, MacGregor says that “For the Elizabethan play-goer watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1590s for the first time, encompassing the globe, putting a girdle around the earth, was news—patriotic news that every person in the audience would have known about. . . . In their Athenian wood, Shakespeare’s very English fairies are, in their whimsical, poetical way, restating the nation’s pride in Drake’s accomplishment.”

MacGregor conjures a proud and hopeful England. But Richard Wilson, professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kingston University in London, takes issue with him. “Contrary to those, like the organizers of the 2012 British Museum exhibition ‘Shakespeare Staging the World,’ who imagine this name [The Globe] trumpeted English pride in conquest and exploration, as a symbol of a false universality that flags up the global reach of Anglo-American culture, or even of the BBC . . . for the dramatist the earthy roundness of ‘the great Globe’ (The Tempest, 4, 1, 149) signaled England’s own difference, in its belatedness, imitativeness, and dependency upon ‘a world elsewhere’ (Coriolanus, 3, 3, 139).”

Emphasizing “the shock of planetization,” Wilson cites historian William Bouwsma, who says that in fact Europe was “acquiring a new, humbler, perspective on itself and its place in the world. . . . This whole world could now be represented by a globe that could be held in one’s hands.” Bouwsma recalls the case of a young Englishman who receiving the gift of a globe from his father.

“Before seeing it,” the young man exclaimed, “I had not realized how small the world is.”

Earth from space.


This essay will appear in an upcoming issue of rosebud magazine.
top image: detail from reconstruction of globe theatre by c. walter hodges.
This essay copyright © Thomas Christensen, 2017. For reuse permission, contact me via this form.