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Map of the plays of William Shakespeare by Jane Tomlinson

The art of Shakespeare

Oxfordshire Artweeks director Esther Lafferty on local artist Jane Tomlinson and her tribute to Shakespeare in the year that marks four centuries since his death
Shakespeare Oxford 2016

"I thought I knew a reasonable amount about Shakespeare, having been to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre many times, but it turns out I knew hardly anything."

If all the world’s a stage, let Europe be a literary canvas.

William Shakespeare died in April 1616; 2016 marks the 400th anniversary. Like Shakespeare, local artist Jane Tomlinson was born and bred in Stratford-upon-Avon, something of which she is very proud. And to mark the anniversary of his death, and acknowledge his influence in her life, Tomlinson decided to paint a big light-hearted picture showing all his plays in their approximate geographic position. The result is a magnificent painting which has been going down a storm (or perhaps a Tempest for the literature lovers amongst you) all round the world, particularly after the Artistic Director of the New York Classical Theatre tweeted about it from the other side of the Atlantic. The original, however, remains here in Oxfordshire and will be on display in Eynsham during the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival next month.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Jane Tomlinson


Tomlinson’s painting shows all the plays featured in the First Folio, the 1623 collection of 36 Shakespeare plays, published after his death, which is arguably the only reliable text for twenty of the plays, and a valuable source text even for those previously published (and available on-line at firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) as well as Pericles, all superimposed on a map of Europe and the Mediterranean. Purists may argue about the lack of Two Noble Kinsmen or no referencing of the ‘lost plays’. But, like Macbeth, “it is what it is and ‘what’s done cannot be undone’,” responds Tomlinson!

"I thought I knew a reasonable amount about Shakespeare, having been to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre many times, but it turns out I knew hardly anything. I learned so much! All – everything – you need to know about the human condition is within his works; love, death, politics, superstition, jealousy, envy, compassion, irony, justice, wit, the lot. He was a genius, and it’s hard to imagine he will ever be surpassed either in his ideas and his use of language," Tomlinson enthuses. And yet she has creatively squeezed the essence of all of this onto a single sheet of paper, albeit a big one!

From Hamlet and Macbeth in the north, to Antony and Cleopatra in the far south east, Tomlinson has illustrated every location and admits she had to undertake considerable preparation and research to be done before she could even begin sketching and painting. Not least, how would she fit all the plays set in the British Isles into such a small space? Or indeed all those plays set in Italy?

Luckily for Tomlinson, some plays have more than one location, so Shakespeare built in some geographical flexibility for her paintbrush. Henry V, for example, can be found over in northern France, and many plays have spilt over from their precise location. This is part of the map’s charm—it is a light-hearted schematic plan on an underlying map of Europe that has been stretched and massaged to allow Shakespeare’s characters to roam as accurately as they do. "Just don’t use it to travel anywhere," laughs Tomlinson.

Some might question the location of As You Like It in the heart of England as it is often suggested that Shakespeare was referring to the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. However Tomlinson believes it more likely that Shakespeare would be referring to the Arden Forest – his home turf – which at his time stretched north of Stratford, and from which small pockets of woodland still exist.

Purists and aficionados have also asked why Sir John Falstaff gets a special mention and an unexpected location. He appears in three plays - the two Henry IV plays, in which he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor in which he is the buffoonish suitor of two married women. Although he is primarily a comic figure, Falstaff is commonly considered to embody the kind of depth common to Shakespeare's major characters, and he went on to star as a character in a several operas!

"He’s a pretty powerful and perennially popular character so I wanted to include him in his own right," explains Jane, "though I have to admit that the reason he’s in the Netherlands, although he never went there, is because there was a convenient space to put him!"

The sea, too, has been populated by Tomlinson who also found room for several ships and shipwrecks and couldn’t resist putting in a trireme near Antony and Cleopatra.

It took Tomlinson a long time and a lot of agonising to choose which quote to use from each play, and then decide how to illustrate it. "I tried to not always use the ‘obvious’ or most famous quote," she explains, "and to find instead something else that gave a flavour of the main themes of the play or a particularly dramatic moment. For example, in Julius Caesar, it would have been so easy to go for ‘Et tu Brute’, or ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’. But the irony and pathos of ‘Brutus is an honourable man’ is, to me, way more powerful."

Jane has celebrated the life and legacy of Shakespeare in watercolour. Over in Oxford, there’ll be Shakespeare events throughout 2016, with a bumper line-up planned for the actual anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and birth) on April 23. These include a revival of Oxford’s Shakespeare Birthday Parade, a commemorative walk which was once an annual event though it hasn’t taken place in the city since the 1940s. The parade will be followed by live music and more unusual events, including workshops in Shakespeare-themed manga (Japanese-style cartoon) and a performance of Richard II in the unlikely surrounds of the O2 on Oxford’s Cowley Road, performed by the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, a young ensemble who dare to demonstrate how “modern hip-hop shares many similarities with the themes, language and rhythm used by The Bard”, another interpretation in an unexpected medium.

For more information on the Shakespeare Festival in Oxford visit shakespeareoxford2016.co.uk.

To see the original map of Shakespeare in all its glory visit Tomlinson during Artweeks (venue 438; Eynsham, 21st-30th May) when you can see amazing art in wonderful places across the county or to read more about it (and order a print) and to see Tomlinson’s other Shakespeare-inspired art visit janetomlinson.com.


- Esther Lafferty


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