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Shakespeare & Beyond

Shakespeare’s Asia: Ships, spices, and porcelain

No Shakespearean play is set in Asia beyond what was known as the Near East. The one scene set in the further East is found in a reported account in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Refusing Oberon’s request for her changeling, an “Indian boy,” Titania recalls:

His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’ embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait,
Following (her womb then rich with my young squire),
Would imitate and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise. (Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.127-39)1

Titania’s speech opens a window to how audiences in Shakespeare’s England thought about India. Her speech engages the imagination to simulate a physiological experience. The air is perfumed with spices. The temporal setting of a night-time scene adds to the women’s intimacy, while the mention of yellow sands provides a visual flash of light in the dark. The wanton winds caress the skin and the waves too as they swim. The women’s laughter fills their lungs with wind as their bodies shake with rhythmic contractions. This imagined space of the Indies is a sensory feast. Associated with spices, trade, and voyages, India is pictured as rich and fecund.

Shakespeare makes a number of allusions to Asia that reinforce Titania’s image. Here are three such allusions, from ships headed East to botanicals and manufactured goods:

The Tiger

My first quotation comes from Macbeth at the opening of Act 1.3 when the witches gather to give Macbeth their prophecy. The First Witch reports on where she’s been:

A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap
And munched and munched and munched.
“Give me,” quoth I.
“Aroint thee, witch,” the rump-fed runnion cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do. (Macbeth 1.3.4-10)


large sailing ship with rowboats
Detail from Atlas of the counties of England and Wales. Christopher Saxton. 1590? Folger Shakespeare Library.

The Tiger was a ship that carried the first merchant delegation to Asia via the Levant in 1583 led by John Newberry. This small contingent included John Eldred, William Leades, and Ralph Fitch. From the Levant, they went overland to Mughal India and reached Emperor Akbar’s court in Fatihpur where Leades, a jeweler by profession, was left “in service” with the emperor, “who did entertaine him very well, and gave him an house and five slaves, an horse, and every day sixe S. S. in money” (Hakluyt 5:475).2 Ralph Fitch traveled much further to the Malay Peninsula. His (and the others’) journey was celebrated in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622). Drayton breaks out of the chorography of British lands in “The Nineteenth Song” to sing of Fitch who “Crost Ganges mighty streame, and his large bankes did view, / To Baccola went on, to Bengola, Pegu; / And for Mallacan then, Zeiten, and Cochin cast, / Measuring with many a step, the great East-Indian wast” (Song 19.242-46).

This quotation from Macbeth, though differing from Titania’s speech, nonetheless, also touches on themes of travel, trade, and the senses. The sailor’s wife’s repetitive mastication links consumption to eastern voyages. And the witch’s leaky and flimsy vessel suggests the dangers and risks of such journeys.

A 1617 map showing southeast Asia with illustrations of spices along the bottom border
Insulae Moluccae celeberrimae sunt ob maximam aromatum copiam quam per totum terrarum orbem mittunt [cartographic material] / C. J. Visscher excudebat Anno 1617. State Library of New South Wales.

Spices and citrus

Europeans endured long voyages to Asia to bring back imported goods. Among the main imports were spices. While there are several references to spices in Shakespeare, one from Love’s Labor’s Lost suggests their status as luxury objects. In the play-within-a-play performed before the nobles in Act 5, Armado enters playing Hector and declares: “The armipotent Mars, of lances the almighty, / Gave Hector a gift—” (Love’s Labor’s Lost 5.2.716-17). Armado is interrupted by his audience speculating on the nature of the gift:

DUMAINE: A gilt nutmeg.

BEROWNE: A lemon.

LONGAVILLE: Stuck with cloves. (Love Labor’s Lost 5.2.718-20)

While pepper could be bought and grew in India as well as in many parts of Southeast Asia, nutmeg and cloves were native to eastern Indonesia and found in quite limited places. Nutmeg was only found in the Banda islands, while cloves were found in the Moluccas, famous as the Spice Islands. Citruses, orange or lemon, stuck with cloves were given as Christmas or New Year’s gifts, as were gilt nutmegs, encased in silver. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson’s Christmas, His Masque (1616-17) mentions such gifts: “And here’s a Newyeares guift, has an Orrenge and Rosemary, but not a cloue to sticke in’t.3 The sweet smell of these odorous Asian gifts was thought to drive off disease or to induce sleep.

An Asian woman and man sell in the outdoors vases, bowls and porcelain tableware.
Porcelain sale, Pieter Schenk (I) (possible), after Romeyn de Hooghe, c. 1690 - ca. 1713. Rijksmuseum.


Botanicals were not the only things brought back from Asia. So were manufactured goods, especially porcelain. China makes a mark on Shakespeare, even if noted by its absence. It appears in Measure to Measure when Mistress Overdone’s servant Pompey is arrested by Elbow and questioned by Angelo. Denying Elbow’s charge that Overdone keeps a bawdy house, he goes into a digression on tableware as he explains that Elbow’s pregnant wife came looking for stewed prunes:

Sir, we had but two [prunes] in the house, which at that very distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit dish, a dish of some threepence; your Honors have seen such dishes; they are not china dishes, but very good dishes. (Measure for Measure 2.1.98-102)

At the beginning of the 17th century, porcelain was expensive and scarce. By the time of Measure for Measure’s performance in December 1604, though still expensive, a large supply had come on the market through Dutch East India Company privateering. Dutch capture of Portuguese carracks in 1602 and in 1604 yielded booty of chinaware auctioned off in Amsterdam.

Again, references can be found in a work by Shakespeare’s contemporary Jonson, Entertainment at Britain’s Burse (1609). When the stage shop opens, the shop boy emerges to tout these foreign goods:

What do you lack? What is’t you buy? Very fine China stuffs of all kinds and qualities? China chains, China bracelets, China scarves, China fans, China girdles, China knives, China boxes, China cabinets, caskets, umbrellas, sundials, hourglasses, looking-glasses, burning-glasses, concave glasses, triangular glasses, convex glasses, crystal globes, waxen pictures, ostrich eggs, birds of paradise, musk-cats, Indian mice, Indian rats, China dogs, and China cats? (Entertainment at Britain’s Burse, ll. 50-59)4

This work was written to celebrate the opening of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury’s shopping mall, the New Exchange, which among other things sold china and foreign luxuries. As evident from the speech, China was all the rage.

Shakespeare’s allusions reveal how the Asian trade was becoming central to the European economy, and the importation of such desirable goods was transforming English consumer culture. Asian objects were newly available for consumption and the English public’s appetite for them was fully whetted.

  1. All quotations from Shakespeare’s plays are taken from Folger editions.
  2. Richard Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. (Glasgow: J. Maclehose, 1903-1905).
  3. Ben Jonson, Christmas, his Masque, Folger MS J.a.1, fols. 168-74 at  f. 170.
  4. Ben Jonson, Entertainment at Britain’s Burse, ed. James Knowles, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online (2014); URL: