38 Facts About Shakespeare’s 38 Plays

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William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this month, on April 23, 1616. His complete works—at least 38 surviving plays (including several collaborations), 154 sonnets, and five narrative poems, totaling a staggering 884,000 words—are a cornerstone of English literature, and have remained (albeit intermittently) popular ever since his death. So to commemorate the quadricentenary of Shakespeare’s death, here are 38 facts, stats, anecdotes and origins about his 38 plays. 


Everyone knows Macbeth is supposed to be unlucky, but if you’re superstitious, you might be best off avoiding All’s Well That Ends Well, too. According to A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, during rehearsals for a revival of the play in London in 1741, one of its stars, William Milward, turned up wearing “too light and airy [a] suit of clothes,” caught “a Spotted Fever,” and fell gravely ill. The premiere was postponed until the following January, but during the opening performance, the female lead, Peg Woffington, fainted, and her part had to be read by another actress. They postponed the next performance so that Woffington could recover, but Milward fell sick again, causing more postponements. Milward died several days later after completing only one performance. The entire debacle was enough to put producers off staging Shakespeare’s tragi-comic romance for another decade.


In 1759, David Garrick staged a performance of Antony and Cleopatra in London starring himself and 30-year-old actress Mary Ann Yates in the title roles. Although the production failed to impress the critics (and closed after just six performances) it nevertheless made theatrical history: It marked the first time in the play’s 150-year history that Cleopatra had been played by a woman. Before then, performances had only ever been staged by all-male acting companies—including Shakespeare’s own King’s Men, who staged the first performance in London in 1606.


Any actress tackling the smart-talking Rosalind in As You Like It is faced with learning 685 lines, making it Shakespeare’s longest female role and a bigger part than the likes of Prospero (656 lines), Romeo (617 lines), and Falstaff in Henry IV: Part 1 (602 lines). Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s roles are still weighted towards the men: Antony (839 lines) is a much larger role than Cleopatra (678 lines); Macbeth (715) has almost three times more lines than his wife (259); and Hamlet, the longest role of all, is more than twice as long as Rosalind (1506 lines).


On December 28, 1594, Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were booked to give a seasonal performance before an audience of lawyers at London’s Gray’s Inn, celebrating what was essentially their Christmas party. The play they performed was The Comedy of Errors (which Shakespeare likely wrote especially for that night), but things didn’t go quite to plan—The Lord Chamberlain’s Men arrived late, by which time their audience was drunk and the stage had all but been dismantled. They still gave the best performance they could, but the night nevertheless went down in history as “The Night of Errors.” So what happened? Well, a recent discovery at the British National Archives suggests that something came up at the very last minute—and by “something,” we’re talking about a personally requested performance in front of Queen Elizabeth I. According to the queen’s treasury records, Shakespeare’s company received payment for a royal command performance on the same night that they were booked to play Gray’s Inn. Shakespeare had presumably already committed to the Gray’s Inn performance when word came from the palace that the queen herself wanted some post-Christmas entertainment, but by then it was too late to cancel. So he and his men turned up at Greenwich, performed for the queen, then raced across London to their second booking only for the night to end in chaos.


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There are no records of Coriolanus being staged during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but the theatrical history books are full of later memorable performances. In 1682, the English Poet Laureate Nahum Tate rewrote the final act himself—a popular trend among later 17th century dramatists—and ended the play with an even more shocking bloodbath than it already has. In 1719, the dramatist John Dennis went one better and rewrote the entire play, calling it The Invader of His Country and using it as an attack on the Jacobite Rising of 1715; it was booed off the stage after three performances. More recently, a production starring Laurence Olivier in 1959 famously ended with a shocking stunt inspired by what happened to Mussolini after he died; Coriolanus threw himself headfirst off a 12-foot platform on stage and remained dangling upside down by his ankles for the remainder of the act—Olivier was 52 years old at the time. And in 1984, Sir Peter Hall staged a production starring Ian McKellen at London’s National Theatre that began by inviting members of the audience onto the stage to mingle with and react with the actors throughout the play. Despite glowing reviews, Hall’s innovative idea didn’t quite go to plan: During one performance, McKellen later recalled, “as I was about to start the soliloquy in the enemy camp, a woman returning from the bar asked me to sign her programme.”


If you know anyone called Imogen, then they can thank Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for their name. The play features a character called either Innogen or Imogen, who is the daughter of the eponymous king. No one knows which is the correct spelling: In a 1611 diary, astrologer Simon Foreman wrote about seeing the play and mentioned a character named Innogen. But Shakespeare’s First Folio consistently spells the name Imogen. It’s unknown who was right, but modern scholarship tends towards believing the publishers of the First Folio mistook the nn for m and gave us the name Imogen. That’s not the only name we can thank Shakespeare for, either—he likely invented the name Jessica for The Merchant of Venice.


At more than 4000 lines and 30,000 words, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and its title role is his biggest overall, accounting for 37 percent of the entire script. It’s also believed to be his most produced play, having never fallen out of popularity since it was first performed with Richard Burbage in the title role in 1601. In 2012, Guinness World Records declared Hamlet the second most portrayed human character on film and TV, after Sherlock Holmes (but both fall far short of the non-human Dracula).


Shakespeare’s lecherous knight Sir John Falstaff first appeared in Henry IV: Part 1; the character was so popular with audiences that he was featured in Henry IV: Part 2, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. He was named for the real-life Sir John Fastolf, a knight who had fought in the Hundred Years War, but he was originally called “Oldcastle” and named in honor of Sir John Oldcastle, a companion of Henry V who was executed for heresy in 1417. But because Shakespeare changed the character’s name well after the play was written, several inside jokes pop up in Shakespeare’s plays that hint upon this name change: People forget his name in Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, and a line in Henry IV: Part 1 that refers to Falstaff as “my old lad of the castle” midway through Act 1.


… but an epilogue at the end of Henry IV: Part 2 confusingly states that “Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already ’a been killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man.” Shakespeare it seems is making it very clear Sir John Falstaff is a separate character from Sir John Oldcastle, but why? Well, it’s thought that Shakespeare added those lines—and, for that matter, changed Falstaff’s name in the first place—to appease Lord Cobham, an important figure in the court of Elizabeth I who was one of Sir John Oldcastle’s descendants, and was understandably unhappy with Shakespeare’s ludicrous portrayal of his ancestor.


Shakespeare isn’t known for his historical accuracy at the best of times, but his portrayal of the French king Charles VI in Henry V is perhaps one of his most obvious deviations from the truth. In the play, Shakespeare portrays Charles as a decent and astute king who—unlike his overconfident son, the Dauphin—is wise and experienced enough not to downplay Henry’s threat to his kingdom. In reality, Charles was completely insane. He had suffered from episodes of madness—during which he would forget his name, forget he had a family, and even forget that he was king—for more than two decades, and was reportedly so convinced he was made of glass that he had iron rods sown into his clothes to prevent him from shattering to pieces. His insanity ultimately left a power vacuum in France that threw the country into civil war, weakening the French defenses in the run up to Henry’s invasion and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415—none of which made its way into the play.


It’s easy to presume that Shakespeare’s trilogy of Henrys was written in chronological order, beginning with the aftermath of the English losing their French territories (Part 1), followed by the death of the Duke of Gloucester and the rise of the Duke of York (Part 2), and ending with England thrown into a deeply protracted war (Part 3). But one theory claims that Parts 2 and 3 were written first, and were originally intended to form merely a two-part history of Henry VI. In fact, when the two were published individually in 1594 and 1595, no mention was made to there being a third preceding play at all. (Indeed, the 1594 printing of Henry VI: Part 2 gives the play the original title The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of Yorke & Lancaster, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. Part 3 is called The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke and the Good King Henry the Sixt [sic].) If that theory is true, then it’s likely that Henry VI: Part 1 was essentially a Shakespearean prequel, written to cash in on the success of Parts 2 and 3 and to complete his eight-play retelling of the entire Wars of the Roses.


Anyone looking to stage their own a production of Henry VI: Part 2 had better bear in mind that it has the largest cast list of any Shakespeare play, with a total of 67 characters (or as many as 70 in other editions). The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by comparison, has Shakespeare’s shortest list of dramatis personae, with just 17 named characters, plus a dog. (But more on him later …)


The last 71 lines of Act 3, scene 2 of Henry VI: Part 3 comprise the longest soliloquy in all of Shakespeare. Spoken by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the speech sees Richard outline all those in line to the throne before him, and then set his mind to causing chaos and using duplicity to win the crown for himself. His plan eventually works, of course—the next play in Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle is Richard III.


It was during a performance of Henry VIII on June 29, 1613 that the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground. The fire was caused by a cannon, kept just inside the open roof of the theater, that was fired to herald the appearance of important characters onto the stage. On this day, however, as the cannon was fired to announce King Henry’s entrance, it set light to a wooden beam. The flames quickly spread to the Globe’s thatched roof, and within an hour the entire theatre was destroyed. Happily, no one was injured, although according to one eye-witness account, “one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”


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He might be the title character, but Julius Caesar only appears in three scenes in his own play and delivers just 151 lines. By comparison, his conspirators Brutus (722 lines), Cassius (507), and Antony (329) each have much larger roles, and Caesar has nearly three times more lines in Antony and Cleopatra (419) than he does in Julius Caesar, making his the smallest of all Shakespeare’s title roles.


In 1899, the English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree made a silent film version of King John. It’s thought that four scenes were filmed in total, but only one—the king’s tormented death throes as he sits in his throne, comforted by his son—survives. Nevertheless, the 1 minute 16 second film is credited with being the first time Shakespeare was put to film.


King Lear might be Shakespeare’s crowning masterpiece, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s pretty bleak—in finest traditions of Shakespeare’s tragedies, everybody dies in the end. The king, his daughters, Edmund, Oswald, Gloucester (who is blinded with red-hot knives first, of course), and even the king’s fool all end up dead, while the Duke of Kent, who manages to make it to the final curtain alive, finishes the play by saying that he has “a journey” to go on, as his “master calls” him—and as his master is the now deceased King Lear himself, Kent’s last speech is essentially a suicide note. All in all, King Lear is hardly the most uplifting play, and so for decades audiences weren’t shown Shakespeare’s version of events but rather a more easy-going History of King Lear written by Nahum Tate.

Tate’s adaptation of King Lear, first performed in 1681, ends with Lear and Cordelia surviving, Lear being restored to the throne (a clear reference to the recent restoration of Charles II), and Cordelia marrying Edgar (whereas in Shakespeare’s original version, the two never even interact). Tate’s version and its happy ending prevailed in theaters for the next 150 years, and it wasn’t until 1838 that a version of Shakespeare’s original text was staged with the 19th century actor William Macready in the title role. The production was a thrilling success, and as one critic wrote, “banished that disgrace [Tate’s adaptation] from the stage forever.”


Act 5, Scene 2 of Love’s Labour’s Lost is Shakespeare’s longest single scene, running to an impressive 1016 lines; in comparison, the entire script of The Comedy of Errors runs to just 1786 lines, while this one scene alone is just 15 lines shorter than the entire role of Henry V, Shakespeare's third most talkative character. Shakespeare’s shortest scene, incidentally, is in Antony and Cleopatra: Act 3, scene 9 contains just six lines, in which Antony explains how he will arrange his men to see how many ships Caesar is sending into battle, totaling 33 words.


Shakespeare is well known for coining a number of words and phrases we use today, but the expression to steal someone’s thunder is probably unique among his contributions to the language. It derives not from one of his scripts, but from a performance of one. In 1709, the actor and playwright John Dennis invented a machine for replicating the sound of thunder on stage, which he put to good use in a performance of a play he had written called Appius and Virginia at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dennis’s play (much like his version of Coriolanus mentioned above) flopped, and closed after just a few performances to be replaced by a production of Macbeth staged by a rival theatre troupe. Dennis gamely attended the play’s premiere, but was shocked to hear his thunder-making machine being used during the performance. Enraged, he stood up in the audience and yelled at the stage, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”


On February 18, 1662, the English diarist Samuel Pepys saw a production of Measure For Measure in London, writing later that it was “a good play and well performed,” and that he had particularly enjoyed “the little girl’s—whom I had never saw act before—dancing and singing.” The little girl in question was Moll Davis, a 14-year-old actress who took on the role of Viola and entertained the audience by dancing and playing the castanets—and if you don’t think that sounds anything like the Measure For Measure, you know, you’re quite right. The play that Pepys had actually seen was The Law Against Lovers, a Restoration adaption of Measure For Measure by the English poet and playwright Sir William Davenant. Using Measure For Measure as a basis, Davenant erased several of the play’s characters and replaced them with Beatrice and Benedick, the sparring lovers from Much Ado About Nothing, making Benedick Angelo’s brother, and inventing the part of Viola to give Beatrice a younger sister. This kind of butchering of Shakespeare might seem odd to modern audiences, but wasn't rare in the 17th and 18th centuries—and Davenant was by no means the worst offender. In 1699, the writer Charles Gildon combined Shakespeare’s original text with Davenant’s adaptation to produce Measure For Measure, or Beauty The Best Advocate—which ended with an epilogue delivered by the ghost of Shakespeare himself.


Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously difficult to date, but a seemingly throwaway line in the opening scene of The Merchant of Venice—“And see my wealthy Andrew dock’d in sand”—allows us pinpoint its date relatively accurately. The “Andrew” in question is the San Andrés or St. Andrew, a Spanish galleon that was run aground during an English attack on Cadíz in southwest Spain in June 1596, and subsequently commandeered by the English Navy. News would have reached England by late July, and it would have taken several more weeks—probably not until after the ship was brought back to London in August, at which point she ran aground in a sandbank in the Thames—for such a contemporary reference to work with Elizabethan audiences. Ultimately, it’s likely Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice (and this noticeably contemporary line) sometime in late 1596 or early 1597. The earliest performance we know about, however, wasn’t until February 10, 1605, when the play was staged for King James I, who enjoyed it so much he asked for it to be staged again just two days later.


Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 ensured that the name of the British royal household subsequently changed from Hanover to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Thankfully this mouthful only remained in place for the 16 years following her death in 1901 through to 1917, when at the height of the First World War King George V decreed that, in light of Britain’s current relationship with Germany, the royal name should be changed to something closer to home: Windsor. When news of the change reached the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, however, he is reported to have quipped that he “will go and see The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.


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Samuel Pepys might have enjoyed Measure for Measure, but he hated A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his diary on September 29, 1662, he wrote that it was a play “which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” And nor was he alone: Tolstoy thought that Shakespeare’s plays were “trivial and positively bad.” Tolkien dismissed reading Shakespeare as “folly.” And Voltaire referred to the handful of scenes and plays that he actually liked out of Shakespeare’s complete works as “a few pearls … found in his enormous dunghill.” But perhaps most critical of all was George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote that, apart from Homer, “there is no eminent writer…whom I despise so entirely as I despise Shakespear [sic].” Othello was “melodramatic,” Twelfth Night was a “potboiler,” and Cymbeline was “stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order”—so terrible in fact that Shaw wrote his own ending for it, Cymbeline Refinished, in 1937.


Several of Shakespeare’s comedies have seemingly throwaway titles, but the title of Much Ado About Nothing is actually a lot less flippant that it might seem. In Shakespeare’s time, nothing and noting were pronounced practically identically, while noting (as well as meaning “taking note”) was used to mean eavesdropping or overhearing. And because it’s through misunderstandings and “mis-notings” that much of the action of the play comes about, Much Ado About Nothing could be interpreted as being “much ado” about actually quite a lot.


It’s well known that Shakespeare based many of his plays on earlier folktales, plays, histories and legends, and Othello is no different. It’s based on Un Capitano Moro (The Moorish Captain), a tale by the 16th century Italian writer Cinthio, whose Story of Epitia Shakespeare also used as the basis of Measure For Measure. What makes Othello so different, however, is that in Cinthio’s original tale only one character, Disdemona, has a name, while all others are merely known by their rank. That left Shakespeare to provide his own names for his version of the story, giving scholars an opportunity to see his thinking and discuss the meanings behind his choices. “Iago,” for instance, is a Galician form of Jacob, which means “supplanter,” while Shakespeare probably invented the name “Othello” himself based on Otho, the name of a short-lived Roman emperor whose downfall was remarkably similar to Othello’s.


Although some scholars credit Pericles, Prince of Tyre entirely to Shakespeare, others claim he had nothing to do with it. Still, it's widely thought that he wrote the final half of the play himself, while the first 835 lines are credited to the dramatist George Wilkins. Despite the questionable authorship, however, Pericles is known to have been the first Shakespeare play performed in the modern era, revived in 1660 after the reopening of the theatres by a 17th century actor named Thomas Betterton.


All 2803 lines in Shakespeare’s Richard II are written in verse, with no prose passages at all. That makes it the longer of only two verse-only plays in Shakespeare’s complete works—the other being King John.


Hamlet might be Shakespeare’s longest role and longest play today, but when the First Folio—essentially Shakespeare’s first “complete works”— was published posthumously in 1623, the longest play was Richard III. That’s partly because, with 3570 lines, Richard III itself is a long play, and partly because the Folio edition of Hamlet omits several significant scenes and speeches and is several hundred lines shorter than modern editions of the text.


“Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi: / One lot already grieving, the other in fear. / Come, you who are cruel, come and see the distress / Of your noble families, and cleanse their rottenness.” If you don’t recognize that line from Romeo and Juliet, you’re not wrong—it’s actually a line from Dante’s Divine Comedy, written 250 years before Shakespeare was even born. It’s thought that Dante’s two “already grieving” Montagues and Capulets were real-life warring dynasties in medieval Italy, whose violent opposition earned them a place in his Purgatory and, from there, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


The Taming of the Shrew contains the only word Shakespeare used beginning with X: in a speech at the end of Act 1, Petruchio explains to Hortensio that he would happily marry any woman, even if she was “as curst and shrewd as Socrates’ Xanthippe or a worse,” provided that she was wealthy. Xanthippe was Socrates’ wife, who was was labeled“the hardest to get along with of all the women there are,” by Antisthenes (as quoted by Xenophon), one of Socrates’ students. Ultimately Shakespeare, alongside many others writers since, used her name as a byword for a bad-tempered, henpecking woman.


On June 2, 1609, a ship named Sea Venture set sail from Portsmouth as part of a fleet of ships heading for Jamestown, Virginia. After more than seven weeks at sea, on July 24, the fleet sailed directly into an enormous hurricane, and while the other ships headed north to escape, the Sea Venture became separated from the group and faced the full force of the storm alone. Captain Sir George Somers was left with little option: He deliberately steered the ship towards the only land he and his 150 passengers and crew had seen for weeks, and intentionally ran the ship aground on Bermuda. For the next nine months, the survivors of the Sea Venture remained stranded on the island, after which Somers and his remaining men completed the construction of two smaller ships, Deliverance and Patience (pieced together from the wreckage and timber from the island) and set sail once more; they finally reached Jamestown on May 23, 1610. When news of their incredible ordeal and survival reached England weeks later, it caused a sensation—and inspired Shakespeare to begin work on The Tempest.


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With 2512 lines, Timon of Athens is the second shortest of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, and his eighth shortest play overall. But with 850 lines to himself, Timon is Shakespeare’s fifth largest role (after Hamlet, Iago, Henry V and Othello), and a considerably longer role than the likes of King Lear, Marc Antony, and Richard III. Such a substantial role in such a relatively short play means that any actor playing Timon has to carry a staggering 34 percent of the play himself, second only to Hamlet (at 37 percent) in its theatrical weight.


The bloody violence and grim content of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus—which includes a rape, several murders, torture, execution, dismemberment, filicide, and a mother eating a pie made out of her sons’ flesh—often doesn’t sit too well with audiences today (in fact, five people fainted at a 2014 performance at London’s Globe), but in Shakespeare’s day, it’s thought that it was one of, if not the, most successful of his plays. Three quarto editions of the script were published before the First Folio in 1623 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in contrast, only had two) and in 1614, Ben Jonson lamented the play’s continued popularity in the opening of his play Bartholomew Fair. Jonson also mentioned that the play was by now “five and twenty, or thirty” years old—which has led some Shakespeare scholars to suggest that Titus Andronicus might have been written as early as 1586. If that’s the case, Titus would be Shakespeare’s earliest play, and probably the only play he wrote before moving to London from Stratford.


If Titus was Shakespeare’s most popular play, then Troilus and Cressida was his least successful. Although some early sources of the text state that it had been performed at The Globe, the 1609 publication of the play stated that it was “a new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar,” a discrepancy thought to imply that the first performance was a failure, and that the text was drastically amended before publication in 1609. Despite these amendments however, the play remained unpopular: John Dryden famously dismissed it as a “heap of rubbish” and rewrote the story himself in 1679, while the play’s inconsistent mix of Greek myth, bawdy comedy, deep tragedy and an unhappy ending alienated audiences so much that it wasn’t performed again until as relatively recently as 1898.


Twelfth Night, or What You Will was the only one of his plays that Shakespeare gave a subtitle. Quite what he wanted the title to imply is debatable, although some have suggested that he was trying to poke fun at the trend in theatre at the time for attaching snappy subtitles to literary works (specifically probably John Marston, who wrote his own play titled What You Will at the same time). Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is also sometimes given a subtitle, All Is True, but that wasn’t used in the First Folio and is presumed to have been attached to the play at a later date (or else was its original title, before it was changed in line with Shakespeare’s other royal histories).


The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to commonly feature a dog, Crab, the pet of the comic servant, Launce. Crab has no lines (obviously) and only features in one scene in the entire play (Act 3, scene 2), but he steals enough of it to be labeled “the most scene-stealing non-speaking role in the canon” by Oxford Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. He might steal the scene, but Crab isn’t treated very well: “I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives,” Launce laments in his famous monologue, complaining that while he said goodbye to his family, “did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear.” Even the family cat, he explains, was “wringing her hands” at his departure.


Co-written with John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen is believed to be the last play he worked on, written sometime between early 1613 and autumn 1614. The scene in the play in which a baboon dances a Morris dance, however, is not thought to be one Shakespeare worked on …


Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale was based on an earlier romantic tale, Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, by the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene. Shakespeare kept much of Greene’s plot and structure intact (and to do so had to insert a 16-year gap in the story between Acts 3 and 4) but as a result, when Greene’s facts were wrong, that meant Shakespeare’s facts were wrong: Act 3, scene 3 opens in “Bohemia, a desert country near the sea,” despite the fact that Bohemia, roughly equivalent to modern-day Czech Republic, was landlocked. Shakespeare’s error ultimately led to the phrase “the seacoast of Bohemia” entering the languageas another name for any fictitious Utopia. And although some Shakespeare apologists have attempted to explain away this inaccuracy, one inescapable fact remains: Bohemia has no desert either.