Europe and India in Shakespeare’s time
[Expanded from “The Changeling Boy.”]
Europeans had been trading with India for centuries, starting with the Greeks and Romans, who traveled through the Middle East to sail to the west coast of India. There they traded for Indian spices, incense, and silk. A hundred years before Midsummer was written, European explorers started searching for a way to sail directly to India to make trading easier. Before that, the only way to get to India from Europe was either to sail through the Arabian Gulf – which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, who didn’t take kindly to letting Europeans through – or to take a long, difficult trip over land through Persia.
Columbus sailed west from Portugal in 1492 in search of a direct route to India (he found North America instead), and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa in 1498, successfully opening an alternate sea route. Exploration and colonization were increasing in Shakespeare’s time. A few years after Midsummerwas written in 1600, the East India Company was founded to trade spices between England and the Indies.
India was a fascinating place in the English consciousness: a place of riches and luxurious goods like spices, and a very foreign religion and culture. It was also one of the farthest places most people could imagine.
In spite of how far away India is, Titania has followers there, like the Changeling Boy’s mother. She and Oberon are able to travel very quickly from “the farthest steppe of India” to Athens for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Shakespeare is telling his audience that these are characters of far-reaching influence and high status — and the changeling boy, an Indian prince, is a worthy addition to their court.