Shakespeare as Travel Writer Part III: Santiago de Compostela

December 30, 2015

The beginning of a new year is a time of making resolutions to live better in the coming months.  The practice of resolutions is not new.  A thousand years ago the truly pious demonstrated their devotions by making a pilgrimage during which they could contemplate improvements to their soul.  

Initially, pilgrimages were limited to travel to Rome or Jerusalem in the Holy land.  That was until the 9th century when an enterprising King Alfonso II of Spain found a means to bring tourism to a far corner of his kingdom.  He orchestrated the discovery of the remains of Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor Slayer, the patron saint of Spain, and built a shrine to house the remains.  Due to the marketing success of the king, the shrine at Santiago de Compostela quickly became one of the top three pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages.

Santiago de Compestela

Santiago de Compestela

As the popularity of traveling the Way of St. James spread in England, there were critics who depicted travelers on social adventures more so than religious quests.  Among the cynics was William Shakespeare.  The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is stripped of its religious association in a nod to historical reality, for the sake of dramatic intrigue, in three Shakespeare plays:  All’s Well that Ends Well, Othello, and Cymbeline.  

In each of Shakespeare’s plays the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is associated with wanderlust and carnal pursuits.  Travelers are more interested in escaping their dull lives than examining their souls.  A pilgrimage is seen as an economical version of the World Tour of wealthy youths.  On the road to Santiago de Compostela Shakespeare’s characters have comic exploits and at time disclose their not-so-humanitarian feelings.

In All’s Well that Ends Well, the heroine, Helena, undertakes a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  She adorns her travel costume with seashells, the marketing logo devised by King Alphonse.  Helena does not actually travel to Spain.  In the play she ends up in Florence.  Helena’s goal is not religious introspection.  Rather the journey is her socially safe means of attracting her wayward husband to take an interest in their marriage.  Helena thought to be dead when she disappears from home, is actually alive.  She is welcomed home by her husband in a rekindling of their marriage vows, like the penitent who finds new life in religious devotion.

Shakespeare uses the myth of Saint James and the pilgrimage to Spain in three ways.  He mocks the pilgrimage as a ruse for social travel in All’s Well that Ends Well, and he parodies the King Alphonse version of the death of Saint James in Othello.  In Othello the Moor-slaying saint becomes the nemesis of the jealous Moor-king.  King Alphonse devised his version of the St. James legend to lure people to the furthermost outpost of Spain.  In Cymbeline Shakespeare takes his characters to Milford Haven, a Welsh outpost at the far end of Britain.  The heroin of Cymbeline, Imogen, travels to Lands End to be close to her husband and not for any religious purpose.  She is thought to be dead and then she miraculously awakens.  Fortunately, Imogen drank only a sleeping potion and not poison so the miracle was contrived.  Shakespeare’s message is that there is nothing religious either in the motives of his characters or in a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

the street in Santiago de Compostela today

the street in Santiago de Compostela today

Regardless of the cynicism of Shakespeare and perhaps due in part to the notoriety he gave to the quest, thousands of people continued to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela each year.  The story of St. James and his connection to Spain is still fascinating as is the magnificent cathedral at the end of the pilgrimage road.

St. James: the Man and the Myth

There are two stories of St. James.  There is the story of St. James the Greater maintained by the Catholic Church and there is the story that supports the location of his relics in far northwest Spain.  Regardless of which version of his sacrifice is true, there is no doubt of the existence of the Saint.

According to the Catholic Church, James the Greater is the older brother of the Apostle John.  He is to be distinguished from another early disciple, the Apostle James “the less.” ¹ James is regarded as having been the gregarious and outspoken brother. James was baptized in 30CE.  He became a martyr to Christianity in 44CE.  

As to the details of the later life of James there is some variation among biblical historians.  According to the version of the martyrdom of James held by the Catholic Church, James became a victim of Roman political necessity.  The Roman ruler Herod made a public spectacle out of cruelty to Christians.  Herod chose the outspoken James as his first victim.  Upon the occasion of a large event, Herod slew James with a sword.  The beheading occurred in Jerusalem, as James was there to spread the faith.

Another version of the martyrdom of St. James ties him more closely to Spain.  The story places travels of James throughout Iberia around 40 AD, but concedes that he returned to Jerusalem, where he met his fate.  In the Spanish version, disciples put his body on a ship and sailed for Spain.  At Coroña the ship landed and the body was taken inland to Santiago de Compostela for burial.  If this version is correct, all of the remains of St. James would be in Spain.

The parishioners of St. Saturnine at Toulouse, France also claim the remains of the Saint.   The French find support in the writings of St. Paul in which he went to Spain in 58AD, where no one had preached before.  Thus they sever any connection of James to Iberia.  The Spain and France burial stories may be rectified if each has a portion of the remains, that is, relics of the Saint.  There is no harm in sharing bits of relics.  The French were satisfied with this explanation, but not so the Spaniards.

Spanish Catholics hold to the ninth century Spanish legend that provides a much more colorful and Iberia-centric version of the martyrdom of St. James.  In the version popular in the time of King Alfonso II, St. James was captured and tortured during his preaching in Iberia, as he would not release copies of the scriptures. A miracle then occurred when the remains of St. James were revealed in the ninth century not far from Santiago de Compostela.  The revelation inspired King Alfonso to dedicate a shrine in his honor.  

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

Regardless of the efficacy of the pronouncements of King Alfonso, upon dedication of the shrine in Compostela to St. James, it quickly became a popular pilgrimage site.  At first the pilgrims came from northern Spain.  By the tenth century the route to Compostela began north of the Pyrenees and eventually extended northward toward Paris.  Between the tenth and eleventh centuries pilgrims began to arrive at Compostela from England and Ireland.  

The towns along the pilgrimage routes prospered from tourism.  Over the millennium the itineraries became well established.  Today the sign of the seashell, marking the Way of St. James, can be found in small towns all through western France and northern Spain.   

cathedral square showing to the right the Hotel Real, the hospital built by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1501

cathedral square showing to the right the Hotel Real, the hospital built by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1501

By the 1980s, few people walked the entire route, while some began to follow an itinerary by bicycle.  Then in 1987, the Way of Saint James was declared the first European Cultural Route and it was named a World Heritage Site.  With renewed attention, travelers began to increase.  July 25 is a Feast Day for St. James.  When that day falls on a Sunday a Jubilee Year is declared.  In jubilee years the numbers trekking to Compostela are higher, to about 180,000 in recent times.  

In 1501, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain dedicated the Hospital Real, a hospice for travelers on the cathedral square. Today the hospital stands preserved as it was in the sixteenth century.  The building is part of the Paradores system of government owned historic inns located across Spain.² Guests stay today as they did five hundred years before, in small, sparsely furnished rooms, decorated with a small palm-leaf cross above a simple bed.  Today as then, lodging in the Hospital Real is very popular.  

Earning a Seashell

Along the various routes to Santiago de Compostela, etched in walls, painted on sidewalks of small towns in northern Spain, is a seashell.  St. James is often portrayed as having a seashell emblem on his hat or coat.  In like fashion, pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela wore the symbol on their hats and clothes to distinguish themselves from mere wanderers or beggars. The scallop shell was a fabulous tourist souvenir.  It could ward off attackers who would not want to be seen as preying on the pious and it could be a badge to admit the wearer to a free meal at farms along the way.

Santiago Way Saint

Santiago Way Saint

The scallop shell, with its numerous lines all coming together at a common point, became a natural metaphor for the site at the end of the journey.  Like waves depositing shells on a beach, St. James is the inspiration for waves of pilgrims who reach Santiago de Compostela in contemplation of their faith.  The effort of King Alphonso II to bring economic development to northwestern Spain was a resounding success.  It is also a delightful cruise port shore excursion.  In the plays of Shakespeare, Santiago de Compostela receives additional publicity, whether pilgrims travel the Way of St. James in search of religious introspection or a fun time in the Spanish countryside.

For more on Santiago de Compostela and the Way of St. James, see Cruise through History, Itinerary I – London to Rome – La Coruna, released 2014 on

¹Catholic Encyclopedia: St. James the Greater, 1908.


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