Chris Wortham on Shakespeare’s Maps

A tale of two paradigms in Henry V and Julius Caesar

Chris Wortham

Abstract: Interdisciplinary studies of Shakespeare have become commonplace in the last forty years, after a long period in which those who ventured outside the text were regarded as dilettante dabblers. Serious study of geographical significances that went beyond searching for Juliet’s mythical balcony in Verona or the doubtful ethnicity of Othello were slow in becoming recognised. Since the early 1980s some deeper meanings have been found to be embedded in the plays. Some fine scholars, including Stephen Greenblatt, Leah Marcus, and Richard Helgerson have ventured into this exploration; and, more recently, John Gillies and Virginia Mason Vaughan have contributed notably. I have found my own corner (if that’s an appropriate term for my sphere of activity) in some more specifically cartographic meanings in the plays that have not been fully considered hitherto. I am concerned not only with place and places but also with how geographical space was represented in diverse cartographic forms within late medieval and early modern culture. My underlying thesis is that maps disclose mindsets in informative and sometime quite surprising ways.

For today I have chosen to consider two plays, both written in Shakespeare’s climactic year of 1599, about which James Shapiro has already written so elegantly and extensively in his book entitled 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Shapiro talks a lot about mindsets but not at all about maps. Henry V was the last in Shakespeare’s great cycle of plays on English history.  It was written and performed early in that year. Julius Caesar, first in a new cycle of Roman plays, came at the very end of the year. Between the two plays there was the fall of Queen Elizabeth’s wannabe chivalric hero, the Earl of Essex, and the rise of a new humanistic influence with William Cecil, elevated to the title of Lord Burghley, and William’s son, Robert. These two plays reflect power struggles within the last years of Queen Elizabeth. My question is this: what more do the relevant maps behind the plays also tell us?

Chris Wortham is Professor at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, and Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Western Australia. He has led a distinguished career in early modern literary studies and is well known as an engaging orator and public lecturer.  He is the author of several scholarly editions and edited collections including Doctor Faustus: The A-Text (w. David Ormerod, UWA Press), Shakespeare: Readers, Audiences, Players (w. R. S. White, UWA Press) and  European Perceptions of Terra Australis (w. Anne Scott et. al, Ashgate). His current single-authored project, Shakespeare's Maps is under contract with Palgrave.

Audio: Listen to or download (right click and "save link as")  the audio of Chris' paper.

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