Losing the Map: Topographical Understanding in the Henriad
Losing the Map: Topographical Understanding in the Henriad
David Read, University of Missouri, Columbia
What is, on a map, only a physical position (neither more or less important than any other) acquires intensity of meaning by the superimposing of spiritual senses over the physical one; the undifferentiated physical fact has to aspire to spiritual meaning in order to become important.
(G. K. HUNTER)1
Recently words like 'geography', 'cartography', 'topography', and 'mapping' have begun appearing regularly in literary criticism, often with only a distant metaphorical relation to the scholarly and practical disciplines from which they were borrowed. A critic might write about the "map" or the "grid" of a particular text or cultural event, but would not want to be pressed too hard on the specific technical dimensions of the equation. While maps are certainly readable as texts, few literary texts have proven readable as maps in any very illuminating way, and "the geography of literature" is likely to remain largely a figure of speech. Even so, I believe that there is considerable value in taking the connections between geography and literature seriously, and that these connections can be quite helpful in the understanding of, among other things, William Shakespeare's history plays. In what follows I will argue that notions of physical orientation in the world are crucial to Shakespeare's presentation of the main characters in the second tetralogy, and especially to their presentation as historical actors. This quality of orientation is in itself neither ethical nor political, but appears at the threshold of both of those spheres of activity—a threshold where "a place in the world" and "a place in history" come close to meaning the same thing.
Among the various indications of Hotspur's flawed character in King Henry IV, Part 1, one of the most telling is his mental lapse during the conference with Worcester, Mortimer, and Glendower at the beginning of act 3, scene 1 : "a plague upon it! /I have forgot the map" (lines 5-6).2 The scene depicts a crucial moment in the alliance between the Percys and the Mortimers against Henry IV, and the stage business surrounding the map provides concrete evidence of the critically unfixed quality of Hotspur's thinking and leadership. It turns out that he has spoken too soon, for the map has not been left behind; Glendower, as befits his claim to be a magician, conjures it up only a moment after Hotspur has cursed its absence—though perhaps it was lying under Hotspur's nose all along.
This map has no precedent in Shakespeare's sources for the scene; characteristically, Shakespeare has taken Holinshed's bland remark that Lord Percy, the earl of March, and Glendower "divided the realme amongst them, causing a tripartite indenture to be made and sealed with their seales"3 and transformed the general idea into some strikingly effective stage business. The map's immediate significance is that it stabilizes in a visible way the plans, motives, and internal relations of the rebel leaders, literally giving shape and line to the future course of the rebellion.4 As Mortimer says at the beginning of the scene,...
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That Hal should deliver Hotspur's eulogy (after first putting himself in a position to do so) is inevitable for all the obvious dramatic and thematic reasons; indeed, the contrast between Hotspur and Hal as "leaders of men" is one of the ancient commonplaces of Shakespeare criticism. However, the poles of that contrast have gradually shifted along with trends in twentieth-century criticism, so that a typical recent version has Hotspur in his familiar role as a scion of outmoded "feudal values," while Hal comes to represent some of the more unsettling aspects of the exercise of art, politics, and commerce in the modern capitalist state: his "authority" is linked in sinister ways with "the ambiguous figures of actor, Machiavel, and merchant."9
In many respects I agree with this characterization of Hal, but, as I have hinted above with regard to Hotspur, there is another way of reading the contrast which renders it considerably more complex. For Hal, despite his many transformations in the course of the tetralogy, is always unshakably "placed" within England. The knowledge suggested by the assertion "I know you all" that introduces Hal's best-known soliloquy (I.2.198) is perhaps less a matter of quasi-divine omniscience than of a tacit but long-standing familiarity with the land's inhabitants, both great and small. The soliloquy ends, of course, with Hal's confident assertion that he will become an actor in (and of) history,...
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Indeed, Henry does behave in King Henry V as though the known world belongs to England and England belongs to him. His actions in the play have their impetus in his lengthy discussion with the bishops about "Salique land" in act 1, scene 2—a scene which, while it may be unduly tedious for modern audiences, must surely have had a significant degree of topical interest for its initial viewers.
The wooing scene at the end of the play is perhaps more dubious than tedious, but Henry's relationship with the land (a land which now incorporates France) remains close to the surface:
Kath. Is it possible dat I should love de ennemie of France?
K. Hen. No, it is not possible you should love> the enemy of France, Kate; but in loving me, you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it: I will have it all mine. And, Kate, when Fance is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.
Kath. I cannot tell wat is dat.
K. Hen. No, Kate? I will tell thee in French . . .
Henry's French may be no better than Katherine's English, but it is nonetheless a kind of French—the kind an English king would speak. However awkwardly the French and English languages approach one another in King Henry V, their meeting...
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Henry V's charisma in the tetralogy—whether that charisma is construed as positive or negative—is closely connected with his aura of uniqueness. This aura emanates less from his personality or his accomplishments than from his ability to occupy a particular symbolic position in the historical narrative more securely than anyone else on the stage: he is the supremely oriented historical actor ("herein will I imitate the sun"). Unlike Hotspur, he need not worry about losing the map, because he carries the map within himself. His sense of direction is privileged, in every sense, and he is the only character in Shakespeare's historical universe who maintains this privilege from first to last. As such, he has the rather opaque quality that accompanies any figure of nostalgia; a being neither wholly anticipated nor subsequently duplicated in history, he seems not quite human.
The moral distance between Henry V and Henry VI was brutally obvious—we might say too obvious—to both Shakespeare and his audience; but Shakespeare was also interested in limning the distance between Henry V and his father. Henry IV, too, is deeply concerned with orienting himself properly within the world and within history, but his capacity to do so is more like Hotspur's than like Hal's. This is not so much because Henry and Hotspur both fall under a long shadow of usurpation and rebellion, but rather because they are both placed outside the world they wish...
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The Border of History
Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see (as in a map) the end of all.
(King Richard III 2.3.53-54)
Shakespeare's audience watched the plays of the second tetralogy in theaters that retained the conventional shape of a map of the world; the theater called The Globe would make the connection explicit.20 Shakespeare himself made dramatic use of the notion of the theater as a metaphor of the oikumenê in the prologue to King Henry V: "Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confín'd two mighty monarchies, / Whose high, upreared, and abutting fronts / The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder" (prologue, lines 19-22). The prologue invites the audience to suppose, in effect, a tripartite world—the third part, of course, being taken by the audience.
The center of this world is occupied by the protagonist of the drama; in the plays of the second tetralogy, that protagonist is drawn from history. The audience witnesses the struggle of that figure to maintain position as the rightful occupant of that space. This is one of the central tropes of dramatic presentation; historical drama provides the additional element of the protagonist struggling to hold a "place" in history. Only Hal/Henry V controls this place successfully within the tetralogy. And while the Elizabethan audience might savor this achievement, they...
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