William Shakespeare Losing the Map: Topographical Understanding in the Henriad

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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, "These promises are fair, the parties sure" (line 1), and the map itself, with its strict disposition of the land into three parts, is an emblem of this fairness and certainty: "The Archdeacon hath divided it [i.e., England] / Into three limits very equally" (lines 71-72).

The principal characters in the scene nonetheless devote much of their energy to transgressing, or, more aptly, forgetting, the evenhanded limits to the rebels' cosmos that seem to be implied in the lines of the map. Glendower brags that the world has become less stable by virtue of his presence in it: "at my birth / The frame and huge foundation of the earth / Shak'd like a coward" (lines 15-17). Hotspur promptly associates Glendower's boasts with the "strange eruptions" of "Diseased nature" and attributes the "birth-quake" to Mother Nature's...

(The entire section is 8,788 words.)