William Shakespeare Losing the Map: Topographical Understanding in the Henriad - Essay


(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 having had a bad case of gas (lines 26-31). The dialogue in the early part of the scene alternates between Glendower's claims to have exceeded the normal boundaries—"These signs have mark'd me extraordinary, / And all the courses of my life do show / I am not in the roll of common men" (lines 40-42)—and Hotspur's vigorous efforts to draw him back within them:

Glend. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hot. Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?

(Lines 52-54)

Yet, later in act 3, scene 1, the fabulist and the pragmatist have switched places; it is Hotspur who wants to deny the boundaries, over Glendower's objections. In this instance the boundaries Hotspur denies are actually those on the map:

Methinks my moi'ty, north from Burton here,
In quantity equals not one of yours.
See how this river comes me cranking in,

And cuts me from the best of all my land
A huge half-moon, a monstrous cantle out.

(Lines 95-99)

Hotspur now favors a literal "turning" from the normal order of nature and the map's representation of that order:

I'll> have the current in this place damm'd up,
And here the smug and silver Trent shall run
In a new channel fair and evenly.
It shall not wind with such deep indent,
To rob me of so rich a bottom here.

(Lines 100-104)

Glendower at this point assumes the position of conservative skeptic earlier occupied by Hotspur and appeals to the common understanding, as it were, of the nature of rivers like the Trent: "Not wind? It shall, it must, you see it doth" (line 105). What Hotspur and Glendower "see," of course, is the map's schematic rendering of the Trent, which apparently offers as irrefutable evidence of the river's winding as would be offered by a visit to the Trent itself.

Mortimer and Worcester try to resolve this...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)

Prince Hal

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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, "Redeeming time when men think least I will" (line 217).

This "landedness" emerges as well at moments of the play that carry less of an immediate thematic charge. It is detectable in Hal's bragging to Poins in act 2, scene 4 about his proficiency in the language of tinkers, a speech which also displays Hal's intensely local consciousness: "They take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy . . . and when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads of Eastcheap" (lines 9-11, 13-15). In act 3, scene 2, King Henry may accuse Hal of having "lost . . . [his] princely privilege / With vile participation" and by wearying all eyes (except Henry's) with his "common sight" (lines 86-88), yet this "participation" which Henry so much despises also indicates a quasi-organic relationship with England itself. That relationship manifests itself most curiously in the passing remarks which the king and Hal exchange about Shrewsbury's weather at the beginning of act 5:

King. How bloodily the sun begins to peer
Above yon bulky hill! the day looks pale
At his distemp'rature.
Prince. The southren wind
Doth play the trumpet to his purposes,
And by his hollow whistling in the leaves
Foretells a tempest and a blust'ring day.



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Henry V

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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?


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Henry IV

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2227 words.)

The Border of History

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)