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PaIS Seminar Series

Shakespearean Territories”

Critical International and Political Studies annual lecture, University of Warwick


This lecture shows how Shakespeare’s plays can help us to think about the multi-faceted nature of territory as word, concept and practice, and to shed light on the way we understand territory and territorial disputes today. Shakespeare only uses the word ‘territory’ twice, in King Lear and As You Like It, and the plural ‘territories’ twelve times in seven separate plays. It might thus appear that the idea was marginal to his work. Yet a number of his plays are structured around related issues of exile, banishment, land politics, spatial division, contestation, conquest and succession.

Drawing on the political and historical analyses of territory in Terror and Territory and the forthcoming The Birth of Territory, this lecture will examine the way that territorial concerns run through Shakespeare’s plays. While other parts of the larger project discuss legal, economic, corporeal, colonial, technical, and exiled aspects of territory, here the focus is on the question of vulnerability and external relations. Both Hamlet and Macbeth concern the court politics of a usurping monarch and the consequences of their actions and the wish for revenge, but they are also structured by external threats to the integrity of the state. In Hamlet this is the long running dispute between Denmark and Norway, where King Hamlet killed King Fortinbras on the day young Hamlet was born. While often dropped in stage and film adaptations, the role of the young Fortinbras and Norway more generally is a crucial geopolitical and territorial element of the play.

In Macbeth, the title character gains his initial prominence through a victory over Norway, Ireland and the traitors within Scotland. When Macbeth kills the king, and takes the throne, the rightful heir, Malcolm, flees to England, from which he later leads the invasion that deposes Macbeth. As in Hamlet, the geopolitical struggles and the ambitions of external forces are crucial to the plot, and relate to contests at the time between Scandinavian and British powers. Shakespeare was writing at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century: a time when the modern conception of sovereign territory was emerging. He therefore helps us understand its variant aspects, tensions, ambiguities and limits.


Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Geography, Academic Director of the International Boundaries Research Unit, and Social Science Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University. He is the editor of the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and the author and editor of several books including Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty(University of Minnesota Press, 2009). The Birth of Territory is forthcoming in 2013 with University of Chicago Press.