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Shakespeare's View of the World

medieval map

Even 402 years after his death, Shakespeare still has much to say on modern issues. Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick and is using Shakespeare’s works to further the understanding of one evergreen issue in human geography: Territory.

State of flux

Looking at geological maps of the world you can see how much it has changed physically. One giant lump of landmass on the earth’s surface has spread out over geological time due to the movement of the plates in the earth’s crust. It has come to a relative standstill as what we now recognise as the face of the earth. We still get new bits every so often – for example the island of Surtsey, off Iceland, didn’t exist until volcanic activity in 1963; climate change is transforming coastlines and glaciers. But generally the physical map remains much the same.

The political map however is different. The face of the earth is divided up by borders into territory and this is in a constant state of flux.

Professor Elden explains: “How did the earth’s surface become partitioned into to bits that are controlled by different people? Who decided how it is divided, controlled, and administered? Who determined the relationship between where we are and the political rule we are subject to? These are all the concerns of territory.

“As well as obviously being a geographical and political issue, territory should also be understood through economic, strategic, legal and technical concerns. Using this approach is not to provide a better single definition of territory, but to identify the aspects which would need to be investigated to understand how territory has been interpreted, contested and practiced in different times and places.

“Shakespeare seems to me to be an interesting figure to use to explore these, and other questions in relation to territory.”


Professor Elden continues: “The concept of territory as we understand it today really only emerged around the 17th century and crucial debates about it were going on at the very time William Shakespeare was writing. So, he becomes more than simply a dramatist and poet, he can be seen as an observer of conceptual and technological change and he comments on what he sees.

“While he only uses the words ‘territory’ and ‘territories’ rarely in his plays, the concept and practice is not at all marginal to his work. A number of his plays are structured around questions of exile, banishment, land politics, spatial division, contestation, conquest and succession.

Shakespeare exhibits a profound geographical imagination and his plays and poems raise a whole host of geographical questions. We can use them to shed light on the concept of territory as we understand it now.”

Shakespearean Territories

Professor Elden has written a book – Shakespearean Territories, which will be published later this year by University of Chicago Press – revealing just how much Shakespeare’s unique historical position, combined with his imagination and political understanding, can teach us about territory.

Prof Elden says: “Throughout his prolific career as a playwright, Shakespeare dramatized a world filled with technological advances in measuring, navigation, cartography, military operations, and surveying. His tragedies and histories—and even several of his comedies—open up important ways of thinking about strategy, economy, the law, and the colonial, providing critical insight into a significant juncture in history.

“Shakespeare’s plays explore many territorial themes: from the division of the kingdom in King Lear to the relations among Denmark, Norway, and Poland in Hamlet; from the Salic Law in Henry V to questions of disputed land and the politics of banishment in Richard II. We can see how Shakespeare developed a nuanced understanding of the complicated concept and practice of territory and, more broadly, the political-geographical relations between people, power, and place.

“Many of the themes he covers we can see recurring in modern disputes over borders, territory, power and politics. This is of course what contributes to Shakepeare’s enduring appeal.”

26 April 2018

Stuart EldenStuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. His research is at the intersection of politics, philosophy and geography.

His next book, Shakespearean Territories, will be published by University of Chicago Press in October 2018.

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