- Shakespeare on the Edge: Border-Crossing in the Tragedies and the Henriad
When John Taylor's "penniless pilgrimage" took him to the border between England and Scotland, he was startled by what he discovered:
Eight miles from Carlile runnes a little Riuer, Which Englands bounds, from Scotlands grounds doth seuer. Without Horse, Bridge, or Boate I o're did get On foote, I went yet scarce my shooes did wet. I being come to this long look'd for land, Did marke, remarke, note[,] renote, viewd and scand: And I saw nothing that could change my will, But that I thought my selfe in England still.1
All that separates the two countries is a "little Riuer" that Taylor fords without difficulty. Moreover, despite his best efforts to isolate difference—despite marking and remarking, noting and renoting—Taylor sees a Scottish landscape indistinguishable from an English one.
Taylor's surprise at Scotland's resemblance to England confirms the early modern expectation that borders are markers of significant difference. Taylor vaguely anticipates some kind of transformative event, but to no avail: "I saw nothing that could change my will." Not only is the landscape the same, but so is Taylor. Of course, the "water poet" versifies with tongue in cheek, making fun of the expectation of transformation. Still, Taylor's joke requires that his early modern reader recognize the symbolic potency of border crossing. What precisely might such a reader have been anticipating and why? What exactly do borders and border crossing mean in the period? Lisa Hopkins' Shakespeare on the Edge provides us with a wealth of fascinating information that helps answer these questions.
Many of Shakespeare's plays concern uncertain, unstable, or shifting boundaries: think of the instances of (actual or projected) kingdom division in King Lear and 1 Henry IV, or of John of Gaunt's effacement of Wales and Scotland in naming England a "scept'red isle." Such matters have been the bread and butter of geographically minded critics at least since Richard Helgerson's 1992 Forms of Nationhood. Hopkins' contribution to this scholarship lies in her exploration of the multiple registers within which borders and border crossing can signify. In particular, Hopkins is interested in the ways geographical borders do or do not map onto spiritual ones. In a chapter on Hamlet, she argues that Shakespeare's play "shows us a world in which the all-important border which would enable us to cross safely into the world of the spiritual is troubled, contested, and impossible to plot securely" (45). For the character of Macbeth, "the boundary [End Page 243] between the worlds seems . . . to be imagined as permeable" (79); while in King Lear, "spiritual bearings are even harder to find than literal ones" (119). Behind these border troubles is the Reformation, which leads to a broad cultural anxiety, acutely expressed in terms of geographic boundaries, about the security of one's passage from this world to the next. For Hopkins, 1 Henry IV shows that even to cross the border into Wales is to "enter a land of eschatological uncertainty" (25). In addition to focusing on the border between worlds, Hopkins considers the importance of James's ascension to the English throne for figuring relations between England and Scotland, especially in light of the king's efforts to unify the kingdom. Indeed, a major argumentative thread running through Hopkins' book is that Shakespeare's plays, when read in chronological order, betray a growing anxiety about "the idea of the permeability or intangibility of the borders which separate [England] from its neighbours" (137). At issue here is the perceived loss of English identity under the (first anticipated, then actual) ascension of the Scottish king. It is for this reason, Hopkins argues, that Macbeth expresses a longing for clear borders—Taylor's "little Riuer" would not suffice—and that Othello betrays trepidation about islands: it is a play in which characters "always imagine themselves as surrounded and configured by water...