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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare on the Edge: Border-Crossing in the Tragedies and the Henriad
  • Mark Taylor
Lisa Hopkins . Shakespeare on the Edge: Border-Crossing in the Tragedies and the Henriad. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. 154 pp. index. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 0-7546-3720-4.

If one rehearses the lexicon of literary criticism and theory over the last thirty years or so — with such privileged words as marginal, borders, boundaries, spaces, periphery, and liminal cohering in a kind of mantra of symbolic location — and if, moreover, one thinks of such recent titles as Patricia Parker's Shakespeare from the [End Page 975] Margins (1996) or Bernhard Klein's Maps and the Writing of Space in Early Modern England and Ireland (2001), then the book under review might well seem inevitable, and perhaps it is: inevitable, but in no way derivative. Lisa Hopkins may need some fashionable terms, but whereas the language of borders and its kin is usually figurative in contemporary criticism, it is reified in Shakespeare on the Edge. Hopkins is concerned, first of all, with those real features of the physical world that separate places from each other or fail to do so: the Welsh Marches between England and Wales in the Henriad; the "cliff-edges, banks and borders" (35) and sea that separate Denmark from its neighbors in Hamlet; the border separating England and Scotland in Macbeth; the uncertain perimeters of two islands, Venice and Cyprus, in Othello; and an England on the edge of the Continent — whence have come Cordelia's two suitors, the King of France and Duke of Burgundy — just over Dover Cliff, in King Lear.

In Shakespeare's time, as Hopkins reminds us, the map of the world was continually being redrawn, with the discovery and then progressive understanding of, for instance, the Americas; the maps of England, topographical and political, were also being redrawn as rivers (many being renamed or named for the first time) continually shift in their degrees of importance. In the imperial age that is the Renaissance, moreover, states were not inclined to accept their traditional borders as permanent; in his Brytanici imperii limites, John Dee, "Elizabeth's theorist of empire" (6), contends "'that British claims to foreign lands extended well beyond the borders of the British Isles'" (7; Hopkins is quoting The Queen's Conjurer, Benjamin Wooley's 2002 biography of Dee). Each of the plays Hopkins examines "stages and probes one of the physical frontiers of Shakespeare's England not only in its own right but also as a potent imaginative tool with which to probe its spiritual state, which . . . it generally finds to be wanting" (9).

Chapter 4, on Othello, which may be taken as representative of this original and illuminating study, is all about islands. The context in which Hopkins will place Venice and Cyprus (and, implicitly, Britain) is vast and complex, real and mythical. It includes "islands that did not exist," not where they are supposed to be, at least, like "a totally fictional map of Friseland" shown in Abraham Ortelius's "generally highly reliable atlas" of 1573; mythical islands like Buss Island, first mentioned in 1578 (87); drifting islands like Graham Bank, also known as Ferdinandea, which was said to appear from time to time off the coast of Italy (88); perilous islands, like one near Milo, "'which is inhabited by devils who loose the mooring cables of ships that land there,'" according to one contemporary (89). Some islands, like the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight ("'wight' being a middle English word for 'person'"), "speak of an equation between island and person," and others, more specifically, resemble resistant maidens: Jersey "is one 'on whome the watrie God would oft have had his will / And often her hath woo'd, which never would be wonne'" (90). "The most alarming island of all," however, "was Ireland," which "[o]ften [was] imaged as the 'back door' to England and the direction from which Catholic invasion might most readily be expected" (93).

"[T]he twin associations of islands with vulnerability," as with Britain, "and [End Page 976] the supernatural," as with Ferdinandea, "come eerily together," Hopkins writes. This fusion characterizes the islands of Othello...


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