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Shakespeare, Richard II and the Political Economy of Territory

by Stuart Elden on August 2, 2018

Shakespeare has long been seen as a writer with something to say about the economic. Karl Marx famously uses Timon of Athens to discuss the “power of money” in his 1844 Manuscripts and Capital Volume I. There are crucial economic questions in The Merchant of Venice, not only in the character of the money-lender Shylock, but also the failure of the overseas trading which means that Antonio cannot repay the debt. There are many more readings of Shakespeare’s plays through an economic lens. If the North American school of new historicism owed much to Michel Foucault, the British cultural materialists drew more explicitly on the work of Marx and some of his commentators, notably Raymond Williams. Others have seen the wider shifts of economic systems at work in his history plays – journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason for example wrote a piece in 2014 entitled ‘What Shakespeare taught me about Marxism’.

My forthcoming book, Shakespearean Territories, develops my long-standing interest in the question of territory. I use a number of Shakespeare’s plays to open up different aspects of the word, concept and practice. While territory is obviously a political and geographical issue, I try to show its multi-faceted nature. I do this in a number of ways. In the first couple of chapters I read three of the major tragedies – King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth – to show how their domestic and dynastic drama is set in a wider world. Lear’s division of his kingdom between his daughters and their husbands begins the play, but the repercussions of this distribution ripple through its subsequent action. Denmark and Scotland are surrounded by powerful neighbours, and I read each play through its ‘geopolitical’ setting. With Hamlet, this is the relation with Norway, and the threat posed to the kingdom by the machinations of young Fortinbras, and the situation in relation to Poland and England. It is the initial war with Norway and traitors at home in which Macbeth proves his military worth, though when he becomes tyrant it is an eventual invasion from England which overthrows him.

Yet the sense of territory that emerges from these three plays is a quite a traditional one. Territories are bordered and divided, protected and threatened, governed or disordered. In the subsequent chapters of the book I try to broaden this understanding of territory to include other aspects. Some of these aspects will be familiar to readers of my previous work in Terror and Territory and The Birth of Territory. I use a number of plays to discuss technical aspects of territory – from land-surveying to cartography, military strategies and measurement. I provide a reading of Henry V, particularly its opening scenes on the Salic law and questions of inheritance, to examine legal aspects of territory, which also come through in some other plays, including Edward III. Going beyond my previous theorisation of territory, I discuss its colonial aspects in relation to the obvious The Tempest, but also a number of Shakespeare’s plays set in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello. I also explore the corporeal aspects of territory through a reading of the political bodies in Coriolanus.

In many of these plays there are questions that relate to the economic and, especially, the politics of land. Territory and land have a complicated relation. Some uses of the word ‘territories’ in Shakespeare almost seem to mean lands, the area controlled by a King or other ruler, who can lose them in war or chose to banish someone from them. Most of the uses of the word are possessive – “your territories”, “my territories”, “our territories”, and so on. There are certainly some ways in which the territory of a kingdom is similar to the lands of a lord. Yet this relation cannot simply be understood that way, with territory like lands at a larger scale. There are questions of jurisdiction, taxation, possession and bordering which complicate a merely economic model for territory. My suggestion in previous work on territory was that while it had an essential economic component, this was not sufficient to grasp its complexity.

In this book I try to deepen this analysis, and I do this in a number of chapters. In King Lear, for example, the main plot of Lear and his daughters is paralleled by the relation of the Duke of Gloucester to his two sons. One son is legitimate, the other illegitimate. The illegitimate son, Edmund, plots a way to gain an inheritance, persuading his father that the other son, Edgar, intends to kill him. The Duke declares “I’ll work the means/To make thee capable”, that is to allow Edmund to inherit his lands in place of his brother.

However, the most sustained reading in Shakespearean Territories on the economic comes in the discussion of Richard II. Richard is a vain and weak king, who breaks up a duel between two feuding nobleman by exiling them both. One of these men is his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. While Bolingbroke is in exile, his father, John of Gaunt dies. Instead of Gaunt’s lands passing to Bolingbroke by inheritance, Richard expropriates them, in part to fund his wars in Ireland. Aggrieved by this, Bolingbroke returns from exile early and eventually overthrows Richard, seizing his crown and becoming King Henry IV. There are many aspects of this play, but I focus on the economic questions revolving around land. Richard finds ways to exploit the lands of his kingdom, and the ones he seizes from others, for economic gain. There is a whole host of language about these issues. Richard says that he is “enforced to farm our royal realm”, that is leasing it out or otherwise generating revenue from it, perhaps involving selling of favours as well.

In his famous dying speech about “this sceptred isle”, Gaunt condemns the king, praising the wonders of England and decrying what it has become. There is a proto-nationalism in this speech, which I also discuss, but in the economic register I am most interested in his suggestion that Richard is acting as “Landlord of England… not king”. There is much else in the play to enrich this criticism, from Richard’s raiding of both the nobles and the commons for money, and questionable legal and taxation procedures. When Bolingbroke returns from exile, he initially claims he is only after his father’s title as Duke of Lancaster, and the lands of his inheritance, but he ends up with Richard’s crown and kingdom too.

Richard II therefore raises a host of questions about the political economies of land and the political geographies of banishment. Kings can expel people from their territories, and exercise majesty within them, but they do not own the territory as a simple possession of land. The kingdom is something with which they can do entirely as they please. The rights of landowners within a kingdom must equally be respected. The king’s relation to his territory is therefore not simply that of a landowner to his land, at a greater scale. Possession of land allows the derivation of economic yield in revenue or rent; while sovereignty is an over-arching power which nonetheless comes with limitations.

My reading also explores the agricultural language of cultivation and pestilence, the mystical relation of the king to the earth, as well as Gaunt’s patriotic appeal to the nation. Equally, following Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous account, it thinks about the play in relation to the medieval notion of the king’s two bodies – one mortal and physical and one divine, the eternal body politic. Richard II opens up historical, economic, and legal elements around the question of land and its relation to territory. Economic factors are therefore crucial in understanding the relation between politics and land, and from this the question of territory. Yet as the rest of the book tries to show, territory encompasses a wide range of elements. Shakespearean Territories is therefore intended to be a book about territory, in all its richness and complexity, with Shakespeare as a guide. But it is also a book about Shakespeare, using territory and geography as a way to re-examine many of his plays.

Stuart Elden
Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of books on territory, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, and Henri Lefebvre. Shakespearean Territories will be published by University of Chicago Press in October 2018; and Canguilhem by Polity in 2019. He is currently working on a study of the very early Foucault, as well as editing a collection of Lefebvre’s writings on rural sociology and political economy with Adam David Morton. He runs a blog at www.progressivegeographies.com

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