History and Geography

Authored by: Jane Grogan

The Routledge Research Companion to Shakespeare and Classical Literature

Print publication date:  April  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9781472417404
eBook ISBN: 9781315613550
Adobe ISBN: 9781317041689


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Shakespeare’s geographical fallacies are well known, though over-estimated: certainly, Bohemia lacks the seacoast with which The Winter’s Tale credits it, and we will never be able to insist upon any one location for Prospero’s island in The Tempest. His classical geography, too, can be patchy: outside the city walls in Titus Andronicus we find a ruined monastery more reminiscent of Tudor England than imperial Rome, and the ancient world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to be populated by ‘nice English girls’ of Shakespeare’s own age: ‘the wood near Athens’, A. D. Nuttall contends, ‘could as easily be a wood near Warwick’ (212). In both cases, the multiple temporalities at play also indicate a certain flexibility in Shakespeare’s uses of classical history. But despite these incongruities, Shakespeare shows himself to be both informed and attentive to the varied histories, geographies, cultures, and environments of the ancient world, as well as their registers in contemporary literary form. Today scholars admire Shakespeare’s ability to capture something of Attic tragedy; for example, his sensitive understanding of the ancient Hellenic world in spite of having demonstrably less historical knowledge of ancient Greece than he does of Rome. 1 Even more closely engaged are his readings of ancient history. His dramatic reworkings of events from the classical past tend to be detailed, involved and relatively accurate (give or take the odd anachronism), sticking closely to established sources while developing their undercurrents and counter-currents. While few doubt that Jonson is the better classicist, Shakespeare’s less showy uses of classical history and geography are important elements of his exploration of human activity in the world.

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