John Gillies. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiii + 255 pp., 20 illustrations.
Review by,
Patricia Badir
University of British Columbia

Badir, Patricia. "Review of Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.1 (1995): 7.1-3 <URL:

  1. John Gillies builds his study of conceptual and concrete space in the plays of William Shakespeare upon the premise that the dramatist's imagination was not only informed by the tenets of a new geography as made familiar by cartographic discourse produced by and for contemporary colonial enterprises, but equally indebted to an ancient classical geographic tradition which was inherently poetic and which was alive with meaning, especially that of difference and alterity.

  2. The work begins with an exploration of the Other in classical literature where it is defined in terms of an outlandishness in which distance from a conceptual centre, continental Europe, is necessarily expressed in terms of moral transgressiveness. With illustrations from a variety of plays including Titus Andronicus, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, Gillies explains that Shakespeare's Renaissance fashioning of difference was still beholden to fantastic formulations of monstrosity in a dramaturgical version of ancient cosmography. The second chapter of the book is a critique of mainstream treatments of geographic themes in Shakespeare in which Gillies takes issue with the critical commonplace that Shakespeare's drama was less shaped by cartographic innovation than that of his contemporaries. By appropriating semiotic strategies of twentieth-century geographers, Gillies challenges the notion that maps are necessarily literal representations of topography. If maps are conceived of as graphic representations which facilitate a spatial understanding of things, then both Shakespeare and his contemporaries can be read as inspired by a unified Renaissance imagination in which the empirical discoveries of contemporary overseas voyages are appended to the poetic vestiges of classical geography. The third chapter pushes the implications of this logic one step further through an exploration of the conceptual interrelatedness of the Elizabethan theatre and sixteenth-century map-making strategies. Essentially, theatres, as buildings and as sites of performance are spatial and spatializing entities just like maps. Gillies establishes the Globe Theatre as a kind of "quasi-cartographic product of the same type of cosmographic imagination which produced the world maps of Ortelius and Mercator" (70) and then concludes, as a direct corollary to this assumption, that the figuring of difference upon the Shakespearean stage is greatly indebted to versions of the Other in the "theatres" of contemporary map-makers and ethnographers. These suppositions are followed through in the fourth chapter which explores the influence of classical poetic geography on the construction of Otherness in Shakespearean drama. The final section of the book is an analysis of the aesthetics of the new geography with regard to the tension between ancient and Renaissance hermeneutic forms. Gillies concludes that Shakespeare was not fully at peace with the new geography primarily because the new geography was not fully at peace with itself. By examining the iconography and inscriptions which clutter the margins and borders of Renaissance maps, Gillies dispels the idea that these were uniformly proto-scientific discourses and exposes what he interprets as their conscious mythological agendas. He sees the maps as open to ancient cosmographic values as well as to the new geography and exposes the "paradox of a geography conscious of its novelty, confident of its superiority to the ancient geography, energetically generating a new poetry to make sense of its radically incongruous world-image, yet still enthralled to the imagery of the past" (188).

  3. Despite a dense prose style which is obliquely indebted to Derrida, Lefebvre and de Certeau, Gillies produces a coherent and informed discussion of the Renaissance imagination which voyages through the depths of classical literature and simultaneously unearths the semiotic potential of contemporary cartographic innovation. The Shakespearean rehearsal of alterity is fixed upon the Renaissance stage, the fabric of which becomes the physical and conceptual point of intersection of a variety of trajectories: ethnographic, geographic, political and sexual. From this critical place Gillies is able to explore how these related discourses seek to order and fix relationships in space but avoids the anachronistic, distinctly post-Elizabethan, critical vocabulary of race, colour and prejudice characteristic of post-colonial and new historicist Shakespearean criticism. Disappointingly however, he does not gesture toward ultimate conclusions on the production and reception of either maps or theatres. Provocative suggestions are left to sound off through the texts of Shakespearean drama but are not fully set against contemporary conditions of spectatorship and/or readership. While Gillies proves that ultimately the "difference between the poetic map-maker and the cartographic poet is less important than their similarity" (182) the implications of this assumption in terms of late sixteenth-century theatrical and colonial enterprise are not clearly mapped out.
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(RGS, 12 December 1997)