Jane Degenhardt



“World,” “Horizon,” and “Global Shakespeare”

Project overview

My larger project considers how Shakespeare as a global phenomenon might be used as vehicle for devising more ethical worldviews that resist the violence–political, epistemological, and material–of globalization. However, rather than focus on Shakespeare’s universalism and ability to unite people across different cultures, nations, and historical moments, it looks at how Shakespeare’s plays invite understandings of the world that in fact eschew ideas of universalism and unity. Provisionally titled Shakespeare in the World / The World in Shakespeare, this study uncovers a history of “the world” that is distinct from the modern, capitalist-driven concept of globalization, or a world conceivable as a unified, homogenized totality. Beginning with the premise that “the world” is an historically-contingent concept, I seek to explore how Shakespeare contributed to notions of disjointed and multiple worlds through his representation of concepts such as the horizon–a concept informed by sixteenth-century oceanic travel that crucially reoriented geographical distance, time, and future possibility. I am also interested in other ways that the world was imagined to have meaning in Shakespeare, as an entity defined through experience, through feeling and emotion, through popular sentiment, through emerging concepts of the human, and through historical ruptures and discontinuities. Shakespeare’s plays, I argue, provide rich provocations for understandings of the world that offer alternatives to critiques of globalization as a set of disavowed and interlinked practices of colonization, capitalist appropriation, and ideological obfuscation.


What can Shakespeare do for the world? In a world riven by violent political conflicts, by the legacy of injustices inflicted by socio-economic regimes, and by intense uncertainty about the future, Shakespeare’s dissemination and adaptation around the globe offers a medium for questioning and resisting hegemonic processes on both local and global scales. For example, Don Selwyn’s 2002 New Zealand film production of The Merchant of Venice draws upon Shakespeare’s engagement with a long history of anti-Semitism to give voice to the cultural trauma suffered by the Māori people under British colonialism; it pointedly presents the play in the Māori language with English subtitles, thus both resisting and acknowledging the linguistic effects of settler colonialism. And yet, it is important to recognize how Shakespeare’s currency as a global phenomenon and the pathways by which Shakespeare has been disseminated through the world have been forged by colonialism and capitalist-driven commercial networks. The circulation of Shakespeare has been used to cement these colonial and capitalist pathways and to parade the claim of Shakespeare’s universalism. Even the impulse to use Shakespeare to help “save the world” implies a certain globalized vision of the world that is Eurocentric and partly motivated by a (related) desire to save Shakespeare. Can we get around these impulses? Can we get behind a global Shakespeare that remembers the damaging Eurocentric, colonial, and capitalist strains of Shakespeare’s global history, but that also disrupts and re-mobilizes these histories in new ways?

In the interest of opening our view toward the possibility of other ways forward, I want to approach the question of how Shakespeare became global by first considering the question of how the world became global. Easily taken for granted, “globalization” describes an historical process of economic and/or cultural integration that takes place on a global scale (Douki). Predicated on the global capitalist market, modern globalization can sometimes obscure alternative or pre-modern conceptions of the world, preventing us from seeing the world’s past configurations and future potentialities. As Peng Cheah puts it: “the fundamental shortcoming of equating the world with a global market is that it assumes that globalization creates a world” (What is a World?). How might our understanding of the world as an historically-contingent concept disrupt or offer alternatives to the inevitability of capitalist globalization? What might we learn from Shakespeare’s understanding of the world?

To begin: the word “global” figures not at all in Shakespeare’s canon. We do find the word “globe” (a total of 12 times)–sometimes referring to the Globe theater, sometimes referring to the earth as a planet or to another astronomical body, sometimes to the head of the human body, and sometimes to an abstract or metaphorical notion of world. While rich and varied, this number of instances is put into perspective by the far larger number of times the word “world” appears in Shakespeare’s plays — more than 650 times(!). But what did Shakespeare mean when he used that word? What did it mean to refer to “all the world” or the “whole world” or the “wide world,” as Shakespeare so often does, in a time when the ability to perceive the world’s wholeness or totality strained technological capacities?

The very act of envisioning the world as a coherent abstract totality has been identified as a hallmark of modernity. In “The Age of the World Picture,” Martin Heidegger influentially describes the world “conceived and grasped as a picture” as a “conquest of the world as picture” (Heidegger, 129). Of course the first true picture of the world did not become a reality until 1968, when Apollo 8 fulfilled the first manned mission to the moon and was able to photograph the earth from lunar orbit. And yet the impulse to picture the world long preceded the mission to the moon and even Heidegger’s world picture. In second century Egypt, Claudius Ptolemy established the boundaries of the oikoumene. His teachings would be profoundly influential for the European Renaissance and its renewed efforts to chart, traverse, discover, and conquer the world. Employing the principles of Euclidian geometry, Ptolemy’s Geographia introduced a new conceptualization of space in which mathematical abstraction promised to make the world apprehensible in completely new ways. Sixteenth-century maps and atlases beginning with the 1513 edition of the Geographia set the world in a three-dimensional space and employed curved lines of longitude to suggest a rounded surface. Apprehending the spherical nature of the earth made perceiving it as a whole a wondrous thing, far beyond the capacities of human perception and facilitated only through cartographic representations that placed the human viewer in an impossible, god-like position. As Ricardo Padrón has suggested, sixteenth-century cartography constituted a “fictional geography” in that it also compelled recognition of what lay beyond the known world (The Spacious World, 21). Cartographic technology introduced new ways of seeing the world that were accompanied by innovations in oceanic navigation, astronomy, and perspectival painting. However, as Shakespeare’s understanding of the world bears out, the task of synthesizing the world as a global whole was necessarily an act of the imagination. I am interested in exploring the values and beliefs that structure this act of imagination. Ayesha Ramachandran identifies a crucial shift that took place in the early modern European worldview between a notion of the world as a divine act of creation and a notion of the world that is human-made. Her study seeks to tell the story behind the “transformation of the world from an expression of a creative, omniscient deity to a modern conception of cosmic totality–from a world revealed to a world made-up” (The Worldmakers, 4). The ability to conceptualize the world as abstracted space created the conditions by which the human imagination could be authorized to master the unknown.

Coincident with the drive to perceive the world in totalizing terms in the sixteenth century was a new appreciation for the relationship between spatial distance and time. It is worth considering the degree to which “the world” came to denote not just a spatial but also a temporal entity in the European imagination. One way to think about this has to do with the distinction of secularity. The Latin origin of the word “secular” (“saeculum” / “saeculo” or “this world”) derives from the idea of a temporal, earthly world and its duration. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies an emerging usage of “secular” in 1597 to mean “of or belonging to the present or visible world, as distinguished from the eternal or spiritual world; temporal, worldly.” Worldly time is secular time. But how did secular time operate? How was it measured and used to structure human activity in the world, to conceive of past, present, and future? How was it informed by new technologies used to traverse space, new incentives to travel the world, and indeed new imperatives to master the unknown world?

One powerful way in which these early modern orientations to worldly time found expression was through the concept of the horizon, a concept that was crucially redefined in the sixteenth century by emerging navigational technologies and planetary knowledge. Medieval understandings of the horizon conceived of it as a fixed limit of perception that could be mapped as a circular halo around the earth, though it could also be associated with a smaller entity, such as the limits of the city of Rome. According to this understanding, the horizon was constituted not by relative locations, but rather by permanently determined positions. With the longer oceanic voyages of the sixteenth century, new meanings and uses of the term emerged. What was once understood as a boundary that could be measured or fixed to a frontier came to be associated with an ever-present gap between the space of heaven (the infinite sky) and earth. In 1596 the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde defined the horizon as “the edge between the light part (which standeth for that which we see) and the dark part which doth signifie that which we cannot see of the skie.” As both a navigational aid in seafaring and a metaphorical concept, the horizon helped early moderns to find their bearings in a world that was expanding. In addition, it cultivated a new way to regard future unknowability and served as a temporal and spatial placeholder where the imagination filled in the projection of future action. Always ahead in the distance and ever-shifting, the horizon made possible a new way of conceptualizing futurity as a function of space and time.

Shakespeare employs this concept in particularly empowering ways in Antony and Cleopatra (1607) in order to represent imperial futurity as a function of projected anticipation and imagination across a spatial and temporal horizon. Interestingly, he does so by looking back upon a well-known history–that of the collapse of the Roman triumvirate, the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire ruled by Octavian Caesar, and the Roman conquest of Egypt. The play relies on a history of these events written by the ancient Greek biographer Plutarch and translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579; however, in retelling this history through the projection of multiple futures across an unknown horizon, it emphasizes the multiple possibilities contained within any present moment and how they are shaped by the spatial and temporal dimensions of the world. Itself moving towards a horizon of an imperial history already determined, the play catches up to this history precisely by demonstrating its characters’ repeated inability to properly realize the futures they attempt to project across the horizon. For example, Antony consents to marry Octavia in order to cement his future hold on the Roman empire through a bond with Caesar, Octavia’s brother. The outcome of these actions reveals a disconnection between the attempt to imaginatively project events across a future horizon and the ability to orchestrate them.

Part of the problem is the time it takes for news to travel across the sea from Rome to Egypt, and Egypt to Rome. What is new news in Rome is old news by the time it gets to Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra employs a particularly expansive geography and also imagines an emotional world of distance between Antony and Cleopatra when they are apart. The word “world” appears 45 times, significantly more than any other play in Shakespeare’s canon. To traverse the distance between Rome and Egypt, the play employs 42 scenes and over 200 entrances and exits, as well as relying upon multiple messengers to cross the horizons that lie between Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra famously attempts to close the space of distance by vowing to send Antony “everyday a several greeting,” even if this causes her to have to “unpeople” Egypt (to carry all these messages). For Cleopatra, the time lag offers opportunities to embrace the present and to insist upon the infinite possibilities that it holds out for the future. Her repeated beating of the messenger who reports upon Antony’s marriage to Olivia reveals an attempt to retain control of a future horizon even though the events contained in that future have in fact already taken place. She asks the messenger three times whether Antony is married, hoping each time to receive a different answer. “Should I lie, madam?” asks the messenger. “O, I would thou didst,” says Cleopatra, which is not the same as saying, “I wish you would.” Rather, it means, “I wish you did,” because a lie is not a lie until the truth catches up with it. An action that occupies the past in one place is not necessarily brought into the future of another. Later, Cleopatra extracts an unfavorable description of Octavia’s physical merits from the messenger who has learned that the truth of a lie depends upon the temporal and spatial distance of the world, that a distant truth can be suspended indefinitely across the space of the horizon.

Through its navigation of a spatial and temporal worldly horizon, Antony and Cleopatra models a methodology that exposes the interstices of time, space, contingency, and possibility that are closed off by a “capitalocentric” global world. In addition, Cleopatra’s particular ability to navigate the dimensions of worldly distance and time reveals an alternative world history that is not captured through the structures of historical record. When Cleopatra sends word to Antony of her death and then asks the messenger to report back to her on how he responds, she uses the space of the time lag to create an opportunity to write the future, and by extension the past, differently. Because the lie of her death is received by Antony as truth, he decides to take his own life. Truth is a matter of spatially determined temporality, of timing. Recognizing Cleopatra’s agency (and its performative manifestations) also gives new meaning to her suicide. For example, Cleopatra uses the spectacle of her suicide to stage the previously unstaged spectacle of her first meeting of Antony on the River Cydnus. Dressed in her queenly attire, she announces, “I am again for Cydnus.” She thus rewrites history by inhabiting and refiguring an historical event that was dependent on Enobarbus’ narration, and prior to his narration on that of Plutarch’s. In the process, she deprives Caesar of his victory. Her suicide also thwarts Caesar’s desire to parade her through the streets of Rome in a spectacle of triumphal procession. As he remarks, “She leveled at our purposes and….took her own way.” Caesar may have gained an empire, but perhaps he has not gained the world, for as the play shows us, the world is comprised of more than the imperial history that renders Caesar “universal landlord,” “sole sir of the world,” and “the world’s great snare.” In Antony and Cleopatra, the world is also this space and moment in time, always chasing a horizon of endless possibility. Such an understanding of the world, I argue, pulls against the inevitability of global capitalism and also exposes processes that persist in its interstices, offering an alternative view to the epistemologies of economy, exchange, labor, and power imposed by globalization.


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

I am beginning a new project that is interested in thinking about “the world” as an historically-continent concept. What are the implications–political, philosophical, and cultural–of conceiving of the world as a unified and coherent abstract totality? How did the world become “global,” and how might models for conceiving of the world distinct from (or even resistant to) “globalization” reveal hidden connections and potentialities that offer a new way forward that resists the erasures of globalization, that brings new worlds into view, and that suggests new categories for analysis alternative to the nation, empire, and capitalist networks, as well as revising our understandings of the past? Given that my field is Shakespeare and the English Renaissance period, I am focusing right now on thinking about how Shakespeare’s plays contributed to shifting understandings of the world and to the epistemological process of “world-making.

Provisional Sketch of Essay:

Connected to these general questions about the historical construction of “the world,” I would like to present a paper that examines the emergence of the concept of “the horizon” as it was informed by long-distance sea travel in the late sixteenth century and given dramatic purchase in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to imagine the effects of geographical distance on human relationships. Always ahead in the distance and ever-shifting, the horizon made possible a new way of conceptualizing the unfolding of the future as a function of space and time. I am interested in thinking about how Shakespeare’s insistence on multiple possible worlds might produce counterfactual potentialities for narrativizing both past and future histories. I look to Shakespeare for access to alternative and imagined world formations that preceded or were coterminous with emerging capitalistic globalization.