‘Carelesse of Countrey’? Mapping Gorboduc

Harriet Archer

The Gorboduc Project aims to re-situate Norton and Sackville’s play, politically and generically, but first and foremost, spatially. Ideas of devolution and displacement underpin our original northern perspective on the texts; we wanted to explore the potential alternative loci for concentrations of power which pervade the Gorboduc legend and its Elizabethan contexts. Discourses of space, place and travel have always featured prominently in Paul’s research interests; for me, early modern chorography has been central to the interpretation of Elizabethan historiographical poetics. The relationship between the land, landscape, and territorial possession – and the fraught intersection of constructed and observed phenomena that these ideas represent – lies at the heart of the tragedy, in which blood ties its characters to family and earth alike, and kinship and nationhood are interlocking, competing concepts.

For this post, I decided to exploit a couple of simple digital tools to open up new ways of shedding light on the place of place in the texts of Gorboduc. As is often the case, the data I extracted from the text and fed into, in this case, Google Maps, is not exclusively “visible” through digital means – one might reach the same conclusions simply reading the play – but expressed cartographically instead of verbally, its implications become much more striking. The division of Britain into territories, by, for example, the legendary Trojan Brutus in John Higgins’s Complaint of Albanact (First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates, 1574), or Shakespeare’s King Lear, explicitly invoke physical maps. Higgins’s Brutus demands,

Recorde to this mine eldest sonne I giue,
This midle parte of realme to holde his owne:
And to his heyres that after him shall lyue,
Also to Camber that his parte be knowne,
I giue that laude that lies welnighe oregrowne:
With woodes Norwest & mountaynes mighty bie,
Twene this and that, the Stutiae streame doth lye.

And vnto the my yongest sonne that arte,
Myne Albanacte I giue to thee likewise:
As muche to be for thee and thine a parte,
As Northe beyende the arme of sea there lyes.
Of which loe here, a map before your eyes,
Lo here my sonnes my kingdome all you haue.

(First Part, fol. 12v)

Lear gestures to ‘The map there; know we haue diuided| In three, our kingdome’ (King Lear, 1608, sig. Bv). So I planned to map the toponyms mentioned in the 1565 and 1570 editions of Gorboduc, to see what surprises this might throw up regarding the texts’ geographical horizons.


The Gough Map, c. 1300?

Turns out, there are hardly any place names in Gorboduc. And those referents that do feature are far from unproblematic. Across the text as a whole, they can be split into three categories:

  1. Locations cited in the front matter
  2. Titles (e.g. Duke of Albany) listed in the dramatis personae but not always spoken aloud in performance
  3. Names of regions, cities, rivers, spoken aloud by the play’s characters; these can be further divided into:
    1. direct references
    2. part of rhetorical tropes, e.g. similes

This typology, though, dresses up what boils down to 5 regions within the dramatic text: Britain, Albany, Cumberland, Humber, Troy/ Ilium. The map below shows spoken toponyms in blue, regions named within the titles of Dukes Clotyn, Fergus, Mandud and Gwenard in red, and the performance and publication sites given in the paratext, in green, for the 1565 edition (the 1570 edition is virtually the same, but with different publication data).

‘Britain’ is named aloud a total of 13 times (more than all other places put together, a total of 10). Interestingly, this does not occur until Act IV Scene 1, such that those 13 references are concentrated in the final two acts – those thought to have been composed by Sackville, and which treat the aftermath of Gorboduc’s decision to split his kingdom between his son; to what extent is national identity thought to inhere, despite a power vacuum? At no point is that decision ratified or reified by the designation of separate names for Ferrex and Porrex’s territories; Gorboduc’s authority as king is simultaneously compromised and upheld by the tenacity of ‘Britain land’ as a geographical object.  Meanwhile, of the dukes, Albany, Cornwall and Logres/ Lloegyr, whose local power threatens to undermine the cohesion of ‘Britain’ as a whole, only Albany – Scotland – is named in dialogue as well as in the printed paratexts.

Noteworthy, then, is the cluster of legendary names located in modern Turkey: Troy, Ilion, the river Simoeis, and the Phrygian fields, all invoked to communicate the epic disaster of Gorboduc’s failure to nominate a single heir. The Trojan allusion threads the ancestral line back to Gorboduc’s ancestor Brutus, whose dynasty has been obliterated by the events of the play, while collapsing generations of mythic history together through the workings of the simile. Set out pictorially, what we might dismiss as a generic bit of classical name-dropping is foregrounded by the very fact of its peripheral position – as one of such a low number of named locations, the layered significance of Troy, dynastic continuity, and the matter of Britain, to Gorboduc’s characters, authors, and audience, is vividly expressed.

Just as the Northern and Southern parts of the realm are not renamed under Ferrex and Porrex, neither are the locations of their courts, or that of Gorboduc’s own, identified. The final scenes refer regularly to ‘Parliament’, but this is never tied to a geographical site. It is reasonable to argue that these locations were simply not named in the early modern English chronicle tradition (although Grafton’s 1569 account specifies York and London/ Troynovant as landmarks of Gorboduc’s life and reign, pp. 52-4). The effect, though, is to triangulate political power between three starkly miscellaneous centres, whose anonymity bridges the formal separation between the play’s historical drama and allegorical dumb-shows, and occludes the borrowed authority of existing toponyms. Without proper names to denote hierarchy or historic right, the characters must fall back on the play of pronouns: is “this” nameless land, court, realm, “yours” or “ours”? National identity, possession, inhabitation and leadership are shown to be contingent on a tenuous relation to the earth under the characters’ feet (earth which exerts its own problematic agency, too).

So when we try to map Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc, the text itself appears at first somewhat ‘carelesse of countrey’. What is a play about nationhood and the English succession doing when it refuses even to set itself within the recognisable parameters of the national landscape, with only the river Humber to score a crude bisecting border? One answer is, protecting itself, hiding behind the vagueness of allegory to convey its ‘darker purpose’. But the text also speaks to a yet more destabilising factor than the absence of a named successor: the fragility of the relationship which programmes of territorial naming, claiming and mapping are designed to conceal.



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