‘Local habitation’ in Shakespeare

deadline for submissions: 
September 15, 2024
full name / name of organization: 
Société Française Shakespeare

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, 

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; 

And as imagination bodies forth 

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen 

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

local habitation and a name (5.1.17). 

These famous lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream underline the importance of ‘habitation’ in Shakespeare’s poetic creation, whether seen in relation with the local or the global. The very word ‘habitation’ indeed appears in other texts such as 2Henry IVMeasure for MeasureThe Merchant of Venice and Sonnet 95. 

But beyond this term, one finds numerous occurrences of space and place in the canon. A place is first and foremost an inhabited space, a space energetically fought for and which as such, always deeply refers to the identity of whoever resides in it. Othello precisely dooms himself because he is a stranger in a city like Venice which tolerates him without really making him a citizen. So being a stranger in a foreign city may turn you into an alien. Furthermore, Othello’s use of the word ‘occupation’ at the end of his farewell to arms (3.3.360), in the context of his relationship with Desdemona, takes on a bawdy connotation.

The first sense of ‘habitation’ in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to the occupation of a specific place (‘The action of dwelling in or inhabiting as a place of residence; occupancy by inhabitants’, OED 1). So, in early modern England, the idea of ‘habitation’ is linked to the real or imaginary threat of invasion and of the crossing of borders as well as the crucial question of property. And one knows that, all along his career, Shakespeare was in quest of financial stability and even of ways of enlarging his landed possessions.

But his plays also include geographic and ecological markers. As You Like It for example insists on the necessary preservation of animals and trees. All the same, these allusions mainly refer to a non-savage nature which allows man to make a profitable use of it. Nature, in the canon is never detached from the human. 

  • 2 Philippe Descola, Les formes du visible, Paris, Seuil, 2021.

The notion of ‘local habitation’ also allows us to analyze local belonging, just as displacement and dispossession, in an ecological perspective: the increasingly global commercial exchanges are mapping new world charts, in which the circulation of goods commands the necessary relations to place. To take up Philippe Descola’s phrase, this leads to an approach of the ‘figuration and defiguration’ of the world2. Similarly, the exploration and exploitation of new territories by English colonists brought about a new perception of place, while the native peoples are obliged to rethink their links with their ancestral territories. 

Another way of addressing the notion of ‘habitation’ in Shakespeare is of course linked to this essential place which is the playhouse and the Globe in particular (‘where we lay our scene’), which is a condensing of the physical space of play and of all the imaginary places described in the plays. So the Shakespearean actor is simultaneously present in different types of space. 

One may also think of the supernatural apparitions since the word « spirit » referred to ghosts and to the various revenants in his drama. Such questions as ‘which place does Old Hamlet’s ghost come from’ can indeed be addressed and one may wonder whether his being called ‘old mole’ by the Prince really confines him to the underworld.

Finally, one should not overlook the specific stylistic dimension of the theme with its different topoï, the arts of memory (the loci memoriae analyzed by Frances Yates) or tropes specifically linked to the idea of place such as the hypotyposis in John of Gaunt’s dying speech in Richard II or in Duke Senior’s first soliloquy in As You Like It).


Please send your paper proposal (paper title, keywords and a 300-word abstract) by September 15 2024, together with a short bio-bibliographical note, to the following address:


Answers will be given on October 15 2024. Papers will be 20 minutes long. 

Short bibliography

Borlik, Todd Andrew, Shakespeare Beyond the Green World: Drama and Ecopolitics in Jacobean Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2023.

Chiari, Sophie and Janet Clare (eds), The Circulation of Cosmographical Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, in Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS), vol. 12 (2023). DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/jems-2279-7149-14381

Descola, Philippe, Les Formes du visible, Paris, Seuil, 2021.

Gillies, John, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Marvelous Possessions. The Wonder of the New World, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Gurr, Andrew, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Gurr, Andrew, Shakespeare’s Workplace. Essays on Shakespearean Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Loomba, Ania, Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism, Oxford, Oxford University Press (Oxford Shakespeare Topics), 2002.

Nardizzi, Vin, ‘Wooden Os. Shakespeare’s Theatres and England’s Trees, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.