Hark ye, eco-warriors, bearers of the canvas tote! Today's greenies could learn a thing or two from a country-bred Englishman who lived before automobiles and oil spills — William Shakespeare.
So says Jean Feerick, English professor at Brown University.
Feerick pondered the relationship between Shakespeare and the environment in the course "Eco-Shakespeare" last fall.
Feerick says Shakespeare's plays can help redefine our relationship with nature, in part because that relationship was radically different in the Bard's day. Before the dawn of national parks and Enlightenment thinking, there was no firm divide between culture and nature. So for Shakespeare, nature wasn't "the green stuff out there," she says. It was a process that encircled human life.
Take the weather, for example. Shakespeare's plays are packed with roiling storms that mirror the mental turmoil of characters. If a tempest is brewing, it's a sure sign someone will be mauled, murdered, usurped, driven crazy by grief, or at least playfully humiliated. There is no clear distinction between human emotion and environmental disaster. People are described as withered herbs, mutilated trees, or blossoming flowers. France becomes a garden in Henry V, and the destruction of the "garden" by war parallels human carnage. The world is animated by spirits. The earth seeks vengeance. And every once in a while, someone is chased off stage by a bear.
That famous scene from The Winter's Tale might have seemed more realistic back then. Bear-baiting — a blood sport involving bears and dogs — was a common form of entertainment. The bear-baiting arena neighbored the theater where Shakespeare's plays were performed, which — in line with the vengeful nature theme — was built of timber and later burned down.
Throughout Shakespeare's plays, Feerick finds a sense of the "awesomeness of nature." That sense — along with the idea that people and plants are connected — may have gone the way of bear-baiting.
Despite being born before electricity, Shakespeare witnessed some defining environmental changes, from massive deforestation on behalf of the ship-building industry to smog caused by coal-burning, says Feerick. He grew up in the rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon before moving to London, which was filled with farmers pushed off their land by privatization. But Shakespeare's relationship with such changes is complicated, according to Feerick. At times he seems to criticize the aristocracy, even suggesting that property should be eliminated altogether. But he became a landholder himself and wrote a will, famously leaving his wife his "second-best bed."
So what can modern-day students learn about nature from Shakespeare's plays?
The class was about "interrogating things we take for granted," says Feerick. In rediscovering Shakespeare's enchanted world, students might feel less separated from it.
"I hope they leave with a kind of sense of a possibility of a different relationship with the natural world," she says.
Imagining that possibility may be more urgent now, given all that we have done lately to muck up the natural world. And Feerick, whose explorations are part of a growing movement of "ecocritics" — the million-dollar word for literary scholars who ask ecological questions — says she wants to make that possibility more concrete. When she teaches a course on the "Green Renaissance" next semester, she hopes to eliminate the use of paper copies by making reading material available online.