Shakespeare, ecology, and the environment

Herne's Oak
Herne’s Oak, Windsor Forest, from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. J. Linnell, painter ; T. A. Prior, engraver. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

What does Shakespeare say about ecology and its politically engaged cousin environmentalism? Neither term appears in his work—unsurprising since they hadn’t been coined yet. Nevertheless, we see Shakespeare thinking ecologically in ways that resonate with our own perceptions of the environmental challenges we face today.

He was writing when early capitalism, globalized trade, and colonialism were beginning to extend Western and masculine ideals of conquering nature around the world. Responding imaginatively to these developments, Shakespeare recognizes the limits nature imposes on human exploitation, the necessity of conserving the bio-integrity of ecosystems for human and non-human benefit, and the earth’s absolute power to overrule human attempts at domination.

Shakespeare reflects modern ecological awareness partly by referencing the period’s unusually volatile weather, caused (as we now know) by hemispheric cooling. Titania’s allusions to drowning rains and killing ice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2.1.82-114) voice Elizabethans’ perplexity at these seasonal disorders.

“The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world
By their increase now knows not which is which.” (2.1.115-117)

Today her account speaks to global-warming calamities that are making improbable weather commonplace, and challenging us to rethink what is climatically real or normal.1

King Lear
Johann Heinrich Ramberg. King Lear. Watercolor, 1829. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Kingdoms and world-views in Shakespeare pivot on earth-shattering storms. Their trajectories may be tragic (King Lear), tragi-comic (The Winter’s Tale), or seemingly benign (the storms that precede The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest — reminding us that climate change may be positive for a lucky few). Shipwrecking tempests in Macbeth and Pericles likewise speak to today’s experiences of deadly storm surges and menacing sea rises. These entanglements of personal lives in global forces have become typical of humanity’s collective destiny in the Anthropocene (the modern era when humans fundamentally altered the earth’s ecosystems).

Sixteenth-century population growth, especially in London, made ecological relations newly visible by upsetting resource-and-consumption balances. Demand for timber to build Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford or playhouses in London sent prices soaring and depleted local woodlands. New fuel-intensive industries such as iron-making for King John’s or Othello’s cannons, or glass-firing for windows like the bays and bows in Twelfth Night (4.2.37-38) and Troilus and Cressida (1.2.106), turned deforestation into England’s first major environmental crisis. Faced with ever-higher wood costs, householders such as the eponymous George Seacoal and Mistress Quickly turned to coal, a cheaper but visibly polluting heating alternative.2 Through Shakespeare’s eyes, we glimpse the momentous shift towards fossil-fuels that has increased atmospheric CO2 to today’s crisis levels.

On the other hand, nascent deforestation fostered a struggling ethic of conservation and sustainability. It appears in the naming of ancient trees like Herne’s Oak to preserve them from the industrial sawpits that were springing up in royal forests.3 Newly promoted cultivation techniques, such as the bio-dynamic farming and green rotations of corn and rye referenced in As You Like It, supported ecological resilience while boosting agricultural yields (As You Like It 1.1, 5.3).4

Contentious private enclosures of common land, while they prevented eco-tragedies of biological exhaustion, also exposed local people and animals to dearth. New commodifying attitudes towards nature also extended to the seas.5 Shakespeare’s herrings, pilchards, and cod prefigure the early modern expansion of the European fishery that eventually endangered entire species. Fish, dolphins, and whales are often humorous creatures in Shakespeare. But today they become object-lessons in the need for global co-operation to preserve oceanic biodiversity, as Rupert Goold’s 2006 Royal Shakespeare Company The Tempest suggested.

William Hatherell. The Tempest. Drawing, 1904. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Perhaps the most urgent environmental threat we see in Shakespeare’s plays is industrial militarization. Shakespeare registers its multi-scaled destruction of human and non-human life in late-medieval English warfare and nascent imperial regimes such as Henry V’s in France and Claudius’s in Denmark. Besides the iron-making which caused deforestation, guns large and small needed saltpetre for gunpowder. It was made from composted manure taken by government officers from private barns and privies. These forced appropriations clashed with farmers’ efforts to feed growing numbers of people and animals. And they sparked England’s first country-wide but ultimately unsuccessful environmental protests.6

These early modern collisions of economic, national, and environmental interests continue in today’s trade-offs between generating local employment or corporate profits and risking environmental devastation and extinctions. Shakespeare anticipates faltering local resistance to the industrial-scale intrusions of the emergent “Capitalocene”7 in the ecologically healthy but politically vulnerable bio-communities of Justice Shallow’s Gloucestershire, Burgundy’s France, Cleopatra’s Egypt, and Belarius’s Wales.8 Both as environmental history, and in prefiguring today’s more urgent ecological threats, Shakespeare is our eco-contemporary.

  1. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago, 2016).
  2. Much Ado About Nothing 3.3.11; Henry IV Part Two 2.1.87; The Merry Wives of Windsor 1.4.7-8.
  3. The Merry Wives of Windsor 4.4.51, 5.4.2. See also Vin Nardizzi, Shakespeare’s Wooden Os (Toronto, 2013) and R. Martin, Shakespeare and Ecology (Oxford 2015), ch. 1, 32-55
  4. R. Martin, Shakespeare and Ecology (Oxford 2015), ch. 2, 56-77
  5. Dan Brayton, Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Introduction (Charlottesville and London, 2012)
  6. R. Martin, Shakespeare and Ecology (Oxford 2015), ch. 3, 78-111.
  7. Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London, 2015)
  8. Respectively, Henry IV Part Two, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline.