"On hill, in dale, forest or mead" : Shakespeare and an Eco-Conscious Life

An interesting article fell into my inbox this morning: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth. The article discusses a mother rediscovering her own love of the natural world through her daughter, whose natural biophilia has not yet been stifled, who loves grassy fields, ocean waves, and bumblebees. The article makes suggestions on how to foster a child’s interest in nature, creating life-long habits of conservation — and the author chooses to frame these modern concerns with a quote from Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” from Troilus and Cressida. Though Ulysses means it, in context, more cynically than does the author of this article, it still made me think about the implications of pairing Shakespeare’s words to ecological concepts.

The idea of getting back to nature runs through a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. From Midsummer to Cymbeline, wild forests provide a place for the snarls and tangles of life to work themselves out to healthy resolution. There may be dangers (or meddling fairies), but if you’re a good-hearted soul on an honest quest, you can get through the darkness, reunite with long-lost relatives, win back ancestral titles, successfully woo your lady-or-lord-love, and return to your previously scheduled life in peace and merriment. The ASC’s production of As You Like It, currently touring, highlights the peace and comforts of the country life, drawing the audience into an idyllic world far removed from the conniving politics and superficial concerns of the urbanized court. The shepherd Colin declares, “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” Would that we could all be so contented.

The (perhaps nostalgic) affinity for country life presented in Shakespeare’s plays probably shouldn’t be surprising to us. He was, after all, more a country boy than a Londoner like Ben Jonson. Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 16th-century was a town of about 2000 people, close to expansive forests and to the picturesque Cotswold hill ranges. Beyond seeing the biographical connections, however, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s yearning for the green world more personally, based on the experiences of late-20th- and early-21st-century living. Shakespeare’s world was pre-Industrial, but only just. Like us, Shakespeare lived in a world that was rapidly urbanizing, where pollution was becoming a major concern, where the health of those in the inner-cities was in decline. Then, as now, changes in climate and weather patterns disrupted food production and threatened the livelihoods of those dependent on the soil or the sea. We may worry about offshore oil platforms and the ethics of farming corn for ethanol, while people in 1600 worried about sheep enclosures and fishing rights, but the basis of concern is the same — How do we use our land? How do we weigh profitability versus responsibility? How can we make the best decisions, not just for ourselves, but for future generations?

I wonder if there’s a way to enrich this connection. How can we integrate Shakespeare into the green movement? Perhaps this connection can provide another in-road for students, another way to demonstrate Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to them, as the millennial generation is more likely to be concerned with conservation, renewable energy, and responsible stewardship of the land than previous generations have been. If we can show them that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate care about the green world, too, it might be another opportunity to catch their interest (and I always like finding those).

Just for fun, what’s your favorite quote from Shakespeare about the natural world?

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