Shakespeare's Nature


Sarah Beckwith


We face now unprecedented threats to our planet. Birds, insects, and countless species of animals are dying in mass (it is the sixth extinction). We already see profound alterations in our climate and weather systems. Where do our ideas about nature come from? Are there ways of thinking about the earth that we have foolishly discarded?

We inherit ideas about nature, and relations towards it that were emergent and contested in Shakespeare’s time. Francis Bacon pioneered ways of imagining new forms of control and dominion over it beyond that theologically “warranted” in the Book of Genesis; Calvin thought that human nature was utterly depraved without God’s saving grace. Nature was newly “improved”, claimed for cultivation, involving pushing men and women off common land so that it could sustain profitable sheep. New global frontiers were also formed by conquest and settlement, close to home in Ireland, and further away in the New World, that is the Americas. In literary terms, nature was at the center of the idealizations of pastoral, and subjected to the most penetrating analysis in Shakespearean tragedy as well as other genres.

Hitherto interwoven with fable, and folk-story, it was also the object of new taxonomies and considerations of the place of humankind within it. (Indeed the word “kind” is subject to new kinds of pressure. Who is our kin? And how kind are we? Of what kind are we?)

Unlike so many of his contemporaries whose habitat was the city, Shakespeare famously returns to Stratford towards the end of his life, and perhaps, in theatrical and conceptual terms never really left it.

In this class we will examine several habitats in Shakespeare’s plays: forests, gardens, and the sea, for example, as well as ideas around wildness, tameness, cultivation, and creation. We will look at individual animals: Launce’s amazing dog, Crabbe, and dogs in Shakespeare; his most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”, and his hawks, wrens, and sparrows, complex and precise botanies, and their classical and folk heritage, especially in his discussions of the relation of art and nature. Above all we will see how Shakespeare conceived of the human body as the imaginative medium of theatre, and therefore human nature was at the heart of his dramaturgical inquiries about the kinds of creatures we are.

We will explore a range of plays (about 10 Shakespeare plays in all), and also sixteenth and seventeenth century sources that exemplify and interrogate the nature of nature. We will bring to life Shakespeare’s profound testing out of his culture’s resources in relation to what nature (one of the most complex words of our language) is, was, and might be. In this way too we will be exploring the nature of Shakespeare’s work as well as exploration of human relations with the natural world.

Students will have the chance to keep nature journals, and to track flora and fauna imaginatively through Shakespeare’s natural worlds and our own.

This class explores conflicting and competing ideas about nature in Shakespeare's plays. We examine creatureliness, human and non-human, in relation to ideas of the natural and the supernatural.
Curriculum Codes
  • EI
  • ALP
Cross-Listed As
  • MEDREN 336S
Typically Offered
Fall and/or Spring