A new book by the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Todd Borlik proposes that William Shakespeare was making radical statements about ecopolitics and environmental issues in many of his later plays.
Dr Borlik’s studies and research have been linking Shakespeare to environmental concerns of the 16th and 17th centuries for around 20 years. Now he has brought it together in Shakespeare Beyond the Green World – Drama and Ecopolitics in Jacobean Britain, published by Oxford University Press.
He states that aspects of many of Shakespeare’s plays written after the accession of King James I to the throne in 1603 tackle issues like overfishing, mining, the fur trade, the draining of wetlands for agriculture and the use of land for hunting by the king that were causing both social upheaval and environmental degradation.
Dr Borlik says that Shakespeare’s dialogue, plots and geographical settings in plays including Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and The Tempest reflected an unhappiness in the mass of the population at what was being imposed on them by the country’s ruling classes.
The book is a radical reinterpretation of some of the Bard’s most famous works that addresses long-held preconceptions. The Tempest, said to be the last play written by Shakespeare alone, is generally held to be set on an island in the Mediterranean or is even an allegory of the conquest of the American continent, but for Dr Borlik it reflects something much closer to home from the time.
“The bombshell from that chapter is that The Tempest has been generally moored in the Caribbean, seen as Shakespeare’s New World play about the discovery of the Americas and encounters with the indigenous population,” he says.
“But in fact it has one foot very firmly planted in England, because at the time there was a very heated debate about the draining of The Fens, in the east of the country, and the destruction of these vast wetlands to convert them to arable land for agriculture.
“There was a lot of popular resistance to it in parliament and in The Fens, there were acts of sabotage and what we could categorise as eco-terrorism to prevent it.”
One of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions – ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, from The Winter’s Tale – is also under the spotlight. Polar bears had been captured and presented to King James I and it is possible that an actor playing the unfortunate Antigonus, about to meet an untimely and unseen end, may have been chased off stage by a very real bear or possibly an actor in bear skin.
But Dr Borlik says that the same play strangely humanizes animals hunted for furs worn by the ruling classes.
“One of the most exciting discoveries in the book is that we have been mis-pronouncing the name of Hermione for 400 years! Hermione is the queen in The Winter’s Tale, who is described as Russian, from the snowy north. Scanning the meter shows her name must have been disyllabic. They dropped h’s in that time, so Hermione would have sounded like ‘ermion’, which is another name for the ermine.
“An ermine is a stoat in its white winter coat, a luxury fur that at the time that only royalty could wear. Ermine fur was a symbol of royalty and chastity as well. When the queen is accused of adultery, she is stripped of her white furs, so her trial scene re-enacts the skinning of an animal. It changes our perceptions of the play if you view the queen as an ermine, and the scene where she or her statue is brought back to life captures a fascination with the new, death-defying art of taxidermy. “Macbeth, King Lear, and Pericles are examples of Shakespeare sending his characters out into the wilderness to have an epiphany or realisation about the arrogance and puniness of humans. Shakespeare uses kingship as a metaphor for human control of the environment. When the kings have their come-uppance out in the wilds and learn the earth doesn’t exist to cater to them, his plays are teaching us all to relinquish our the delusions that we are entitled to dominate the planet.”