William Shakespeare grew up in a leafy part of the country, Stratford-upon-Avon, and woodlands and forests were a very important part of many of his plays. Forests were large areas governed by a different set of laws and they could include marshes, bogs, fen, pasture, cultivated land and woodland. Famously, Shakespeare made the "moving" of a woodland a pivotal point in his play 'Macbeth' when Birnam wood "moves" to Dunsinane as soldiers use branches as a camouflage in their assault on Macbeth's castle. But he uses woodland settings in many other plays and the forest carries deeply symbolic meanings - it is a place where he can explore opposites (wild versus civilised); woodlands are places where Shakespeare established temporary relief from a rigid order to which we must all return, and woodlands represent a world to which we can escape - at least for a while.
In 1600, about a third of Britain was covered in forest and daily life, especially in the summer, would have been a very outdoors affair, so Shakespeare's listeners would have been much more aware of the natural world than we are. When Shakespeare uses woodland metaphors these would have had an immediate resonance with his audience. In 'As You Like It' one character says, "I found him under a tree, like a dropped acorn" and in 'Macbeth' the king, Duncan, says, "I have begun to plant thee, and will labour to make thee full of growing."
The Elizabethan theatre itself would have been largely outdoors just like the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. Many plays have scenes set in woodlands, orchards or parks and in some of them whole sections are based in the forest. For example, in "King Lear" Shakespeare portrays a "blasted heath" and storm scenes which reflect King Lear's state of mind as his daughters drive him mad with rage. This is just one version of the theme that Shakespeare follows - that all humans are vulnerable to forces much bigger than themselves such as storms and forests. Lear's trauma in the play is also a very geographical one with references to map-making, characters have their county names emphasised - Kent and Gloucester - and there are several terrifically detailed descriptions of the natural world. Looking over the cliffs of Dover, Lear says, "The crows and coughs that wing the midway air show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down hangs one that gathers sampire ..."
The forest is used by Shakespeare for clandestine activities - often secret marriages or plots to switch identities. It is also often a place of sanctuary. In 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' the woodland is used as a setting for the escapism of the subplot with the fairies Titania and Oberon, as well as the comic play within the play acted by the 'Mechanicals'. But the woodland scenes are much more than just escapism - their portrayal is making an attack on Puritanism and the fairy folk reflect pagan traditions which pre-date the Puritans. Shakespeare strongly links his harmless fairies to the good things of the forest and the freedom and fertility of the natural world. According to the church at the time fairies were evil spirits, whereas Shakespeare makes his fairy characters very positive and unthreatening and part of that appeal is their love of nature and their being at home in the woodland where natural laws prevail.
Shakespeare often associates woodlands with danger and mystery but also they are places of pleasure. As Quince says in A Midsummer Night's Dream, " This green plot shall be our stage."
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