By Bill Lawyer
There’s one great advantage to having the LawnChair Theatre company mount annual summer productions of Shakespeare at Rye Town Park. It gives me the chance to enjoy looking out over Long Island Sound while contemplating the nuances of Shakespeare — all in easy walking distance of my house.
Being out of doors helps bring to light the many references that Shakespeare makes to nature — both in moving his plot forward, and also encouraging his audience to draw from nature the many lessons learned by his characters.
Back in 1916, Cornell University professor O.D. von Englen published an article in Scientific Monthly on this very topic, “Shakespeare, the Observer of Nature”. von Englen explained why people living in the 20th century can gain much about the world’s creatures in the late 16th and early 17th centuries by studying the Bard’s nature references.
As he put it, “The climate of Great Britain, the contour of her hills and vales are now as they were in Shakespeare’s time. The same trees grow in the forests, among their branches flutter the same birds, and on the forest floor bloom the identical wildflowers that the poet’s eye loved to dwell upon.”
The most obviously relevant among Shakespeare’s references to nature are those that refer to its destructive force. The Oxford University Press notes his two references to hurricanes, five to whirlwinds, two to deluges, and seven to earthquakes.
Don’t tell us about storms, William Shakespeare, we who recently suffered four Nor’easters in a month. We do have to give him some slack, however, as he didn’t have 24-hour access to weather reports warning him what to expect.
Instead of blaming storms on magical powers, today we blame utility companies for not getting us back on track by the end of the first act.
Shakespeare was not just bothered by major “weather events.” Even routine bad weather annoyed him. As he wrote in Sonnet 18, “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, and often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometime declines, by chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed.”
Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time of rapidly changing perceptions of the world he lived in. In Hamlet’s note to Ophelia, he offers, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.”
In his time, people were just beginning to accept that the earth revolves around the sun.
More recently, the University of Cambridge has offered a course entitled “Shakespeare and the Natural World”. In the syllabus, they write that much of what Shakespeare used from nature was “highly wrapped up in the folk tales and superstitions of medieval England.” These included magical potions that could cause “people turning into trees, plants, and animals.”
The instructors note that we can encounter Shakespeare’s views on the natural world through ecological issues more familiar to us today; deforestation, endangered species, and climate change were also early modern concerns.
While some Shakespeare lovers may think that this takes the mystery and wonder out of his nature-studded stories, as with many of the comedies, nature can be linked with danger and evil.
So, as happens in many Shakespeare plays, people come to their senses and harmony is restored. Those “darling buds of May” survive the winds to cheer another day.
And all’s well that ends well.