Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

By Charles R. Forker | Go to book overview

7 The Green Underworld of Early Shakespearean Tragedy

I

To speak of greenery or vegetation as a significant component of Shakespeare's tragic ethos may seem at first bizarre, then, on soberer reflection, merely strained or farfetched. Mention of the dramatist's green world inevitably calls up the settings of romantic comedy--Valentine's sylvan retreat, Navarre's park, Robin Goodfellow's fairy playground, Jessica and Lorenzo's moonlit bank, Orlando's verse-bedecked forest, or Perdita's rustic but unspoiled Bohemia. 1 Alternatively, we may think of the English histories (discussed in the preceding chapter) with their deer parks, woods, and symbolic gardens-the Temple Garden of 1 Henry VI, where the bitter factionalism of the red and white rose has its emblematic inception; Iden's walled garden, where the anarchic Cade meets death; the scrupulously tended hortus conclusus at the ironic center of Richard II's disordered kingdom; or Henry V's France, that "best garden of the world" ( Henry V, V.ii.36), whose husbandry, neglected as a consequence of war, Burgundy describes so evocatively. 2 But Shakespeare does not exclude touches of the green world even from his darkest plays, however tangentially or unemphatically he may employ them. Details of foliage and landscape--especially the benign evidence of nature's environment--may appear less prominently in the tragedies than in the rest of the canon; but such details, cumulatively understood, may be said to compose a suggestive if comparatively inconspicuous underside of a world characterized chiefly by evil, suffering, and devastation. Inherent in any Renaissance concern with the vegetative realm are riddling questions about the relation of nature to nurture, about the elusive coordinates that link God's creation with man's cultivation or perversion of it. Doubts about the true shape of reality necessarily lie at the heart of any tragic vision. It is therefore hardly surprising that the green world--the manifestation of nature that most readily symbolizes the cycle of growth and decay, of birth and death, that adumbrates but cannot fully reveal the mysterious interchange between immediate and final causes-- should find a place in Shakespeare's tragic universe.

The reciprocity, or complementarity, of genres is now recognized as an established principle in Shakespearean dramaturgy. 3 As a group, the histories tend to interweave

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