Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Theory from the Fringes: Animals, Ecocriticism, Shakespeare

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Theory from the Fringes: Animals, Ecocriticism, Shakespeare

Article excerpt

This essay offers ecocritical discussions of animals in Shakespeare, in the spirit of the activist goals that ecocriticism cherishes. Balancing close readings with theory, the essay suggests reasons why animals have remained on the fringes of environmentalist and ecocritical discussions, and it brings animals into the discussion in viable theoretical ways.


Shakespeare studies have shown a huge interest in animals, though this interest has been thematic and not in any sense environmentalist. Mainstream ecocriticism, on the other hand, which is clearly environmentalist and oriented toward activist goals, has generally shown little interest in animals. Ecocritical readings of Shakespeare's animals are certainly new territory. (1)

One of the reasons ecocriticism has been slow in coming to Shakespeare is that it has had some problems in defining itself, its goals, and its reach. Scholarly interest in animals, meanwhile, has remained on the fringes of ecocritical writing, the mainstream preferring instead to continue to pursue one of the inaugural goals of ecocriticism--namely, of recouping professional dignity for the "undervalued genre of nature writing" (Glotfelty xxxi). Even before ecocriticism had proclaimed itself a new critical method, interest in animals was on the fringes of environmentalist movements. Theories from the fringes of mainstream contemporary ecocriticism--such as those of Randy Malamud, Barney Nelson, and the increasingly supplanted ecofeminist corpus--have, however, produced significant scholarly dialogue about connections between environmental and animal issues.

This paper proceeds from the convictions that it is time to bring the fringes to the fore, "to move beyond the thematicism and symbolic readings that have characterized so much of the critical work on Shakespeare" (Estok 15), to discuss animals in Shakespeare in ways consistent with the activist goals ecocriticism claims to cherish, and to connect areas of activist scholarship that have often remained unconnected in mainstream academia. It is a tall order, and to fill it, this article moves back and forth between theoretical matters on the one hand and close readings of Shakespeare on the other. In the process, this paper contextualizes and builds on ecocritical attempts to produce viable theories connecting animal and non-animal environmental issues, and it retrieves activist implications in the drama.

While this is not the place for an extended critique on the state of ecocriticism (such critiques are easily found elsewhere), (2) any analysis claiming to be ecocritical must define the parameters of "ecocriticism." Since its beginnings in 1996, ecocriticism has sought, but not found, "a paradigm-inaugurating statement like Edward Said's Orientalism (for colonial discourse studies) or Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (for new historicism)" (Buell 1091). Nevertheless, activity in the field has been frenetic. As Sharon O'Dair argued at the British Shakespeare Association conference in September 2005, something such as "Green Shakespeare is a niche that is wide open. Hungry, even desperate to publish, graduate students and professors rush to fill it" ("Green" 1). While that frenetic scramble for ecocritical Shakespeares, in fact, has not yet happened, we can safely guess that it will, if the scramble for ecocriticism is any indicator.

While there has been no scramble, there was certainly a flurry of activity with "ecocriticism and Shakespeare" in 2005 and 2006: in May 2005, the journal AUMLA published my article, "Shakespeare and Ecocriticism: An Analysis of 'Home' and 'Power' in King Lear," ISLE ran a Green Shakespeares "Special Cluster" in the summer of 2005, there was a seminar at the September 2005 meeting of the British Shakespeare Association entitled "Shakespeare and Ecology," the University of Pennsylvania Press released Robert Watson's Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance in January 2006, Routledge released Gabriel Egan's Green Shakespeare in April 2006, and there was a panel session entitled "Ecocriticism and the World of Shakespeare" at the International Shakespeare Association's 8th International World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane in July 2006. …

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