In Shakespeare’s time, as well as in our own, “nature” has several implications. We may invoke the phrase “human nature” when we speak of the physical and psychological properties that belong to our species, as opposed to those of the lower orders of animals. We may speak of one man or one woman’s “nature,” and mean qualities that mark that individual’s character. Or we may speak generally of “nature” itself to suggest the environment that surrounds humanity: the animals, plants, and inanimate objects that comprise the world in which we function.
This chapter will focus on the last of these meanings. For Shakespeare, “nature” is not a passive entity, lying in repose as human beings struggle through their daily lives; rather, it responds to our actions, and in some ways even influences them.
For instance, Shakespeare often dramatizes nature as a pastoral haven. In the final act of The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo entices his wife, Jessica (daughter of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender), to escape into the magic of the night.
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
(V, i, 54–57)
Here nature is a refuge from the realities of life. The same theme is reiterated in As You Like It, when the Duke, leader of a band that has sought refuge in the Forest of Arden, reflects on his home:
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;