Ecocritical Approaches to Renaissance Literature

By Hiltner, Ken | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Ecocritical Approaches to Renaissance Literature


Hiltner, Ken, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

This essay both presents educators with an overview of ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature, as well as suggests ways they may be brought into the classroom. In particular, it provides a strategy for introducing students to the somewhat startling revelation that many of today's most topical environmental issues, such as deforestation, unchecked mining, development of wetlands, and the willful elimination of endangered species, were also pressing concerns for Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.

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When confronted with the image of a literal dark cloud of air pollution hanging over Coketown in Dickens's Hard Times, a broad swath of students is immediately persuaded both that our current environmental crisis has roots in the nineteenth century, and that writers of the time were already chronicling its growth. However, turn the clock back two centuries, to Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, and students and teachers alike are remarkably resistant to the notion that the roots of the crisis could possibly reach back so far. There are, I think, principally two reasons for this. First, in spite of a virtual avalanche of work by historians in the past twenty years exploring the Medieval and Renaissance origins of the so-called Industrial Revolution, in the popular imagination this still very much remains a nineteenth-century revolution. Second, and ironically, the successes of the ecocritical movement itself may have inadvertently fostered this very view. Because some of the most important work in the field, such as that done by ecocritics Lawrence Buell and Jonathan Bates [1], focuses on literature from the nineteenth century--the very period most students still associate with the rise of technological modernity--this underscores for many that this is through-and-through a nineteenth-century phenomenon. The purpose of the present essay is to present educators with an overview of ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature, as well as to introduce important primary and secondary sources for possible further consideration.

Any attempt to introduce a "green" reading of Renaissance literature in the classroom must begin by making clear that many of today's most topical environmental issues, such as deforestation, unchecked mining, development of wetlands, and the willful elimination of endangered species, were also pressing concerns four hundred years ago. Indeed, thanks to mass deforestation, a dark cloud of coal smoke had already descended over London by the time Shakespeare was writing his plays. As Sir William Cecil noted in 1596, "London and all other towns near the sea ... are mostly driven to burn coal ... for most of the woods are consumed." [2] Deforestation had in fact become such a controversial issue that in 1653 Sylvanus Taylor baldly declared that "all men's eyes were upon the forests." [3] Taylor, an early advocate of sustainable yield, argued that two trees should be planted for every one cut down, but thanks to a report prepared by Dr. John Parker and Edward Crasset encouraging the elimination of forests, in 1653 the "Act for the Deforestation, Sale, and Improvements of the Forests" was responsible for another wave of mass clear cutting. [4] With the forests quickly being decimated, coal mining became--although not without a great deal of controversy--a major industry as early as the sixteenth century, fueling such proto-industrial practices as copper smelting and glassmaking. This fact was not lost on poet John Milton, who in no less than three occasions in Paradise Lost lashes out at mining as being evil in origin, as demonically-inspired human beings "with impious hands / Rifl'd the bowels of thir mother Earth / For Treasures better hid." [5]

Deforestation and mining are only part of the Renaissance's environmental crisis. Beginning in the sixteenth century, wetlands, in the form of fens and marshes, were the subject of a series of lawsuits and riots initiated by local residents resisting massive drainage projects that would be condoned by both Crown and Commonwealth. …

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