Shakespeare's Globe and England's Woods

By Nardizzi, Vin | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's Globe and England's Woods


Nardizzi, Vin, Shakespeare Studies


"The price of art is the destruction of a living tree."

--Jonathan Bate

AT ROOT, "ECOLOGY" designates the study, or discourse, of a house (oikos). Ecocriticism amplifies oikos so that it encompasses the Earth, (1) and some of its practitioners observe in seventeenth-century literature still relevant models for dwelling on our global home. (2) I bring a literal definition of "ecology" to bear upon a novel kind of early modern "house"--the outdoor playhouse--and, in particular, upon Shakespeare's early-seventeenth-century home base, the Globe, a venue whose name is no less than planetary. I do so not in the spirit of an ecocriticism that locates in the drama either ecoaware paradigms for right living or prefigurations of more modern ecological science, (3) but rather in an effort to describe how the drama employs Shakespeare's "wooden O" to transport an audience to a woodland ecology. (4) In casting its constitutive "matter"--a word that translates as, among other things, "wooden stuff" and "timber" in Greek (hyle) and Latin (materia) (5)--into the roles of "tree," "forest," and "woods," the playhouse unspools its eco-material history before the audience's eyes. Such theatrical practice exploits the playhouse's status as "untimely matter," (6) insofar as the playhouse is an object whose prior meaning breaks visibly into the theatrical present. By bringing dead wood back to life, the Globe and other playhouses worked to erase their footprint in an ecological crisis--an unprecedented shortage of wood and timber--that was feared to result in ecosystemic collapse. As a by-product of such elision, the playhouse emerges as new woodland, retailing a (present- and future-oriented) potential to resolve the crisis virtually. If, as Jonathan Bate says, (7) the price of art is indeed the destruction of a living tree, then Shakespeare's playhouse often reimbursed that outlay with evergreen fantasies.

In the Woods of the Playhouse

As scholars of early modern drama well know, individual scenes and larger portions of Shakespeare's plays take place in forests, woods, orchards, and parks. (8) A previous generation of scholars comprehended these settings as verbal constructs that lacked material referents. (9) For instance, when As You Like It's Rosalind announces, "Well, this is the forest of Ardenne" (2.4.11), she signals to audience members that, at her urging, they should behold a wood mentally. (10) Shakespeare's acting troupe could have supplemented such verbal prompting by employing a tree stage prop. Such a device, which we could imagine to be either a flat or a three-dimensional object fashioned from wood into the shape of a tree, could have been trotted out for particular scenes or remained onstage as a backdrop for the duration of performance. (11) But the inclusion of these objects in a late-sixteenth-century inventory of stage props in Henslowe's Diary suggests that they worked to conjure a specific dramaturgical effect rather than create a general sense of "forest" or "woods": the Admiral's Men had on hand a "baye tree," a "tree of gowlden apelles," and a "Tantelouse tre." (12) More recently, Bruce R. Smith has illuminated the use of another theatrical accoutrement for vivifying woodland settings. He focuses on the green hangings (tapestries, arrases, traverses, and curtains) that fronted the walls of tiring houses at outdoor venues. (13) To this list of possible methods for inducing playgoers to believe that they were inside a woodland during performance, I add the biggest and most solid theatrical object that an acting troupe had at its disposal: the playhouse itself. (14)

Shakespeare routinely conscripted the woodenness of the playhouse to perform the role of tree, woods, forest, orchard, and park. When characters invoke such settings, their words usually indicate that they also physically motion toward some thing. This thing could be a tree stage prop, but it could just as easily have been one of the wooden (and perhaps painted) posts supporting the stage canopy. …

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