Shakespeare Story

Shakespeare and climate change

On Earth Day, we ask: what can Shakespeare’s plays teach us about the changing ecological landscape?

4 minute read

On 22 April 1970, 20 million people took to the streets to protest environmental destruction. 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of what has since become known as Earth Day, now recognised as the world’s largest civic event. As climate change threatens the ‘great globe itself’ with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at their highest in 3 million years, we may well ask: what can Shakespeare teach us about climate change?

Well, as it transpires, quite a lot. Although anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change has risen exponentially since the Industrial Revolution to its current state, the trajectory was already set in Shakespeare’s rapidly-modernising England.

A panorama view of London with St Pauls, the City of London to the North, and the theatre and bear-baiting pits to the south of the river, from the early 1600s.

A panorama of London by Claes Visscher from 1616, showing the expansion of London on both the north and south bank of the River Thames.

Land enclosures and technological advancements displaced previously rural industries. Cities – especially London – grew quickly, and the new urban-dwelling populations drew heavily on the resources they needed to sustain city life.

One of the major industries affected by scarcity and inflation in sixteenth-century England was timber. Once densely forested, England’s woods had been declining since the Romans felled large tracts for their iron works. Agricultural land-clearing continued to whittle away forests under the Tudors.

Bluebells in a woodland

Bluebells in a woodland near Coughton Court, a Tudor house located originally in the Forest of Arden. Photographer: Charlotte Horobin.

By Shakespeare’s lifetime, forestry was in crisis. In 1581 Queen Elizabeth enacted one of the first attempts to preserve London woodlands, because ‘the necessary provision of wood, as well timber fit for building and other uses, […] will in time become much more scarce.’ Demand, however, continued to increase, with timber prices tripling by 1601. Consumers increasingly looked to sea-coal from the north-east for heating and manufacturing—the shift to today’s fossil-fuel based energy had begun.

According to the Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton ‘it was said that a squirrel could once travel throughout the entire length of England without needing to touch the ground’

These changes did not go unnoticed by Shakespeare. In fact, many of his plays engage with or even directly interrogate early modern environmental shifts. In Henry IV Part 1, Hotspur recalls the foppish courtier on the battlefield who finds it a ‘great pity’ that ‘this villainous saltpetre should be digg’d / Out of the bowels of the harmless earth’. The courtier shows an aristocratic distaste for industry, whilst also uncomfortably probing the environmental impact of warfare: saltpetre (potassium nitrade created from human and animal wastes or mined from deposits) was a major ingredient in gunpowder, alongside carbon and sulphur. Prolonged wars with Spain during Elizabeth’s reign and a profitable export industry saw increased artillery production for ‘brazen cannon’ (Hamlet).

A startling speech with analogies to today’s new climate consciousness is Titania’s lament for the ‘distemperature’ caused by her argument with Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the fairies note with alarm that ‘the seasons alter’, a ‘progeny of evils’ that arises directly from their actions. The weather was a particularly important topic in Shakespeare’s lifetime due to the devastating crop failures that were characteristic of the harsh climate of the Little Ice Age (the cool period between the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries). The harvest failures, famine and disease mentioned by Titania were all too real.

Our Globe Ensemble perform Titania’s speech from Act II scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare’s work offers us warnings of the follies of human excess, greed and power, but he also shows us opportunities for salvation. Characters tend to change when they spend time in forests: relationships heal and families are brought back together (think of Rosalind in As You Like It, who goes into the Forest of Arden as Ganymede and emerges married to Orlando and reunited with her father).

Despite the environmental pressures of the age, Shakespeare offers us pastoral and Eden-like ideals. His woodlands are as much places of merry misrule as they are a location for nature’s untamable force. Let’s all be a bit more like the exiled Duke in As You Like It, who greets the hardships of forest living with joy by finding ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything’.

A painting of a woodland scene: a man lays by a brook, with deer in the background.

Jaques and the Wounded Stag by William Hodges (1790).