O ruined piece of nature: Shakespeare's Letter to the Earth

  As leaders gather for the U.N. COP26 summit, we share Shakespeare’s Letter to the Earth, an original short film penned by our Artistic Director Michelle Terry, exploring Shakespeare’s contribution to the 400-year-old conversation about climate change

3 minute read

Climate change is not a new crisis. It is historic.

In 1599, deforestation of English woodland was increasing rapidly: the scarcity of timber required immediate adaptation and action. One example of adaptation was the original Globe Theatre, built from the upcycled, recycled and reused timber of another playhouse from across the river, The Theatre. However, whilst some timber could be re-imagined and re-used, the reduction in wood led to a reduction in fuel, with potentially devastating consequences for people and industry. An alternative was needed, and fast.

So people turned to coal. More specifically sea-coal: a cheaper alternative to the increasingly expensive timber. But the short term benefit of burning both wood and sea-coal did not take into account the long-term damage to both people and the planet. The air, particularly in the cities, was thick with smog, pollution and acid rain. Convenience, social progress, self-interest, personal comfort, employment and profit, were all won at the expense of public health, environmental devastation and planetary risk. Population growth, urbanisation, migration, international trade, mass consumption, nature as a commodity to be brought and sold, colonised and conquered, all destabilised the balance between human beings and the natural world.

In the face of industrial innovation, global expansion, and money was mankind – the wealthy kind of man – placing themselves firmly at the centre of the universe, seeking dominion over all the earth.

The impact of human-made climate change had begun. The Anthropocene had begun. The Capitalocene had begun.

At the same as discovering brave new worlds, we were also destroying them.

O ruined piece of nature, this great world
Shall so wear out to naught.

— King Lear, Act IV scene 5


This November at the next United Nations climate summit, decisions are being made that will determine the rest of our lives and the lives of generations to come.  Letters to the Earth, a global participatory campaign launched in 2019, are once more gathering your messages for a better future. We were thrilled to host individuals including Vivienne Westwood, Laura Whitmore and Ben Okri, to read and perform their letters aloud in our wooden ‘O’ earlier this month, joining thousands of others to raise their voices for environmental protection ahead of the U.N. COP26 summit.

We’ve also made our own contribution to this project. Penned by our very own Artistic Director, Michelle Terry, artists including Stephen Fry, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Helen Schlesinger, Shubham Saraf, Paul Ready, Rosalie Craig, Hadley Fraser, Philip Cumbus, and Tanika Yearwood have joined together in a short film: Shakespeare’s Letter to the Earth, exploring Shakespeare’s contribution to the 400-year-old conversation about the climate.

What can you do to inspire action and change?

  Watch the short films by Letters to the Earth