In between Greenpeace updates on the fight against whale-hunting, I read Gabriel Egan’s warning that “[i]t is a matter of urgency that new ways of thinking about humankind’s relations the Earth are put to use.” In Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism (New York and London: Routledge, 2006) Gabriel Egan explores Shakespeare’s plays from the perspective of our current concerns about global warming, pollution and nuclear disaster. He aims to shed new light on our ecological problems as well as on Shakespeare’s work.
Published in the Accents on Shakespeare Series, the book places ecocriticism alongside radical criticism based on gender, race and and sexual orientation. Indeed, Egan’s approach to ecocriticism is expressly political. For him, ecocriticism should not concern itself exclusively with merrie olde England and escapist representations of green landscapes. No need, therefore, to browse the book for an extended analysis of the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its three chapters discuss nature and human society in Coriolanus, Macbeth, and Henry V; food and biological nature in As You Like It, Anthony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale; and supernature and the weather in King Lear and The Tempest. When we do get to the Forest of Arden, it is to be told that there is only a fragile distinction between country and city in As You Like It. In this context, Egan pits himself against Jonathan Bate, the author of pioneering ecocritical studies of Romantic culture:
The readings that follow draw nothing from such sentimentalities as the idea that there exists […] something called ecological wisdom, nor that “poetry is the place where we save the earth” , to which Bate’s flight from politics leads him. Political action is where we save the Earth[.] (50)
The book argues that we can find in Shakespeare’s plays modes of thinking about the environment that were lost to us after the Enlightenment. Gabriel Egan recovers in early modern culture ideas of correspondences between microscopic and macroscopic levels that were denied by the rationalism of the eighteenth century, but which are now reconfirmed by modern science, be it in different terms. The book not only alerts us to Enlightenment classificatory systems that obfuscate our view of the wholeness of the world. It also addresses British Cultural Materialism. “Contrary to the thrust of recent radical criticism,” Egan writes, “Shakespeare found much to admire in the cosmological commonplaces of his age” (174). Like Enlightenment philosophy, the postmodern attitude of cultural materialism tends to focus on fragmentation rather than on correspondences and harmony in the ecological system, the book argues.
Throughout his chapters and especially in the introduction, Egan seeks to revive the notion of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, between the stars, humans, animals, plants and stones that E.M.W. Tillyard described in his The Elizabethan World Picture (1943). Tillyard’s notion of the Great Chain of Being was severely criticized in the seventies and eighties by new historicists and cultural materialists alike. His book was said to propose a conservative model of Elizabethan society where everyone knew their place and did not seek to rise above their station.
Egan’s defence of Tillyard is two-pronged: he argues that the question whether the Elizabethans really believed in the world picture sketched by Tillyard is of no importance: what matters to him is that the notion did exist, and could therefore be appropriated for use in the drama. The second prong of defence seems to refute the first when Egan writes that in fact Tillyard’s “model of reality might also in some surprising ways be objectively true” (25). Science demonstrates that there are indeed analogies between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic world. This notion is embodied, for Egan, in the discovery of fractals. These are figures or curves that can be endlessly enlarged to reveal the same shape as that of the original in any part of it [see illustration]. Fractals occur in organic and non-organic phenomena, such as the snow flake and the fern leaf.
The problem with the Elizabethan World Picture, however, was not so much that the Elizabethans did not know of, or believe in, its existence. The problem was that Tillyard described the analogies and order of the Great Chain of Being as stable, fixed and unchanging. He wrote that ‘the Elizabethans’ were afraid, even obsessed by the fear, to disrupt the order of the chain:
If the Elizabethans believed in an ideal order animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability; and the obsession was powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong.
Although he makes a plea for rereading Tillyard, Gabriel Egan in Green Shakespeare shows that the analogies between microcosm and macrocosm are “available to ideological manipulation” (63). And that is, I think, where he parts ways with Tillyard. The existence of analogies being granted, there are more ways to interpret these correspondences. Gail Kern Paster, whose seminal influence in the field of early modern ecological thinking Gabriel Egan acknowledges, also describes a nested system of correspondences in early modern thinking. In her wonderful book Humoring the Body (2004) she does not see these analogies as causing a stable order, or a fixed sense of identity. Instead, she analyzes the ecology of the humoural system to propose a dynamic model in which the human body constantly interacts with its environment. These interactions make for a fluid sense of identity, an experience of subjectivity that Paster envisages with the help of the French poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and FÃ©lix Guattari. It is this dynamic relation of an individual with her environment, whether that is an urban or a rural environment, that fascinates me in ecocriticsm. Early modern notions of space, architecture, community, economy, the body and subjective experiences of embodiment are played off against each other in this fascinating new type of cultural criticism.