Cleveland, OH. William Shakespeare is the incomparable bard of Anglodom and the romantic prophet of modernity. His plays, beyond being dramatic and rhetorical masterpieces, remain deeply relevant in their cultural criticism. And perhaps it is time to see the great bard as a poet of man’s relationship with nature.
Part of Shakespeare’s genius and enduring relevance is the fact that his plays respond to the emerging trends and anxieties of early modern civilization. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, though political, prophetically foresee the demise of republicanism and the rise of universal empire and the bureaucratic state. Of course, universal empire and bureaucratic managerialism go hand-in-hand with modernity’s empty materialism. Indeed, empty materialism necessitates this universal managerialism backed up by political force.
The political plays of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are tragedies because we see the passing of an old order and its replacement with something cold and calculating. The movement that begins with Julius Caesar’s murder, continues with the republic’s descent into civil war, and culminates in Augustus Caesar’s wiping away the triumvirate, signals the triumph of political universalism. After the victory at Actium Shakespeare puts the words of universal imperium and pax universalis in the mouth of the cold and bureaucratic Augustus, “The time of universal peace draws near” he hubristically proclaims.
Shakespeare’s treatment of Augustus (“Octavius” in the plays) is deeply revealing. Augustus is everywhere an emotionless robot. He is a schemer, a plotter, a politico through and through. He is the modern man par excellence. Against him are men of passion and intense emotion. There is the pathological and vindictive Cassius. There is the morally tormented Brutus. There is the passionate lover and rhetorician Antony. In Antony and Cleopatra our eponymous protagonists are two great lovers and sensualists in contrast to the cold politician who would become emperor.
The crime of Antony and Cleopatra is that they are lovers in a world where love cannot coexist with the mechanical chains of modern politics. Love threatens the political, as revealed in Antony’s declaration, “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space, / Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike / Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life / Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair / And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind / On pain of punishment, the world to weet / We stand up peerless.” Antony and Cleopatra are the fading instantiated spirits of “Nature’s infinite book secrecy” which must be conquered by the bureaucratic and mechanical politics embodied by Augustus.
It is in each other’s arms that Antony and Cleopatra are, truly, Antony and Cleopatra. When Antony says “Here is my space” which would cause “Rome in Tiber [to] melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall,” that space is the world of play alongside Cleopatra. Later, after the disaster at Actium which breaks the hopes of the distraught lovers, Antony eventually recovers himself and in the presence of Cleopatra advices that they “mock the midnight bell” and have one more grand night together in each other’s arms. Cleopatra then answers, “It is my birthday. I had thought t’ have held it poor. But since my lord is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.” When Antony says that he and Cleopatra “stand up peerless” they stand up peerless because the world of politics, politicos, and petty bureaucrats is a world without love and lovers.
Augustus, again, is introduced not in a gaudy procession but behind a desk looking at paper. He is a bureaucrat if there ever was one in Shakespeare’s plays. Whenever Augustus acts, he acts through intermediaries. His commands are executed by subordinates, middlemen, lieutenants. Moreover, Augustus unleashes war to consummate his vain dreams. Antony and Cleopatra know that the kingdoms of the world shall pass away but love is eternal. Augustus is a loveless mechanical robot attempting to create a dungy kingdom that will last forever and bring forth “universal peace.” How many of our contemporary leaders sound just like Augustus?
A World in Transformation
The world of attachments, of love, is juxtaposed against the world of encroaching materialism, bureaucratic universalism, and power politics. There is no redemption for the haughty and empty Augustus who chases love away from the world and consummates his cold and dark imperium of universal peace. Enter Henry V. Henry is a torn and conflicted man oscillating between the worlds of material conquest and redemptive love.
There is a grand paradox in Henry’s persona. The passionate Henry of famous speeches in his eponymous play occur in the maelstrom of war. The political Henry puts on a mask, a façade, a veil of grand rhetoric that dresses his nakedness. In the third and fourth acts—the acts where Henry is at war—we receive some of the most memorable speeches in all Shakespeare. “Once more unto the breach” is finished with “Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George.” Rallying the men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry speaks of the glory and honor to be won by the “happy few” on “this St. Crispin’s Day.” Yet we also see the barbarous Henry when he threatens the town of Harfleur with total annihilation, “The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, / And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart, / In liberty of bloody hand shall range with conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass / Your fresh and fair virgins and your flow’ring infants.”
The Henry of the sword is the rhetorician par excellence. He is, above all, a political sophist. He is inspiring but his inspiration leads to destruction. Henry unleashes darkness and destruction wherever he goes. As other Shakespeare scholars have pointed out, there is a subtle irony in Shakespeare revealing the hollowness of one of England’s most celebrated kings. After all, what Henry looses upon the world are the hounds of “famine, sword, and fire.” The Henry of brilliant speeches and political prowess is nothing more than a hollow and empty human in search for something meaningful and wholesome in life.
The other Henry is the Henry of love. This Henry stands in stark contrast to the Henry of conquest. Love, in marriage, is one of the enduring Shakespearean images. It is in love, through marriage, that the imbalances of the world are oft restored—in the Tempest, Henry V, and Richard III to name a few. The imagery of marital blessing and fertility heals the cold, dark, and destructive world of politics and the “famine, sword, and fire” that political struggle unleashes upon the world of nature.
And so it is that Henry is rendered powerless and speechless in the presence of the fair angel Katherine. Henry gives no awe-inspiring speech. Rather, he is ironically brought low in love and humbled by the beautiful and graceful princess as Katherine reminds us, “Laissez, mon siegneur, laissez, laissez! Ma / foi, je ne veux point que vous abaissiez votre / grandeur en baisant la main d’une de votre / seigneurie indigne serviteur.” All Henry can muster up is “I love you Kate.” Henry is stripped down but redeemed in love; he is lifted back into the book of secrecy and given a new face, a new being—he is quite literally born again.
In Shakespeare we see characters caught up in a life and death struggle between the worlds of conquest and love. The world of conquest—that petty world of politics, control, and scheming—leads to the destruction of “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy” (the world of love) and replaces it with rubble, bloodshed, and the chains of slavery. But the world of “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy” is wholesome, fertile, and a place where “[t]he strawberry grows underneath the nettle, and wholesome berries thrive and ripen best.” Nature’s world is endearing and enchanting and brings peace and prosperity to those who find it and dwell in it in love.
The Pastoral Idyll
Later in his life Shakespeare sharpened his contrast between suffocating civilization and the humanist wellspring rooted in nature. The Tempest, which I alluded to above, is without doubt the play that reveals Shakespeare’s most mature thinking on this topic.
Nature, at least unrestrained nature, is chaotic and dangerous. The introduction to the play, lest we forget, is in a brewing storm, “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning.” Yet nature also moves with sweet air and green fertility, “The air breathes upon us here most sweetly,” Adrian and Gonzalo proclaim with songful voice, “How lush and lusty the green grass looks!” Indeed, nature has an intimate role in Prospero’s redemption and humanistic flourishing.
The real arbiter of Shakespeare’s pastoral idyll is seen through Prospero. Prospero, as we know, was the stuffy European intellectual lost in books and learning and now a vengeful and power-seeking magician on the island who controls nature for his own self-seeking purposes and therefore lacks a humane and integral relationship to the island he is on. Prospero’s world is not the chaotic primitivism of a hostile barren “desert” or the suffocating utopian vision of industrialism writ large; rather, it is a flourishing pastoral—a little situated realm of civilization at home with nature. Yet Prospero has an important virtue to learn: mercy. The mercy that Prospero learns in the play is tied to his relationship with nature (personified by Ariel). It is neither in chaotic primitivism nor in industrialized society that Prospero can learn the virtues of love and mercy. It is in dwelling with nature, rather than controlling nature, that love and mercy are realized.
It is in a pastoral world that Prospero rediscovers his humanity and blesses the human instinct for love and fellowship—all things he lacked as that stuffy and cold scholar back in Europe. In this balanced world of nature and civilization songs of life emanate but move with the elements of the world, “Where should this music be? i’ th’ air or th’ earth? / It sounds no more: and, sure, it waits upon / Some god o’ th’ island. Sitting on a bank, / Weeping again in the King my father’s wrack, / This music crept by me upon the waters, / Allaying both their fury and my passion / With its sweet air.”
Moreover, it is the air spirit—the handsome and dutiful Ariel—who aids Prospero in his humanization and blessing of love by the play’s conclusion. The compassion, kindness, and forgiveness that Prospero learns is not from another human but an airy-naturalistic spirit. In the relationship of Ariel and Prospero we learn that man does not need to dominate nature or become absorbed by nature but must cooperate with nature. Moreover, this cooperation with nature comes through love. In Act 4 Ariel asks, “Do you love me, master? No?” Prospero’s answer changes his trajectory for the play’s conclusion, “Dearly, my delicate Ariel.” In Prospero’s affirmation of love—directed to Ariel—he is transfigured.
The materialist temptation to domination leads us back to where Prospero once was: an inhuman stuffy intellectual enclosed by walls and seeking power and revenge. (It is ironic to consider how apt that portrait is for many contemporary “environmentalists.”) Prospero’s relationship with Ariel is the lynchpin which turns us to the happy ending of the play. Initially, Prospero rules over Ariel. However, as the play develops, Ariel becomes more conscious and autonomous and Prospero no longer rules over him—the relationship changes to a cooperative one where Prospero learns love, mercy, and forgiveness primarily through affirming his love for Ariel. The balance we must find, as indicated in the relationship of Ariel and Prospero, is one in which man cooperates with nature.
Only by cooperation can man renounce his haughty and lustful passion for power and come into a cooperative union with nature which simultaneously preserves the goodness and beauty of nature and reveals the magnanimity and nobility of man. After all, it is through this cooperation that we receive the grand blessing of life when Juno and the other gods sing, “Earth’s increase, foison plenty, / Barns and garners never empty; / Vines with clust’ring bunches growing; / Plants with goodly burthen bowing; / Spring come to you at the farthest / In the very end of harvest! / Scarcity and want shall shun you; / Ceres’ blessing so is on you.” It is not insignificant that this joyous song is sung only after Prospero affirms his love for Ariel.
Thus we find Shakespeare rediscover the Elysian ideal for moderns. The Tempest is, after all, a traditional comedy. It starts in chaos and darkness but ends in order and happiness. This also sets the play apart from the historical plays or the historical tragedies; at the end of his life Shakespeare is prophesying for us how to find the love and happiness we all seek. That happiness is found by cooperating with nature. Our happiness is intimately bound with nature and will not be found by warring against nature.
Shakespeare: Bard of Love & Nature
Shakespeare is undeniably a romantic defender of the world of nature against the encroachments of what William Blake would later call “those dark Satanic mills” that destroy the world of mystical and enchanted secrecy where frolicking and playing under the sun and trees resuscitate memories of a world lost but deeply yearned for. Part of the power of Shakespeare is the subtle and subconscious ways that he pits the very circumstances of our world against each other. The world of industry, of power, and politics which unleashes death, destruction, and enslavement is very much at the fore of Shakespeare. But Shakespeare doesn’t offer a disguised political solution as the answer to the crisis of a world under siege (as the environmentalist do; who would just bring more death, destruction, and enslavement to the world). Instead, Shakespeare offers us love to counter the world of “those dark Satanic mills.” This love is intimately brought forth by cooperating with nature.
Why love? Why does Shakespeare offer us love instead of politics? Love is intimate. Love is about attachment. Love is about beauty. Love is local. Love is about the face-to-face encounter and relationship that has been so thoroughly destroyed by modernity and is in need of resurrection. Shakespeare, more than 400 years ago, saw the coming crisis—but few have listened to his solution. Perhaps we should.
We can continue down our path or we can be transfigured by renouncing the petty world of power politics and the lust to control everything for “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy” and find angels to love and tend a garden with. That life where man and woman, united in love, growing strawberries under the nettle and enjoying the life-giving and joyful fruit of ripe berries is still the most countercultural life in the world. If we do this then we will be like Prospero—redeemed by love and blessing love—asking for forgiveness, and perhaps finding a far more beautiful world as we walk into the new horizon.