When Teddy Rodger asked me to pull some of my favorite nature imagery from the Shakespeare canon for a podcast project, I happily complied. I also bugged her until she let me write this addendum. So, if you’re curious about where those quotes came from … or if you just want to nerd out along with me: read on.
Duke Senior: “Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile …” (As You Like It, 2.1)
There’s an irony to this speech that is easily lost on the page. Duke Senior has been banished to the Forest of Arden, along with his loyal followers, by his evil younger brother Duke Frederick. (It’s sort of the same plot as The Tempest, with Arden subbing in for the Island.) This is the first time we see him in the play. It’s winter, and he’s trying desperately to cheer up his cold and starving lords so they won’t desert him in the forest. The magic of the speech lies in the way it subtly transforms in meaning: the Duke’s initial mention of “the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind” evolve into his beautiful final image of “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” Like a good leader, Duke Senior is capable of giving an impromptu sermon: in painting a picture of a hoped-for world, he helps to make it come true.
Caliban, “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises…” (The Tempest, 3.2)
Caliban is one of Shakespeare’s most amazing creations. He speaks a verse unlike anyone else in the canon. It’s the language of someone for whom English is not a native tongue, and it shifts in surprising ways over the course of the play. When he first appears, Caliban uses English only for strange curses of Prospero, his hated colonial master. But here, at the play’s midpoint, Caliban seems to be discovering new thoughts and words in front of us. His reverie about the native noises of the enchanted isle functions as a surprising oasis in the middle of the play. In a few lines, we feel the power of his dream, and also the power of it slipping away from him. By the end of the play, Caliban’s language has undergone another, spiritual, metamorphosis.
Fairy: “Over hill, over dale…”
Oberon: “My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememberest / Since once I sat upon a promontory…”
Titania: “And never, since the middle summer’s spring…” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1)
The nature imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so rich, so imaginatively described, that it is frankly impossible to completely depict onstage. The Athenian woods is perhaps the greatest metaphor Shakespeare ever came up with for his own imagination, and the inexhaustible vitality of his own language. In these three passages (all from the same scene!), we hear the female Fairy usher us into her mysterious world, which seems both impossibly vast and also imperceptibly tiny, existing beneath the dewdrops of wildflowers. Moments later, Titania, queen of the fairies, has an operatic speech of natural discord – it’s a surprisingly terrifying one for such a comic play. After her exit, Oberon, king of the fairies, sends his mischievous messenger Puck in search of the magical flower. His description of mermaids riding upon dolphins, and of Cupid’s arrow hitting upon the purple flower “love-in-idleness,” is one of the most famous lyric passages in the canon.
Perdita: “O Persephone, / For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let’st fall …” (The Winter’s Tale, 4.4)
Clown: “I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land! …” (The Winter’s Tale, 3.3)
One of Shakespeare’s late romances, The Winter’s Tale pulls a stunning bait-and-switch halfway through its action, moving from the gloomy, wintry court of Sicilia to the summery, pastoral realm of Bohemia. The beautiful Perdita, a princess turned shepherdess, acts as the queen of the Bohemian sheep-shearing festival, and her language is a dazzling (and dense) maze of horticultural detail and allusions to classical myth. Earlier in the play, the rustic Clown enacts a tragicomic version of one of Shakespeare’s great storm speeches, describing in breathless excitement and terror the sinking of an entire ship of sailors, as well as the gory death of Antigonus, eaten, as in an old tale, by a bear.
Lorenzo: “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! …” (The Merchant of Venice, 5.1)
Everyone knows the famous speech from this play – “If you prick us, do we not bleed? – spoken by the Jewish moneylender Shylock. But that speech comes about halfway through the action, and Shylock’s plot is resolved not long after. The ending of the play takes place in the moon-kissed court of Belmont, with the lovers of the play. Among them are Shylock’s daughter Jessica and her paramour Lorenzo, who share an interlocking dialogue in which they compare themselves to famous classical pairs such as Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Dido and Aeneas (all of whom appear in other Shakespeare plays). Later in the same scene, Lorenzo speaks one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful speeches. Like Caliban’s speech in The Tempest, his speech links music and nature, and vividly evokes the celestial nature of aesthetic experience.
Ursula: “The pleasant’st angling is to see the fish / Cut with her golden oars the silver stream …” (Much Ado About Nothing, 3.1)
Among Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado is his most social and, perhaps not coincidentally, the one least imbued with the imagery of nature. Instead of the transformative forests featured in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the wild seacoasts of Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, here the closest we come to nature is the “pleachèd bower” and orchard of Leonato’s household, where Beatrice and Benedick are both tricked into falling in love with each other. Here, Hero and Ursula imagine Beatrice as a helpless animal – a lapwing or a greedy fish – vulnerable prey to be hunted from the “woodbine coverture” of the garden.
Valentine: “How use doth breed a habit in a man!” (Two Gentlemen of Verona, 5.4)
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Two Gents features the famous “dog” speech delivered by Launce to his dog, Crab. It also features this beautiful pastoral soliloquy, perhaps Shakespeare’s first, in which the young gentleman Valentine, exiled from court, finds peace of mind in the “shadowy desert, unfrequented woods.” One might easily imagine Will Shakespeare himself, in the crowded metropolis of London, casting a nostalgic eye homeward to simpler days in the rural Stratford-upon-Avon. Toward the end of the speech, Valentine hears something stirring: it’s the plot and the conclusion of the play, which has caught up to his elegant repose.
Romeo: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? …” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.2)
Juliet: “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day …” (Romeo and Juliet, 3.5)
Romeo and Juliet, written at the same time as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is almost as densely studded with images of nature. In these two scenes, miniature masterpieces each, Shakespeare uses the backdrop of nature to paint vivid emotional portraits of young love. In the famous “balcony scene” (2.2), Romeo, spying a light in Juliet’s bedroom, compares her to the luminous rising sun, come to kill his state of pale and lovesick moonshine. Catching sight of her eyes, Romeo shifts suddenly to the stars in the heaven, his young lover’s language suggesting, in its hyperbole, both youthful over-excitement and touching sincerity. Later in the play (3.5), we return to the site of that balcony, but it is transformed immeasurably. Romeo and Juliet have consummated their marriage, and they are suddenly adult, no longer adolescent. Gone are the heavenly flights of fancy, replaced by practical concerns: was it the nightingale that sang in the trees outside or the lark, “the herald of the morn”? The scene’s playful, flirtatious tone darkens unmistakably, masterfully foreshadowing the play’s inexorable movement into tragedy.
Viola: “Make me a willow cabin at your gate, / And call upon my soul within the house …” (Twelfth Night, 1.5)
Viola’s short speech, addressed to Olivia while posing as the page Cesario, comes as a shocking – and erotic – outburst in the context of the play. Wasting not a word, Viola paints an unforgettable picture of romantic longing. From the small confines of a “willow cabin at your gate,” Viola says she will fill the “reverberate hills,” the “babbling gossip” of the air and even the dead of night with her “cantons of condemned love.” Though she is supposedly speaking for her master Orsino, is it any wonder that Olivia falls instantly, madly in love with her?
Ophelia: “There is a willow grows aslant a brook …” (Hamlet, 4.7)
In one of his greatest tragedies, Shakespeare returns to the image of a willow tree, here taking advantage of all of its melancholy overtones, in Gertrude’s dramatically paced description of Ophelia’s death. Indeed, so ornate is the Queen’s description of the overhanging tree and the “glassy stream” of a nearby brook – and so subtle is her mention of Ophelia, reducing Hamlet’s beloved to a mere burble of pronouns – that it’s easy to miss her message. It’s as if Gertrude can’t bear to make herself speak the horrible truth. Even after Laertes cuts in, with his literal-minded question, and Gertrude confirms the girl’s death, we can’t quite believe it.
Lear: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! …” (King Lear, 3.2)
Whereas The Winter’s Tale puts a comic spin on the Shakespearean storm, King Lear presents us with an awesome portrait of nature’s mighty destructive power and man’s comparable smallness. Lear on the heath, in the eye of the storm, seems to rage futilely against life itself, his words exhorting the wind, the rain and the thunder to do their worst to his fragile figure. Having lost his kingdom and the love of his children, Lear seems almost suicidal, at the end of his sanity. And indeed, we seem to be seeing the King’s wits going to pieces in front of our eyes. As the loyal Kent seeks for Lear in the face of a storm of archetypal power, the stage becomes a veritable Hell-mouth.
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun …” (Sonnet 130)
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? …” (Sonnet 18)
“To me, fair friend, you never can be old …” (Sonnet 104)
Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to be read in private, but they make fascinating reading material for us, even though we don’t know whom they are addressed to. Most scholars agree that they were written at different periods of Shakespeare’s life, especially the two “sequences.” One cycle of poems was written to a young nobleman known as the “fair youth” (possibly Lord Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron and to whom Shakespeare dedicated his poems The Phoenix and the Turtle and Venus and Adonis). Another cycle, much later, was written to “the dark lady.” In both of these cycles, Shakespeare compares the addressee to the natural world.
In Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), Shakespeare contrasts the Petrarchan clichés that plague bad love poetry (some of which he uses in plays such as Romeo and Juliet) to delightful and somewhat shocking effect. His mistress, he tells us, has dull eyes and lips, wiry hair and reeking breath. And yet, he concludes, he loves her because of, not despite, her earthbound nature.
In Sonnets 18 and 104, addressed to the fair youth, Shakespeare takes contrasting tacks to capture his subject’s ineffable nature. In 18, nature itself is inadequate to the youth’s “eternal summer,” which is, in a trick of art, rendered immortal by the poet himself. In 104, despite having known the youth for three years, the poet still thinks he sees youth in him, despite knowing the opposite to be true. Nature gets us all in the end.