BSLS Review of Bruckner and Brayton Ecocritical Shakespeare

Copy of Barbara Kennedy's review of Lynne Bruckner and Daniel Brayton's "Ecocritical Shakespeare" on BSLS site (link to original at entry for monograph).
Barbara Kennedy review on BSLS website (2011):
“Ecocritical Shakespeare is a volume of 13 essays that explores both an ecocritical reading of Shakespeare and a Shakespearean redefinition of ecocriticism by locating and analyzing environmental and ecopolitical topics in the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare ecocriticism, it is suggested, has the “potential to enthuse us with the comic spirit of ambivalence, adaptation, and resilience” that might “help us found a ‘sustainable culture’” (xxiv). Defining ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment, that is, the natural world of living things and non-anthropogenic objects and locales” (3), the editors, Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton argue that the essays reflect not only early modern and current environmental issues through the lens of historicism and presentism, but also include developing branches of ecocriticism, for example, ecocfeminism, green cultural studies and human/animal relationships.

The importance of the early modern period to ecocriticism is highlighted by Greg Garrand whose Foreword suggests that this field’s development is due to Renaissance intellectualism and environmental history, citing Carolyn Merchant’s argument that Sir Francis Bacon provided the legitimization for an ecocidal “mechanistic” worldview to buttress his viewpoint (xx). Importantly, Garrand distinguishes between nature and ecology arguing that ecology remains a largely quantitative science while scientists are still, for the most part, taxonomic realists rather than Foucauldian nominalists. This tension, he argues, allows the emergence of pertinent questions on our environment and how we interact with it. Bruckner and Brayton foreground the book with an example of an anthropogenic transformation of the environment which is, they argue, a feature of the modern world that raises important questions which the volume’s essayists raise and address, such as, where and how do we situate our ecocritical readings, and is pedagogy where ecocritical Shakespeare meets political practice? Can reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare contribute to the health of the planet? And to what degree are Shakespeare’s plays anthropocentric or ecocentric? Their goal, they tell us, is to broaden and deepen the field of early modern ecocriticism (2). Demonstrating the ways literature reflects and transform our understanding of the environment, each chapter engages with pressing questions regarding a new mode of Shakespearean scholarship.

The presentist/historical dialectic central to this field resonates in different ways for many of the authors in this collection depending on what aspect of ecocritical positioning they take. While many of the authors provide sustained ecocritical reading of specific Shakespeare plays, some draw on select moments from multiple plays to examine a larger ecological issue or thematic concern. The volume, therefore, is divided into three sections to reflect this multiplicity. Part 1, Context for Reading, comprises four chapters that offer conceptual models for reading Shakespeare and the early modern environment. Karen Raber’s opening essay demonstrates the thematic significance of animals in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet as well as their material function. She considers the constitutive role played by animals – especially illicit ones – in the discursive and material formation of the early modern social body; the physical and metaphorical transgressions of animals in both plays produce and threaten the spaces human bodies inhabit which, Raber argues, significantly blurs the constructed boundary between human and nonhuman. Robert Watson’s “Ecology of Self” argues that current cellular biology offers a model for the deconstruction of the autonomous subject by mapping the building blocks of the self as an assemblage of semi-integrated micro-pieces. Watson finds in Midsummer’s Night Dream instances of human identity figured as a congeries of organisms pieced together to form a larger whole. Characters, he argues, are not in control of themselves but driven by forces such as desire, magic, seasonal change, hormones and DNA that determine their roles as much as, or even more than, the conscious will. While Watson challenges us to rethink the fundamental analytic categories that inform early modern scholarship and ecocriticism, he falls into the trap of tautology, in particular when describing physiological adaptation. His understanding of human anatomy and physiology appears simplistic and is not referenced. These attempts to incorporate recent scientific discoveries are less credible without the appropriate scientific citations. Perhaps a scientific co-authorship would give this essay the credibility it warrants. In “Gaia and the Great Chain of Being”, Gabriel Egan expands upon the recuperation of E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture by calling our attention to the contemporary relevance of those early modern habits of mind that preceded the rise of science. Engaging directly with Watson and Egan, Sharon O’Dair champions a presentism that looks at the past in relation to contemporary issues. Arguing against the hegemony of historicism in Shakespeare studies, she urges a bridging of the gulf between academics and others who are stakeholders in changing public policy.

The next section of the volume, Flora, Fauna, Weather, Water, contains the majority of the essays allowing for a more in-depth analysis of the issues raised in Part 1 as well as including some new avenues of inquiry including ecocritical treatments of gender, genre and the global ocean. The first two chapters of this section by Ed Geisweidt and J. A. Shea and Paul Yachnin relate to Raber’s opening essay in that all three essays show how various plays assert the irrefutable permeability of the boundary between human and animal. The two ensuing chapters offer sustained ecocritical readings of specific topics in early modern environmental history, the human relationship to trees and forests and the gendered construction of flora. In chapter 7 Vin Nardizzi engages issues of class and participates on the volume’s focus on the fusion of the human and nonhuman. Likewise Jen Munro focuses on flora, arguing that The Winters Tale challenges the gendered relations prescribed in husbandry manuals. The last two chapters in this section focus on early modern cosmology and the materiality of the natural world by challenging us to reconsider the role of the supernatural and the sea. In “Tongues in the Storm” Steve Mentz argues that the plasticity of narrative responses to dangerous weather found in Shakespeare can be instructive for current discussions of global climate change, while Dan Brayton’s powerfully compelling essay, “Shakespeare and the Global Ocean” connects the expansion of early modern navigation to the current marine ecological crises.

Contributors to the final section of the book, Presentism and Pedagogy, address the issues raised by O’Dair in the opening section; namely the role of pedagogy, the viability of presentism and the question of activism. In his essay on natural history and Macbeth, Richard Kerridge argues that instances of extraordinarily accurate, even proto-scientific description of natural phenomena reveal Shakespeare’s intimacy with the ecology of early modern England, making him, Kerridge suggests, an example of “neo-indigeneity” (196), by which he means a pre-modern relationship of deep familiarity between humans and ecosystems. Similarly, Rebecca Laroche’s chapter offers a pedagogically inflected reading of Hamlet. She demonstrates that reading the play without centering on the Prince allows us to dismantle the androcentric story that requires the demise of plants and women. This interpretation Laroche suggests, allows for the possibility that Ophelia attempts to heal herself, for all the planets she carries have the potential to heal pain. This potential Laroche argues is overridden by the force of tragic language in the play.

In the final chapter Lynne Bruckner argues for the utility of loosening the historicist hold on the teaching of Shakespeare. She frames her narrative of teaching Shakespeare through an ecocritical lens, reminding the reader that our ecocritical endeavors can have the greatest impact in the classroom. This essay bookends that of O’Dair in making a case for presentism. While Simon C. Estok draws the chapters together in the Afterword, the narrative at the end of Ecocritical Shakespeare remains an open one in that it opens up further fields of enquiry about whether Shakespearean ecocriticism can be useful to contemporary environmental discussions and, conversely, whether literary theories about representations of environmental issues have any place in serious Shakespeare scholarship. Although the essays in this volume substantially add to the growing corpus of critical theory in this field, at times the vocabulary of ecocriticism is difficult to engage with for the generalist reader. With its specific and defined boundary of interest, it will be invaluable to readers interested in eco-analysis and the emerging interface between Shakespeare and ecocriticism. These essays plot a course for early modern literary analysis framed in terms of the multiplicity of nature’s meaning in the English Renaissance.”