From the Chair  |  In Print  | Panels & Presentations  |  Awards & Appointments  |  Miscellany  |  From the Editor

The Shakespearean Nature in Comedy
by Drew Foster

TempestNature plays a significant role in Shakespeare's comedies.  It serves as a dynamic environment in which possibility abounds, wildness thrives, and discovery occurs.  Nature is marked by moments of clarity and dreamy illusion.  It serves both as a wise guide or a menacing adversary, depending on the characters' dispositions and circumstances.  In plays like A Midsummer Nightís Dream and As You Like It, characters escape to the natural world when the structured life of court has gone morally and ethically awry.   In other cases, such as Twelfth Night and The Tempest, characters involuntarily find themselves at the mercy of nature, forced to endure and face its challenges.  It, however, mostly serves as a rite of passage of sorts, a pastoral setting of reflection and contrast, where characters are free and enabled to find a better understanding of who they are, where they belong in society, and how to amend social injustices.

In the beginning of As You Like It, it reveals that there is a great deal of social turmoil and family dissention.  Duke Senior has been banished by his younger brother Duke Frederick, Orlando has been wronged by his brother Oliver, and Celia has been banished by her own father after choosing to stay faithful to the exiled Rosalind.  When the characters enter the forest, they encounter love, disguise, deception, and spiritual awakenings.  It is in this topsy-turvy world that characters both learn from madness and folly as well as reason, spiritual growth, and the benign nature of real love.

Duke Senior "finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones in stones, and good in everything," (2.1.16-17).   In this particular passage, Duke Senior presents a dichotomy between courtly and country life.  The wilderness contains the naked and pure truth, void of the polluted aspects of courtly life such as flattery, envy, and artificial grandeur.   In losing his position at court, Duke Senior finds himself further enlightened amid the forest.  Jaques, however, snubs his nose at nature, dismissing it as a cynical existence.  It is ironic that he is the only character who clings to his melancholy and even more surprising, chooses to remain among the woods instead of returning to an amended court.  At least he viewed it as a less cynical environment than court.  Perhaps Shakespeare was trying to imply that nature is a friend to humanity, even when mankind is not a friend to it.  Contrastingly, most characters discover an appreciation for the many unique qualities nature instills, welcome all of nature as a friend, and take full advantage of the ataraxia it provides.

RosalindRosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, in order to evade provoking anyone of her unlikely circumstance.  Celia accompanies her disguised as Aliena, an ignoble woman, and the two seek out her uncle, the usurped Duke Senior, in order to restore the right.  "To liberty, and not to banishment," declares Celia (1.3.132).  They fled to the forest to hide and escape the injustice of court but little did they know how their disguises would enable them to attain more than liberation.

Orlando defeated Charles in a wrestling match as Rosalind looked on.  She fancied him, especially after discovering him the son of the deceased Sir Rowland, her fatherís dear and long time friend.  Unbeknownst to her, Orlando had fallen for her as well, rendering him love-struck and wordless.  Orlando, vexed by the persecution of his brother and intoxicated with his love for Rosalind, fled to the forest for reflection and liberation as well.  Romance and nature go hand-in-hand in Shakespeareís comedies, and reinforce and complement one another.

Overcome with love, Orlando traversed the forest nailing love poems about Rosalind to wayside trees.   The wilderness allowed him to unleash all the madness and passion of his love.   Rosalind, as Ganymede, finds these notes thinking them silly and over the top, although she understands that his affections are genuine.  Ganymede encounters Orlando and helps him with his sensibilities, all the while falling more in love with Orlando.  Likewise, Orlando understands Ganymede's points and grows in his understanding of real love.  The forest of Ardenne is a new and exotic environment where Rosalindís disguise could work, which led the two lovers to understand more about the other and extrapolate a real enduring love without childlike embellishments of their affections.  Even though deception and madness enveloped the relationships within the forest, the nature of love in natural surroundings worked out a greater good and fostered inward expansion.

All the significant revelation and changes occurred in the wilderness versus the city.  Not only did romantic love both come alive with passion and manifest deeper meaning, but so did misaligned relationships between family members.  Oliver enters Ardenne in order to challenge his brother only to find him at the mercy of the wild wood via the lioness.  Orlando saves Oliver and wins him over by his love because he had every right to let his malicious brother fend off the lioness himself.  It was in realm of nature that Oliver came to understand his indiscretions, his brother's gracious action, and that, "kindness, nobler ever than revenge, and nature, stronger than his just occasion," (4.3.127-28).

Even more profound of a transformation amid nature was Duke Frederick's conversion.  Duke Fredrick, like Oliver, entered Ardenne intent on vanquishing his brother.  Though many of the details are left to the imagination, the reader, as do the characters, discover that Duke Fredrick had encountered a religious hermit who had converted him into a spiritual awakening.  Away from court and the synthetic and greedy appeals of society, the Duke is able to get a clear perspective on truth from a nature denizen blessed with a purer spiritual nature.  The very fact that such a dramatic and unlikely conversion takes place in the forest suggests that nature itself has a piercing quality and significant effect on people.  Indeed, "the green world was regarded as a place of escape from the constraints of the law and from everyday life, a place of change (of gender or of identity or both) and deep interior transformation where the contact with nature Ö provided a form of contentment and fulfillment," (CC 68).

Nature in Shakespearean comedies is not limited to a forest retreat just outside the boundaries of court.  In The Tempest, Shakespeare has characters transported to an exotic island via shipwreck.  Prospero's tempest itself signifies the mysterious phenomena and limitless power of nature.  "Yet the journey is no escape from reality, for the island shows people what they are, as well what they ought to be," (Bevington 14).  This presents an interesting twist.  In As You Like It, most of the characters retreat to Ardenne to escape injustices of real life, whereas in The Tempest, nature is not a retreat but an unwilled exile.  Even more fascinating is the fact that the results of encountering nature are essentially the same.  Nature within the plays has a way of forcing people to reflect on the world and their effect upon it while inspiring enduring change.

Though the setting was pristine and sublime in The Tempest, the reader discovers that "civilized" humans bring corruption wherever they go.  Antonio plots murder, while Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano plot rebellion.  Prospero had conducted some questionable acts to attain his power as a sort of governor of the island, yet was not motivated by his discontent from his usurpation as the Duke of Milan.  Contrarily, he served as a God figure endowed with the supernatural ability to harness nature, and did so to accomplish a greater end.  Rather than plotting revenge, Prospero sought to establish a "new world" in which dissention would die and love and justice could thrive.  Influenced by the natural isolation and wonderment of the island, he recognized the opportunity for purification of society.  He manifested his power through Ariel's manipulation of nature, which readily has the inherent ability to drastically affect human lives, as seen in the shipwrecks.  Also noteworthy, was that he conducted his magic through a folk figure of nature in Ariel, a fairy.  Although superstitions hold that fairies were usually impish, Shakespeare employs them among his plays as gracious beings of nature that intercede in human lives to enrich human existence.

Shakespeare effectively hints to all of nature as a beneficent entity that puts things in perspective by contrasting spiritual and natural qualities with tainted humanistic traits and transgressions.  In the end, the circumstance of the island moves all to clarity and amends.  Ariel's song to Ferdinand superbly exemplifies the overall theme of the play.  It evokes all the aspects and significance of nature in the charactersí new found environment.  "Full fathom five thy father lies.  Of his bones are coral made.  Those are pearls that were his eyes.  Nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange," (1.2. 400-05).

The idea presented here expresses that this exotic and natural place had the enchanting ability to transform things into something valuable and new.  This song expresses the mysterious, yet positive essence of nature, as well as its forceful and dynamic capacities.  One can easily deduce that nature exists as a liberating and open environment in Shakespeare's comedies where people can escape and have the opportunity to transcend the boundaries of law, societal norms, and discover more about themselves and society as a whole.  Nature itself is not an ultimate Utopia that all the characters remain in but rather a retreat where one can reflect and learn to find a balance for, or resolution of, life at court.  Artificial environments are inundated with man-made and man-centered aspects such as political ambition, power, egos, rivalries, and selfishness that often consume men and fuel their lusts for success and personal advancement.  Even the physical structures distract man from the primal wisdom of nature.  Nature is a place of tranquility, danger, and humility where people find beauty and peace as well as respect and perspective.  All the courtly characters that had left their stations and roles aside and entered Ardenne, or washed up on an island, were on a somewhat level playing field.  They were simply human beings amid the force of nature, left to eke out an understanding of their lives and circumstances, while examining the rationale of their wills.

The natural setting of The Tempest was pervaded with social aspects of court, whereas the total separation between court and nature was evident in As You Like It.  Despite this contrast, nature performed the same role.  It functioned as a place of limitless chance and possibility, where characters could challenge society's iniquity through unconventional experimentation and discovery in a more natural setting.

Stripped of the many adornments of court, all were naked and forced to see themselves in truth, even if existing social conflicts were close at hand.  In The Tempest we see how nature can isolate people and inspire humility.  Prospero relinquished his power and confessed his indiscretions, while princely Ferdinand labored arduously for his Miranda, and all conspirators were reconciled.  In As You Like It, nature liberated the characters to discover, err, learn and become more enlightened and fulfilled.

Nature can cause confusion and induce clarity.  Either way nature prevails to elevate human spirituality, good-naturedness, passion, and understanding.  Without the presence of nature the characters would have nothing to contrast with court, no place for rumination or relief, leaving them to fall further into oblivion and discord.  Shakespeare was celebrated for the depth and ingenious wit he exhibited through his characters.  Of all the numerous symbolic and rich characters throughout the Shakespearean comedies, perhaps nature is the most significant character of all?


[Back to TCR ]