Anne Barton delivered the lectures on ‘The Shakespearean Forest’ that form the basis for this, her much anticipated last book, in Cambridge in 2003. The Clark Lectures were themselves the product of an extended reflection on the significance of Shakespeare’s imaginary woodlands, developing and expanding material from earlier lectures and essays. As Peter Holland’s eloquent afterword reminds us, Barton’s interest in the topic had first been excited by her reading of Ben Jonson’s Robin Hood play, The Sad Shepherd, for her monograph on Shakespeare’s great rival. Given this history, it may seem surprising that The Shakespearean Forest is not a longer book, but Barton became almost blind as a result of macular degeneration and was forced to abandon her work. When she died in 2013 it remained incomplete and its publication has been a labour of love for her executors – above all Hester Lees-Jeffries, who undertook to edit the surviving manuscript. Tactfully reordering and even rewriting a little where necessary, Lees-Jeffries has added a fine introduction, ‘Into the Woods’, pieced together from Barton’s draft original and from portions of a discarded chapter; she has also appended a comprehensive bibliographical essay of her own, bringing the reader up to date with the large amount of related material published in the decade since Barton abandoned the project. The result, aside from a rather skimpy and careless index, seems as finished as anything that Barton published in her lifetime.
The Shakespearean Forest deals with the symbolism of the forest and especially with ‘the relationship, sometimes harmonious, more often troubled, between the forest and its neighbour and its opposite, the city’, while also examining its penumbra of superstition, its connection with the spirit world, and with ‘the forest as a sentient being, capable of listening and even responding to … things humans do and say in it’. It’s an impressively wide-ranging work, exploring landscapes that reach from the forest conjured up by Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, through the dark woodlands of medieval legend, folklore and fairy tale, to the pastoral fantasies and dangerous wildwoods of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, before glancing forward to more contemporary nightmares, like the trees that press menacingly in on Cobweb Castle in Kurosawa’s cinematic adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood. In this, it follows the inclusive approach of Barton’s first book, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, which illuminated the playwright’s use of metatheatrical tropes by examining the place of the stage and of self-conscious performance in the early modern imaginary across an extraordinary variety of texts, from the classical past through medieval and early Tudor drama, to the repertoire of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
The exemplary alertness to the theatrical dimension of plays and to the practicalities of stagecraft that became a hallmark of Barton’s dramatic criticism is equally apparent in the new study, whose larger arguments are framed by a useful chapter on ‘Staging the Forest’. In court entertainments, where the politics of expensive display were inseparable from artistic purpose, forests were often elaborately presented. In the great tournament ordered by Henry VIII in 1511, for example, the king and three companions, presenting themselves as ‘les quater Chivalers de la forrest salvigne’, emerged from an elaborate artificial wood, consisting of ‘12 hawthorns, 12 oaks, 12 maples, 10 birches, 16 dozen fern roots and branches, 60 broom stalks, and 16 furze bushes’. A century later the design for Lord Hay’s Masque – almost certainly devised by the pre-eminent artist of the genre, Inigo Jones – followed in this tradition: its action opened on a magnificent prospect of woodland, with a Bower of Flora, a House of Night and Diana’s Tree of Chastity, in front of which danced nine 15-foot golden trees. At the end of the dance, each tree opened to reveal a masquer, richly clad in the costume of a ‘wodewose’, or wild man.
Early modern playhouses like the Globe could manage nothing on this scale; yet the anonymous Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, performed by the Queen’s Men in 1576, includes a mysterious Forest of Marvels among its locations, and in a number of other plays stage directions call for characters to appear ‘in the forest’, or ‘in the woods’ – as the self-banished protagonist does in Act IV of Timon of Athens. It remains very hard to know how these forests were represented onstage. In Titus Andronicus, the elaborate rhetorical detail with which Tamora describes a woodland scene where ‘The birds chant melody on every bush … [while] The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind’ suggests Shakespeare is exploiting the audience’s imagination to decorate his bare stage – especially since only a few lines later this same idyllic woodland suddenly becomes ‘A barren detested vale’ with ‘trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,/Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe’. Sometimes, though, it appears that more literal realisations were intended. Of course the two stage pillars that supported the ‘heavens’ might readily stand in as trees; but in a few cases at least property trees and bushes seem to have been used to satisfy the audience’s sense of a forested landscape. Philip Henslowe’s list of stage properties for the Rose Theatre included a ‘bay tree’, ‘Tantalus’ tree’, and a ‘tree of golden apples’. In plays such as Lyly’s Galatea, Barton writes, ‘an entire woodland region’ seems to have been suggested by a single tree – the ‘fair oak’ situated at the back of the playing space – while the magician-astrologer Simon Forman claimed to have seen Macbeth and Banquo ‘riding through a wood’, rather than a ‘blasted heath’, before meeting ‘three women fairies’ at the beginning of Macbeth. There is nothing in Shakespeare’s text to indicate any such spectacle; and Barton thinks that, in all likelihood, Forman’s vivid imagination was simply transposing onto the Globe stage what he had read in Holinshed; but Act V’s extended rhetorical emphasis on the brooding presence of Birnam Wood, together with what seem like implied stage directions for cutting and discarding its boughs, suggest that, at least when ‘a wood comes toward Dunsinane’, some quite concrete piece of staging was envisaged.
The superstitious terror that afflicts Macbeth at this seeming fulfilment of the Weird Sisters’ prophecy tells us much about the premodern forest. The menace of Birnam, and of the ‘ruthless, dreadful’ woods in Titus Andronicus, exemplifies an old idea of fallen nature that is entirely divorced from the sentimental appeal of our own post-Romantic woodlands. Yet, if A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood and the cheerful bouncing of Tigger seemed to banish the spectre of the tiger that stalks Blake’s ‘forests of the night’, the continuing fascination of children with the haunted woods of fairy tale – not to mention Tolkien’s Mirkwood and Fangorn – show that fear of the forest exercises a persistent grip on the human psyche. I still remember the terror I felt as a small child when my father would play his old 78 rpm recording of Schubert’s Erlkönig. The lyrics, which he must have translated for me, mention only the whistling of wind through dry leaves, but it was through the gloomiest of woods that the music – as if recalling the sinister folk tales on which Goethe’s ballad was based – seemed to carry me.
That forest, where the Erlking waited to snatch me from my father’s horse, stood no doubt for all the obscure dangers by which childhood is haunted. In the waking adult world, however, it is forests themselves that are now endangered, as Barton’s book reminds us: it opens with a curious detail of recent regulatory history – the granting of official ‘forest’ status to London in 2002. Designed to place London’s parklands under the safeguard of the Forestry Commission, the decree neatly epitomises the way urban societies have come to think of woodlands (and of wilderness more generally) as zones of quiet retreat that stand in need of constant protection. Menacing ‘jungles’ have become the exotic ‘rainforests’ of David Attenborough documentaries, shrinking islands of environmental purity. The adjective ‘wild’, once applied to the savage creatures and barbarous landscapes of postlapsarian nature, has been reduced to a mark of culinary approbation. In Ruth Pavey’s recent memoir, A Wood of One’s Own, Pavey’s efforts to restore a patch of woodland in the Somerset Levels become a spiritual exercise, an embodied meditation on what it means to take root and to accept the impermanence of being.‘Reading,’ one reviewer wrote, ‘is the equivalent of being in her wood – of being quiet, released from care, able to look and think.’
In Shakespeare, it is true, forests can sometimes function as places of pastoral refuge from the cares and brutal competition of society, as the Forest of Arden does for Duke Senior and his exiled companions in As You Like It: there they can ‘fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’. Indeed in his Treatise and Discourse of the Lawes of the Forrest (1598), the fittingly named John Manwood playfully suggests that the word ‘forrest’ might be a contraction of ‘For Rest’, denoting a haven like that wood, ‘a league without the town’, nostalgically remembered by Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘where often you and I/Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie,/Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet’. But, more often, Shakespeare’s woodlands are rather different: even the pastoralised Arden of As You Like It proves, on closer inspection, to be an ‘uncouth forest’ or ‘desert inaccessible’, so that, in Barton’s words, ‘the whole play quietly undermines the idea of tongues in trees, books in brooks and sermons in stones, revealing it for what it is: a wishful projection of the civilised upon an environment which … cannot be for human beings like the Duke and his followers an “assign’d and native dwelling place”.’ Wild forests were indeed regarded as ‘desert’, unpeopled, but hardly empty: full of deer for hunting, but also a lair for more menacing beasts. Sometimes the resort of outlaws, ‘like the Old Robin Hood of England’ (As You Like It), at other times they were haunted by creatures of myth and nightmare – malevolent elves and fairies, wodewoses, and followers of the fearful Wild Hunt. To read Shakespeare properly, Barton makes us see, we need to reinhabit the forests of his imagination, to repopulate them with the fancies, wonders and terrors that made them such a powerful poetic resource.
To take refuge in the forest, outside the boundaries of civil order, was almost inevitably to announce oneself as an outlaw, and Barton devotes an entire chapter to the ways in which the plays of the period – such as the anonymous comedy George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (c.1590), Antony Munday’s two-part Downfall and Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1598) and Jonson’s unfinished Sad Shepherd – remember or re-enact the paradigmatic story of Robin Hood. In George Peele’s Edward I, the Welsh bandit Prince Lluellen and his followers give their cause a veneer of mischievous attractiveness by assuming the guise of Robin Hood and his men; while in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor the lawless antics of Falstaff and his crew of ‘Diana’s foresters’ invite comparison with the Sherwood outlaws Scarlet and Little John – just as, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, the ‘honourable kind of thievery’ practised by Valentine and his outlaw henchmen is coloured by the Third Outlaw’s invocation of ‘Robin Hood’s fat friar’. In most cases the effect is playful, but Prince Lluellen is, after all, a dangerous rebel against the English king, while the juxtaposition of Falstaff’s histrionic outlawry with scenes of actual rebellion is a reminder that the mere invocation of Robin Hood could serve as what Barton calls ‘a generalised cover for social protest and dissent’. Indeed her chapter draws attention to the ways in which reworkings of the legend were openly politicised during the Interregnum, so that Charles II’s escape after the Battle of Worcester could be celebrated in a Cavalier ballad called ‘Robin Whood Revived’, while in a play entitled Robin Hood and His Crew of Soldiers (1661) the citizens of Nottingham would make the outlaws’ surrender to the true king a metaphor for the rediscovered loyalties of the Restoration.
Robin Hood was a quasi-historical figure, but by the 15th century he had also become a creature of myth, having been assimilated with the festival figure of the May Lord, or Green Man, just as Maid Marian had become a Summer Queen; his story is sometimes shadowed by reminders of another aspect of woodland lore, the forest’s association with alien beings and the (often malign) supernatural. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fleeing lovers discover not soothing ‘primrose beds’ but a landscape of nightmare, its shadows haunted by serpents and fierce beasts – ‘lion, bear, or wolf, or bull’, lynx and leopard – and unpredictable woodland spirits. Forests, moreover, as Barton writes, ‘are places of transformation, where the boundary between human life and that of animals, plants or trees is likely to become confused, and may even be obliterated’. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine is only metaphorically ‘metamorphosed with a mistress’, even if Silvia does bear the name of a forest deity; but the Athenian wood of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the home of an actual fairy queen, and a place of shocking transmutations where carelessly intruding mortals may be subjected to the malicious pranks of a hobgoblin, or, caught up like Bottom in the bitter erotic politics of a fairy kingdom, ‘translated’ into grotesque monsters. Here Demetrius finds himself becoming ‘wood within this wood’ – not just mad (‘wode’), but like a wodewose. ‘To be lost in the forest,’ Angela Carter wrote in her essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘is to be lost to this world, to be abandoned by the light, to lose yourself utterly with no guarantee that you will ever find yourself or else be found.’
Even in the bourgeois setting of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the farcical charade in Windsor Forest brings memories of the Wild Hunt, as Falstaff – visibly transfigured by the buck’s horns of Herne the Hunter – is tormented by Mistress Quickly’s Fairy Queen and Pistol’s Hobgoblin. The forest is always liable to appear as the unsettled and unsettling opposite of the urban world, a threatening other whose status as res nullius sets it against the self-possessed order of res publica. So, in Timon of Athens, the corruption that drives Timon into the wilderness, to live as a wild man, finally reduces Athens itself to ‘a commonwealth of beasts’, while the thievery of its citizens renders them little different from the banditti Timon encounters in the woods. The Greek word for ‘forest’, as Barton points out, was hyle, which also meant ‘chaos’; and it was with this in mind that Henry Peacham’s emblem-book Minerva Britanna (1612) represented the impenetrable depths of its ‘shadie Wood … with uncouth pathes, and hidden waies unknowne’, as ‘Resembling CHAOS, or the hideous night’. This is the way the forest appears in Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, where Rome, the supposed epitome of urban civilisation, is surrounded by a barbaric wilderness, whose ‘woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull’, their ‘forest walks fitted by kind for rape and villainy’. The forest is a place to which the savage Moor, Aaron, and the barbarian Queen Tamora seem native. The family tomb of the Andronici sits at the centre of the city, filled with the bodies of the sons Titus sacrificed in the city’s wars; its counterpart in the forest is the ‘detested, dark, blood-drinking pit’ into which Tamora’s sons throw the murdered Bassianus, its shadows fitfully illuminated by his ‘precious ring … [shining] like a taper in some monument’. Pit and tomb are emblematic opposites, but both are likely to have been represented by the trapdoor that sat at the centre of the Elizabethan stage, emphasising their sinister affinity. Just as the ‘tiger’ Tamora herself becomes ‘incorporate in Rome’, Rome itself is transformed into ‘a wilderness of tigers’ where Titus and his family are reduced to helpless ‘prey’. When, at the end of the play, the last of Titus’ sons returns to ‘heal Rome’s harms’ he must do so by symbolically redrawing the boundaries of forest and city, consigning Tamora’s corpse to the primal wilderness outside the walls, while Titus and his daughter are solemnly interred in the family tomb that embodies the values of romanitas.
‘As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora,’ the triumphant Lucius orders, ‘throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey.’ Her fate is strikingly similar to that of the enchanter Malengin, in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, whose corpse is left in the wilderness ‘a carrion outcast;/For beasts and foules to feede upon’, after his defeat by Artegall, Knight of Justice, and his robotic servant, Talus. Artegall’s ultimate mission is to rescue Eirena (Ireland) from the papal tyrant Grantorto; but to achieve that he must overcome a succession of adversaries including the vicious Malengin, who dwells ‘mongst wyld beasts and salvage woods’. For Spenser’s readers, Malengin will have represented a particular kind of barbarity: in the ‘hidden wayes’ of his ‘unassaylable’ rocky ‘fastnesse’, his ‘crafty’ deceits and his vicious hostility to justice, he represents the outlaw condition and elusive cunning of the ‘wild Irish’ rebels who opposed the Tudor subjugation of their country. Indeed Malengin’s appearance, with his ‘long curld locks, that down his shoulders shagged’ and ‘uncouth vestiment,/Made of strange stuffe’, is unmistakably that of the Irish soldiery known as ‘kerne’ or ‘woodkerne’, whose fondness for the hooded ‘Irish mantle’ and the shaggy forelock known as the ‘glib’ was denounced as a form of treacherous disguise.
As the name ‘woodkerne’ indicates, among the military problems faced by invading English were the forests that still covered a large part of Ireland. Barton describes The Faerie Queene as ‘a poem whose entire world seems at times to consist of one vast, dangerous and complexly allegorised forest’, but what she does not consider is the extent to which Spenser’s vision of that forest was shaped not just by medieval folk tale and chivalric romance, but by his own bitter experience as an agent of English ‘plantation’; Ireland remains the one significant gap in Barton’s account of the place of forests in the imagination of Spenser’s contemporaries. In A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), Spenser compared his own poetic calling to that of Orpheus, ‘who, with his sweet harp and wholesome precepts of poetry laboured to reduce the rude and barbarous people from living in woods to dwell civilly in towns and cities’. But the Irish seemed perversely resistant to such Orphic conjuring, given over, as they were, to magic of their own. Like the landscapes of The Faerie Queene, Ireland remained a place of superstitious enchantment and malign spirits, prone to fearful metamorphosis, like that practised by the ancient beldams who, according to Caxton, would turn themselves into hares by night in order to suck the milk of their neighbours’ cattle. Ireland, its detractors insisted, was Circe’s island, a place where even English settlers were prone to mysterious ‘degeneracy’ – the falling away from one’s genus or kind that rendered them ‘like those who have drunk of Circe’s cup and were turned into very beasts’. Malengin, who flees the assaults of justice, leaping ‘like a wild goat’, not only lives among the creatures and plants of the forest, but is capable of transforming himself into their likeness:
Into a fox himself he first did turn;
But he him hunted like a fox full fast:
Then to a bush himself he did transform,
But he the bush did beat, till that at last
Into a bird it changed, and from him past,
Flying from tree to tree, from wand to wand
Into a hedgehog all unawares it went …
[Then] he would to a snake again
Have turned himself.
The dark menace of Irish forests was a recurrent theme in contemporary propaganda; but just as shape-changing like Malengin’s became a metaphor for the bestial nature of the rebels and their ability to evade the ordering surveillance of English power, so the ‘wild’ Irish landscape of bog, mountain and forest became an embodied metaphor for the refractory character of the Irish themselves – hence the ugly suggestiveness of the innocent-sounding horticultural term ‘plantation’ as a term for colonial conquest. The Irish wilderness was repeatedly typed as the opposite of the English garden-state, that ‘other Eden’; and the barbarity of its inhabitants was proven, in the words of James I’s attorney-general for Ireland, Sir John Davies, by their stubborn and perverse refusal to ‘plant any gardens or orchards, enclose or improve their lands, [or] live together in settled villages or towns’. The Irish rebels, according to Davies, were ‘wild and barbarous’ savages who, having been driven from the ‘fittest places for … plantation’, had now retreated to the ‘woods and mountains: which, as they were proper places for outlaws and thieves, so were they their natural castles and fortifications … there they lurked and lay in wait to do mischief’. Whereas in England woods had been contained ‘within the limits of [hunting] forests, chases, and parks’ – places of aristocratic recreation – in Ireland, he complained, there was no ‘Forest Law’ which would compel the natives to ‘yield up their fast places to those wild beasts which were indeed less hurtful and wild, than they’.
Writing about the archetypal outlaw of Sherwood, Barton observes that the second part of Robin Hood’s name suggests a garment that so ‘obviously hides and conceals [that] it resembles the canopy of the forest itself’. This was precisely the connection made by indignant English commentators on Ireland when they denounced the native fondness for mantle and glib. Among the more significant tracts occasioned by Elizabeth’s Irish wars was John Derricke’s The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne (1581): what the cunningly evasive Irish needed, according to Derricke, was to be ‘discovered’ – brought from the concealment of their mountains and forests into plain sight. In the sequence of woodcuts that illustrate the Discoverie, the woodkerne are shown either rushing from their forest hiding places to attack the disciplined ranks of English soldiers, or skulking, like the defeated Rory Og O’More with his glib and mantle, in the wolf-infested woods. In such a guise, Spenser wrote, the woodkerne ‘covereth himself from the wrath of heaven, from the offence of the earth, and from the sight of men … For a rebel is it as serviceable … in his war that he maketh … when he still flieth from his foe and lurketh in the woods and strait passages, waiting for advantages … For the wood is his house against all weathers.’ Declaring that the mantle served ‘unto the Irish as to a hedgehog his skin [enabling him] to live and lie out in bogs and woods’, Sir William Herbert argued that the only remedy would be to enforce a long-standing ban on native dress and drive the woodkerne from their forests.
In Shakespeare’s own writing, the Irish forest and its denizens are registered only as an offstage presence – but one that, for his own audience, will have been rendered especially menacing by their awareness of the interminable fighting across the Irish Sea. The patriotic Chorus of Henry V looks forward to the day when ‘the general of our gracious empress’ will come from Ireland ‘bringing rebellion broached on his sword’. That general was presumably Essex; but the Chorus’s slightly nervous parenthesis, ‘as in good time he may’, almost seems to anticipate the debacle of the disgraced favourite’s actual return. Presumably to prepare opinion for his move against the queen, Essex’s followers commissioned a play from Shakespeare’s company that showed the deposition of an anointed monarch. Richard II also had an ambiguous message about the outcome of Irish expeditions: hardly has the king set off to ‘subdue those rough, rug-headed kerns,/Which live like venom where no venom else,/But only they have privilege to live’, than the action translates its audience to a garden whose unweeded condition mirrors that of Richard’s own kingdom. Since ‘the whole land is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok’d up,/Her fruit trees all unprun’d, her hedges ruin’d,’ this ‘sea-walled garden’ is in danger of reverting to its fallen condition as wild forest. Shakespeare, of course, had already envisaged the violence of such degeneration in his Wars of the Roses plays. In 2 Henry VI the Duke of York is sent to oppose a revolt by ‘th’uncivil kerns of Ireland’ only to return at the head of an ‘army of Irish’, made up of ‘galloglasses and stout kerns’. His invasion is triggered by the rising of the outlaw Jack Cade, a Yorkist cat’s-paw who learned his own treacherous ways as a spy in Ireland: ‘Full often, like a shag-hair’d crafty kern, hath he conversed with the enemy.’ In the last act, the defeated Cade, leaving the woods in which he has taken refuge, breaks into the garden of the loyal Alexander Iden, who proves to be his nemesis; the rebel dies pronouncing his curse on a garden that stands as an emblem for the entire kingdom about to be laid waste.
Irish woodkerne make one more appearance in Shakespeare, in a play concerned with dark magic, as well as – once again – with foreign invasion and the overthrow of established rule. In Macbeth, the rebellious Macdonwald is supported, like York, by troops of ‘Kernes and Gallowglasses’. These ‘skipping Kernes’ are quickly put to flight by ‘brave Macbeth’, only to reappear as his own mercenaries in the final battle – the ‘wretched Kernes’ whom Macduff disdains to fight. Among the more disconcerting ironies that mark the concluding action of this play is the way it appears to reverse the conventional emblems of order and confusion: here it is the usurping rebel who is entrenched with his wild soldiery in one of those hilltop castles that Sir John Davies believed could have kept the wild Irish ‘in order’, while the representatives of restored legitimacy conceal themselves with boughs torn from the surrounding woods, so that to the maddened protagonist it is as if the forest were marching on his fastness.
By the time of Macbeth, first staged in 1606, the Irish forest had begun to lose much of its dangerous power: following the defeat of Tyrone’s northern rising in 1603, the woodkerne, ‘all their places of fastness … discovered and laid open’, were no longer a threat. Within less than two decades, in Luke Gernon’s Discourse of Ireland, the island’s menacing woods had been transformed into the ‘goodly tresses of hayre’ ornamenting the shamelessly sexualised body of ‘this Nymph of Ireland’; even these adornments, Gernon lamented, were being stripped away, as ‘the iron mills, like a sharpe toothed combe, have knotted and polled her much … [so that] in her champion parts she hath not so much as will cover her nakedness.’ Making way for the gardens and orchards of ‘plantation’, the forest had been reduced to a mere resource, its trees felled to fuel the foundries that were springing up across the newly tamed landscape. Today, like the London woodlands of The Shakespearean Forest, Irish woods are protected by a Forest Service, whose 1996 mission statement, ‘Growing for the Future’, promises ‘the development of forestry within Ireland in a manner and to a scale which maximises its contribution to national socioeconomic wellbeing on a sustainable basis that is compatible with the protection of the environment’. With care, the ‘salvage’ can still be made salvageable; but, faced with the drab pieties of this managerial prose, it’s hard not to miss the savage pathos of Rory Og and his wolves, the ‘juggling feats’ of the wild Malengin, the dark enchantment of the Erlking and even the barbarous cruelties of Aaron and ‘that ravenous tiger Tamora’.