The Shakespearean Forest by Anne Barton

Cambridge University Press, August 2017, 185 pp, 75,00£, ISBN 978-0-521-57344-3

Cambridge University Press, August 2017, 185 pp, 75,00£, ISBN 978-0-521-57344-3

Anne Barton, a renowned scholar of Shakespeare and early modern literature, died in 2013. Ten years before, she delivered a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge University, which form the basis for the book now at hand, The Shakespearean Forest, edited by Hester Lees-Jeffries. It is supplemented by Adrian Poole’a foreword and Peter Holland’s afterword, as well as by a comprehensive Further Reading by Lees-Jeffries. At less than 200 pages, The Shakespearean Forest is a slim volume, yet Barton’s rather incredible learnedness shines through the six chapters she wrote, and the bookending features written by her colleagues ensure that the book is a comprehensive whole. 

Barton surveys the presence of woods and forests not only in Shakespeare but more generally in early modern drama, including Ben Jonson (whose unfinished The Sad Shepherd is especially fruitful for a “green” analysis), Thomas Dekker, John Lyly, and Robert Greene. From the staging of forests to the early modern sylvan imagination, Barton does not shy away from considering what a Shakespearan forest might imply for our age in the 21st century. Commenting on the current state of forests in London, she writes:

All over the world, forests themselves have since time immemorial been destroyed, felled, and then grubbed up to prevent regrowth, not just for economic reasons, to obtain timber and create arable land, as with the rainforests of Borneo and the Amazon today, but out of fear. Yet fear is one major source of their attraction, their grip on the human imagination; they can occasion deep-seated anxiety, which the rational mind cannot dismiss out of hand. The giants, wild men and outlaws that lie in wait there can claim a very extensive English and European mythology as mysterious woodland inhabitants and hazards. The ‘safe’ and predictable forest of twenty-first-century London, even (or especially) one carefully programmed in small areas to deliver the ‘wilderness experience’, is not a forest at all, but a contradiction in terms.

All this is written in a manner that is captured well by a former research student of hers, Michael Cordner, commenting on Barton’s way of supervising (quoted in Holland’s afterword):

… she found it natural to look, for instance to mid-Tudor plays like Jack Juggler and Johan Johan to shape a genealogy and context for Shakespeare’s achievements … Such unforced ease of reference, based on encyclopedic reading and outstanding powers of recall, is the foundation on which her richest scholarly achievements are based.

And, indeed, one reads The Shakespearean Forest in awe and envy of her ability to refer to such a wide array of works, from obscure and basically extinct plays to Shakespeare’s complete oeuvre, all the way to comparisons to 20th-century poets such as Robert Frost. I found myself compiling a list of works to read after finishing Barton’s book, a sure sign of an invigorating writer and teacher who can breathe life into literature now almost forgotten. As it happens, she was partially responsible for reincarnating several rarely performed plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which her husband, John Barton, co-founded and directed for. In this respect, she was an exceptional scholar, balancing her career between the academy and the theater: being an initiator for the meticulous research that goes into the productions we still see today at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and in her writing, which always takes into account the performative side of Shakespeare, drama that is not just text but actual performance.

Her final book, then, differs in its subject matter from her back-catalogue in that she did not write extensively or explicitly on the green in Shakespeare before the lectures at the turn of the century. It is interesting to note how The Shakespearean Forest predates the emergence of ecocriticism in the 2010s, and many of her arguments resonate with recent developments in ecocritical Shakespeare studies. I had to remind myself constantly that what is between these covers was, in fact, written a decade before the rise of the proper “ism” that it takes now part of, the now flourishing area of study that Lees-Jeffries surveys in the extensive Further Reading. Deforestation in early modern England is a well-perused subject in Randall Martin’s 2015 book Shakespeare & Ecology, and the vocabulary of the hunt is thoroughly studied in a chapter of Rhodri Lewis’s 2017 Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness – yet, more than 10 years before, Barton touched upon these in her lectures, anachronistically complementing what scholars do today.

The Shakespearean Forest is particularly vivid in chapters two, five and six. The second chapter, “Staging the Forest,” looks at the material realities of presenting woodland onstage back in the day, illuminated by some of Inigo Jones’s designs which are printed in the book. As Barton notes, “dramatists persisted, throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and her immediate successors, in writing innumerable plays set wholly, or in part, within a wood or forest. To what extent were their audiences expected to conjure up these woodland settings purely in their own imagination?” The fifth chapter, “The Forest and the City,” looks at the stereotypical dichotomy of the two spaces, yet contends that some plays, such as Timon of Athens, turn the scenario upside down or mixed the two together. The final chapter (“Let the Forest Judge”), perhaps the best in the book, looks at how “the forest [can be] conceived of as an intelligent whole” and how “the sense of the forest itself as an autonomous agent of justice” is evoked, for instance, by the approaching Birnam Wood in Macbeth.

The book, by its nature something built and compiled from unfinished manuscripts, invites a spot-the-error approach when reading: what parts where unfinished? should this and that have been elaborated more? is this the best chapter order? Luckily, though, it all reads in a way that suggests Hester Leer-Jeffries has done a scrupulous job in making The Shakespearean Forest cohere and communicate. I do feel that chapter four, which revolves around the Robin Hood myth, feels somehow displaced and out of context as it goes into such detail that the titular theme of the book, forest itself, is lost for a second. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable book that luckily ended up being published even posthumously, written in a way that is amicable to lay readers as well as specialists.