Updated: Feb 19
"There is a willow grows aslant a brook."
Shakespeare, Nature and Mental Health
By Amelia Marriette
As the weather begins to improve and Spring seems to be upon us, perhaps we can take a leaf from a Shakespeare play and step outside and connect with nature in order to repair ourselves to look and find "the good in everything."
Shakespeare is synonymous with both Stratford-upon-Avon and London. He embodies the town and country divide. He is both the sophisticated urban playwright who wrote and performed his plays for Elizabethan and Jacobean Courtiers while also being that man from the rural Midlands of England. His plays are mainly set in cities: London, Venice, Rome, France, Egypt, Athens and so on, all places throbbing with intrigue, political plots, murders, deceit and danger. But the reverse of these places, the antidote to these locations, and the terrors they hold may invariably be found in nature. Nature, the forest, and green spaces are never far from Shakespeare's mind. Take Lear, that wretched, banished, homeless, raving mad monarch – it is he that stands half-naked in a cornfield and makes for himself a crown of weeds. This is not a famous moment in the play, but it is a crucial one. Lear finds solace in the stripping away of not only his clothes but the barren heath itself. King Lear's wanderings heal his wits. Lear also delights in the fauna of his new world: when he sees a tiny mouse, he shouts, "look, look a mouse!" This is a moment of exquisite tenderness and pathos; I remember that it was this line that finally reduced me to tears when I saw Robert Stephens play the role of Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1993. At the beginning of the play, I am certain that Lear would have crushed a mouse underfoot and thought nothing of it.
In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, after the death of her father, Polonius, Ophelia leaves the confines and the rottenness of the court in Elsinore and retreats into nature. In her grief-stricken, bereaved, desperate state, she gathers flowers. They not only bring her comfort but, even more importantly, each flower can be read - each one represents a truth that she is desperate to convey. In her infamous "mad" scene, she distributes these flowers. Rosemary for remembrance – reminding us that Hamlet refused to remember or honour the promises he made to her. The open, simple daisy represents her loss of innocence. Rue was a sign of adultery – when Ophelia hands rue to Queen Gertrude, who so quickly married her dead husband's brother Claudius - I can imagine a gasp of recognition going around the Globe theatre auditorium; for Elizabethans knew their flowers. Violets represent flattery – Ophelia may just as well have said: "I'm saying what you flattering courtiers won't say - here take this flower and think on your actions – I dare you." Ophelia's flower-giving is a deeply political act, full of meaning. The rural side of Shakespeare's character and experience is in evidence here: nature is truth, and truth is nature. When Gertrude tells of Ophelia's death, she delays the moment of impact with one of the most beautiful speeches in any of his works:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
Queen Gertrude knows this, and Shakespeare is certainly drawing on his childhood knowledge of the rural areas around Stratford-upon-Avon in this scene. Shakespeare once again speaks of eternal truths; there is a reason why we have flowers at funerals; they help to take some of the pain away – the fragility of the blooms standing in for the fragility and the beauty of life.
When Macbeth murders King Duncan, nature both feels and reacts with a series of unnatural occurrences: the sky becoming dark during the middle of the day, a lesser owl killing a mighty falcon, Duncan's horses breaking out of their stalls and killing one another, and violent storms that destroy homes. Shakespeare knew what we might have forgotten - when humans destroy each other, it too destroys the world.
In his comedies, Shakespeare relishes the chance to recall his rural roots. In As You Like It, he sets much of the action in the Forest of Arden; his mother's maiden name was Arden – so this is Shakespeare going home. Duke Senior is overthrown by his brother and retreats into the forest. He has lost everything, his palace, his riches and his identity but his banishment, far from destroying him, cures him:
Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.
For the last few years, I have been able to walk more than I have ever done in my life - finding myself drawn to nature and walking as if it was calling me with its magnetic power. During these years of walking, I have become more and more convinced that Shakespeare's views about nature are not merely poetic and abstract but real and concrete. I feel that there is no better antidote against stress and mental strain than walking and having access to nature. During the pandemic, many of us sought solace in nature, which was at least one powerful and positive outcome which, for many, has now become a lifelong habit.
Five Shakespeare Quotes about Nature
Compiled by Amelia Marriette
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
Troilus and Cressida, 3.3
"Now 'tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they'll o'ergrow the garden
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry."
2 Henry VI, 3.1
"When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why then comes in the sweet o' the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter's pale."
The Winter's Tale, 4.3
"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet, 2.2
"At Christmas, I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows."
Love's Labours Lost, 1.1
I am an author, playwright and Shakespeare Lecturer. I have an MA from the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), Stratford-upon-Avon. I am the author of Walking into Alchemy (in German Alchemie des Gehens). Books that are helping walkers around the world to get walking, gain real enjoyment from walking by finding beauty in the world and using walking to improve mental health and well-being.
More about Walking into Alchemy: The Transformative Power of Nature.
Walking into Alchemy, and the German version Alchemie des Gehens, are also available from all good bookshops and Amazon worldwide in affordable Print on Demand black and white versions.
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