What did Shakespeare know about Mental Health?

Updated: May 13, 2021

"There is a willow grows aslant a brook"

Shakespeare, Nature and Mental Health

By Amelia Marriette

Shakespeare wired up and ready to go
Shakespeare is listening - Photo Credit Chris Mockridge

During the height of the Corona Virus, many of us felt as if we are banished from our own lives, from our jobs and from our loved ones, and this almost inevitably had a negative effect on our mental health. Many of us still feel unable or feel too afraid to visit cities or book trips away. Perhaps, then, we can take a leaf from a Shakespeare play and step outside and connect with nature in order to repair ourselves to look and hopefully to 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, and 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 and 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.

Volumes of Shakespeare's Plays in Nature
Shakespeare and Nature, Photo Credit Amelia Marriette

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.

During the three years that I was writing my book Walking into Alchemy: The Transformative Power of Nature I became more and more convinced that Shakespeare's views about nature were 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. At least during the last year, many of us have been able to seek solace in nature, which is at least one powerful and positive outcome.

Amelia Marriette is an author and playwright she holds an MA from the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), Stratford-upon-Avon. She is the author of Walking into Alchemy a book that is helping walkers around the world to walk gain enjoyment from walking and to find beauty in the world.

Visit startnext.com/ameliamarriette

to pledge for the GERMAN edition of Walking into Alchemie - Alchemie des Gehens - when we reach our target you will receive your edition in the autumn.

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Goodreads Review by Kaz Pritchard, 17th February 2021

"From the moment I picked this book up, I was hooked. It has such depth, is rich with descriptions and is packed with information about Austria, birds and flowers. A fabulous turn-your-life-around-book with poignant stop and think moments. It's a feel-good, honest diary and it's now on my favourite books shelf. Read it, because you won’t regret it."

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,