Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works
Pastoral, a popular Renaissance literary genre, influenced a number of Shakespeare's works. The pastoral genre depicts an idealized vision of a simpler, rural life and a longing for a lost world of innocence. The pastoral mode was an integral part of the Renaissance debate between the virtues of the active versus the contemplative life, often expressed as the opposition of negotium, involvement in business, civic, and social life, and otium, ease or idleness. Commentary on pastoral in Shakespeare's dramatic works frequently involves references to writers who generated and developed the pastoral mode. These include the Greek poet Theocritus; the Latin poet Virgil; authors of the Italian Renaissance such as Sannazaro, Guarini, Tasso, and Mantuan; and English Renaissance pastoral writers, including Spenser, Greene, Lodge, and Sidney, whose Arcadia is considered to be one of the greatest pastorals. Many critics argue that pastoral is a way of looking at life, art, and nature—an attitude and a system of values rather than a set of formal literary conventions. However, there is general agreement regarding the three-part structure of pastoral drama—flight or exile from the court or city, retreat to a rural setting, and return. The sojourn in the countryside supposedly provides an opportunity to gain new insights and perspectives, leading to personal education, growth, and renewal. Scholars have explored Shakespeare's use of this dramatic structure, and the evidence in his plays of pastoralism and anti-pastoralism, with particular reference to As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.
Scholars who write about As You Like It generally agree that the play does not represent the Forest of Arden as a lost, golden world. There is, however, a range of opinions regarding whether this comedy is anti-pastoral or merely ambivalent about the literary pastoral tradition. Laurence Lerner (see Further Reading) views Arden as having a great deal in common with the court and the city, especially with respect to social and political divisions. Similarly, Peter Lindenbaum (1986) describes the forest in As You Like It as not a golden world but a fallen one, which provides “only limited relief from the concerns of everyday life.” Alastair Fowler (1984), characterizing Arden as only a temporary reprieve from the ordinary concerns of daily life, emphasizes this play's pastoral setting as a representation of the progression of seasons and the theme of mutability. Several critics assert that As You Like It challenges conventional literary pastoralism. Lindenbaum, for example, calls attention to the different views of pastoral expressed by disparate characters in the play. Fowler describes the play as a “complex departure from pastoral,” and Brian Gibbons (1987) argues that it mocks the absurdities of the pastoral style and effectively subverts it. Gibbons, like Keir Elam (see Further Reading), pays particular attention to Shakespeare's departure in this comedy from his literary forebears, particularly Sidney and Lodge. Elam regards As You Like It as an anti-pastoral play, remarking on its freshness of style, its ironical tone, and its playfulness. Paul Alpers (1996) focuses on Colin as a descendant of the traditional literary shepherd, noting that unlike his prototype, he has a realistic view of pastoral life and values. A number of critics have addressed the issue of pastoral elements in other Shakespearean comedies. Writing about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lindenbaum describes the forest in this early comedy as a fantasy, a place where no ordinary rules of society apply; he attributes this depiction as evidence of Shakespeare's “unthinking or automatic acceptance of a pastoral romance structural scheme he adopted from pastoral writers before him.” Alpers addresses pastoral elements in another early Shakespearean comedy, Love's Labour's Lost, focusing on Costard as similar to shepherds in the literary pastoral tradition with the exception that he functions as a clown or fool rather than a moralizer. Camille Wells Slights (1985) maintains that in The Merry Wives of Windsor “the pastoral values of simplicity, humility, and fidelity are elusive and transitory but always accessible.” The critic also points out that Windsor is not like Sidney's Arcadia—a golden or green world—but is instead a retreat that combines two traditions: pastoral as a place of innocence and pastoral as a celebration of “sensual gratification.” Karoline Szatek (see Further Reading) similarly disputes the notion that Belmont in The Merchant of Venice represents a green world. Instead, she characterizes pastoral as a realm where cultures and ideologies clash; Belmont is not the antithesis of Venice but rather another version of the city, similarly obsessed with political and financial power.
Many scholars have analyzed Shakespeare's treatment of the pastoral tradition in his late romances, particularly The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Cymbeline. Jerry H. Bryant (1963) remarks on the indebtedness of The Winter's Tale to pastoral traditions but also observes its departures from them. Bryant comments on parallels between The Winter's Tale and a number of pastoral poems and plays that preceded it, emphasizing Shakespeare's modifications of traditional pastoral motifs and conventions. In particular, the critic addresses Shakespeare's treatment of the themes of love, faithfulness, and appearance versus reality. Philip M. Weinstein (1971) discusses the contradictory conceptions of pastoral in The Winter's Tale, noting in particular that the play highlights the theme of regeneration as well as the motifs of death and decay. Lindenbaum regards the play's depiction of the Bohemian countryside not as a “blissful alternative” to life at court but a parallel version of it. Similarly, Richard Studing (1982) asserts that rural Bohemia is as corrupt as the court of Sicilia, a fallen world rather than one that offers a competing set of values. He also suggests that the sheep-shearing festival presented by the supposedly innocent Perdita and her associates is a “conscious artifice.” The Tempest and Cymbeline offer abundant material for commentators on pastoral elements in Shakespeare's plays. Thomas McFarland (1972) views The Tempest as an affirmation of pastoral values that combines Christian and pastoral perspectives. He maintains that Prospero is a godlike figure who presides over a golden world, a place of social harmony where evil is defeated. By contrast, Ronald B. Bond (1978) contends that the play deviates from the pastoral tradition by showing the importance of one's obligation to contribute to society through active devotion to assigned tasks and diligent care for others. According to Bond, the play demonstrates that living in idleness or ease in a remote setting is neither enviable nor something to be emulated. Similarly, Lindenbaum proposes that the play promotes acceptance of personal responsibility and engagement in society and rejects the attractions of the idealized, contemplative life. Kevin Pask (2002) also considers the play's depiction of the contrast between a life of idleness or ease and one of active engagement. He argues that Prospero must forego the notion of a place of pastoral retreat so that he can carry out his “political project”: the reestablishment of his dynasty through the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. Michael Taylor (1983) considers the distinction in Cymbeline between Imogen's fantasy of “pastoral innocence” and her awakening next to the headless corpse of Cloten, whom she mistakes for the body of her husband Posthumus. Taylor calls attention to the hyperbolic language of the play, as well as to the harsh and “unsentimental” pastoral setting in which Imogen finds herself.
Shakespeare's use of pastoral conventions in his tragedies has not received a great deal of critical attention, but the commentary is significant nonetheless. Alpers discusses the grave-digger scene in Hamlet with regard to the clown as a descendant of pastoral shepherds or rustics who are truth-tellers. Nancy R. Lindheim (1974) examines the pastoral elements in King Lear. The critic maintains that in the play Lear comes to understand such pastoral concerns as how individuals should interact with nature and society and the importance of demonstrating pity and compassion for others. Lisa Hopkins (2000) views Othello as a reversal of the pastoral pattern of a retreat to an idealized world where regeneration occurs. Hopkins maintains that in Othello Venice represents a pastoral inversion, a desolate place rather than a setting that fosters self-education and personal renewal.