Shakespeare and ecocritical pedagogy

The field of ecocriticism is – if you’ll excuse the pun – blossoming in Shakespeare studies. Simon Estok (using another eco- pun) says that ‘“Shakespeare and ecocriticism” has become flooded with scholarship.’ ('Afterword: Ecocriticism on the Lip of a Lion', in Ecocritical Shakespeare, eds. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton, 2011: 239.) According to Richard Kerridge, it is ‘an environmentalist version of English studies’ which is now well-established and has been developing since the early 1990s (Kerridge, ‘Ecocriticism and the mission of “English”’, in Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. Greg Garrard, 2012: 13).
In this blog post, we’ll briefly introduce ecocriticism, consider how an ecocritical approach may be adopted in Shakespeare pedagogy, raise some questions and challenges about the implementation of such a philosophy, and provide some useful resources for you to follow up.
As always, we’re also very keen to hear your thoughts and feedback on the methods, theories, and philosophies shared on Shakespeare Reloaded. If you’d like to start a conversation about ecocriticism and Shakespeare, please contact us
Introducing ecocriticism
Ursula K. Heise provides a useful starting point for understanding ecocriticism. She says that the field involves a ‘triple allegiance’ to ‘the scientific study of nature, the scholarly analysis of cultural representations, and the political struggle for more sustainable ways of inhabiting the natural world.’ (‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism’, PMLA 121: 2, 2006: 506) Essentially, ecocriticism recognises that we do not teach, study, or learn about Shakespeare in a cultural, political, or environmental vacuum. It argues that the teaching of literature should not ‘studiously avoid’ our environmental crises. (Gabriel Egan, Green Shakespeare: From ecopolitics to ecocriticism, 2006: 2) Instead, Egan suggests that ‘our understanding of Shakespeare and our understanding of Green politics have overlapping concerns and can be mutually sustaining.’
The clearest point of differentiation for this theoretical and philosophical position is its advocacy for the study of Shakespeare as directly affecting our ecological challenges. As such, it is not just about identifying natural themes or tropes – the storm in King Lear, the barbaric ‘wilderness’ of Titus Andronicus, the enchanted forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ecocritical approaches actively differentiate themselves from this approach, which they call instead ‘the study of the relationship between literature and the environment’ (Estok in Ecocritical Shakespeare, 2011: 242). Instead, as Michael Cohen argues, ecological literary criticism ‘wants to know but also wants to do’ (Michael P. Cohen, 'Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique', Environmental History, 9:1, 2004). It is about not just ‘awareness’ but ‘impact’ (Bruckner, ‘Teaching Shakespeare in the Ecotone’, in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Garrard, 2011: 236). This requires a ‘presentist’ approach to the study of Shakespeare. Presentism embraces the idea that our ‘present’ inevitably inflects our understanding of the texts we study:
The present can’t be drained out of our experience. As a result, the critic’s own ‘situatedness’ does not – cannot – contaminate the past. In effect, it constitutes the only means by which it’s possible to see and perhaps comprehend it. … [W]e need urgently to recognise the permanence of the present’s role in all our dealings with the past. We cannot make contact with a past unshaped by our own concerns. […]
For we can never, finally, evade the present. And if it’s always and only the present that makes the past speak, it speaks always and only to – and about – ourselves. It follows that the first duty of a credible presentist criticism must be to acknowledge that the questions we ask of any literary text will inevitably be shaped by our own concerns, even when those include what we call ‘the past’.
(Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, 2007, p3 & p5.)
In this way, ecocriticism is a specific type of presentism: it is presentism that focuses on our environmental ‘situatedness’. Ecocriticism is therefore not only about contextualising Shakespeare studies; it is also about deciding on the ‘purpose’ of our field. This requires us to think differently about literary studies as well as education. It invites a reconsideration of the boundaries we use to organise what and how we teach and research. In reorganising our ways of thinking and doing, we also reshape the purpose or meaning of the systems we work in. It widens the criteria for literary studies by requiring impact not only in our universities and schools, but also introduces the expectation of helping to ‘found a sustainable culture.’ (Greg Garrard in Ecocritical Shakespeare, 2011: xxiv)
How can we teach Shakespeare ecocritically?
Despite its growing popularity, Shakespearean ecocriticism continues to existentially ponder its own purpose:
What does the study of literature have to do with the environment? Can reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare contribute to the health of the planet? What is the connection between the literary and the real when it comes to ecological conduct, both in Shakespeare’s era and now? How does the Shakespearean text fit with environmental history?
(Bruckner and Brayton, Ecocritical Shakespeare, 2011: 2)
Ecocriticism is very aware of the limitations of its own work. Sharon O’Dair remarks that some presentist arguments ‘promote a weak version of politics; they ask us to change our minds about epistemology, but they do not tell us what to do in order to effect climate change or save the planet.’ ("Is It Shakespearean Ecocriticism If It Isn't Presentist?" in Ecocritical Shakespeare, eds. Bruckner and Brayton, 2011: 80) If ecocritical Shakespeare cannot magically stop the warming of the planet or galvanise a political movement, what can it do?
Bruckner and Brayton wonder whether the answer lies in education, asking: ‘Is pedagogy where ecocritical Shakespeare meets political practice?’ (2011: 2) They believe that ‘ecocritical endeavours can have the greatest impact in the classroom.’ (2011: 8) Greg Garrard says that: 'The point of ecocritical pedagogy is to make its existing environmentality explicit and, above all, sustainable.' (Greg Garrard, Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, 2012: 9) 
So what does an ecocritical pedagogical approach to Shakespeare actually look like? I’ll canvass here a few brief practical examples drawn from the literature.
First is one of the most prevalent types of ecocritical pedagogies: a ‘place-based’ approach, which foregrounds not only the literary text’s geographical place of origin but also the student’s:
The 'place' of place-based learning is, then, becoming increasingly complex, including both the sensuous immediacy of phenomenological approaches and the proliferating loci of electronic mediation. Literatures that have traditionally been studied for their insights into the human condition - transected by race, gender and class, but seldom differentiated geographically - look quite different when the environs of the classroom are allowed to register within it.
(Greg Garrard, 2012: 5)
A second popular ecocritical pedagogical strategy is ‘attention to slowness’ (Garrard, 2012: 3). Kerridge elaborates on this:
[C]limate change itself eludes representation because it is too slow (there is nothing for us to see) and too fast (we have not enough time to adapt). We need slow, deep changes and fast, pragmatic ones  - the open, non-preemptive encounter with otherness and a rapid, utilitarian response. Ecocriticism in the classroom has to help students understand both needs and negotiate between them.
(Kerridge in Garrard, 2012: 21)
Kerridge suggests that slow changes can involve ‘slow reading’:
'Slow reading' would treat the text as an 'other', a stranger and then an acquaintance, not to be given too much advance definition that pre-empts the particular encounter and re-encounters to come.
(Kerridge in Garrard 2012: 21)
Slow reading and attention to slowness is thus a response to the speed of the ecological changes around us, and an attempt to move away from commodified models of education. This is, of course, difficult in many educational environments today, given that:
What the student may wish to extract from the text is an efficient essay that will secure the grade necessary for the job market. There is no point in lingering with the text, especially when a new one must be read by next week, and the part-time job demands time. (Kerridge in Garrard, 2012: 21)
Kerridge’s solution to this is interesting. He says:
My suggestion is that we should foreground this dilemma in the classroom, inviting students to look at what they are doing, to be self-conscious about the trade-off involved, and to compare these two models of literary study, so that both are held in view and neither yields too much to the other. (2012: 21-22)
Ecocritical pedagogy therefore aims to not only invoke environmental awareness and impact, but also aims to make deep shifts in our educational models. Garrard directly ties environmental to educational change:
The only rational and sustainable response to the commodification of education, and the construction of students as 'customers', is a combination of reflexive critique, which addresses the consumption of education and 'environmental' experience just as much as soft drinks or cosmetics, with a progressive pedagogy in which the keynote of student-centred learning is responsibility rather than entitlement. (2012: 3)
Third, of course, is that ‘ecocriticism should be demandingly interdisciplinary.’ (Garrard, 2012: 5) Primarily, ecocritical literary studies interacts with ‘the most hotly contested of modern sciences: climatology.’ (Garrard, 2012: 7)
Fourth, an ecocritical approach embraces the personal ‘situatedness’ of our experience as readers and critics. It asks students to mediate between ‘the aspiration to scholarly impersonality in reading, and the contrary recognition that reading is "situated" and "embodied", always taking place at a moment in someone's life and somewhere in physical space.' (Kerridge 2012: 20) This raises questions around the difficulties of talking and writing about personal ‘situated’ responses, and how to connect these with our broader environmental contexts. Kerridge says we need to develop ‘a classroom vocabulary’ for this.
Fifth, Lynne Bruckner suggests several ways of incorporating ecocritical approaches: holding classes outside, asking students to keep ‘eco journals’, and using contemporary ecological issues. She says:
Even in the moment of 'making Shakespeare accessible', scholars too often restrict access to the plays. Or maybe it is more accurate to say we police (unintentionally?) the sort of access that is appropriate - especially for the unitiated (read students). An ecocritical pedagogy for early modern scholars requires a purposeful, sometimes uncomfortable, departure (or at least partial departure) from the now hegemonic methodologies of new historicism and cultural materialism. Teaching Shakespeare ecocritically requires something new from us - a deliberate heterodoxy, a willingness to take risks and break rules, a commitment not only to examining our own historical, material, political selves as we really live in the world, but also asking our students to do the same.
(Bruckner 2011: 228)
We have looked briefly at five methods of implementing an ecocritical approach to teaching Shakespeare: a place-based approach to Shakespeare; attention to slowness; an explicitly interdisciplinary approach which considers climate change or climatology; a focus on the 'situatedness' of the student's experience; and practical activities like holding classes outside and keeping eco-journals. These five methods are, of course, not exhaustive, and each presents their own potential challenges.
  • What are the ethical implications for introducing an ecocritical approach to Shakespeare education?
  • Ecocriticism is inevitably political. How might this complicate Shakespeare pedagogy?
  • What is the relationship between pedagogy and politics? What are the opportunities and challenges around rethinking this?
  • How might ecocritical approaches affect the structure of assessment?
  • How might you implement a ‘slowed down’ approach to teaching Shakespeare?
  • How could you try using a ‘place-based’ approach to teaching Shakespeare?
  • David Orr has observed that 'all education is already environmental: its practices have ecological impacts and its overt and hidden curricula carry ecological meanings and implications.' (in Garrard, 2012: 9) Do you think teaching is already ecocritical?
  • How do we define ‘nature’ and do we need to reconceptualise our definition?
Useful resources
Ecocriticism is a diverse and growing field of scholarship both inside and outside Shakespeare studies, while ecocritical pedagogy is also developing as a parallel area of inquiry. The resources offered below largely centre around ecocritical approaches to Shakespeare.
  • Bate, Jonathan, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Ecological Tradition, Routledge, 1991.
  • Bate, Jonathan, The Song of the Earth, Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Bruckner, Lynne, and Dan Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Cohen, Michael P. 'Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique', Environmental History, 9:1, 2004, 9-36.
  • Dodds, Joseph. Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos: Complexity Theory, Deleuze|Guattari and Psychoanalysis for a Climate in Crisis.  London and New York: Routledge, 2011.
  • Egan, Gabriel. Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism.  London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Estok, Simon C. Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Grady, Hugh and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, 2007.
  • Garrard, Greg, 'Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability,' Pedagogy, 7:3, 2007, 359-383.
  • Garrard, Greg, 'Problems and prospects in ecocritical pedagogy,' Environmental Education Research, 16:2, 2010, 233-245.
  • Garrard, Greg, Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • O'Dair, Sharon, 'The State of the Green: A review essay on Shakespearean ecology', Shakespeare 4/4 2008: 459-77.
  • Raber, Karen L., Ivo Kamps, and Thomas Hallock, eds. Early Modern Ecostudies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Watson, Robert, Back to Nature: the green and the real in the late Renaissance, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.