Cultivating Heaven: Shakespeare’s Pastoral Links to Theologies, Ancient and Renaissance

By James J. Yoch.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Extending the search for the divine beyond the high cultures of cities and their visualization in the tragic scenery of Serlio, Shakespeare often followed classical and Italian practice by utilizing the countryside as the most appropriate channel to the divine. Whereas his tragedies frequently point to human conflict with the gods, his pastorals create settings in which communion with the heavens becomes more direct, agreeable and rewarding.

This paper will focus on the Shakespearean play most emblematic of the pastoral: As You Like It. The play is rife with the tensions of court and urban society, all which spur the characters to act in different ways that eventually reveal virtues expected and conversions surprising. The contention of two brothers in the urban center of power finds solutions in the extraordinary mix of Mediterranean myths echoing Cain and Abel in a setting of Athena’s olives and saffron-robed Hymen. Similar motifs organize the deadly hostility of brothers in King Lear and The Tempest, where the spirits of the countryside ameliorate tensions and bring out a range of moral virtues. Indeed the abuse of power in the tragic scene dissolves in the larger landscapes of the pastoral settings, which may lead to their notable prevalence in courtly masques, popular theatres, and the gardens of Shakespeare’s time where divine perspectives reframe arguments.

Shakespeare displayed his profound cognizance of the pastoral genre in As You Like It by demonstrating the seeming chaos that nature entails. This chaos, however, is not one of randomness, but, rather, one of fluidity and openness to spheres beyond the human. Gender, societal status and human relationships blur to become a unified milieu in which the propensity to act via force is curtailed into one of poignant equilibrium. This balance is analogous to the nature of God, as expounded in western Judeo-Christian theology wherein God’s immutability is not one of stagnation but one of grace in which differences and opposites coincide. In similar ways, gardens of the time negotiated the space between the urban and country forms, a range in which visitors could find themselves on a trajectory from disciplined to free, a central theme in The Tempest.

Shakespeare’s pastorals bring to urbane audiences the mysteries of the countryside. Among them are the virtues that city-folk imagine flourish in the natural realm. Thus, like the masques, his plays present liturgical formulas weakened in the ecclesiastical centers and now taking shape in secular and courtly theatres. The sacred becomes accessible only through leisure as it is classically defined: the ability to commune with the divine via the splendor of deific quintessence in nature. This principle, demonstrated so elegantly in Shakespeare’s play, has far-reaching implications for culture. The notion of appropriating difference to convey solidarity is, in essence, the goal of every mode of inquiry and every social venture.

Keywords: Shakespeare, Pastoral, Theology

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 1, Issue 7, pp.231-234. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.634MB).

Dr. James J. Yoch

Professor of English, English Department, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, USA

His teaching emphasizes student performances in many classes, including Shakespeare's plays, Machiavelli's Mandragola and the Sienese Academy's Gl'Ingannati. Other classes include Literature and Landscape as well as the History of Landscape Architecture. His writing has concentrated on scenery in plays from Renaissance Ferrara to Jacobean masques. In addition, He has published three books on American landscape designs from 1850 California to the patrician gardens and famed movies of the 1920s and 1930s.

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