"Review of Bruce Boehrer Environmental Degradation in Jacobean Drama" by Gabriel Egan
An obvious objection arises before one even opens this book: surely environmental degradation is a recent phenomenon that is irrelevant to Jacobean drama. Boehrer tackles this by arguing that early modern London's population growth, pollution, and land-abuses meet today's definitions of environmental degradation and are reflected in the drama. By a series of incisive and sensitive critical readings Boehrer shows that we can see and hear how early moderns reacted to the same problems we are facing today. The resulting book is ecocriticism of the highest order.
Six chapters treat in turn the works of Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Heywood, covering a sizeable part of the canon. Chapter One starts with Middleton's obscure civic pageants and then moves to the more interesting professional theatre plays, exploring the relationship between the unspoilt countryside and its inhabitants and the despoiling city and its denizens. Being Middleton, these ideas are coloured by strong religious sentiments and an acute sensitivity to social interactions that are unanonymous and obligated in the country, anonymous and unobligated in the city. Why would playgoers want to see these things dramatized? Because the plays provided "strategies for emotional self-preservation and ways of handling the psychological stress that accompanied environmental change in early modern London" (46).
Chapter Two follows a similar path with Jonson's masques and plays, but the two writers are distinctively different in their politics (Jonson serving the court not the city), their classicism, and their religion. Unlike these two native Londoners, country-boy Shakespeare (Chapter Three) wrote almost nothing that overtly sucked up to the city or court, and maintained an identification with his place of birth that allowed him an outsider's perspective on London. Here Boehrer gives a bravura reading of how 'place' operates in the plays without lapsing into the vagueness that plagues this topic when ecocritics draw on Henri Lefebvre's ideas about social space without accepting their concomitant Marxist principles.
Shakespeare's successor as the King's Men's resident dramatist, John Fletcher, is the subject of Chapter Four, and reading his canon as a reflection on what happens when the gentry start spending much of their time in London instead of on their estates turns out to be highly effective. Stretching his remit somewhat, Boehrer's fine studies of the shift in the gentry from country to town and of Fletcher's concern with insecure and embattled masculinity are linked back to the main theme only by the derivation of the prefix eco- in the notion of dwelling. For this reader, such high-quality literary-dramatic criticism loosely tied to the main theme is preferable to doctrinally pure ecocriticism made of poor criticism.
Chapter Five on Dekker is about the policing of borders between spheres of power in acts of enclosure, expulsion, and flight, which Boehrer unashamedly and convincingly relates to Dekker's personal experiences of incarceration. The last chapter is on Heywood and changing attitudes towards recreational animal hunting, which was increasingly restricted to the aristocracy and hence resented by everyone else. The highlight here is Boehrer's reading of the underrated classic A Woman Killed with Kindness, which depicts "violated social rituals whose disruption speaks to deeper violations of the faith and solidarity the rituals themselves are designed to affirm" (162). What looks at first like a mere brawl during a hunt comes to stand for a latent tension that threatens all kinds of social bonds, including those of family and land-ownership. Boehrer says nothing about the hunted animals' point of view, but uniquely among ecocritics he can point the reader to his other books to make up for this.
In his conclusion, Boehrer has no doubt that "Jacobean England was experiencing major environmental change, and that Jacobean playwrights and their audiences knew it" but this does not mean that they possessed "anything like a modern ecological sensibility" (166). Jacobeans could not be "environmentalists avant la lettre" (167) because they had no coherent plan for retarding and reversing widescale environmental degradation. However, they did register their ecological confusion and tried to make sense of what was happening while fantasizing "a series of encomiastic and idealized scenes of urban improvement and environmental conquest" (169). At best--particularly in Fletcher's work--they accurately registered how social behaviour was shaped by environmental change, and on those insights, suggests Boehrer, we might build.
De Montfort University