- Wooden Os: Shakespeare’s Theatres and England’s Trees by Vin Nardizzi
Just how modern is the phenomenon of “green architecture?” Although it has recently become a catch-phrase for buildings assembled from recycle/d/able materials, structures were once primarily composed of “green” stuff—wood. Take the early modern English playhouses, a series of commercial theatres in the round—so-called wooden Os—that dotted the outskirts of London’s city limits, from the opening of the Theatre in 1576 to the closure (and eventual demolition) of all theatres circa 1642. And yet, as Vin Nardizzi pronounces, these wooden rings have somehow escaped environmental analysis. Wooden Os adds to the long-engrained critical history of early modern drama by magnifying the physical substance that most studies overlook: the woody matter of the stage itself.
Investigating “the cultural pervasiveness of the material link between theatres and woodlands” (24), Nardizzi deftly employs an ecocritical methodology that examines (and frequently challenges) implied divisions between nature (trees) and culture (wood products). Wood works upon culture; what work would wood do? Using Jonathan Gil Harris’s term of untimely matter (4) to trace wood’s “eco-material effects” (22), Nardizzi’s answer is the book’s central argument: far from exhibiting a “green” abundance of forests that we might expect, the art of Shakespeare and his contemporaries responded to the real wood shortages facing England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wooden Os traces an “eco-material history of English theatre” (30) that reacted to this scarcity.
For playwrights, the response to ecological crisis worked synecdochally; wooden props on the stage (like stage trees) and the wood of the stage (such as ceiling supports) stand in for the once-living trees that fell in order to erect wooden theatre spaces. Plays highlight this crisis of deforestation, Nardizzi smartly shows, through their gestic and deictic language: for instance, a remark like “yon pine does stand” (4.13.1) from Antony and Cleopatra (ca.1606–07) may reference either a stage prop or the theatre’s built-in wooden columns (or both). For theatre entrepreneurs like the Burbages the response was pragmatic: the first Globe, the author reminds us, was a product of “recycling”: built from the Theatre’s wooden remains transported across the Thames to Bankside during 1598–99. Overall, we are implored to “see … the English woods inhering in the superstructure of the wooden O” (136). A play was not just imagined to be in the woods, but was within them already.
Each of the four chapters addresses particular “eco-solutions and fantasies” (12), as well as “never-green nightmare[s]” (87) in response to England’s wood woes. Chapter 1 puts the “vanishing” onstage tree of Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (late 1580s) into conversation with sixteenth-century geopolitical and theatrical pressures: its magical departure symbolizes the salvation of wooden Os from the abuses of anti-theatricalists who wished to tear down the theatres; protection of England’s trees from the conquest of the Spanish Armada that wished to invade England’s forests; and fantasies of colonialist extraction in Virginia’s New World woods. Chapter 2 reads the “felling” (and burning) of wood/man Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597–98) as a middle-class act of environmental protest against the aristocracy (represented by Windsor Forest or the knight’s rotund body). Situating this class struggle onstage alongside John Manwood’s Treatise (1598) on better management of monarchical forests, civic pressures to shut down the theatres, and the company’s movement to Bankside, we glimpse a search for a more rooted “playhousehold” (77) within conflicts of the commons. Chapter 3 investigates the critically neglected composite version of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (ca.1600), claiming that the tree on which Horatio’s murdered body hangs, and that is subsequently destroyed by Isabella, demonstrates the process by which environmental devastation could be transformed into commercial gain: the hewn trees necessary for the Fortune Theatre’s construction (that made fortunes by restaging...