- Wooden Os: Shakespeare’s Theatres and England’s Trees by Vin Nardizzi
What makes Vin Nardizzi’s Wooden Os special is that it does what has not been done in the long history of Shakespearean criticism: it looks at wood, at how the actual “fabric of theatrical structures” can “shed light on the environmental history of English woodlands and on the range of eco-fantasies—from colonial extraction to the reforestation of England—that this scarcity fuelled.”
The book is divided into four chapters and has a prologue, introduction, and epilogue. In the introduction, Nardizzi meticulously outlines the depth and form of the resource crisis into which England had driven itself by the early decades of the seventeenth century. Describing “the grips of a severe shortage of wood and timber” in which London had landed, Nardizzi also stresses the “curious eco-material effect of playing inside Shakespeare’s woods,” and how the theatre “was also once a part of the woods, a forest, or tree, and [how] now, in performance, its constitutive woodenness reverts to a former material condition.” The “argumentative point this book makes about English woodlands is not teleological, in that it revels in a final moment of insight or congratulation about the reversal of deforestation”; rather, the book “stresses and lays bare a logic that enables us to see the accretion of meaning to the stage tree through time.”
In the first chapter of the book, Nardizzi situates Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (which features a tree at centre stage for eighty lines or so) within the material and cultural history of the Rose playhouse of the late 1580s. At this time, anti-theatricalism was raging, and pamphlets and treatises advocated that “theatres were to be ‘plucked up,’ ‘razed,’ and ‘rooted out’ as if they were trees—or perhaps a Rose.” Nardizzi argues that “Friar Bacon’s treatment of the stage tree further elaborates its relation to material theatre by representing in this moment of violence the agenda of … early modern” anti-theatricalism. What Nardizzi proposes in this chapter is a clear link between anti-theatricalism and an [End Page 348] unsustainable lumber industry: “English colonialists were just as likely to clear cut Virginia’s trees … as antitheatricalists were to succeed in having the ‘trees’ of London’s theatres cut down.”
Nardizzi uses the second chapter to push forward an analysis of links between the ecologies of the physical theatre, on the one hand, and the thematic content of the drama within the theatre, on the other, part of what he describes as “the complex microhistory of London’s theatres and England’s trees.” Nardizzi discusses in depth how “matters pertaining to forest economy in The Merry Wives of Windsor are also matters pertaining to playhouse ecology,” in the process deftly situating class struggle within an environmental context and embedding the entire discussion within the context of John Manwood’s conversation about the mismanagement of the English forests. In the third chapter, Nardizzi focuses on additions to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy—which Nardizzi laments “have been lost to the dustbin of print history”—in order to continue exploring “the relation between woodland ecology and English polity” that forms one of this book’s central themes. Nardizzi contends that “the composite play marks the disappearance of (English) woodlands as an unfortunate eco-political loss; and we may regard that loss as necessary for supplying fresh timber for the theatre and for the performance in it of a revenge tragedy whose plot pivots on (the fall of ) a tree”: Isabella’s “destruction of the tree [on which hung Horatio’s murdered corpse] could also capture the fate of the Rose.” In chapter four Nardizzi expounds on Caliban’s logs and maintains that “the play bundles in this pile of logs matters of survival, dependency, and incarceration on the island, resource extraction in an age of energy insecurity, the eco-politics and erotic coordinates of power in a fictive colonialist locale, and the potentials for theatre to conjure and to unmask...