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Shakespeare’s Earth

Elements, Affects, Climate Politics

If a single event could mark a shift in the mood of humanities research today, the emergence of climate change is just such an event. In an article entitled “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” historian and postcolonial critic Dipesh Chakrabarty notes the relationship between “the current planetary crisis of climate change” and the array of affective responses that it elicits, “ranging from denial, disconnect, and indifference to a spirit of engagement and activism.” “These responses saturate our sense of the now,” Chakrabarty argues, making the tone of the present, i.e. the affective present, akin to a fugue. “The discipline of history exists on the assumption that our past, present, and future are connected by a certain continuity of human experience,” Chakrabarty writes. But now, due to the sudden volatility of the ecosystem and the ongoing threat of human extinction, “we have to insert ourselves into a future ‘without us’ in order to be able to visualize it…. Our historical sense of the present … has thus become deeply destructive of our general sense of history.”

I begin with Chakrabarty’s essay in order to highlight what his title so suggestively signals: that the problem of confronting climate change from a historical perspective is as much a problem of mood, tone, and affect as it is a problem of reason or understanding. For my purposes, I want to push this observation into an aesthetic register, and to ask in what ways the experience of ecological imbrication is communicated through the literary. By focusing on Shakespeare’s plays—that is, on the capacity of Shakespeare’s plays to train our mental architecture to perceive different forms of life and different modes of living—my goal is to foster new ways of responding to ecological problems that build on aesthetic alliances between mind and body, and self and world.

My second book project, Shakespeare’s Earth: Elements, Affects, Climate Politics, does just that: in each of my chapters, I attend to Shakespeare’s representations of the Earth to show how such elemental figures (of earth, air, fire, and water) transform past and present narratives about the Anthropocene and environmental destruction. Shakespeare, I argue, not only writes presciently of the Anthropocene condition, but also frames climatic phenomena as events of “cosmopolitical” origin: in Timon of Athens, for example, the earth appears as luxurious excess—at once the basis of human wealth and economy (“husbandry”) and the baseless, radically ahuman site of unusable energy; in Hamlet, air figures as a carrier of carbon ghosts as the atmosphere itself becomes a material presence haunting the play; and in Antony and Cleopatra, love is figured as an elemental force of liquefaction, one that overspills riverbanks, breaches boundaries, and wearies selves, making every person, place, and polity: “this dungy earth alike.”

Of course, as Ashley Dawson argues in Extinction: A Radical History, extinction events are never neutral; the stories we tell about extinction are symptomatic of political inequalities (of race, class, disability, and gender) resulting in catastrophic environs. Shakespeare’s Earth challenges readers to dwell in the ecologically precarious, at times unlivable, spaces shaped by inequalities directly impacting the Earth system. As geoscientist Will Steffen points out, addressing “the problems raised by climate change requires a deep integration of knowledge from biogeophysical Earth System science with that from the social sciences and humanities on the development and functioning of human societies.” Although my intention is not to uphold Shakespeare’s plays as the only means of imagining this “integration of knowledge,” Shakespeare’s plays are exemplary for the ways they compel readers to dwell in impossibility, such as when Hamlet performs his postmortem speech act, “I am dead,” allowing us to ask what it means to live on after the so-called “death of nature” in toxic environments. By dwelling in such disastrous environments, Shakespeare foregrounds precarity as central to his framing of the Earth.

This framing is vital. For as Steffen and others make clear: climate change will only continue to exacerbate conditions of inequality as those most vulnerable to planetary instability become the first to experience inhuman nature firsthand in the form of flooding, mass migration, unbearable heat, and resource scarcity. If there was ever a time, then, to ask what Shakespeare’s Earth can teach us about our world and the inequalities structuring it, now is the time.

This project is in the early stages of writing and development. Portions of the manuscript have appeared in Early Modern Culture and Journal for Cultural Research.

NASA computer simulation  of CO2 in Earth’s  atmosphere .