13 Jan 2022

Shakespeare, Storytelling and Saving the Planet

What on earth does poetry have to do with the climate crisis?

One semester into a Shakespeare Studies MA, I’m enjoying my course, but can’t help feeling guilty sometimes. As we face the greatest ecological emergency of all time, why am I wasting time reading plays? Shouldn’t I be qualifying as an engineer or scientist? This was my worry, until I found out about the value of storytelling, and how we can use language to change people’s perspectives about the climate crisis.

Last month, I attended an online discussion by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, entitled ‘Shakespeare & Saving the Planet ’. This was the first episode of a program that runs until March, which will include theatre adaptations and wildlife events. The speakers, who consisted of a theatre practitioner and international climate change expert, explained why poetry is so important to the climate effort.

One statistic mentioned during the discussion was that 11% of young people are ‘fatalists’, which means that they can’t imagine any possibility of humans combatting global warming. It is vital that we change these perspectives, and storytelling can be the perfect way. This doesn’t mean telling lies, but changing the narrative from anger and despair, to hope.

One of the main Shakespeare plays discussed during the talk was King Lear. Feeling betrayed by his daughters, Lear ventures out into a raging storm, where he finally notices the state of his Kingdom. He sees great homelessness and poverty, and realises that he has failed as a ruler. We can learn from King Lear that we should not neglect our planet, and to pressure our own leaders to take action now.

O, I have taken Too little care of this! – King Lear, iii.iv.32.

After this talk, I decided to do some more research into the language of climate change, and found a book called 'Hyperobjects' by Timothy Morton. This observed that we often discuss ‘the end of the world’ as a state of future doom that is always edging closer.1 Yet, the fear of this stops us from making changes. Instead, we should see ‘the end of the world’ as something that is happening right here and right now, that we have the power to change.

'Hyperobjects' also suggested that we see ourselves as guardians of the environment, and use the language of heritage. Morton writes, ‘we are the curators of a gigantic museum of non-art in which we have found ourselves’.2 If we start seeing each and every plant, animal and human in the world as worthy of being showcased and cared for, this attitude could help us make better everyday choices.

I know that no writer – (not even Shakespeare) – can save the planet, but I’ve learnt that we need to use storytelling if we want to urge world leaders to wake up and start acting. As one of the speakers at the Birthplace Trust said, we can turn to Shakespeare for ‘the poetry of solutions’, and while this might not be the final answer, I think that it’s a good place to start.

1 Hyperobjects, page 7.

Ibid, p.121.