by William Shakespeare
adapted & directed by Daryl Cloran
conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival
by William Shakespeare
Strawberry Fields Forever! Shakespeare, the Pastoral, and The Beatles
“Beatlemania” may conjure up images of screaming crowds of teenagers, but The Beatles have long fascinated academics and literary critics, too. Writing in the Partisan Review in 1967, the critic Richard Poirier even compared The Beatles to Shakespeare; the song “All You Need Is Love” reminds Poirier of Shakespeare’s ability to create complex discussions out of simple, “unsophisticated” phrases. While The Beatles engage in complex wordplay and instrumentation, they, like Shakespeare, speak to a fundamentally broad audience. Critic Frank McConnell went a step further in 1971, contending that The Beatles’ songs most closely resembled Shakespeare’s “pastoral romances.”
Pastoral romance describes works that feature rural settings, shepherds, young lovers, and plenty of poetry. Set within a simple landscape, the genre has enabled writers to tackle complex subject matter since its origins in ancient Greece. McConnell argues that both Shakespeare and The Beatles use simple folk motifs—love, the forest, etc.—as jumping-off points for more complicated thinking. McConnell advises us to keep Touchstone in mind: “Much virtue,” says the fool, “in if.” For McConnell, the word “if,” and all the speculative possibility it contains, encapsulates the exploratory approach of Shakespeare and The Beatles toward pastoral literature. In As You Like It, the characters engage in superficial pastoral motifs, like sitting under trees and dressing as shepherds—but they begin to think in more radical ways. They look at their situations from different perspectives, play around with language, inhabit different roles. In short, they orbit the creative principle of “if.”
Many writers, ancient and modern, have used pastoral poetry as a means of social criticism. Frequently, poets have used pictures of a peaceful country life to comment on the dangers of an urban lifestyle. Throughout the Renaissance, pastoral became a popular genre of plays, poetry, and art. For Elizabethans, the idea of a rural retreat offered solace and security in a nation that was rapidly urbanizing. As city life became more crowded and unsanitary, wealthy Londoners often fled the city to escape foul odors and the plague, retiring to their countryside manors and estates.
Besides offering a haven, some argued that the countryside encouraged goodness of character. Corin the shepherd serves as spokesman for this view in As You Like It when he speaks to the urban Touchstone: “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness” (3.2.74-75). These associations of the countryside with virtue can be seen in classical and Renaissance allusions to an ancient, rural “golden age.” When Charles tells us that Duke Senior and his men live in the woods, “like the Old Robin Hood…as they did in the golden world” (1.1.115-117), he echoes this longing for a cleaner, simpler natural order, and recalls folk mythology that Elizabethans were fond of recreating in May celebrations, Robin Hood games, and medieval reenactments.
The genre of pastoral also provided a way for writers to comment on the loss of “traditional” ways of life in rural areas, as pastoral motifs of romance, picnics, and music come face to face with real, societal upheavals. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, many peasants were forced to leave public pastures by decrees of enclosure, or the privatization of common lands. Unemployment and displacement were growing problems. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro points out that by the 1600s, England’s own Forest of Arden, near Shakespeare’s home, was being rapidly deforested: As You Like It, Shapiro suggests, may have been Shakespeare’s emotional response to the destruction of the “endless woods rich in mystery and folklore” he had imagined as a child. Throughout the play, Shakespeare engages with the stark contrast between the struggling countryside of reality and the flourishing, escapist paradise envisioned by poets and philosophers. Amiens sings of Arden in terms of the “greenwood tree” and “sweet birds”; but Rosalind and Orlando perceive it as “desert”: a place empty not only of people, but of spiritual nourishment. In this way, Arden becomes a flexible concept—an artistic “if” of uncertainty.
In the 1960s, writers and audiences faced a predicament similar to Shakespeare’s: how should a person cope in a society disrupted by hardship and injustice, and how can nature inspire a better life? Hippies offered the most radical answer, creating farms, festivals, and communes in remote places. In an ironic historical twist, many Sixties artists re-imagined the Elizabethan period—perceived by so many Elizabethans themselves as dirty and corrupt—as idyllic, aspirational, and close to nature. Nostalgia for a lost age appeared frequently in popular culture: in 1963, the counterculture music district of Laurel Canyon, California organized the world’s first Renaissance Faire, and widespread longing for a greener, earthier world led to a surge in popularity for medievalesque fantasies like The Lord of the Rings. Musicians had hits with lute-inflected songs like “Scarborough Faire” and “Stairway to Heaven,” and bell-sleeved medieval gowns became outfit staples among counterculture women. The Sixties and Seventies countercultures, in other words, turned the pre-modern world into their own pastoral mode of living, singing, thinking.
As The Beatles participated in the cultural revolution of their time, their music—and lifestyle choices—also called for a “return to nature,” and alluded often to an idealized, pastoral England. Take the music video for “Penny Lane”: though the song’s lyrics center around a happy childhood in the city, the music video is pastoral in its imagery. The Beatles climb on horses, gallop out of the mega-industrial Liverpool, and retreat into a lush forest. They ride through crumbling, medieval buildings and arrive in a meadow, where they sip tea and play their instruments. Paul McCartney once said that “Penny Lane” was meant to remind a listener of “nostalgia, pleasant memories”—so while the pastoral setting might not fit the song’s lyrics, our emotional association of greenness and wildness with childhood and pleasure makes a flowering woodland fitting for the song’s theme.
As songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney frequently turn simple, country-ditty songs into more complex meditations on difficult subjects. “Norwegian Wood,” with its trilling sitar, has the melody and texture of a folk ballad; its lyrics, however, spin a dry, sardonic story of a sexual affair. Likewise, “Strawberry Fields Forever” also features bucolic imagery – the narrator rests, alone in a tree–but drifts into psychedelic musings about consciousness itself. An excerpt from the Elizabethan ballad “Greensleeves,” furthermore, is woven through the end of “All You Need Is Love.” Remixing music from two such distant eras suggests that musicians across history have explored the need for love, simplicity, and nostalgia for a better, greener place.
In their own ways, both Shakespeare and The Beatles filled the literary landscape of the pastoral–with all its beauty, disappointments, and layered history. The challenge they addressed as writers was how to strike middle ground between familiar and subversive, and how to intertwine “folkloric” sentiments with their own ironies. As an ancient genre, pastoral has invited countless writers to repeat and, crucially, to reinvent, and The Beatles are no exception. When, in “All You Need Is Love,” John Lennon claims, “There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung,” the sentence looks, with pastoral whimsy, into the love songs of both the past and future. Lennon and The Beatles invite us into a dizzying, pastoral, “if.”
– contributed by Maya St. Clair, Education Department Intern (Winter/Spring 2020). She graduated from Washington University, with a double major in English and History.