Shakespeare’s Guide to the Druid Grove: A Study of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It from a Druidic Perspective.

by Elizabeth Cruse ~ 
To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we  ourselves are  transformed.  It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change.  It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost.
Roger Deakin’s introduction to his eclectic book of sylvan essays, Wildwood  offers no surprise to anyone who has become a druid and entered the forest whether metaphorically or actually.  In this piece,  I want to go further than merely noting Shakespeare’s symbolic appropriation of the forest.  I want to investigate in detail the meanings he gives to the wood and to explore through the impact on his characters who experience the wildwood what extra dimensions can be added to our understanding of our own journey through the forest as druids. I want to claim Shakespeare for druidry in general and OBOD in particular and so, as part of this project, I shall be alert for any signs that Shakespeare’s wood was informed by a Celtic awareness as well as the English one with which Shakespeare is identified so absolutely.
In the last decade of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare wrote three plays that draw on old traditions of the wildwood:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dated between 1594 and 1596; The Merry Wives of Windsor, probably written between  1597 and 8 and As You Like It, dated by scholars between 1598 – 1600. As befits a druidic reading, I will explore a triple aspect of these plays: the nature of the wood itself, the nature of the other beings in the wood and the dreams that are dreamt in the forest.  As in a Medieval romance or, more pertinently, the border of a Celtic illuminated manuscript, these three aspects interlace.  As Coleridge said “the meaning is all inwoven.”  These aspects of the wood are all familiar to druids as we walk between the trees that make up the groves and forests of our own journeys.  What does Shakespeare discover in what might be described as his own Druid, or perhaps Ovate, period ?
To run away into Shakespeare’s wood near Athens is to come into a place where time and space are changed beyond human recognition.  Puck and the fairy who introduce us to the wood at the beginning of the second act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream move at vertiginous speed, “swifter than the moon’s sphere”, “Thorough bush, thorough briar” and are unscathed by fire and water. The moon governs the world of men (hence Cleopatra’s lament “There is nothing left remarkable/ Under the visiting moon”, (Anthony and Cleopatra, 4,xvi, 69 – 70) but the realm of spirits and fairies who haunt the wood is not ruled by the moon, is in a different dimension which human beings will not perceive unless permitted to do so.  “We the globe can compass soon/ Swifter than the wandr’ing moon” (4,I, 94 – 5) says Oberon to Titania as, reconciled, they leave the waking lovers. Bottom would not have perceived Titania had he not been enchanted.  He has no clear memory of what he has seen:  “Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but a patched fool if he offer to say what I thought I had.” The lovers never see the fairies who torment them and as they wake their experiences “seem small and indistinguishable, / Like far-off mountains turnèd into clouds”. (4,I, 194 – 5)  But like them, the druid may sometimes wonder what is dream:  the experiences in the forest or the apparent world of daily rule and responsibility? “It seems to me,” says Demetrius, “that yet, we sleep, we dream.  Do you not think the duke was here…”(4,I, 189 -90) Demetrius, of course, remains enchanted with the juice of love-in-idleness, but then, all of us who have entered into the wood and courted its magic are also permanently changed.
The wood outside Athens threatens the smooth course of love as the emotions of the lovers are let free without restraint. They go “stumbling through the woods in a confused state of fear, anger and desire.”  Demetrius is prepared to see Helena die rather than have to deal with her passion for him: “I’ll run from thee and hide me in these brakes/And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts.”(2,i, 227)  Violence breaks out. Even the women come to physical conflict.  The spirits that dwell there are non-human and inhuman.  Lysander’s courteous if reluctant respect for Hermia’s virginal scruples in Act 2 receives short shrift from Puck who refers to Lysander as “this lack-love, this kill-courtesy” on witnessing this pretty scene. Desire is a simple matter in the fairy world.  Oberon wants Titania’s changeling.  She will not give it.  He takes revenge by enchanting her into mindless lust for a donkey-headed man, a comic minotaur.  So Oberon sees the Athenian boy’s dilemma as simple also – enchant Demetrius so that he will love Helena.
Take thou some of it, and seek through this grove
A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth. 
Anoint his eyes …  (2, I, 259)
All this suggests that erotic love is not a state to be trusted, that it requires the constraint of civilisation, and may be predicated on enchantment rather than clear sight.  In the forest we may find ourselves stripped of inhibition.  The vicarious experience of this offered by A Midsummer Night’s Dream gives us the chance to learn about the potential perils and pleasures of that state before we decide to enter into it ourselves.
For the druid facing the ecological uncertainties of our times the deepest chord is struck by the sense in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that what emanates from the wood can disturb nature.  The quarrel between Oberon and Titania has provoked meteorological chaos.  The world has drowned
Contagious fogs which falling on the land
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overbourne their continents. (2,i, 90)

Cattle are diseased; the green corn rots in the field. The seasons are awry.   …. the spring the summer,

The chiding autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase now knows not which is which.

This is not within human control.  As human beings we need the humility to recognise that there are natural forces we may not be aware of.  It needs to be pointed out however, that none of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream recognise these natural forces consciously by the end of the play.  The fairies bless Theseus’ house and the marriage beds with the lovers all unaware.  However, we can note the supernatural intervention as another pointer to the need to keep an open mind as to causation as we progress through our lives as druids.  Shakespeare’s tolerance of ambiguity and duality, (“everything seems double” says Hermia as she awakens) offers an example of how to let our own minds play around the complexities of our lives and our environments.
The enchantment of this spirit world is such that the elves can “creep into acorn cups”, fairies wrap themselves in the shed skin of a snake, Titania herself no taller than a cowslip. Yet these diminutive beings can grow into elementals that exist on a par with the winds and the seas, so that the world is changed. Here we can see the shift in Shakespeare’s writing between a medieval sensibility   in which mortals encounter faerie on an equivalent scale and live in the other world for long periods, and a modern miniaturisation of elves and fairies, which reached its apogee in Victorian art (Richard Dadd, for example) and faked photography.  Now, with the ubiquity of Tolkien’s mythos, elves have again become beings of physical and added moral stature.  The medieval view we can trace back into the Celtic, Pwyll’s descent into Annwn for example. In Shakespeare’s playing with different scales in A Midsummer Night’s we learn that in Shakespeare’s wood we cannot trust our normal senses.  We can only surrender to the dream and find ourselves in a different place when we wake up.  This may be a phenomenon we recognise from some of our own inner journeying.  There is always an assurance that we will awaken but inherent in that is the knowledge that we will awaken changed.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare spins an enchanted web as comprehensive and glittering as any woven by Arianrhod.  We come to the end of the play in the company of fairies not mortals, and although Puck asks us to think only that we “have but slumbered here /While these visions did appear”(Epilogue, 3 – 4) the play leaves us with an abiding sense of the other world.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, is set from start to finish among the worthy citizens of Windsor, prosperous, servanted, middle class.  The world of faerie is, ostensibly, debunked.  The tradition of Herne the Hunter who haunts Windsor Forest emanates from the “superstitious idle-headed eld”. (4, iv, 34)  Yet though the fairy realm is mocked and the “urchin, oafs (elf children) and fairies, green and white” (4, iv, 48) are no more than Mistress Page’s little son and daughter and their friends, Falstaff still has to be led into the forest and encounter, in his imagination, the other realm in order finally to learn his lesson that adultery is not acceptable.  And for all that the Otherworld turns out to be a manifestation of this one, nevertheless Shakespeare’s language momentarily hijacks his intent:

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the wintertime at still midnight
Walk round about an oak with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the trees, and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chainIn a most hideous and dreadful manner.   (4.iv,26)

The mortals who lead Falstaff into the forest and plague him there are as heartless as the fairies they decide to impersonate.  It is a joke, but as Freud spends much effort in telling us, there is nothing as serious as a joke.  It is also clear that Falstaff believes in fairies which is what makes the experience so salutary for him: “They are fairies, /He that speaks to them shall die. /I’ll wink and couch. No man their works must eye.” (5,v, 44)  In the terms of the play, this puts Falstaff squarely and comically into the category of the “superstitious idle-headed eld” yet in the language of Mistress Quickly’s fairy queen there are echoes of the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Fairies black, grey, green and white
You moonshine revellers and shades of night,
You orphan heirs of fixed destiny… (5,v, 34 – 36)

We should note that this is quickly undermined and Mistress Quickly’s housewifely concerns are writ large in the Hobgoblin’s instructions to the fairy troop:

Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap,
Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry.
Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery. (5, v, 40 – 43)

However, we find this also in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Puck’s account of his pranks in the domestic world of country people:

Are you not he
That frights the maidens of the villag’ry,
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn. (2.i, 34-6)

Here is another indication that the everyday world is not so insulated from the forces of the wood as we might choose to think, and an important reminder to the druid that what occurs in one world, whether prosaic or extraordinary, may be affected by the other whatever the wishes of human beings.
The political and bourgeois concerns of Windsor insinuate themselves into the fairy pageant: a fairy blessing of flowers on Windsor castle and “nightly, meadow-fairies look you sing/Like to the garter’s compass in a ring”. (5, v, 62 – 3)  This last can be read as an admonition to Falstaff, Knight as he is, to remember the motto of the knights of the Garter : Honi soit qui mal y pense. It would be intriguing to know if Shakespeare had read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight whose themes of a knight resisting adultery and the origin of the garter motto could be seen to counterpoint Falstaff’s deliberate seeking of adulterous liaisons in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
From a druid perspective the message behind Falstaff’s discomfiture and disgrace is that when we go into the woods with an impure spirit we are likely to meet with a downfall.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor the law of return manifests itself through human rather than supernatural agency.  But still, it is in the departure from civilisation into the forest that Falstaff finally learns his lesson.  The elementals do their work for those who encounter them despite, not because, of the belief of the majority of human beings.  There is no evidence that Theseus and Hippolyta, and the lovers, believe in supernatural beings. True, Theseus sees the happy couples off to bed with the words “lovers to bed, ‘tis almost fairy time” but at the beginning of Act 5 he states categorically “I never may believe/These antique fables nor these fairy toys” (5,I, 2 – 3) putting them down to “strong imagination”.  Thus his reference to “fairy time” may be taken as light irony rather than a true expectation of supernatural visitation.  In the end it does not matter since, whether objectively real or products of the imagination, the realms of faerie and the wildwood wield power which we do well to respect if we choose to invoke them, or enter into nature with all its unpredictability.
The departure from the world, and specifically from the political and essentially corrupt world of the court, the sixteenth century place of worldly power, into the woods forms the entire subject of As You Like It, written at the very end of the sixteenth century.  Duke Senior has been banished (why?) “Where will the old Duke live?” asks Oliver at the beginning of Act 1. And Charles replies

They say he is already in the Forest of Ardenne  and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England.  They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world. (1, I, 98)

On a light-hearted note, we may perhaps see Shakespeare offering us an early vision of an OBOD camp here.  Certainly, he reminds us that there are other dreams of the forest besides those involving fairies.  Robin Hood is an indubitably English folkloric hero. The earliest written reference to him occurs in the early 15th century ballad that begins “Robyn Hode in scherwode stod” .  Scholarly attempts to link him with pagan figures such as the Green Man have now largely been discredited.
The magic to be found in the forest of Ardenne overtly subsists in nature rather than in the realm of spirit and enchantment.  Time as measured out by the occupations of civilisation is, however, disrupted.  “I thought all things had been savage here”, says Orlando in relief when he comes across Duke Senior and his men.  The distinction he goes on to draw, however, is not one of the supernaturally savage – as we find in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as against the human, but that of civilised man who lives in society as against human beings who do not.  Shakespeare would have been thinking here of the outlaws, criminals and the sometimes insane destitute (presented to our view in King Lear by Edgar as Poor Tom) who frequented the forests and heaths of Shakespeare’s day. Even the sane wood dwellers were seen by contemporaries as “people of lewd lives and conversation”.  Thus we should not assume that Orlando’s
Whate’er you areThat in this desert inaccessibleUnder the shade of melancholy boughs,Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time
has connotations of faerie, though I would argue that a remote echo of this remains in the repeated use of the impersonal nouns and pronouns: “things”, “whate’er”.  A man may be less than human for lack of human conditioning.  The less than human may have access to or come from other realms.  (Again I think of Poor Tom addressing various fiends in the third act of King Lear.)
Normal measures of time no longer apply in the forest of Ardenne:Ros.  I pray you, what is’t o’clock?  Orl.  You should ask me, what time o’ day; there’s no clock in the forest. (Act 3, ii, 274 – 6)
Subliminally, the magic of shape shifting runs throughout As You Like It as men change metaphorically into deer, and deer into men.  In the study of these animals by characters in the play, much is learned.  Duke Senior, for example, finds, even in the forest, that the exercise of power has a cost for the innocent:
Come, shall we go and kill us venison?And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,Being native burghers of this desert city,Should in their own confines with forked headsHave their round haunches gored. (2,i, 21-5)
Jaques also, meditating on the sight of a wounded stag, sees the behaviour of the deer who pass by their wounded fellow (“Sweep on you fat and greasy citizens” – a linguistic reminder of the bourgeoisie of Windsor and Falstaff in particular) as revealing the unpalatable truth, not only about “the body of the country, city, court” but also about the essentially false position of the merry band in the forest who Jaques sees as
Mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,To fright the animals and kill them upIn their assigned and native dwelling place. (2, ii, 61 – 3)
There is a modern ecological sensitivity here that the 21st century druid would be happy to embrace.  This is a progression from the unconsciousness of the power of elementals already noted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Orlando chooses identification with the doe to express the absolute nature of his compassion for and duty towards old Adam, overcome with age and hunger:
Then but forbear your food a little whileWhiles like a doe, I go to find my fawnAnd give it food. (2, vii, 126 – 8)
There is shamanistic learning here carried through into Act 4 with the Lords’ song
What shall he have that killed the deer?His leather skin and horns to wear.
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn,It was a crest ere thou was born.
The overt reference here is to the horns of the cuckold. Shakespeare is never one to miss the opportunity for a double entendre.  Yet the wraith of Herne the Hunter and before him Cernunnos may be detected, increasing the menace of the woodland, adding a numinous quality, underscoring the point that it is not, on the whole somewhere for human beings to dwell permanently.  By the same rhetorical trick of introducing something as a joke, Shakespeare achieves the same effect with Orlando’s tale of his origins:
…this boy is forest bornAnd hath been tutored in the rudimentsOf many desperate studies by his uncleWhom he reports to be a great magicianObscured in the circle of this forest.  (5, IV, 30 – 4)
As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone’s state is changed by the end of the play.  The joyfully androgynous Rosalind is to be married to Orlando. (It is impossible not to wonder how long a women of her wit will last with a man capable of such leaden, albeit shape shifting poetry, to whit, “If a hart do lack a hind/Let him seek out Rosalind” and Helena’s estimation of love – “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind”(1, I 234) – is undermined:  “Aliena I cannot be out of sight of Orlando. I’ll go find a shadow and sigh.” (4, I, 185 – 6)
Celia is married off to Oliver, Orlando’s brother.  As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the adolescent closeness of the girls has been ended by their sojourn in the woods. No space for the Sapphic in Shakespeare . Duke Frederick, the cause of Duke Senior’s banishment is redeemed in one of the most cursory fastenings of a loose end in Shakespeare:
To the skirts of this wild wood he cameWhere, meeting with an old religious man,After some question with him was convertedBoth from his enterprise and from the world.  (5, iv, 148 – 151)
Is this a sincere conversion we may wonder. The fact that it takes place on the skirts of the wood, not within it, may lead us to think it is not.  Rosalind, also dwells “in the skirts of the forest, like a fringe on a petticoat” (3,iv, 305) so perhaps she too takes no permanent lessons with her from the greenwood.
Only Jaques ends as melancholy and disenchanted as he began, and retires to live in a cave, but that, as might be said in New Age circles, is his truth and it is one that has been amplified by his time in the Forest of Ardenne.
All druids, but particularly ovates, look to the trees and other plants in and outside the forest for meaning, guidance and healing.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is famous for its references to flowers.  Here we come back to the exploration of love already touched upon in some of its aspects elsewhere in this piece. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows/Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows”(2.ii, ll149-50) is almost too familiar to require quotation.  Such flowers, together with cowslips, musk roses and eglantine (sweet briar) are known for their scent, enhancing by association the scene of Titania’s adoration of Bottom with reminders of the sweet surrenders and sensualities of sexual love where we take leave of our rational senses.
So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckleGently entwist; the female ivy soEnrings the barky fingers of the elm. Act IV, I, 41
coos Titania.  That this love is not an altogether benign state we can see immediately if we think of the thorns of the rose and the way in which honeysuckle entwines itself around other trees, at first with sappy tendrils which turn, in time, to woody spirals that imprint their pattern into the supporting tree and cannot easily be removed.  These subliminal threats are reinforced by the more generally threatening nature of the woodland flora.  Puck describes the mechanicals running away as he casts his enchantment over Bottom:
…briers and thorns at their apparel catchSome sleeves, some hats; from yielders all things catch. (3,ii. 29 – 30)
Here is another reference to the dangerous aspects of the rose of love which may snatch from us objects of everyday necessity as well as giving us pleasure. The travails of enchanted love involve jealousy and violence, again expressed in the less than benign plants of the forest.  In the emotionally chaotic third act of the play, Lysander shouts at Hermia “Hang off…thou burr”, and addresses her as a “minimus of hind’ring knot-grass”. (3, ii, 261, 330)  The wood is the place where all the niceties of civilised life break down.  But in this process, as already noted in relation to As You Like It, a propos of the court, we also escape the insincerities and flatteries of life in Athens.  Lysander, says Hermia’s father has “bewitched the bosom of my child”.
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sungWith feigning voice verses of feigning loveAnd stol’n the impression of her fantasy.  (Act1, i, 30-33)
This is a more cynical version of magic which the lovers’ experiences in the wood go some way to proving correct, for under the spell of love-in-idleness Lysander drops his allegiance to Hermia.  His love may, after all have been “feigning” though if so he returns to it at the end of the play.  Demetrius’ relationship with Helena only endures, presumably, because the juice is never removed from his eyes.  Such is the power of plants to reveal or create the truth.  It takes courage and wisdom beyond that of many people to look squarely at the illusions and ambiguities that present a show of beauty, like the sweet scents of flowers that divert our attention from thorns, burrs and knot- grass.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream at any rate it seems that for civilised life to endure many of us live in states of illusion. Perhaps the same is also true of Rosalind and other characters at the end of as You Like It. Whether this is always necessary and ever desirable are things that the ovate may choose to ponder.
What of tree lore in these plays?  Trees sacred to the druids of both ancient and modern persuasions are referred to, though less in A Midsummer Nights’ Dream where flowers predominate.  It is noticeable, though, that the mechanicals gather to rehearse in a glade with a “hawthorn brake”.  Hawthorn has associations with the Goddess of which Titania may be seen as a manifestation and perhaps Bottom and friends inadvertently profane a sacred space with their clumsy rehearsals.  Titania’s final, disenchanted reaction to Bottom seems to support this to some extent. The liaison between Titania and Bottom refers to Apuleius’ Golden Ass in which Apuleius is released from his enchantment into an ass by the goddess Isis and is initiated into her mysteries.  The source was well known in the late sixteenth century, and by this means if by no other, Shakespeare ensures the presence of a greater goddess than a fairy queen in his play.
The oak tree figures strongly in The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It.  Falstaff’s humiliation occurs under Herne’s Oak (according to different traditions still standing – though dead at the end of the nineteenth century or cut down in 1796)  and clearly a well-known landmark.  In As You Like It we first catch sight of Jacques     …as he lay alongUnder an oak, whose antic root peeps out?Upon the brook that brawls along this wood (2.i.30)
Celia describes how she found Orlando “under a tree, like a dropped acorn” (which immediately suggests there are many more like him) and Rosalind, no doubt casting her eyes to heaven, cries “It may well be called Jove’s tree when it drops forth such fruit.”(3.ii.213-214).  This shows again how love can make fools of us all even the wittiest. In contemporary OBOD lore the oak is doorway to mysteries and Rosalind’s reference to Jove shows that Shakespeare is aware of some of the classical tradition surrounding the tree, though as usual there is no overt sign of Celtic awareness here.  The presentation of Orlando as an acorn, which is potential only and may come to nothing, reflects his naïve and vandalising attitude to the forest. Jacques, allowed to be human under the oak draws philosophical lessons from the forest and its beings.  Orlando carves Rosalind’s name and lumpen poetry in the bark of trees and hangs artificial leaves from their boughs, thereby showing that he has not abandoned the artifice of court.  He lacks sensitivity to nature: “I pray you,” says Jacques, “mar no more trees with writing love songs in their barks.” (3, ii, 237) Not for Orlando “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones” as Duke Senior puts it. (2, I, 16 – 17) Finally, in his song “Blow, blow thou winter wind,” (2, vii, 174-176) Amiens invokes the holly, tree of “energy and guidance for problems to come” .  Again, there is no suggestion that Shakespeare was aware of traditional beliefs about this tree.  There is no reference, for example, to the defeat of the Oak King by the Holly King at Midsummer.  As You Like It moves from winter into spring as far as it is possible to locate it seasonally and so would have taken place under the reign of the Holly King.  But this aside, the folk beliefs that surround the tree as a plant of protection are apposite in a story about courtiers escaping from treachery:Hey-ho, sing hey-ho, unto the green holly.Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly. (2, vii, 180 – 1)
The holly tree provides an enduring touchstone of truth and certainty in a world where little can be trusted.  Few druids would disagree with this as a view of the importance of trees in general.
Can we, after all this, claim Shakespeare as a druid?  Unfortunately not.  Alert though my eye has been, there is not a shred of evidence that Shakespeare was consciously conveying esoteric knowledge of an ancient British tradition in these plays.  It seems that Shakespeare was aware of the ancient bardic traditions of Ireland.  “I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember,” (2,v, 162) says Rosalind confronting Orlando’s love poems in the forest.  This is glossed in the Norton Shakespeare as being a reference to the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration of souls and the popular belief in England that Irish bards were capable of rhyming rats to death. The doctrine of transmigration of souls was a matter of common knowledge in educated circles in the 16th century. It is also a putative old druid belief. However, even if Shakespeare did connect Irish bards and the idea of transmigration of souls, there is a simpler explanation for the reference that does not involve any adherence to esoteric belief on Shakespeare’s part.  Essex’s ill-fated expedition to Ireland (where English colonial efforts had been underway since 1170) took place in 1599 so this could have been a topical allusion. Its tone certainly does not suggest much admiration on Shakespeare’s part (in so far, of course, as we can attribute the views of Shakespeare’s characters to their inventor).  Thus the appealing notion of Shakespeare enrolling in a Bardic college must be dismissed almost before being thought.  However, in so far as Celtic traditions informed English folklore and history, and in so far as Shakespeare was aware of these English sources – which he undoubtedly was, we can credit him with infusing new life into such traditions, and not only in these plays.
In each of the plays considered here it requires a journey into the Otherworld contained in, and represented by, the forest, to learn lessons about love and the ways in which the instincts of sexuality may be accommodated within the constraints of civilisation. In the forest Shakespeare’s characters overtly and implicitly explore questions about the nature of the moral life and the meanings and relevance of nature, and as a result of their sojourn under the greenwood trees, some of them resolve problems in the world that they have to return to.  These lessons are mediated through encounters with a spiritual otherness, most powerfully expressed as pagan in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in which the whole context is pagan myth – albeit classical) but always with a folk memory of the power of nature in general and trees in particular, which, it may be argued, is ultimately Celtic in its origins.  This leaves its traces throughout Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but does so most noticeably in these three plays.
What is not in doubt is that – whether we be Bards, Ovates or Druids – we can gain unusual insights into Shakespeare by considering his plays through the lens of our OBOD studies, and that knowledge of Shakespeare can lend depth and new perspectives to druidic thought. The lessons we can learn by falling into step with the greatest bard of the English language and landscape can illuminate our own journeys and indicate new directions to follow.
NOTEAll quotations the plays taken from The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E.Howard and Katherine Eisaman Maus (1997, USA)
1  Deakin,R., Wildwood (Penguin 2007)2  Table Talk 7/4/18333  Greenblatt, Stephen, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in The Norton Shakespeare (1997, USA)4  See romances such as Sir Degaré and Sir Orfeo Even at this stage there are 5   A programme note in the Globe theatre programme for The Merry Wives of Windsor suggests that this legend originates with Shakespeare (Programme Note, Jones, Gwilym, 2008).  This is clearly possible. The legend is noted as having its first written record in the play (  6   Lauren Kassell in  “All was this land full fill’d of faerie” or Magic and the Past in Early Modern England”, in Journal of the History of Ideas 67. 1 (2006) 107 – 122, cites Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) for a categorisation of fairies into two sorts: wild ones who lived in the woods who occasionally harmed people who came across them, and who could be enticed into sharing their secrets, and domestic fairies less powerful and harmful, and who punished people who did not keep their houses tidy and servants who neglected their chores.  These were presumably common popular beliefs that Shakespeare could have known of without having read Scot’s book but it is clear that this division echoes the different approaches to fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor.7 It seems likely that the play was first performed at the Garter Feast in 1597 (Jones, Gwilym, see Footnote 4).The fact that the inn in the play is called The Garter also adds a humourous aspect to this.8  Customarily, following the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the anglicised spelling Arden is used to evoke the English Forest of Arden close to where Shakespeare grew up in Warwickshire and also evoking his mother’s family name.  However, I have followed the Norton Shakespeare spelling throughout.  The forest referred to is in fact the ancient forest that covers parts of France, Luxembourg and Belgium – where an area is still known as the Ardennes..9 for a lengthy discussion of Robin Hood and the stories surrounding him10 Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare the Biography (2005)11 Overtly, at least.  However, there is much covert deconstruction of accepted views of sexuality and sexual orientation in all of these plays.  OBOD and sexuality, is however, a separate debate.12 eglantine: derived from the old French via the Latin aculentus (from spinulentus = thorny), aucus – needle, aculeus – prickle, sting. OED records Shakespeare’s as the first use of eglantine to mean sweet briar, later used by Milton to mean honeysuckle –but for Shakespeare a thoroughly prickly word.13   Kermode, Frank, Shakespeare’s Language, (London, 2000)14 See Valentine, Laura, 1891, Picturesque England: its landmarks and historic haunts, as described in lay and legend (London and New York, Frederick Warne) See also –…15  The Ovate Book of Ogam, 200616   Capelli et al, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology, Vol 13,979 -984, May 27 2003 looks at DNA evidence that suggests that invading populations from the European mainland did not swamp native gene pools in the way that has often been assumed. The inference we may take from this is that if genes lines were maintained cultural traditions may also have been maintained. carries an article on a similar theme from 19th August 2008


Learn more about Druidry and how to join the order

The practice of Druidry used to be confined to those who could learn from a Druid in person. But now you can take an experience-based course wherever you live, and when you enrol on this course, you join the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, and begin an adventure that thousands of people all over the world have taken. It works with the ideas and practices of Druidry in a thoroughly practical, yet also deeply spiritual way.