Warwickshire was often described as primeval, and contours of ancient time can indeed be glimpsed in the lie of this territory and its now denuded hills. It has also been depicted as the heart or the navel of England, with the clear implication that Shakespeare himself embodies some central national worth. He is central to the centre, the core or source of Englishness itself.
The countryside around Stratford was divided into two swathes. To the north lay the Forest of Arden, the remains of the ancient forest that covered the Midlands; these tracts were known as the Wealden. The notion of the forest may suggest uninterrupted woodland, but that was not the case in the sixteenth century. The Forest of Arden itself included sheep farms and farmsteads, meadows and pastures, wastes and intermittent woods; in this area the houses were not linked conveniently in lanes or streets but in the words of an Elizabethan topographer, William Harrison, “stand scattered abroad, each one dwelling in the midst of his own occupying.”1 By the time Shakespeare wandered through Arden the woods themselves were steadily being reduced by the demand for timber in building new houses; it required between sixty and eighty trees to erect a house. The forest was being stripped, too, for mining and subsistence farming. In his survey of the region, for his Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine of 1611, John Speed noticed “great and notable destruction of wood.” There never has been a sylvan paradise in England. It is always being destroyed.
Yet the wood has always been a token of wildness and resistance. In As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Cymbeline and Titus Andronicus, it becomes a symbol of folklore and of ancient memory. The great prehistoric forest of the Arden gave refuge to the British tribes against the Roman invaders of their land; the name of Arden itself derives from Celtic roots, meaning high wooded valleys. It was the Celts who named the Ardennes in the region of north-eastern France and Belgium. The same woods provided cover for the Celtic people from the marauding Saxon tribes of the Hwiccas. The legends of Guy of Warwick, imbibed by Shakespeare in his infancy, tell of the knight’s hermitic concealment in the forest. His sword, used in his fight against the encroaching Danes, was kept as a memorial in Warwick Castle.
So Arden was a place of concealment as well as of industry; it was an area that outlaws and vagrants might enter with impunity. That is why wood-dwellers were regarded with some disfavour by those from more open habitations. Wood-dwellers were “people of lewd lives and conversation”;2 they were “as ignorant of God or any course of civil life as the very savages amongst the infidels.”3 Thus the history of rebellion mingles with that of savagery and possible insurrection. The history runs very deep, and is inseparable from the land itself. When in As You Like It Touchstone enters the wood, he declares that “I, now am I in Arden, the more foole I” (761). Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden. His future wife, Anne Hathaway, dwelled in the outskirts of the forest. His consciousness of the area was close and intense.
Beyond the Wealden, in the south of the county, lay the Fielden. In Saxton’s map of Warwickshire, issued in 1576, this region is almost wholly devoid of trees except for those growing in groves and small woods. The rest of the land had been changed to scrub and pasture, with the arable territory sweeping across the hills. In his Britannia William Camden described it as “plain champaign country, and being rich in corn and green grass yieldeth a right goodly and pleasant prospect.” John Speed saw the view from the same spot as Camden, on the summit of Edgehill, and noticed “the medowing pastures with their green mantles so imbrodered with flowers.” It is the quintessential picture of rural England. It was as much part of Shakespeare’s vision as the forests beyond. It has been surmised that the Fielden was rich and Protestant, while the Wealden was poor and Catholic. This is the shorthand of popular prejudice, but it suggests a context for that balancing of oppositions that came so instinctively to Shakespeare.
The climate of Stratford was of a mild temper, protected by the Welsh hills. There was much moisture in the land and in the air, as the various streams running through Stratford itself would have testified. The clouds from the south-west were known as “Severn Jacks” and presaged rain. Only “the Tyrannous breathing of the North,” as Imogen remarks in Cymbeline, “Shakes all our buddes from growing” (257-8).
But what, in the larger sense, has this landscape to do with Shakespeare or Shakespeare with the landscape? Some future genius of topography may elucidate what has become known as the territorial imperative, the sense of place that binds and determines the nature of those who grow up on a certain spot of ground. Yet, in relation to Shakespeare, we may already venture one conclusion. The evidence of his work provides unequivocal proof that he was neither born nor raised in London. He does not have the harshness or magniloquence of John Milton, born in Bread Street; he does not have the hardness of Ben Jonson, educated at Westminster School; he does not have the sharpness of Alexander Pope from the City or the obsessiveness of William Blake from Soho. He is of the country.