Simon C. Estok. Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 182pp.  ISBN 978 0 230 11256 8.

Todd Borlik
Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg PA

Todd Borlik, "Review of Simon C. Estok. Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 10.

  1. In a 1999 Forum in PMLA, Simon Estok sounded the first call for parley between early modernists and ecocritics. So this book, the fruit of a decade’s worth of foraging in imperfectly charted borderlands, is a much-anticipated study. Since then, monographs by Gabriel Egan and Robert Watson and essay collections by Palgrave and Ashgate––both featuring contributions by Estok––have appeared, all striving to span the four-century gap between Shakespeare’s birth and the publication of Silent Spring. As Estok notes (with an occasional grumble at the growing professionalization of the field), mentioning Shakespeare and ecology in the same breath no longer seems so far-fetched or radical.

  2. As the inaugural publication of Palgrave’s new series on Literatures, Cultures, and the Environment, Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia attests that literary ecology has finally progressed beyond hagiographies of Thoreau, Muir, and Abbey. This provocative book should find a wide audience, and not just Shakespeareans. Most of the essays have already appeared in scattered journals, but reading them together vividly underscores the two principal contributions of Estok’s work: 1) the introduction of “ecophobia” as a critical watchword, and 2) the necessity of “confluent theorizing” in ecocriticism. Both these insights lend intellectual heft to an enterprise often dismissed by its detractors as theoretically jejune and prone to goopy sentimentalizing.

  3. The opening chapter lays the book’s critical keystone, ecophobia, which Estok defines as “an irrational or groundless fear or hatred of the natural world” (4). What, one might ask, does this neologism do for Shakespeare and Green Studies that a presumably related term like “anthropocentrism” does not? The gains are, I think, twofold. First, it offers a means to conceptualize speech and actions that represent nature not simply as subservient to humans but as dangerous or even malicious when it fails to be so. It also spells out in starker font the cultural and psychological forces that conspire to underwrite environmental depredation. The verbal analogy with gynophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia is a potent reminder that nature is historically implicated in discourses that have marginalized or denigrated minorities and outsiders. Much of Ecocriticism and Shakespeare is devoted to proving that the converse is also true: i.e. that early modern England deflected its bigoted modes of thought onto non-humans.

  4. In an excellent chapter on King Lear, Estok uncovers how the tragedy writes both women and the environment as “viciously unpredictable and dangerous” (27), endowed with an insubordinate agency that triggers outbursts of fear and loathing in the aging patriarch. Estok’s musings on the correlation between the climatic turbulence of the 1590s and the scapegoating of women as witches (accused of controlling the weather) provide an illuminating context for Lear’s sexist tirades in the storm. In Chapter 3, Estok grafts Queer Theory with ecocriticism by characterizing Coriolanus as a weed. While it is all too true that nature has been invoked to enshrine hetero-normative values, textual evidence for such conniving in the play is somewhat scant. The weed metaphor is Estok’s rather than Shakespeare’s. More convincing is Chapter 4’s study of the affinity between Elizabethan horticulture and the political suppression of the peasantry in 2 Henry VI. Elaborating on his previous remarks about cannibalism and Titus Andronicus, Estok also argues (rightly, I think) that “vegetarian ethics” were a “live issue” (55) for early moderns. The essay, however, culls its evidence exclusively from Thomas Tryon’s pamphlet of 1697, published over a century after the play. Other chapters usefully frame early modern anxieties about monstrosity and cannibalism as symptomatic of a deep-rooted discomfort with human animality and wilderness. Plays such as Othello and The Tempest portray non-Europeans as infected by their supposedly savage and disorderly habitats, justifying colonization of both the land and its subjects.

  5. Estok has little patience with what he categorizes as (borrowing Michael Cohen’s phrase) “the praise-song school” (120) of literary ecology. No sermons in stone here; it is the Duke Seniors among the first-wave of ecocritics that have given this approach a bad name. Instead he offers a sobering corrective that cross-species metaphors can have troubling material consequences, as “plants, animals, time, and people, are all cut with the same knife” (70). Yet some critics might find Ecocriticism and Shakespeare too sweeping in its dismissal of the analogical World Picture and pastoral visions of holism and ecological inter-dependence. Accepting the premise that “biophilia indeed seems to be the motivation but not the object of ecocritical inquiry” (129) and emphasizing fear and loathing as the predominant responses to nature would seem to dictate that we view literature primarily as documents of environmental barbarism. Moreover, in an era marked by outbreaks of plague, turbulent weather, and dearth (all of which Estok documents in great detail), was fear of the environment totally “irrational and groundless”? It is easy for us beneficiaries of modern medicine and agribusiness to blast early moderns as paranoid about nature when the only consequence of an unseasonable frost is that we have to pay an extra dime for a carton of orange juice. One might conceivably argue that part of the problem with our hyper-industrialized, carbon-addicted technocracy is that we have become too insulated from nature’s unpredictability. Obviously, ecocritics should avoid fomenting a kind of environmental Machiavellianism. But fear of ecological instability can be a virtue as well as a vice.

  6. Ecocriticism and Shakespeare makes a case for “ecophobia” as a term with far-reaching implications for the environmental humanities. In the chapter on the Lear, desire for shelter and clothing in a thunderstorm stipulates that human subjects, even when accommodated, tend to perceive nature as fundamentally hostile. The human infant’s need for maternal nurture incites in Coriolanus a resentment of his own biology. Likewise, disgust at rot and dread of illness (which Estok spotlights in Hamlet and 2 Henry IV) betray a willful detachment from the environment. Collectively, these readings suggest that ecophobia is not just an archaic mentality commonplace in Elizabethan England, but also an innate tendency in all humans, hard-wired into our DNA at least since, as Estok concedes, the evolution of the opposable thumb and the discovery of fire. From this perspective, Shakespearean drama, often touted as the definitive literary testament of our species, may offer one of our best hopes for understanding and perhaps counter-acting the legacy of human exceptionalism.

  7. “Ecophobia” has already begun to gain currency, making Estok the first early modernist to have a perceptible impact on ecocriticism. This alone would make Ecocriticism and Shakespeare a milestone work, setting aside its other considerable merits. It balances the claims of historicism and presentism, activism and theoretical integrity more deftly than previous studies. It unearths fresh or unsung categories in Shakespearean criticism such as environmental fear, disgust, and sleep. It dares those who teach Shakespeare to practice an activist pedagogy that engages students in environmental politics. While some of its conclusions will encounter resistance, one thing is indisputable: the time for talking about early-modern ecocriticism as “fledging” is over; with the publication of Estok’s book, ecocritical Shakespeare is airborne.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at

© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).