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Strawberry Fields

SHAKESPEARE, THE BEATLES, & PASTORAL SETTINGS

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A shortened version of this essay for classroom settings can be found as part of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's resources for As You Like It. It was written for CST's production of AYLI with Beatles music.

What do Shakespeare and the Beatles have in common? For one thing, critics love them! While “1960s Beatlemania” may conjure up images of screaming crowds of teenagers, many Shakespeareans and scholars of the time were just as infatuated with the Fab Four. The Beatles' talent for wordplay and ability to capture vivid stories in their songs reminded many critics of skilled poetry. In particular, it wasn't infrequent for a literary critic to compare the rock group to Shakespeare, identifying them as British icons and defining writers of the age.

 

One critic, Frank McConnell, wrote in 1971 that the Beatles’ songs most closely resembled Shakespeare when they invoked a sense of “pastoral romance.” Essentially, McConnell argues that both Shakespeare and the Beatles use simple folk motifs and unpretentious words – love, forest, tree, etc. – as springboards for more complicated thinking.

 

The phrase McConnell uses –  “pastoral romance” – is a literary term, and it describes stories and plays that feature rural settings, shepherds, lovers, and plenty of lyric poetry. It's easy to see why the term applies to As You Like It: from its romantic shenanigans to its focus on country life, Shakespeare's comedy is a pastoral romance par excellence. 

 

But McConnell also urges us to look closer than the surface tropes of pastoral romance to identify a second, more secret hallmark of the genre: underground complexity. In the best pastoral romances, including As You Like It, there's a fascinating element of subversion, complexity, and philosophical turmoil among the characters, even as they speak in simple, singsong rhymes. It's this lurking complexity, more than any superficial imagery of trees or flowers, that unites the writing styles of Shakespeare and the Beatles. Think of any sunny Beatles song, and it's likely that there's ambiguity, conflict, and sometimes even darkness churning underneath. It's the same with As You Like It: seldom is a forest just a forest, or a shepherd just a shepherd. 

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1968: the Beatles, photographed in St. Pancras Gardens by Dan McCullin for Life.

By using the simple language of the countryside to probe more complicated subjects, the Beatles and Shakespeare have ancient precedents within the genre of pastoral literature. For instance, pastoral poetry has often proved a useful means of social criticism: since ancient times, writers have loved to juxtapose a peaceful country life with dangers that they see in urban cities. For certain Elizabethans in Shakespeare's time, the idea of a rural retreat offered a striking contrast to the ills of city life. As urban life felt increasingly crowded and unsafe, wealthy Londoners often fled the city to escape foul “vapors” and the plague.​ Some Elizabethans argued that the countryside also encouraged goodness of character and virtue.

 

Shakespeare touches on this cultural discussion in As You Like It. In particular, Corin the shepherd serves as spokesman for this kind of view, when he extols the virtues of his simple country life: “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness” (3.2.74-75). Many characters in As You Like It espouse this "cottagecore" view of the countryside in ways that reflect the societal trends and debates of Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare's language captures how nostalgic Elizabethans actively used pastoral language to express their longing longing for a cleaner, simpler life.

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1575: Elizabethans enjoy the pleasures of woodland life - hunting, picnics, good company, and fresh air - in a woodcut from The Noble Art of Venery. "Pleasure dwells at large [outdoors] / which Princes seek in Palaces," writes the author, probably George Gascoigne.

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 contrasted with real, societal upheavals. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, many peasants were forced out of their regular use of public pastures by decrees of enclosure, or the privatization of common lands. Unemployment and displacement were growing problems in the countryside. Writers often had to confront how their lush, romanticized idea of the country clashed with a disheartening reality. For example, Shakespeare's contemporary Edmund Spenser, in his Shepheardes Calender, summarizes this disillusionment through the shepherd Diggon: “The jolly shepherd that was of yore, / Is now [neither] jolly, nor shepherd more” (Eclogue 9: September). Unlike the blissful Corin, Diggon sees his rural landscape as corrupted and dystopian.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare incorporates a similar pessimism, blending bleaker descriptions of Arden into more idyllic ones. The subject of environmental crisis may have had personal resonance for him: scholar James Shapiro points out that by Shakespeare’s lifetime, England’s own Forest of Arden, near Shakespeare’s home, was being rapidly deforested. As You Like It, Shapiro speculates, 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 (1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare). Throughout the play, Shakespeare switches his descriptions frequently, describing Arden as both a wasteland and primitive paradise. 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.  Jacques even accuses the noblemen of despoiling the natural environment, ironically, in their quest to live in nature (2.1.60).Whose perspective should we trust? Which version of Arden do we, the audience, envision? In this way, Shakespeare transforms a simple locale – “country forest” – into a wavering, unstable concept, an ever-changing field of uncertainty. When the characters walk through pastoral setting of Arden, they are also walking through a fraught debate itself, in which even simple scraps of poetry can reshape how one sees the world.

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1579: a dejected Diggon relates his lowly state to his friend Hobbinol in Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender.

Debates and instability play an important part in the lyrics of the Beatles, who also wrote during a time of immense cultural change. 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 in Los Angeles 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 folk-inflected songs like “Scarborough Faire” and “Stairway to Heaven,” and medieval fashion like gowns and ruffled shirts became a common sight in hippie subcultures. Just like the world of Shakespeare, the world of the Beatles was obsessed with using pastoral imagery to inform new ways 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 frequently 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. McCartney also praises the simplicity of nature in “Mother Nature’s Son,” a track from the 1968 White Album. Like Corin, the “poor country boy” in the song expresses contentment with his simple life; McCartney was influenced both by memories of English fields and the spiritual teachings of the band's yogi in India.

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In a Rolling Stone interview from 1970, John Lennon admitted that he  too had an impulse for writing pastoral, but he also voiced frustrations at the genre’s clichés that seemed to trap him. “I need to look at the grass,” he says. “I’m always writing about [the] English garden and that lot.” Lennon’s love-hate relationship with pastoral romance plays out in many of his contributions to the Beatles canon. As a songwriter, he frequently turns simple, pastoral songs into more complex meditations on difficult subjects. “Norwegian Wood,” with its trilling melody and sitar, has the texture of a folk ballad; its lyrics by Lennon, however, spin a dry, sardonic story of a sexual (non) affair. Likewise, “Strawberry Fields Forever” also features bucolic imagery – the narrator rests, alone in a tree–but drifts into psychedelic musings about consciousness itself. Music like this encourages us to inspect pastoral motifs with a discerning eye, analyzing each word carefully rather than using them as escapism.​

Both Shakespeare and the Beatles drew upon the literary landscape of the pastoral – with all its beauty, disappointments, and layered history – to create engaging artwork for their audiences. The challenge they addressed as writers was how to strike middle ground between familiar and subversive, and how to intertwine idealized and “folkloric” sentiments with their own ironies. As an ancient genre, pastoral has encouraged countless writers to repeat and (crucially!) to reinvent its imagery, and the Beatles are no exception. From Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields, they invite us into a dizzying, pastoral landscape of complexity and endless, fascinating, questions.

1967: in "Penny Lane," the band arrives at a setup similar to the forest picnic enjoyed by the nobles in The Art of Venery.  In a few moments, butlers in frock coats and wigs will wait on them. An embrace of historical pastiche - or metacommentary on voyeuristic nostalgia encroaching on rural life? Or Paul McCartney simply filling a shot with everything he likes?

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1964: the Beatles in costume for their performance of Act V of A Midsummer Night's Dream on their "Around the Beatles" TV special. 

Sources, Links, and Recommended Reading

Richard Poirier, "Learning from the Beatles," in the Partisan Review (full essay)

Frank D.  McConnell, "Rock and the Politics of Frivolity," in The Massachusetts Review (full article with JSTOR access)

Stephen ​Daniels, "Suburban Pastoral: 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and Sixties Memory," in Cultural Geographies (full with JSTOR)

Bardfilm blog on instances in which the Beatles crossed paths with Shakespeare

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