SHAKESPEARE, THE BEATLES, & PASTORAL SETTINGS
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, as conceived by director Daryl Cloran for the "Bard on the Beach" festival in Vancouver.
“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. Poirier contends that while the Beatles engage in complex wordplay and instrumentation, they, like Shakespeare, do so within a medium that speaks to a broad audience.
Critic Frank McConnell went a step further in 1971, contending that the Beatles’ songs most closely resembled Shakespeare’s “pastoral romances.” What did he mean by this? Traditionally, “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, including Shakespeare, who explores a pastoral setting in As You Like It. McConnell argues that both Shakespeare and the Beatles use simple folk motifs – love, the forest, etc. – as springboards for more complicated thinking.
To better understand the imaginative capabilities of pastoral and rock music, 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 incorporate the creative principle of “if.”
1968: the Beatles, photographed in St. Pancras Gardens by Dan McCullin for Life.
By using the language of the countryside to probe complicated subjects, the Beatles and Shakespeare draw from an ancient tradition. For instance, poets have often have used pastoral lyrics as a means of social criticism, evoking pictures of a peaceful country life to comment on the dangers of an urban lifestyle. For some Elizabethans, the idea of a rural retreat offered solace and security in a nation that was rapidly urbanizing, and whose court life was associated with gossip, malice, and facade. As urban life felt increasingly crowded and unsafe, wealthy Londoners often fled the city to escape foul “vapors” and the plague.
Some more philosophically-minded folk argued that the countryside also encouraged goodness of character and contentment. Corin the shepherd serves as spokesman for this view in As You Like It, when he defends his home 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,” he echoes this longing for a cleaner, simpler natural order, and recalls folk mythology that Elizabethans were fond of recreating in May celebrations, games, and medieval reenactments (1.1.115-117).
1575: Elizabethans enjoy the pleasures of woodland life - hunting, picnics, good company, and fresh air - in a woodcut from The Noble Art of Venery or Hunting. "Pleasure dwells at large / 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: 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 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 artistic “if” of uncertainty. In Arden, the characters don't walk through scenery so much as through a fraught debate itself.
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 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 folk-inflected songs like “Scarborough Faire” and “Stairway to Heaven,” and medieval gowns and ruffled shirts became outfit staples in folk subcultures. 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. 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.
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, rather than use them as escapism.
In his Partisan Review article, Poirier commends the Beatles for their ability to self-reflect on their use of pastoral tropes, particularly in the song “All You Need Is Love.” In an allusion to the contemporary folk revival, the Beatles sample muddled fragments of the ballad “Greensleeves” at the end of the song. By incorporating this melody, the Beatles are positioning themselves as part of a tradition: remixing music from distant eras suggests that musicians across history have continued to explore the need for love, simplicity, and nostalgia for a better, greener place. Poirier argues that the Beatles expose “love” as a “great, unfulfilled need,” a pastoral yearning and topic that has been idealized across the centuries.
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, “if.”
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?
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