- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

What is it with Shakespeare and the forest primeval anyway?

From tragedies to comedies, when the going gets tough — or at least too complicated — the Bard often dispatches his characters into the woods to get their personal issues sorted out. Or, in the case of Macbeth, Birnam Wood sneaks up to the castle doorstep just to make a point.

Let’s see. In addition to Macbeth’s stalking trees, we have King Lear lighting out for the forest with the Fool in tow to escape getting whacked by his ungrateful daughters. We discover people lurking in and about forest caves in “Cymbeline” and “Timon of Athens.”

We also learn to our horror that a little girl has been left to die in the woods in “The Winter’s Tale,” while the guy who saved her gets eaten by a bear. Meanwhile, in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” we experience a brief frisson as Valentine, escaping his nemesis, high-tails it to the sylvan glade to command a band of Merry Men.

The casual theatergoer could be forgiven for concluding — provisionally, of course — that the Bard might be employing these periodic woodland expeditions simply to extricate himself from impossible plot complications. Here, even if human logic didn’t work out, sprites and spirits could materialize from the dark green mists to plausibly reweave tattered plotlines without further explanation.

Baffled Shakespeare aficionados once relied on sage English professors to explicate recurring motifs like these enchanted forests, but because the current crop of postmodernists decided to deconstruct both literature and their profession into meaningless random quarks, we’re left on our own to parse such literary puzzles.

One productive approach is to explore Shakespeare’s library, assuming he had one. It’s generally agreed that Shakespeare borrowed liberally from a popular history of his day, “Holinshed’s Chronicles,” to chart the politics and timelines of his historical plays. Shakespeare also had access to travel narratives written by (or ghostwritten for) English explorers attempting to colonize the New World. Many encountered strange creatures and exotic beings in those distant lands, discoveries later embodied in plotlines of “The Tempest,” which was set in a tropical jungle, of course.

However, well-stocked bookshelves don’t fully explain the magic, the forbidden romances and the astonishing conclusions that begin to unfold in the forests of Shakespeare’s bawdier comedies. There must be an easier explanation.

May we suggest sex?

Elizabethan England, particularly its middle and upper classes, was governed by an airtight social pecking order. Mom and dad laid down the law, based almost always on economic calculations, on whom you were going to marry whether you wanted to or not. But then, as now, most young people preferred to make up their own minds when searching for a soul mate.

How was a poor Bard to plausibly smuggle the element of personal choice past a social code he still needed to respect outwardly? That’s where the woods come in.

Whether in “The Tempest” or in less subtle comedies such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the dark and mysterious forest is the habitat of natural forces, not men. It’s a place where you go to sort things out, sometimes with supernatural assistance, well beyond the long grasp of antiquated conventions.

Most notably in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” whatever results from adventures in the enchanted wood can be blamed on the caprice of magic or the illusions of a dream. (The Shakespeare Theatre production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Carter Barron Amphitheatre — in the enchanted forest of Rock Creek Park — continues tonight through Sunday night.)

Imagine that Romeo and Juliet had fled into the trees with all their nasty relatives in hot pursuit. By luring dysfunctional Capulets and Montagues into nature’s demilitarized zone for a fun evening of fairy dust, mistaken identities and random couplings, our star-crossed lovers might have survived and prospered by default in the resulting confusion.

Indeed, after a trip to Shakespeare’s woods, all’s usually well that ends well. Peccadilloes and social gaffes are forgiven freely, leaving kings and dukes baffled and getting grateful parental units off the hook. Sort of like in the movie “Blame It on Rio” (although that was about a beach, not a forest). In nature’s realm, conventions are eased, bad stuff is made good, family relations are restored, and the world relaxes into normalcy.

Shakespeare was no social revolutionary, but in many of his plays, he does employ the woods as his metaphor for a personal utopia endorsing the vectors of romantic love and personal preference in the choice of a lifetime partner.

Free in the forest to be themselves, the Bard’s young comic characters joyfully welcome a brave new world of familial affection, esteem and mutual respect. A daring ideal in Shakespeare’s time, that social compact is today a pillar of Western civilization — one that can still serve as an inspiration to other cultures in which men and women remain mired, like the Capulets and Montagues, in unyielding hatreds and ancient superstitions.

WHAT: The Shakespeare Theatre production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

WHERE: Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW

WHEN: Tonight through June 5 at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: Tickets are free and available through Sunday beginning at noon at the box office as well as other locations.

WEB: www.shakespearedc.org.

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