EGAN, G., 2004. Shakespeare and eco-criticism: the unexpected return of the Elizabethan world picture. Literature Compass, 1, pp.1-13
In the early 1970s the Gaia hypothesis of James E. Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed that self-regulating processes of homeostasis have locked together the obviously living biosphere and the apparently dead environment so that one might usefully think of the whole Earth as a single organism. Although Lovelock and Margulis came from strictly scientific fields it is easy to see the appeal of their hypothesis for ‘alternative’ Western cultures of the New Age movement, complementary medicine, and holistic spiritualism, all of which have links with the broader anarchist and animal rights movements and with the emerging theory and practice of ecocriticism. At its best, ecocriticism builds upon post-structuralism’s rejection of the imaginary unified human subject previously dominant in literary studies to consider how Nature too is constructed as well as depicted in literary works. At the other extreme, however, ecocriticism shades off into a neo-Romantic spiritualism that merely asserts the healing power of living in the countryside or vicariously enjoying it through literature about rural idylls. This essay considers the materialist basis of the Gaia hypothesis, comparing it to ways of thinking about the world that were available to Shakespeare’s audiences and in particular its surprising parallels with the much-reviled Elizabethan World Picture described by E. M. W. Tillyard.
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