The Fate of the Bees

As the climate-change clock ticks down one asks: why are we so blasé? Why are we not galvanised in the way of societies in wartime? How have we come to normalise the apocalypse? I approach this question via a genealogy that takes modern society to derive from the secular political thinking of the later 17th and early 18th centuries, rather than early modern notions of providence, patience and moral rigor. In Hobbes, Shaftesbury, Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville, the state is seen to run on unimproved human nature. In his Fable of the Bees (1714; 1705), Mandeville states this in its baldest terms: “publicke benefits” are fuelled by “private vices”. Replace vice by virtue and the state dries up. The genius of this thinking is that we are saved even – especially – by our vices. What could go wrong? Climate change: suddenly we are returned to an uncannily early modern world of Old Testament absolutes, where the Flood is coming and God owes us nothing. More – much more – is required of us than the “private vice” machine is capable of supplying. I conclude by bringing my genealogy to an early modern reading of Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed: a Calvinistic take on climate change.

John Gillies (University of Essex)

“Hecla, whose sulfurious fire Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky”: Musical Representations of Extreme Natural Phenomena in Early Modern English Madrigals and Lute-songs

Climate-based metaphors are far from being unusual in Renaissance love poetry and lyrics, but just like the Petrarchan similes that took Europe by storm, they soon became relatively stale and lost their unexpectedness: the flames of love and volcanic passions, the storms of unrequited affections and the bolts of lightning struck by lovers’ eyes often come over as sterile or artificial. Musical figuralism and word-painting however often have the ability to give them life, as in the case of the famous madrigal by Thomas Weelkes, “Thule, the Period of Cosmography”, in which  the musical lines match the extremes of hot and cold spewed forth by the Icelandic volcano Hekla, at the time often referred to as the “Gate of Hell”. This paper will examine the musical realizations of natural disasters both in the intimate settings favoured by the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, and in some court Masques where the violent contrasts suggested by such extreme phenomena could be used to great dramatic effect.

Chantal Schütz (École Polytechnique)

The Storms of Othello in 1613

In the opening landscape of Ben Jonson’s first Jacobean entertainment, Masque of Blackness (1605), the playwright, with the assistance of Inigo Jones, presented an artificial sea with waves that seemed to move, billow, and break, “imitating,” Jonson writes, that “orderly disorder which is common in nature.” Shakespeare offers something similar in Act 2, scene 1 of Othello, an orderly sea storm in Cyprus that leads to the disorder and destruction of the Turkish ships. This storm, unlike those in Shakespeare’s other plays, does not adversely affect the principal characters, only the Turks. The Venetians on shore watch in orderly fashion the disorder of the sea and recognize that the weather has defeated the enemy. I will argue that the tempestuous weather of late 1612 and early 1613 provided a vivid context for the court spectators who watched the King’s Men perform Othello in early 1613. Weather, leading to destruction in actuality and in the play’s fiction, also summons up recollections of the battles of Lepanto (1571) and the Spanish Armada (1588), both affected by unexpected weather, which assisted the Christians at Lepanto and the English in 1588.

Shakespeare’s main source for the play, Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, does not include such a storm nor any anticipated danger on Cyprus. Shakespeare inserts the destructive storm as a way of solving an emerging narrative problem: the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, to which Othello has been sent by the Venetian Senate. The playwright would have known of the impact of weather on Lepanto probably from King James’s poem Lepanto or Richard Knolles’s recent Generall Historie of the Turkes and about the Armada in numerous recollections of the battle, such as Merlin’s speech in Prince Henry’s Barriers, prepared by Jonson and performed at court in 1610, the first entertainment for the eventual creation of Henry as Prince of Wales that year.

The fullest account of tempestuous weather in 1612-13 can be found in the anonymous The Wonders of this windie winter (London, 1613). This pamphlet of 17 pages recounts numerous storms and tempests that caused shipwrecks and destruction of land across England, ranging from October until early January. That is, the time immediately before the performance of Othello at court as part of the dramatic entertainments leading to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Frederick on 14 February. The boisterous entertainments on the Thames immediately before the wedding also provoke images of storm and recollections of both Lepanto and the Armada. The title page of the anonymous document characterizes the weather: “The like by Sea and Land, hath not beene seene, nor heard of in this age of the World.” Quite a claim, but hard to dispute, given the evidence presented. John Webster in A Monumental Columne, an elegy written in memory of Prince Henry, seizes upon the violent weather to create a metaphor for his death.

Thus, the Jacobean court, watching the performance of Othello in 1613 would have known first-hand from recent experience the horrendous potential effects of tempestuous weather. As the Venetians, with the help of weather, defeat the Turks, these spectators could have recalled past examples of the impact of weather on military exploits. Shakespeare’s fiction underscores the orderly disorder function of nature.

David M. Bergeron (University of Kansas)