Theses Doctoral

Urban Ecology and the Early Modern English Stage

Myers, Bernadette

At the end of the sixteenth century, London was grappling with an unprecedented environmental crisis: rapid population growth produced rampant pollution, land mismanagement, and epidemic disease; entire species of fish disappeared from the Thames; and the city’s growing demands for food and fuel depleted the nation’s natural resources. This dissertation locates innovative responses to these new environmental pressures on the early modern stage. Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I argue, shaped early attitudes and expectations about the ecology of London and its sustainability.

Each chapter of “Urban Ecology” focuses on a different resource problem plaguing early modern London—food scarcity, decayed waterways, air pollution and a shortage of space to bury the dead—and shows how groups of plays addressed them using the material and imaginative resources of dramatic form. In constructing stories in which these ecological issues figure prominently, and in offering their own creative responses to these problems, early modern playwrights display a nuanced understanding of London’s environment as a co-fabrication between human and nonhuman forces, even before the terms “ecosystem” or “ecology” had emerged in scientific discourse. To make this co-fabrication visible, “Urban Ecology” reads early modern plays alongside a rich archive of archaeological evidence that re-situates the theater industry as a both a product of and active participant in the London ecosystem.

I show how playing companies contributed to urban air pollution by burning noxious sea coal to produce spectacular effects that attracted paying customers; the Bankside playhouses, located on reclaimed marshland, were vulnerable to the Thames and its patterns of tidal flooding; and food sourced from both local and global supply chains was regularly sold during performances. By reconstructing this complex interplay between drama and its environment, this dissertation begins to center the early modern theater industry in the history of ecological thought.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Robertson, Lauren
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 1, 2021