In his discussion of William Shakespeare’s works, literary critic Northrop Frye coined the term “The Green World” in order to describe a particular environment that recurs throughout literature. In literary tradition, a hero must undergo several steps before being able to overcome his or her particular challenges. Often, a character will disappear into a perfectly natural environment, most often a forest, in order to confront inner obstacles and gain personal insight. The Green World adventures generally offer elements of magic, supernatural power, and reigning chaos, but must be survived in order to restore balance to the world.
Even in Shakespeare’s time, dense forests remained largely impenetrable and dark places. Heavy woods like the Black Forest of Europe were considered great places of fear and possibly of dark magic Frequently, Shakespeare would set one of these transformative areas on the edge of a large city, allowing his characters to easily escape from a rigid, law-based City World into a nature-run world nearby.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, four young characters are denied the marriages they wish in the city, and escape into the forest to hide from their families. Yet instead of providing a safe haven, the Green World of the play is in tremendous chaotic upheaval. The four young lovers become caught in the plots of the fairy rulers of the forest, and cannot get out until each falls in love with the correct person, accomplished by a fairy charm. Once they have found their correct partners, they are able to escape the forest and convince their families of their proper marriage.
In another Shakespeare comedy, As You Like It, the Green World is again used to sort out who should marry who. Rosalind and Celia enter the Forest of Arden to find Rosalind’s father, an exiled duke. While stuck inside the woods, four couples become hopelessly entangled in love stories and only Rosalind’s level head can sort out the problems. Once this goal is accomplished, Rosalind is able to lead the company out of the forest and even restore her father to his rightful place
The Green World frequently is depicted as a maternal place, particularly in the work of Shakespeare. Women are forced to flee to the forest after the male-run city world threatens their life or livelihood. Several women, Rosalind and Celia among them, enter the forest disguised as men, but do not leave until they resume their roles as women. In both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the forest is considered a polar opposite to the City World, female-oriented instead of male, following laws of nature instead of laws of man.
Scholars suggest that the forests are largely metaphorical, and Shakespeare seems to have left clues throughout his Green World plays that would indicate that the forests are more than simply woods. Besides populating them with fairies and magic, several creatures non-native to European forests appear, including lions and palm trees.
The Green World is necessary to restore balance to the regular world. While the City world is rigidly controlled by law, the forest world is run by total chaos. In the hero’s journey, a person raised in the city world must enter the forest to gain insight into himself. In Shakespeare’s work, the necessity is even more clear, as marriage and life cannot continue on their correct courses until the extremes of the city regain balance with the forces of the Green World.