What is the Green World?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

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.

Shakespeare used the Green World in his plays as a natural environment where the disorder in relationships was resolved.
Shakespeare used the Green World in his plays as a natural environment where the disorder in relationships was resolved.

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.

Shakespeare used forests as a metaphor in a number of his works.
Shakespeare used forests as a metaphor in a number of his works.

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.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


The Celts believed trees to be sacred and to possess spirits. Various peoples all over the world have also held similar beliefs. The world of the forest was a magnificent pantheon, but the demons of the trees have been upset and chased away by fearless and disrespectful modern man.


It is sad that so much of our green world is disappearing today. We learn of large and mysterious forests only through fantasy books and epic stories. The forests of our day are all but tame.


The "Green World" of Shakespeare's day could be compared to the modern jungle or rainforest. With perils on every side and potentially hostile native peoples, these formed a dangerous and mysterious environment. Being in a lit and civilized city also presented challenges, but of an entirely different kind, such as that of social rigidity and societal expectations.


Your article asserts that both Rosalind and Celia enter the Forest of Arden disguised as men. Celia does not disguise herself as a man. She puts on "poor and mean attire" and calls herself "Aliena." When they are in the forest, Rosalind, in disguise as a boy, refers to Celia as "sister."

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