Summer’s Lease: Shakespeare in the Little Ice Age

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In his hyper-canonical eighteenth Sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare has his speaker use the brevity and tenuous hold of spring and summer as a metaphoric argument for seizing the day: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May /And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”1 If these lines trail behind them a long tradition of carpe diem verse that hammers home the metaphoric connections between spring and youth, winter and old age, Shakespeare’s reimagining of the summer growing season as a short-term lease seems to demand a traditional New Historicist interpretation that might treat the language of property ownership and anxieties about patrilineal succession as a crucial means of structuring the reader’s perception of the natural world.2 Yet if the eighteenth sonnet yokes easterly winds and short growing seasons to a rhetoric of economic hardship and the problems of land tenure, it also invokes an experiential world of agricultural and arboricultural hardship in what was still, for many Elizabethans, a subsistence economy. “Summer’s lease,” in this respect, is characteristic of a persistent strain of imagistic language in the sonnets, and in a wide range of writing about the natural world in the sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth centuries. This language reflects a sensitivity to climatic conditions in early modern England that—all but unnoticed by most modern commentators—locates Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a volatile era in climatological history that, in some ways, offers an inverted, but potentially instructive, image of our own twenty-first-century descent into global warming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEarly Modern Ecostudies
Subtitle of host publicationFrom the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare
EditorsThomas Hallock, Ivo Kamps, Karen L Raber
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9780230617940
StatePublished - 2008

Publication series

NameEarly Modern Cultural Studies 1500-1700
ISSN (Print)2634-5897
ISSN (Electronic)2634-5900


  • Early Modern Period
  • Eternal Return
  • Natural World
  • North Atlantic Oscillation Index
  • Seventeenth Century

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • General Arts and Humanities
  • Linguistics and Language


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