In Act II of Romeo and Juliet, a meditation on Nature’s power to heal or harm introduces Friar Laurence. His efforts, later, to bring about a reconciliation of Verona’s warring factions clearly derive both from his belief in the young lovers and from this larger faith:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give.

Randall Martin’s Shakespeare and Ecology sets this vision, alongside its less idyllic competitors, in their 16th-century context. But his short book is at the same time a marvellously concise account of current environmental debates. The affinity of our own time with Shakespeare’s is central to Martin’s case. This is surely just the kind of discussion we need this year, as we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Martin sees our “irrational calculus of environmental risk for the sake of profitable gain” as directly descended from the emergent global economy of Shakespeare’s day. In our own time, he observes, Nature appears “no longer passive but elementally furious at modernity’s obsession with endless growth and mindless abuse of the planet and non-human species”.

In Friar Laurence and many others, though, Martin finds evidence for what we might call early forms of bioregionalism, resistance to the “de-territorialising forces” of this new order.

The social and environmental impact of those forces soon made themselves felt. The consumption of wood by cannon foundries and glassworks cleared much of what was left of England’s ancient forests. Coal replaced wood as the main domestic and industrial fuel in the English Midlands and south-east during these years.

Martin plucks out the detail you never saw, minor characters you never took quite seriously. In the “sea coal fires” set by Mistress Quickly, he notes a telltale sign of wood’s increasing scarcity. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, he sets the ancient oak, beneath which Falstaff struts absurdly at midnight, against the sawmill pit, from which his tormentors emerge in the climactic scene. In this opposition of sawmill with ancient tree, Martin sees deforestation making deep inroads into the imaginative life of Shakespeare’s audience.

More than any other London dramatist of the day, Shakespeare knew his countryside. He was from a long line of woodland workers on his mother’s side. The Forest of Arden, as recreated in As You Like It, is thick with detailed knowledge and associations. The exiled Duke Senior famously finds

tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Shakespeare also gives us the voice of the displaced shepherd Corin. The 1590s were years of rural famine and harsh agrarian change. The Duke’s “aristocratic leisure” was not an option for many.

Martin invokes an intriguing distinction here, between ‘georgic’ and ‘pastoral’. ‘Georgic’, named after the great poem of country life by Virgil, celebrates human labour, particular place attachments, “the reciprocity of human and non-human life”, Corin’s ewes grazing. The Duke’s pastoralism, his detachment from worldly affairs, is a more universalising form of idealism.

Rewilders, take note. It is with distinctions like these that Martin illustrates “the modern ecological shift” from a neo-romantic or steady-state environmentalism, with its calls for the restoration of pristine habitats, to a “non-equilibrium model of nature, in which non-catastrophic disturbance and adaptation are the normal conditions for evolutionary life on earth”.

But who decides what is non-catastrophic? In Shakespeare’s day, government officials were licensed to scour the countryside, digging potassium nitrate (‘saltpetre’) out of compost pits, for use in manufacturing gunpowder. This requisitioning of the soil’s fertility by the industrial militarisation of the day triggered angry protests. Were those who contested this war upon the life of the soil just neo-romantics, too?

In Henry IV, Part 2, Shallow, in his Gloucestershire retirement, is usually played as the foil to Falstaff’s star turn, a doddering provincial living on his memories. But Martin explores the wealth of detail we are given about Shallow’s farm. Here, he argues, is both a respite from and a pragmatic alternative to the dynastic wars raging all around. Falstaff is inducted, on this reading, into “bio-relations of soil, plants and animals”.

Not all the plays lend themselves so well to Martin’s approach. He marginalises religion in his reading of Hamlet, or replaces it, rather, with “worm-oriented redemption through metabiosis”. I hope he knows what that means. The black prince certainly dwells much upon the great leveller, but to read Hamlet as a proto-Darwinian who “dispenses with human myths of triumph over mortality”, is reductive and wrong. Whatever Darwin thought about “flights of angels”, and whatever we think about them, the Elizabethans took them seriously.

Martin does not, thankfully, equip Cleopatra with mutton-chop side-burns and a microscope. And she is fine without them. Rome, in Anthony and Cleopatra, is a “universal landlord”, its leaders chronically unable to identify with Nature. The Nile’s “marvels of elemental (re-)generation” are entirely lost on them. You can almost see Octavian signing off on the TTIP treaty. Cleopatra and her people, by contrast, “see themselves as physiologically embedded in the earth’s organic cycles of material change, rebirth, and transmutation”.

It was for her grain supplies that Egypt was colonised by Rome. In Egypt’s defeat Martin sees the “ecological consequences of imperial growth”. Even as England exhausted its own supplies of timber and saltpetre, it was looking to America North and South, to Ireland and Bengal, to make up what it could no longer produce.

The call here, asserts Martin, is for an “eco-poetic shake-up”: “If the shift in ecological paradigms is … to shake empires … then we must have, in addition to the clarity of thought of the trained scientist, the clairvoyance of a poet.” BP or not BP? wittily, and rightly, satirise big-oil sponsorship for Shakespeare mega-productions. Martin takes the work of such activism deeper into the plays themselves. I can think of no better way to mark the 400th anniversary than to read this book.

Horatio Morpurgo writes widely on literature, the environment and European affairs.