Critic’s Corner: Virtue and vice in the woods


Woods are a gift to the writer of metaphors. They’ve been used in so many works to symbolize so many things that it’s sometimes hard to read about woods without wondering about their significance.

If anyone was able to make it to the performances of the musical “Into the Woods” this past weekend, you might have noticed that there are many moral issues at stake within those woods of the story. But first, what are the woods?

In this particular story, woods are a morally grey area where the characters’ true sides show, and they make choices which they wouldn’t have done with others watching.

Many surprising colors come out, including Cinderella’s prince declaring: “right and wrong don’t matter in the woods,” as an excuse for adultery, and the baker’s wife: “If the end is right it justifies the beans,” as justification for practically stealing the objects she needs to make a potion.

Yet by the end of the show we have learnt who actually has good values and who does not. The woods bring out the good or the bad in everyone.

Another author who uses the symbolism of woods is Dante, though in a rather different way. He views the woods as the place he ends up after wandering astray. In other words, the woods are necessarily evil.

However, Dante provides a few details which make the reader consider whether his view is really so different from that of the worldview in “Into the Woods.” The three beasts which Dante encounters within the dark wood are a leopard, symbolizing fraud, a lion, symbolizing violence, and a she-wolf, symbolizing incontinence.

I see a parallel here between the two works: these three vices of Dante are the very three exemplified by many of the characters in the grey of the woods.

Fraud is most evident in the exchanges which the baker and his wife (at the initiative of the wife only) make of their “magic” beans for the various articles they are collecting in order to break the spell on their house. They cheat, or attempt to cheat, at least three of the other main characters into giving them the valued objects by telling them the beans are magic, but they don’t believe it.

The baker at one point tries to steal Little Red’s cape, but can’t follow through because he’s too good hearted. He ultimately receives the cape from her after an act of bravery, for which she gives him the cape voluntarily. Thus theft was not the most practical solution to procure the objects.

Violence proves to be very present also within the woods. In the second act, when the characters all end up on one side against their mutual enemy, the giant, they begin to turn on each other. The narrator is the first of many victims to the giant, because the characters’ selfish sides come out when threatened with death. Jack’s mother also suffers death from the selfishness and fear of the other members of the group, because she is considered a threat to their safety when she argues with the giant.

Lastly, the woods prove that while princes may be charming, they are not sincere. Both Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princes find new loves by the end of Act Two, and betray their initial declarations of love to their wives.

The baker’s wife, in turn, succumbs to the charm of the Prince and fulfills her role of taking from everyone she encounters in the woods, rather than acting for the good of anyone else.

In the end, the four survivors are those who exhibited the most selflessness and lack of vice within their sojourn in the woods.

The woods, though often characterized as dark, are agreed by both authors to be a place of light which illuminates the hearts and motives of those who journey through them. The inner darkness and light of the heart is revealed, and no one emerges the same.