Traditional classifications of drama normally started with the basic distinction between tragedy and comedy, a separation common in Greek and Roman drama, and clearly established by Shakespeare’s time. Of these two styles, the easiest to define initially was the former. The tragedy was understood as the dramatic portrayal of a great man’s suffering and (almost invariably) his death. The hero might be a great villain or famous for virtue (a historical or Biblical character, for example), but the main purpose of the play was to focus on his career, especially the final chapter: the events leading up to his death, his death, and moral reflections upon the story (tragedy lent itself often to fairly orthodox Christian themes: punishments for arrogance, pride, overreaching, and so on).
By common traditions, then, tragedies were serious, involving some ultimate questions about the moral framework of human life in the face of our common fate, death. Hence, tragedies demanded a formal style in the language (e.g., blank verse), subject matter, and acting: tragedies were, by definition serious and formal—high art, if you will. In addition, the central character had to be, to some extent, larger than life—a suitable focus for our attention on major questions of human existence. Tragic heroes were thus almost invariably people of special social prominence: kings, generals, extraordinarily successful achievers (or over-achievers).
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About comedy, however, there was no such general agreement, and in Shakespeare’s time, there was fierce competition between rival companies seeking to win over audiences with different brands of comedy. As we shall see, such a competition is still alive in our culture. By way of illustrating this competition, let me list a few of the rival possibilities.
One of the oldest styles of comedy, developed by the Greeks and a staple ingredient of Roman drama, was the so-called New Comedy, or comedy of manners. Here the dramatic focus is squarely on the middle-class urban family, its trials and tribulations, and, in the conclusion, a happy resolution of its problems. This is the sort of drama we are very used to seeing on television in programs like Hum Log, Buniyaad, Thoda Hai Thode Ki Zaroorat Hai, and so on, the staple fare of sit-coms [like Kaun Banega Crorepati, The Oprah Winfrey Show].
New Comedy, in other words, presents to its overwhelmingly middle-class audience an image of itself, focusing on their major concerns, especially money, property, quarrels between parents and children, neighbours, husbands and wives and servants, and so on. It relies heavily on certain stock characters invented by the Greeks and Romans which have not changed all that much—the conniving adulterous husband, the clever servant, the nagging wife, the expensive mistress, the horny son, the boastful soldier, and so on.
In many cases, such New Comedy lends itself easily to satire, and so it becomes a favourite vehicle for dramatists, who wish to present in their work some lesson for the audience to learn about appropriate conduct (New Comedy is thus a favourite vehicle for those who believe that art should–or must–have a social moral purpose.) Since New Comedy is also a common classical form (especially in Latin literature), this form is particularly attractive for any writer who wants to lean on classical models or display his command of classical literature.
New Comedy relies heavily on naturalism—that is, offering a world and characters recognizably similar to the world of the audience, what we would call slice-of-life (again, modern television sit-coms illustrate this quality well). It is predominantly urban in setting, taking place in the street, the market, or in some public space (like a hotel) where the characters can plausibly meet, interact, engage in conflicts, and so on. The source of the conflicts and their resolution relies heavily on things common to the middle-class life of the audience, which may be unexpected but which fit the description of reality defined by the middle-class setting.
Hence, there are few violations of the naturalistic basis for the style (no magic, no divine interventions, and so on). There may be many coincidences, but the action never moves to the entirely implausible. In fact, the heart of New Comedy is a tightly constructed and interesting plot. Since the characters are more or less familiar types who don’t change very much and since the style is naturalistic, without weird special effects, the major interest in the drama is the way in which the conflict gets increasingly complicated and then resolves itself quickly in a suitably convincing way. The logic of the action must be interesting and plausible within the principles established by the style.
At the other extreme of the spectrum of comic styles is the more anarchic world of Popular Comedy (I use this term for want of a clear label for such a style), a much more free-wheeling affair, closer to a children’s pantomime or fairy story than to a naturalistic middle-class life. In many cases, the action is loosely scripted, so as to permit a great deal of improvisation, especially by the clowns, audience interaction, local references, singing, dancing, joke-telling, clowning around of all varieties, and so on. Popular Comedy of this sort respects no particular dramatic rules, and it tends to be much more colloquial, physical, spontaneous, and vulgar than New Comedy. Hence, it often prompts stern criticism from those who believe middle-class drama should observe certain rules about a proper style and subject matter and carry a useful moral lesson.
For instance, an excellent modern example of this Popular Comedy—and the most popular form of live drama in our culture—is professional wrestling. It has a stage, all sorts of props (like chairs, tables), outlandish costumes, continuing audience interaction, and a great deal of on-the-spot improvising as the main actors carry out a loosely scripted performance. It also has no pretensions to any socially redeeming message or any concern for polite taste: its purpose is to give the people a lot of physical entertainment for their money. It also features a great deal of audience participation (as does another very popular form of this style,(as the Close-Up Antakshri). Such physical vigour, variety, and spontaneous action are much more important than the plot which (like a wrestling match) may be entirely predictable and thin).
Of course, such Popular Comedy attracts the stern criticism of those who believe that entertainment should pay attention, first and foremost, to public standards of decency and moral purposiveness (or at least naturalistic plausibility). So the sorts of arguments we see about wrestling and Shekhar Suman on television are not unlike the sorts of arguments going on in Shakespeare’s time about an appropriate style for public dramatic performances (it’s all fake, it’s too repetitive, crude, predictable, and so on).
In between these two is a style of comedy called pastoral drama. Like New Comedy, pastoral drama tends to avoid the excesses of what I have been calling Popular Comedy and it often has a clear moral purpose. But, unlike New Comedy, it makes no attempt to be strictly naturalistic. Pastoral drama, like pastoral literature generally, usually features an idealized vision of country life, with shepherds and shepherdesses happily united in nature talking all the time about love. But (and this is key to the pastoral convention) the life is typically seen from a city-goers perspective, a point of view that enables the writer to use the country experience as a means of critiquing urban values in a manner more sophisticated than a point of view defined entirely by the country experience would permit. Pastoral literature, in other words, features an interaction between urban sophistication and a simplified vision of life away from the city.
Pastoral drama typically features love as its major concern—a romance between country folk, or the love of an urban man for some country lass, or a romance between two urban people who, for some reason or another (frequently implausible), find themselves temporarily in the country, having to deal with country life (i.e., from an unfamiliar perspective). Because pastoral drama takes place away from the city of the palace, it permits the characters to explore life in a totally non-political way, in a setting where their social roles can be momentarily set aside and they can, to some extent, experiment with possibilities not available in the much more restricted world of the city, where they are known, have social and political responsibilities, have to observe much stricter codes of behaviour (e.g., in clothes), and (this is often quite important in the Pastoral style) have to answer to the demands of the clock (i.e., organize their daily schedule more rigorously than in the country).
Also, the pastoral setting often encourages a much less naturalistic style, one in which woodland sprites, fairies, amazing coincidences, enchantment, and so on come with the territory. So pastoral drama, like popular comedy, can routinely violate naturalistic principles in a way that would not be acceptable in the more naturalistic world of New Comedy. Since the action is taking place outside the city, the normal rules of the city do not apply. Thus, anything can happen.
Pastoral comedy, however, is much more sophisticated than Popular Comedy, since it has a potentially important theme (the nature of love) and tries to establish a more or less consistent fictional world (the country setting). While it can often feature the colloquial language of country folk, it also requires a certain sophistication in the exploration of love through poetry and (a very important element in much pastoral drama) music and song.
Shakespeare began his writing career at a time when all these forms of comedy were available, and when companies and playwrights were fighting each other about what the “proper” form of comedy should be. The fight itself is an interesting manifestation of the growing phenomenon of the urban middle-class and the arguments about standards appropriate to its entertainment (things we are still arguing about in our debates over television content).
Leading the charge for a standard of polite comedy were those with a classical education and a preference for New Comedy (e.g., Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great rival)—particularly because it carried a moral intention of educating the public through satire and because it celebrated the continuing vitality of classical models of drama. These writers often had little use for what they perceived as the crudity and crass appeals to the audience’s lowest common denominator of Popular Comedy. In addition, New Comedy was a standard ingredient in the classical education of many young boys, who formed their own companies and generated a popular following for a time.
Early in his career Shakespeare, in response to the popular taste, began with New Comedy. His earliest work, especially The Comedy of Errors, patterned itself closely on classical models and stuck to the conventions of the style. But he soon began to move towards the pastoral style, taking the urban characters out of their customary setting and putting them into the countryside, shifting the emphasis from the complexities of a plot (quite bewildering at times in The Comedy of Errors, with its two sets of identical twins) to the exploration of human relationships in love (the central concern of the pastoral tradition), and relaxing the demands of naturalism appropriate to New Comedy so as to include magical elements. The most famous relatively early example of this shift is Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring gods, fairies, magic transformations, and all sorts of implausible occurrences which come about when a few urban characters, including pairs of lovers, wander off into the woods.
One way of appreciating the shift is to attend to the nature of the story. Northrup Frye once observed an important distinction between what he called “Hence” stories and “And then” stories. In the first type, as the label “Hence” suggests, the interest in the story is the logic of cause and effect, how a series of circumstances presents a logical sequence, each stage flowing logically and naturalistically out of the previous situation, as a result of decisions, motives, and so on quite similar to the logic of real life. In “And then” stories, by contrast, events simply follow one after the other, often without any clearly logical link between them (as in many children’s stories: “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and so on…”
In New Comedies, like The Comedy of Errors (and situation comedies generally), the effect of the play depends upon a tight “Hence” structure, and the audience has to keep close track of the distribution of information so as to understand the various confusions, misunderstandings, quarrels, and so on, each of which makes logical sense once we understand who knows what. But in the pastoral comedies, like Midsummer Night’s Dream (or a children’s fairy story), events tend to follow one another apparently much more casually with no tight logical connection between events (as we shall see in more detail in a few moments).
As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Some Initial Observations
The two comedies we are discussing, both from the late 1590s and early 1600s, illustrate these differing tendencies in comedy. As You Like It is clearly a pastoral comedy—with a country setting, much talk of the love of all sorts, a story which consists, for the most part, of a series of accidental meetings one after the other, and a resolution involving implausible transformations of character and divine intervention. Although (as we shall see) the Forest of Ardenne is not a completely idealized pastoral setting, we have here all the standard ingredients of pastoral drama.
Twelfth Night is somewhat different. The pastoral element in the play is obviously present in the treatment of love and the leisurely world of Illyria, not quite as pastoral as the Forest of Ardenne, but miles away from the political world of the city. And a good deal of the play follows a loose “And then” plot structure, once again featuring a series of accidental meetings.
However, Twelfth Night contains a sub-plot, the tricking of Malvolio, which is clearly drawn from the style of New Comedy, the comedy of manners, the satiric exposure of folly. The characters of the sub-plot, like the foolish knight Aguecheek, the clever servant Maria, the boisterous lay-about Toby Belch, and the self-deceiving Malvolio, are all urban types common in New Comedy, and their plot to trick Malvolio depends, as in almost all New Comedy, on a sequence of events which is plausibly crafted (in “Hence” story tradition). In a sense, Twelfth Night is one more experiment, this time combining two distinct styles in a very interesting and dramatically convincing manner.
Preliminary Observations on As You Like It
As You Like It will be for many of you a rather difficult play to appreciate and interpret simply on the basis of a reading. The reasons for this are not difficult to ascertain. The play is, as I have observed, a pastoral comedy, that is, a comedy which involves a traditional literary style of moving sophisticated urban courtiers out into the countryside, where they have to deal with life in a very different manner from that of the aristocratic court. This play, like others in the Pastoral tradition, freely departs from naturalism, and in As You Like It (certainly by comparison with the History plays) there is little attempt to maintain any consistently naturalistic style.
This can create problems for readers unfamiliar with the conventions of pastoral, especially those who find it just too artificial and incredible to grasp imaginatively. After all, how are we to understand the unmotivated family hatreds which launch the action? We are simply not given any sufficiently detailed look at why Oliver hates Orlando (he himself does not understand the reason) or why Duke Frederick hates Duke Senior and turns on Rosalind so suddenly or, what is most surprising of all, why the nasty people whose animosities have given rise to the plot so suddenly and so conveniently convert and become nice people just in time to wind the plot up happily under the supervision of the goddess Hymen, the Greek deity of marriage, who arrives as an unexpected but welcome guest.
But these features of the plot which we might find unconvincing if we demand naturalism (that is if we insist on treating the play as a “Hence” story) are little more than standard plot devices in “And then” stories, common in a genre like pastoral, which makes no claims to naturalistic motivation. Such plotting serves to launch and to conclude the comic confusion. The main point of the play here, after all, is not the working out of a carefully constructed plot, but rather the various encounters that take place in the Forest of Ardenne. In fact, the structure of the play is less a carefully complex and unfolding plot than a series of conversations between characters who happen to run into each other amid the trees.
You will notice, for example, that most of the central part of As You Like It consists of often random encounters between different characters in the forest. In many cases, they have no particular reason to talk to each other. What these serve to bring out is a series of conversations about life (and particularly about love) in which we witness different attitudes clashing. The effect is to take us through a variety of responses to shared concerns and to get us responding to our own sense of the appropriate ways to deal with the experience.
To put this another way. The pastoral style of As You Like It does not encourage a deep psychological approach to any of the characters, to the logic of their motivation. If that’s what we demand from a story to make it interesting, then this play is not going to satisfy us. We are not in that sort of a world. There is far more direct pressure on us to see in the interactions between characters the exploration of some themes, especially issues concerning love. That is not to say that the characters are not theatrically interesting and worth talking about; it is rather to insist that the characters here are serving thematic purposes more obviously than they are in more psychologically plausible plays. So there’s little point in seeking to penetrate deeply into the plausibility of the psychological motivation or of the coincidences.
To take one obvious example of a thematic concern, very common in pastoral, we notice in the playa repeated contrast between the court and country life. The purpose here is not to provide some naturalistic contrast, for the picture of life in the country is obviously idealized a good deal (although not totally, for there are references to the harsher aspects of life away from the comforts of the court and to the realities of working for an absentee landlord).
Nor is the purpose of any romantic celebration of the values of country living as somehow more authentic than city life. The pastoral is primarily a vehicle for a (usually) gentle satire on urban values, on some of the corrupting manners of the court (like flattery and excessive attention to clothes or fine language). And we can see this clearly enough in this play. But there is no sense in As You Like It that, given a free choice, any of the principal characters (except Jaques) would actually prefer to live in the country rather than the court.
The other great difficulty with As You Like It for inexperienced readers is much of the humour. Here again, what makes little sense on the page (and doesn’t come across as very funny) generally works much better in production. This point is generally true of all comedy, where the physicality of the human interaction (something not always readily apparent from the text of the play alone) is an essential key to understanding and responding to what is going on. That aspect of comedy, especially Shakespearean comedy, is one reason why, in the curriculum of this course, comedies are underrepresented. The only quick way to overcome this problem is to focus on seeing the play in production (and there’s a useful BBC video version available in the college library).
The Pastoral Setting: The Forest of Ardenne
Central to the pastoral vision of As You Like It is the setting in the Forest of Ardenne, especially the contrast between it and the ducal court. In the former, there is a powerful political presence that creates dangers. Deception lurks behind many actions, brothers have secret agendas against their brothers, and people have to answer to the arbitrary demands of power.
In the Forest of Ardenne, however, life is very different. For one thing, there is no urgency to the agenda. There are no clocks in the forest, and for the exiled courtiers there is no regular work. They are free to roam around the forest, prompted by their own desires. There is plenty of food to eat, so the communal hunt takes care of their physical needs. That and the absence of a complex political hierarchy creates a much stronger sense of communal equality hearkening back to the mythical good old days. The exiled Duke himself attests to the advantages of living far from the court, free of the deceits of flattery and double-dealing and welcomes Orlando to the feast without suspicion.
And, most important here, especially in comparison with the history plays, is the importance of singing. As You Like It is full of songs—not performances by professional court musicians, but impromptu group singing which expresses better than anything else the spontaneous joy these people derive from life in the Forest and the joy they give back to others. The songs indicate clearly the way in which in the Forest people can shape their actions to their moods—a situation totally unlike the court where one has to consider one’s actions much more carefully.
Hence, the Forest of Ardenne provides for the exiled courtiers important freedom to experiment with their lives, to discover things about themselves. In the Forest, people can talk openly with whoever they might happen to meet on a stroll through the trees, and that might be anyone, given that in the Forest no one owns any particular territory (there are no rooms, palaces, roads—unlike the court where there is a preoccupation with property) and thus one might well meet and have to deal with a person whom one would never get close to in the court (that can have comic results, of course, as Touchstone’s conversations with Audrey and William demonstrate). In the Forest, life is, as I have observed, lived more immediately in the moment with whatever life presents at the moment. Such an approach to life is impossible in the politically charged world of the court.
That freedom makes possible Rosalind’s transformation and her taking charge of the courtship and makes an interesting contrast between Rosalind and Viola (in Twelfth Night)—the latter is not nearly so free to take charge, because she is still operating in a social environment with a clear structure of authority, which she has to respect. Hence, the fortunate outcome of that play relies upon her patience and luck far more in the case of Rosalind, who is the driving force in her courtship (Viola’s desires very nearly are unfulfilled).
We should note, however, that the Forest of Ardenne is not an entirely idyllic setting. The Duke pays tribute to the often brutal weather, and there are some dangerous animals lurking in the underbrush. Corin, the shepherd, informs us that he works for another man—a slight but significant reminder that even in this pastoral setting the realities of power are not entirely absent.
And, of course, there is never any sense here (as there might be if this were a Romantic vision of life) that the Forest is a suitable place to live on a continuing basis. Given the opportunity to return to the court, all the exiles (except, significantly, Jaques) seize the chance. The Forest has done its work—it has educated some, repaired fraternal relationships brought the lovers to a fuller awareness of their own feelings. Now, they can return to what will be, we sense, much better and fuller life in the court.
The Language of Love
The most obvious concern of As You Like It is love, and particularly the attitudes and the language appropriate to young romantic love. This, I take it, is obvious enough from the relationships between Orlando and Rosalind, Silvius and Phoebe, Touchstone and Audrey, and (very briefly) Celia and Oliver. The action of the play moves back and forth among these couples, inviting us to compare the different styles and to recognize from those comparisons some important facts about young love.
Here the role of Rosalind is decisive, and much of one’s response to this play (especially in performance) will depend upon our reaction to her. Rosalind is Shakespeare’s greatest and most vibrant comic female role, and there’s an old saying to the effect that in any successful production of As You Like It, the audience members will all leave the theatre in love with her.
She is clearly the only character in the play who has throughout an intelligent, erotic, and fully anchored sense of love, and it becomes her task in the play to try to educate others out of their false notions of love, especially those notions which suggest that the real business of love is adopting an inflated Petrarchan language and the appropriate attitude that goes with it.
Rosalind falls in love with Orlando at first sight (as is standard in Shakespeare), becomes erotically energized, and remains so throughout the play. She’s delighted and excited by the experience and is determined to live it to the full moment by moment. One of the great pleasures of watching Rosalind is that she is always celebrating her passionate feelings for Orlando. She does not deny them or tries to play games with her emotions. She’s aware that falling in love has made her subject to Celia’s gentle mockery, but she’s not going to pretend that she isn’t totally thrilled by the experience just to spare herself being laughed at (she even laughs at herself, while taking enormous delight in the behaviour which prompts the mockery).
At the same time, Rosalind has not an ounce of sentimentality. Her passionate love for Orlando does not turn her into a mooning, swooning recluse. It activates her. She takes charge of her life. She knows what she wants, and she organizes herself to seek it out. If she has to wait to pursue her marriage, then she is going actively to enjoy the interim in an improvised courtship and not wrap herself in a mantle of romantic attitudinizing. She initiates the game of courtship with Orlando and keeps it going. She has two purposes here. This gives her a chance to see and court Orlando (in her own name) and thus to celebrate her feelings of love, but it also enables her to educate Orlando out of the sentimental pose he has adopted.
Orlando, too, is in love with Rosalind. But his view of love requires him to write drippy poems and walk through the forest hanging them on trees. He sentimentalizes the experience (that is, falsifies it) so that he can luxuriate in his feelings of love rather than focusing sharply on the reality of the experience. In their conversations, Rosalind/Ganymede pointedly and repeatedly deflates his conventional rhetoric. This comes out most clearly in her famous reply to his claim that, if Rosalind rejects him, then he will die.
No, faith; die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man who died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club, yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year though Hero had turned nun if it had not been for a hot midsummer night, for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and, being taken with the cramp, was drowned; and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it was Hero of Sestos. But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. (4.1.81-92)
It needs to be stressed that Rosalind’s view of love is highly intelligent (that is, emotionally intelligent) and sensitive. This is not the statement of a cynic, because we know that Rosalind is very much in love, passionately eager to be with Orlando or to talk about him as much as she can. But the experience is not corrupting her response to life. She will not permit herself or Orlando to be deceived into thinking love is something other than the excitingly real experience she is going through—love is the most wonderfully transforming experience for her but it is not the sum total of everything life has to offer (as Orlando’s poems make out). This fusion of passion and intelligence, shot through with humour which enables her to laugh at herself as much as at other people, makes Rosalind a wonderfully attractive character.
This complex attitude first emerges when she discovers Orlando’s poetry. Of course, she knows the poetry is really poor, and she can laugh heartily at Touchstone’s damning parody of all the words which rhyme with “Rosalind.” But at the same time, she is erotically thrilled that Orlando is around and that he is in love with her. Rather than being embarrassed by the wretched sentimentality of her lover, she simultaneously loves the fact that her feelings are returned and can laugh at his attempt to express them. This is not laughter at Orlando, but at the incongruity of the situation and joy at the mutuality of their feelings.
Consider also her sense that the youthful love she is now enjoying will not last. She knows that and is not going to shield herself from that awareness in conventionally romantic platitudes: “No, no, Orlando; men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives” (4.1.124-127). Of course, time will change the passionate excitement she now feels. But she’s not going to act like Marlowe’s Nymph who denies the passionate shepherd his love because she’s afraid of the destructive powers of the time. No, she will not let any future fear interrupt or qualify the enormous joy she derives out of being in love right at this moment. What the future will bring will happen. That is no reason not to appreciate the immediate joys of the love she feels for Orlando.
No, that same wicked bastard of Venus, that was begotten of thought, conceived of the spleen, and born of madness, that blind rascally boy that abuses every one’s eyes because his own are out, let him be judge how deep I am in love. I’ll tell thee, Aliena, I cannot be out of the sight of Orlando. I’ll go find a shadow and sigh till he comes.
Here she is, in part, laughing at herself as a victim, one more person hit by naughty Cupid. But she’s obviously thrilled by the experience and is not going to deny herself one bit of the joy she is feeling.
Rosalind becomes the pivot around whom the other lovers move because she is the only one with a maturely intelligent sense of the difference between love and sentiment. Thus, she can deliver stern lectures to Silvius and Phoebe about how they are denying themselves the joys that are possible because they have a false sense of love. Silvius’s excessively conventional Petrarchan attitudes simply encourage Phoebe to close him out of her feelings and to develop a false sense of her own importance, as Rosalind points out very bluntly: “Sell when you can. You are not for all markets” (3.5.61). She is telling Phoebe, in effect, to wake up to the realities of the world in which she lives and to abandon the sentimental dream in which she has locked herself, thanks to the language in which she and Silvius understand their feelings.
It’s significant that throughout much of the play, when Rosalind talks to others about love, she talks in prose, rejecting the formal potential of a more imaginative language, in order to keep the discussions anchored in the reality of everyday life. Rosalind wants to love, but she will have it only in the language of everyday speech, without the seductive embellishments of poetical conventions, which corrupt because they take one away from the immediate reality of the experience.
Orlando profits from Rosalind’s instructions because he is basically an emotionally intelligent person as well. His commitment to playing the role of the conventional lover is only lukewarm; as Rosalind observes, he doesn’t have the appearance of such a literary poseur. Significantly, his poetry is very bad, and he’s not going to mind acknowledging the fact. He does not love his own words more than his own true feelings and hence does not strive to develop his abilities as a poet and quickly moves into the prose conversations with Rosalind/Ganymede. It’s an interesting question whether or not he might recognize or have his suspicions about Rosalind/Ganymede well before the ending. There’s an intriguing possibility that he knows her all along, but recognizing that she is in charge of the game, he is only going to drop the pretence when she gives him the cue. I’ve never seen this interpretation attempted, but if I were producing the play, I would like to try it.
The Role Of Jaques
The essentially healthy emotional intelligence of Rosalind and Orlando and their suitability for each other emerge from their separate encounters with Jaques (in some editions Jacques), the melancholy ex-courtier who is part of Duke Senior’s troupe in the forest. Both Rosalind and Orlando take an instant dislike to Jaques (which is mutual). And in that dislike, we are invited to see something vitally right about the two of them.
For Jaques is, in effect, the opposite of everything Rosalind stands for. He is a moody cynic, who likes to look at life and draw from it poetical contemplations at the generally unsatisfactory nature of the world. He is, in a sense, an initial Hamlet-like figure (the comparison is frequently made), someone without any motivating erotic joy, who compensates for his inadequacy by trying to drag everything down to the level of his empty emotions and by verbalizing at length in poetical images.
He takes some pride in what he calls his very own brand of melancholy which can suck the joy out of life as a weasel sucks the protein out of an egg (an interesting image of the destruction of new living potential), and he spends his time wallowing in it. His own social desire seems to be to find someone else to wallow in the same emotional mud as he does. But the spirits of the other characters, especially of Rosalind and Orlando, are too vital and creative to respond favourably to Jaques’s attempts to cut life down to fit his limited moods.
That judgment no doubt sounds quite harsh. And perhaps it is, for Jaques is a relatively harmless person, who deceives no one (nor does he try to), and his poetical reflections, like Hamlet’s, are often seductive. But we should not let the fame of some of his utterances (particularly the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech in 2.7, a frequently anthologized piece of so-called Shakespearean “wisdom”) conceal the fact that his approach to life is thoroughly negative. He sees no value in anything other than calling attention to the world’s deficiencies. He does not recognize in the fellowship, music, and love all around him any countervailing virtues.
This point is made really explicit at the very end of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech (2.7.138-165). As Jaques concludes his cynical evaluation of the emptiness of human life by talking about how in old age men become useless lumps of flesh (“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), Orlando enters carrying Adam. The latter is the living denial of everything Jaques has just said, for Adam is very old, but has actively striven to help Orlando with generosity, love, and a sense of duty, qualities which confer upon him an emphatic and obvious value. The dramatic irony in that entrance points us to the severely limited and limiting understanding of the world which Jaques has just uttered.
[As an aside, it might be worth remarking that this habit of excerpting speeches of Shakespeare and setting them up as “gems” outside of their immediate dramatic context has the unfortunate tendency to immortalize a passage as some special insight into the nature of life when it is, in fact, quite the reverse. The speech of Jaques is, along with the advice of Polonius to his son, the most famous example of this problem. Far from being a particularly mature earned insight into anything important, Jaques’s speech is an indication of his limited and unwelcome sense of the unsatisfactory nature of life. The entrance of Orlando and Adam underscores this point.]
Oscar Wilde, in one of his most famous apophthegms, once defined a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. That definition applies very well to Jaques, and it helps us at once understand why Rosalind and Orlando will have nothing to do with him. Rosalind understands that love comes at a price. Time will change things, and a commitment in love brings with it the risk of infidelity (and there is much talk of that in the play).
But she will not, therefore, deny its value or refuse to take the risk. On the contrary, she determines to extract the full value from her excited feelings for Orlando, not by freezing those feelings in some sour poetical reflections but by experiencing them moment by moment, no matter what the future may bring. Orlando also is too full of the spirit of life to find anything in Jaques’s gentle but persistent pessimism at all worth bothering about.
I don’t mean to over-emphasize the kill-joy quality of Jaques. He is generally harmless enough, particularly in this play where everyone recognizes him for what he is and where he has no particular interest in pulling others down to his level against their will. If they don’t want to sit down with him and rail against the firstborn of Egypt, he’s content to move away on his own. But it’s significant that he’s not a fully participating member of the final celebrations and that he is going to remain in the forest. He has learned nothing and, indeed, is incapable of learning anything, simply because he is not open to experience (in terms of the earlier analysis I offered of Richard II and Hamlet, Jaques is a “chatterer”). He’s made up his mind what life is all about, and he is seeking confirmation of a pre-set attitude.
Traversi’s summary comment on Jaques hits the mark precisely:
. . . Jacques’ motive is, in the last analysis “observation,” the gratifying of a self regarding curiosity based on a kind of personal impotence, an inability to participate fully and naturally in the processes of life; and, since his attitude is one which implies throughout an incapacity for genuine giving, for the positive acceptance of an order, at once natural and distinctively human, beyond the isolated self–the acceptance by which, in love or otherwise, the self is at last justified–he remains a mere marginal presence in the process by which that order is finally . . . consummated. (An Approach to Shakespeare, Vol. 1, p. 328)
The Question of Gender
One of the most intriguing aspects of the treatment of love in As You Like It concerns the issue of gender. And this issue, for obvious reasons, has generated special interest in recent times. The principal reason for such a thematic concern in the play is the cross-dressing and role-playing. The central love interest between Rosalind and Orlando calls into question the conventional wisdom about men’s and women’s gender roles and challenges our preconceptions about these roles in courtship, erotic love, and beyond.
At the heart of this courtship is a very complex ambiguity which it is difficult fully to appreciate without production to refer to. But here we have a man (the actor) playing a woman (Rosalind), who has dressed herself up as a man
(Ganymede), and who is pretending to be a woman (Rosalind) in the courtship game with Orlando? Even if, in modern times, Rosalind is not played by a young male actor, the theatrical irony is complex enough.
The most obvious issue raised by cross-dressing is the relationship between gender roles and clothes (or outer appearance). For Rosalind passes herself off easily enough as a man and, in the process, acquires certain freedom to move around, give advice, and associate as an equal among other men (this freedom gives her the power to initiate the courtship).
Her disguise is, in that sense, much more significant than Celia’s, for Celia remains female in her role as Aliena and is thus largely passive (her pseudonym meaning “Stranger” or “outsider” is an interesting one). The fact that Celia is largely passive in the Forest of Ardenne (especially in contrast to Rosalind) and has to wait for life to deliver a man to her rather than seeking one out, as Rosalind does, is an interesting and important difference between the two friends.
These points raise some interesting issues. If becoming accepted as a man and getting the freedom to act that comes with that acceptance is simply a matter of presenting oneself as a man, then what do we say about all the enshrined natural differences we claim as the basis for our different treatment of men and women? Given that Rosalind is clearly the most intelligent, active, and interesting character in the play and that these qualities would not be likely to manifest themselves so fully if she were not passing herself off as a man, the play raises some interesting questions about just what we mean by any insistence on gender differences as more than mere conventions.
But the issue is much more complicated than that. For Rosalind’s assumed name, Ganymede is a very deliberate reference to the young male lover Zeus carried up to Olympus, and it points us to what might be a very strong element in the courtship game between Orlando and Rosalind and in the feelings, Phoebe has for Rosalind, namely homoerotic desire. There’s little in the play to suggest this explicitly, but a production which showed, say, that Orlando’s feelings were becoming involved with Ganymede, so that the pretend courtship has a strongly erotic undercurrent, would not be violating the text.
Perhaps it’s hard to distinguish totally between Orlando’s feelings for Rosalind and Orlando’s feelings for Ganymede. And that challenges all sorts of conventional expectations about erotic love, in order to “probe the surprisingly complex issue of what is natural in matters of love and sexual desire” (Jean Howard, Introduction to As You Like It in The Norton Shakespeare).
That’s why they play the wedding ceremony that Rosalind and Orlando go through with Celia playing the role of officiating minister (in 4.1) is, for all the acting going on, quite powerfully charged. Celia, who loves Rosalind, supervises the wedding of the two people presenting themselves as men, and under the obvious fun of the make-believe, there’s a powerful sense of the sexual attraction the two have for each other. It’s worth asking at this point just how much Orlando might know or suspect or what feelings are keeping him in this game.
There seems little doubt that underneath his play-acting he is experiencing a strong bond with Rosalind/Ganymede, something which emerges as even more ironic if we sense (from the style of the production) that part of him either recognizes Rosalind or is responding to the same characteristics in Ganymede that make him so in love with Rosalind. The BBC production is worth attending for its presentation of this complex moment in the play.
This point is underscored by the very strong instant desire that Phoebe finds for Rosalind/Ganymede, which seems at first, not unlike the feelings Orlando has for Rosalind. Phoebe, of course, abandons her love as soon as she learns that Rosalind is a woman, but the play confronts us with the question about the validity of those feelings. If a set of men’s clothes is the only thing distinguishing conventional sexual arrangements from alternatives, we are invited (at least) to wonder somewhat about the extent to which conventional arrangements do not exhaust the erotic possibilities.
The play, of course, in its closing scene celebrates conventional heterosexual marriages. But by that time it has offered us, at least by powerful suggestions, some erotic alternatives, without condemning such possibilities as inherently unnatural. And, depending upon how some of these key scenes are played, a production of As You Like It can evoke in the audience some very interesting and (perhaps) ambivalent feelings about mature sexuality.
This point seems to be emphasized in the epilogue spoken by the newly married Rosalind, where the boy actor playing the role calls attention to the fact that he is not a woman, as if to remind us (maybe) that the happy union of Orlando and Rosalind in which we take such delight has explored other possibilities than heterosexuality. This point can be underscored strongly if Orlando is present with Rosalind during this epilogue (say, holding her in his arms) and the actor playing Rosalind is removing his make up (e.g., wig). And, of course, if the actor playing Rosalind has made some erotic connections with the audience, then his final revelation in the Epilogue will force the audience member to confront some of his own feelings about gender attachments.
As I say, it’s rare to see Rosalind nowadays played by a boy, although there have been all-male productions in modern times. And so the epilogue is often omitted or edited. As it stands, the boy actor’s offer to kiss the desirable grown men in the audience (“If I were a woman”) gives the last words of the play an ironic and erotic resonance that challenges gently the heterosexual weddings we have just celebrated.
A Comment on Touchstone
As You Like It features, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, a professional clown, Touchstone, and it’s worth paying some attention to his role for what it contributes towards establishing and maintaining the upbeat comic spirit of the play. The jester is the constant commentator on what is going on. His humour pointed or otherwise, thus inevitably contributes to the audience’s awareness of what is happening, and the way in which other characters treat him is often a key indicator of their sensibilities.
Touchstone is one of the gentlest and happiest clowns in all of Shakespeare. He comments on the action, makes jokes at other people’s expense, and offers ironic insights about their situation. But throughout As You Like It, such traditional roles of the fool are offered and taken with a generosity of spirit so that his remarks never shake the firm cosmic energies of the play. When he ridicules Orlando’s verses, Rosalind laughs along with him. When he points out to Corin (in 3.2) that the shepherd must be damned for never having lived at court, Corin takes it as good-natured jesting (which it is).
When Touchstone takes Audrey away from her rural swain, William, there are apparently no hard feelings (although much here depends on the staging). In this play, the professional jester participates in and contributes to a style of social interaction which is unqualified by any more sober and serious reflections. This makes Touchstone very different from the bitter fool of King Lear or from the most complex fool of all, the sad Feste of Twelfth Night, both of whom offer comments that cast either a shrewd, melancholy or bitter irony on the proceedings.
Touchstone himself becomes the target of much humour by his immediate attraction to Audrey, the “foul” country lass. There is something richly comic here, seeing the staunch apologist for the sophisticated life of the court fall so quickly to his animal lust. But the satire here is very good-humoured. Touchstone himself acknowledges the frailty of his vows and does not attempt to deceive anyone about his intentions. He knows he is serving his lusts and that that is no good basis for a lasting and significant marriage. But the play builds up no severe indictment against what he is doing, and Audrey herself makes no protest. So this most unlikely of unions become part of the celebration of love at the end of the play, an expression of the comic variety of the experience, rather than offering any ironic commentary.
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