“This is, unambiguously, the happiest of Shakespeare’s comedies.”

As You Like It

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams

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Although written during the roughly the same period as Twelfth Night (the play following our next play, Hamlet), As You Like It has little of the obvious darkness of Shakespeare’s more mature comedies.  Maybe that’s because it spends so much time in the Elizabethan “green world” of the Ardenne forest, a rejuvenating environment that allows all of the play’s erotic entanglements to untie themselves with ease, preparing us for a barnstorming finale in which no fewer than eight characters are paired off simultaneously.  The play’s take-it-or-leave-it title makes that conclusion all the more lighthearted, and perhaps excuses (I think it does), the playwright from the accusation, leveled by a misguided few, that its plot is paper-thin.  The comedy genius in this play is not in its happenings, but in its characters, led by Shakespeare’s most engaging heroine, Rosaline, one in a line of confident and appealingly witty women who we’ll see dominate the middle comedies.  Though it is by no means frivolous, as Helen Gardner, one of the comedy’s most interesting critics writes, As You Like It is “the last play in the world to be solemn over.”  (Making it, I think, the perfect play to end the year with before a short break leading into Hamlet as our first play of 2013.)

Shakespeare’s characters in As You Like It have it relatively easy – at least compared to those in his main source, Thomas Lodge’s Elizabethan classic Rosalynde (1590).  Forsaking treachery at court for the wildness of the forest, Lodge’s female characters have to confront outlaws, rape and even the threat of incest before they are allowed to reach the story’s end; while his male hero, Rosader (Shakespeare’s Orlando) faces up to the wrestling challenge knowing that all the previous combatants have died horribly in the attempt.  Shakespeare’s characters, by contrast, lead lives which can only be described as blessed.  As numerous critics have pointed out, As You Like It is the only Shakespearian comedy in which death is kept at arm’s length.  Oliver’s doomed attempts to get rid of Orlando being just that – doomed.  It is not altogether surprising that the adjective ‘fairytale’ is often applied to the play.  Though its ‘good’ characters are depicted in rounded human complexity (in fact some of Shakespeare’s most rounded characters to date), evil has a distinctly and transparently two-dimensional presence, ultimately leading with what some will see as near-implausible ease.

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From William Hazlitt:

“Shakespeare has converted the forest of Arden into another Arcadia, where they ‘fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.’  It is the most ideal of any of this author’s plays.  It is a pastoral drama, in which the interest arise more out of the sentiments and characters than out of the actions or situations.  It is not what is done, but what is said, that claims our attention.  Nursed in solitude, ‘under the shade of melancholy boughs,’ the imagination grows soft and delicate, and the wit runs riot in idleness, like a spoiled child, that is never sent to school.  Caprice and fancy reign and revel here, and stern necessity is banished to the court.  The mild sentiments of humanity are strengthened with thought and leisure; the echo of the cares and noise of the world strikes upon the ear of those ‘who have felt them knowingly,’ softened by time and distance.  ‘They hear the tumult, and are still.’  The very air of the place seems to breath a spirit of philosophical poetry; to stir the thoughts, to touch the heart with pity, as the drowsy forest rustles to the sighing gale.  Never was there such beautiful moralizing, equally free from pedantry and petulance.

‘And this is their life, exempt from public haunts,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything.’”

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From Tony Tanner:

    happy is your Grace

That can translate the stubbornness of fortune

Into so quiet and sweet a style.

(II, i, 18-20)

Your If is the only peacemaker.  Much virtue in If.

(V, iv, 102-3)

My way is to conjure you.

(Epilogue, 10-11)

“This is, unambiguously, the happiest of Shakespeare’s comedies.  Happiest, in this sense – there is certainly evil (or a kind of folk-tale figuring of evil) in the first Act: a cruel elder brother dispossessing a younger brother; a tyrannical younger brother usurping the rightful dukedom of an elder brother; the unjust banishment of the manifestly good characters.  But by the end, not a trace of that initial, initiating evil remains.  And there are no ritual expulsions, exclusions, expurgations; no defeats, no punishments, no disappointments even; no one is hunted down, hunted out.  The evil characters are simply, perhaps miraculously, ‘converted’ (key word).”

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From Goddard:

As You Like It is far from being one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but it is one of his best-loved ones.  ‘I know nothing better than to be in the forest,’ says a character in Dostoevsky, ‘though all things are good.’  We are in the forest, the Forest of Arden, during four-fifths of As You Like It, but it is a forest that by some magic lets in perpetual sunshine.  And not only do we have a sense of constant natural beauty around us; we are in the presence too, almost continuously, of a number of the other supremely good things of life, song and laughter, simplicity and love; while to guard against surfeit and keep romance within bounds, there is a seasoning of caustic and even cynical wit, plenty of foolishness as a foil for the wisdom, and, for variety, an intermingling of social worlds from courtiers and courtly exiles  to shepherds and country bumpkins.  In this last respect, As You Like It repeats the miracle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As might be expected of a work that is a dramatized version of a pastoral romance, the play is the most ‘natural’ and at the same time one of the most artificial of the author’s.  Yet we so surrenders ourselves after a little to its special tone and atmosphere that there is no other work of Shakespeare’s in which coincidences, gods from the machine, and what we can only call operatic duets, trios, and quartettes trouble us less or seem less out of place.  The snake and lioness that figure in Oliver’s sudden conversion might be thought to be enough for one play, but when on top of that in the twinkling of an eye an old religious man turns the cruel usurping Duke, who is on the march with an army against his enemies, into a humble and forgiving hermit, instead of questioning the psychology we accept it meekly and merely observe inwardly that the magic of the Forest of Arden is evidently even more potent than we had imagined.  [MY NOTE:  Again…perfect for the holiday season!]

It is customary to find the main theme of As You Like It in the contrast between court and country.  ‘If we present a pastoral’ said Thomas Heywood, we show the harmless love of shepherds, diversely moralized, distinguishing between the craft of the city and the innocency of the sheepcote.’  The play does indeed involve the question of the relative merits of these types of life, and the conclusion implied seems on the surface to be similar to George Meredith’s in ‘Earth’s Secret,’ namely, that wisdom is to be found in residents of neither of the country nor of the city but in those rather who ‘hither thither fare’ between the two,

‘Close interthreading with our kind.’

But whoever goes no deeper than this does not get very near the heart of As You Like It.  Shakespeare was the last person to believe that geography made the man.

There is generally an Emersonian sentence that comes as close to summing up a Shakespearean play as anything so brief as a sentence can.  ‘A mind might ponder its thought for ages and not gain so much self-knowledge as the passion of love shall teach it in a day.’  There, compressed, is the essence of As You Like It, and, positively or negatively, almost every scene in it is contrived to emphasize that truth.  As Love’s Labour’s Lost, to which Emerson’s sentence is almost equally pertinent, has to do with the relation of love and learning, As You Like It has to do with the relation of love and wisdom.  Rosalind is the author’s instrument for making clear what that relation is.

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And finally from Harold Bloom, whose love for Rosalind is second to none:

‘The popularity of Rosalind is sue to three main causes.  First, she only speaks blank verse for a few minutes.  Second, she only wears a skirt for a few minutes (and the dismal effect of the change at the end to the wedding dress ought to convert the stupidest champion of petticoats to rational dress).  Third, she makes love to the man instead of waiting for the man to make love to her – a piece of natural history which has kept Shakespeare’s heroines alive, whilst generations of properly governessed young ladies, taught to say ‘No’ three times at least, have miserably perished.’

“That is George Bernard Shaw (hardly a Bardolator!) in 1896, when the reign of Rosalind was at one of its heights.  When I saw Katherine Hepburn triumphing as Rosalind on Broadway in 1950, the role still maintained its long ascendancy, though now, nearly a half century later, Rosalind has been appropriated by our current specialists in gender politics, who sometimes even give us a lesbian Rosalind, more occupied with Celia (or with Phebe) than with poor Orlando.  As the millennium goes by, and recedes into the past, we may return to the actual Shakespearean role, perhaps about the same time we wrest Caliban away from his ‘materialist’ admirers and restore him to his bitter ‘family romance’ (Freud’s phase) with the household of Prospero.  Back in 1932, when Rosalind was all the rage, G.K. Chesterton, very much her admirer, nevertheless protested her popular reductions:

‘Almost three hundred years ago William Shakespeare, not knowing what to do with his characters, turn them out to play in the woods, let a girl masquerade as a boy and amused himself with speculating on the effect of feminine curiosity freed for an hour from feminine dignity.  He did it very well, but he could do something else.  And the popular romances of today cannot do anything else.  Shakespeare took care to explain in the play that he did not think that life should be one prolonged picnic.  Nor would he have thought that feminine life should be one prolonged piece of private theatricals.  But Rosalind, who was then unconventional for an hour, is now the convention of an epoch.  She was then on a holiday; she is now very hardworked indeed.  She has to act in every play, novel, or short story, and always in the same old pert pose.  Perhaps she is even afraid to be herself:  certainly Celia is now afraid to be herself.’

Whether Shakespeare was as content as Chesterton would have been to end the picnic in the forest of Arden (named, in part, for his mother, Mary Arden), I somewhat doubt.  We know that Shakespeare himself played the role of old Adam, Orlando’s faithful retainer, an old Adam free of all sin and invested with original virtue.  Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the accurately titled As You Like It is as much set in an earthly realm of possible good as King Lear and Macbeth are set in earthly hells.  And of all Shakespeare’s comic heroines, Rosalind is the most gifted, as remarkable in her mode as Falstaff and Hamlet are in theirs.  Shakespeare has been so subtle and so careful in writing Rosalind’s role that we never quite awaken to her uniqueness among his (or all literature’s) heroic wits.  A normative consciousness, harmoniously balanced and beautifully sane, she is the indubitable ancestress of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, though she has a social freedom beyond Jane Austen’s careful limitations.

Daughter of Duke Senior, the rightful if usurped Duke, Rosalind is so far beyond Orlando (a poor gentleman) to accept him as husband, but the forest of Arden dissolves hierarchies, at least for a blessed time.  The bad Duke, the younger brother of Duke Senior, absurdly yields up the dukedom to the rightful Duke, Rosalind’s father, while the wicked Oliver as surprisingly gives up their father’s house to Orlando, his younger brother and Rosalind’s lover.  It is not possible to historicize so mixed a pattern, and social commentaries to As You Like It do not take us very far into this play’s curious and charming ethos.  We do not even know precisely where we are geographically in this comedy.  Ostensibly, the usurped duchy is in France, and Arden is the Ardennes, but Robin Hood is invoked, and the forest seems very English.  French and English names are haphazardly distributed among the characters, in a happy anarchy that works splendidly.  Though critics can and do find many shadows in the forest of Arden, such discoveries obscure what matters most about this exquisite play.  It is much Shakespeare’s happiest:  death has been in Arcadia, but not so that we can be oppressed by it, since nearly everything else is as we like it.

Shakespeare has some two dozen masterpieces among his thirty-nine plays, and no one would deny As You Like It eminence, though a few (wrongly) consider it the slightest of the masterpieces.  If Rosalind cannot please us, then no one in Shakespeare or elsewhere in literature ever will.  I love Falstaff and Hamlet and Cleopatra as literary characters, but would not want suddenly to encounter them in actuality; yet falling in love with Rosalind always makes me wish that she existed in our subliterary realm.  Edith Evans performed Rosalind before I was old enough to attend; according to one critic, she spoke to the audience as though everyone in it was Orlando, and so captured them all.  A great role, like Rosalind’s, is a kind of miracle:  a universal perspective seems to open out upon us.  Shakespeare makes even Falstaff and Hamlet victims, to some degree, of dramatic irony; we are afforded a few perspectives that are not available either to the greatest of comic protagonists or to the most troubling of tragic heroes.  Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps indeed in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she does not anticipate and share.  A stage play is virtually impossible without some degree of dramatic irony; that is the audience’s privilege.  We enjoy such an irony in regard to Touchstone, Jaques, and every other character in As You Like It, except for Rosalind.  We forgive her for knowing what matters more than we do, because she has no will to power over us, except to exercise our most humane faculties in appreciating her performance.”

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I’m going to be out of town for a few days, so…start reading As You Like It now, and I’ll be posting on Act One (and maybe more) on Sunday evening.

Enjoy.

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