As You Like It
By Dennis Abrams
Duke Senior, deposed and living in banishment in the forest of Arden
Rosalind, Duke Senior’s daughter (later disguised as Ganymede)
Amiens and Jaques, Lords attending on Duke Senior
Duke Frederick, Duke Senior’s brother, the usurper
Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter and Rosalind’s companion (later disguised as Aliena).
Le Beau, a courtier attending Duke Frederick
Charles, Duke Frederick’s wrestler
Touchstone, a clown in Duke Frederick’s service
Oliver, the eldest son of Sir Rowland de Bois
Jacques and Orlando, Oliver’s younger brothers
Adam, an old servant of Sir Rowland
Denis, Oliver’s servant
Corin, an old shepherd and his companion Silvius, a young shepherd in love with the shepherdess Phoebe
William, a countryman, in love with Audrey, a goatherd.
Sir Oliver Martext, a country clergyman
Hymen, the god of marriage.
As You Like It was entered in the Stationer’s Register on August 4, 1600, alongside Henry V, Much
Ado About Nothing, and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. It was presumably written either that year or just before.
Thomas Lodge’s hugely popular Rosalynde (1590), a slender but nonetheless eventful prose tale written while the author was en route to the West Indies, provided Shakespeare with the substance for As You Like It, though he (naturally) refashioned its plot and renamed its characters.
Despite being entered into the Register, the play wasn’t to reach print until the 1623 Folio, meaning that its entry there was probably a “staying order” – a device to prevent piracy or to forestall censorship. The Folio text was perhaps typeset from a promptbook rather than from Shakespeare’s own papers.
Act One: Ever since Orlando’s father’s death, his brother Oliver has kept him in poverty and denied him an education. When the two argue, Oliver plots how he can get rid of him: hearing that Orlando intends to fight in the forthcoming wrestling competition, he orders Charles the wrestler to kill him. At court, Rosalind is dejectedly reflecting on her father’s banishment by Duke Frederick when she and Celia are cheered by news of the wrestling match. Both are struck by the brave appearance of a young man taking part – Orlando – and his surprising defeat of Charles. The cousins congratulate him, but Orlando is so smitten by Rosalind that he cannot speak. Duke Frederick, however, is fearful his niece will betray him and banishes her, but Celia secretly arranges for them both to escape in disguise and join Duke Senior in the forest of Arden.
Obviously, all is not well in the court of Duke Frederick, Senior’s usurping brother. In yet another change to his original course, Shakespeare created a set of rather neat symmetries between the play’s good and bad sides. Just as Duke Frederick has usurped Duke Senior, Orlando has been disinherited by his elder brother Oliver – a device that we will see again in Shakespeare’s final solo play, The Tempest. But Oliver’s villainy – like that of Don John in Much Ado – is essentially motiveless, as he himself admits while plotting to have Orlando removed from the frame:
I hope I shall see an end to him, for my soul – yet I know not why – hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and, indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be for long.
It won’t be “long” because Oliver has prepared for Orlando to meet his end in a wrestling bout with his henchman Charles, a contest he is confident that Orlando can never win. It is precisely the kind of capricious cruelty that Frederick’s court, which has banished Rosalind’s father but not Rosalind herself, delights in – indeed, as Touchstone notes, the women will be encouraged to watch, “It is the first time ever I heard breaking of ribs was sports for ladies,” he rather tartly notes. But Oliver’s grudging litany of Orlando’s heroic qualities alerts us to the fact that evil will not prevail. Playing the part of the wandering knight to perfection, Orlando wins the contest against all the odds and captures the greatest prize of all – Rosalind’s affection.
Before moving on to Goddard on Act One of As You Like It, I’d like to talk about a subject I’ve been sorely neglecting (my apologies) – the role of the clown/fool.
Like any other nervous amateur director, Hamlet does not trust the professionals to get it right. “and let those your clowns,” he anxiously advises the players “speak no more than is set down for them.’ The fear that a company’s fools (as they were then known) might run amok onstage and overwhelm what the Prince calls the “necessary question of the play” must have been an occupational hazard for Jacobethan playwrights, though Shakespeare characteristically makes his comedians work for their laughs in esoteric and unusual places – as the “antic” Hamlet, later seen wisecracking in Ophelia’s grave, knows all too well.
For a long time, professional fools were the real stars of the stage, and were instrumental in making sixteenth-century secular theater the rowdy and irreverent thing it became. The most famous clown of the generation immediately preceding Shakespeare’s was Richard Tarlton (d. 1588), so idolized that the Queen’s Men, established by royal commend in 1583 to tour the nation, was built around him; and so funny that Elizabeth herself was said to have ordered him away because he made her laugh too much. Tarlton’s talents extended beyond comedy: he was an able dancer, fencer, and his “wondrous” witticisms helped to create a minor publishing industry; but most importantly, he supposedly never failed to steal the show, no matter which role he took (the root, perhaps, of Hamlet’s anxiety). Tarlton’s close rival was the more refined Robert Wilson, though in Shakespeare’s own company William Kempe (d. 1603) would later challenge both by dint of his sheer athletic ability – he once danced a jig all the way from London to Norwich, a feat which lasted nine whole days. Kempe’s replacement, Robert Armin (c. 1568-1615), took a more thoughtful approach to his work, and even published about book about his experiences in the profession, entitled, naturally enough, Fool Upon Fool. He was also inspired most of Shakespeare’s greatest clowning roles, including Touchstone in As You Like It, and Feste in Twelfth Night.
For in Shakespeare’s plays, clowns – rather like the satirical comics who are perhaps their nearest modern equivalents – also have very serious jobs to perform, Twelfth Night’s Olivia comments that “there is no slander in allowed fool.,” and as Enid Welsford’s classic study of the subject makes clear, throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance, fools were a social as well as theatrical reality. Many were employed in courts and wealthy households not only to provide entertainment, but were also “allowed” to speak about whatever they wanted – the idea being that someone outside normal social conventions could say what flattering advisors could not. The “Feast of Fools,” a carnivalesque festival in which life becomes topsy-turvy during the twelve nights of Christmas immortalized in Shakespeare’s play, lasted well into the seventeenth century on the European continent (could we bring this tradition back, please?); and one other than the essential humanist Desiderius Erasmus expounded on the need for foolery in his satirical “In Praise of Folly” from 1511.
Touchstone’s very name alludes to a truth-revealing trait Erasmus would condone, while Feste’s skittish experiments with language frequently undercut the wider events of the play and ridicule the characters even more than they ridicule themselves. But by the time Shakespeare reaches the emotional wilds of King Lear, the jokes have become bitterly caustic. “I am better than thou art, now,” Lear’s nameless Fool tells his master. “I am a fool; thou art nothing.” And in the late tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, the final cruel joke of the play – after Antony has even managed to botch his own suicide – is that Cleopatra’s attempts to satisfy her “immortal longings” are entrusted to a rustic clown, who delivers the fatal asps with the solemn assurance that “those that do die of it do seldom or never recover.”
From Harold Goddard:
“In no other comedy of Shakespeare’s is the heroine so all-important as Rosalind is in this one; she makes the play almost as completely as Hamlet does Hamlet. She seems ready to transcend the rather light piece in which she finds herself and, if only the plot would let her, to step straight into tragedy. When Celia, in the second scene of the play, begs her cousin to be more merry, Rosalind, in the first words she utters, replies:
Dear Celia, I show more mirth than I am mistress of; and would
You yet I were serious?
I am not merry; but I do beguile
The thing I am by seeming otherwise.
says Desdemona on the quay at Cyprus and on the edge of her tragedy. The similarity is startling. It clinches, as it were, the impression Rosalind makes on those who admire her most: that she had it in her, in Cordelia’s words, to outfrown a falster fortune’s frown than any she is called on to face in this comedy. In so far as she has, she is a transitional figure.
As You Like It has no lack of interesting characters, but most of them grow pretty thin in Rosalind’s presence, like match flames in the sun. However less brilliant, Celia suffers less than she otherwise would because of her loyalty and devotion to her cousin and freedom from jealousy of her. Adam, Corin, and Rosalind’s father are characters in their own right, but minor ones. Orlando at his best is thoroughly worthy of the woman he loves, but by and large she sets him in the shade. For the rest, Rosalind exposes, without trying to, their one-sidedness or inferiority [MY NOTE: Not unlike Falstaff], whether by actual contact or in the mind of the reader.
Heaven Nature charg’d
That one body should fill’d
With all graces…
It is this wholeness of her by which the others are tried, and in the comparison Touchstone himself (so named possibly for that very reason) fades into a manipulator of words, while that other favorite of the commentators, Jaques, is totally eclipsed.”
A little of Goddard’s take on Jaques:
“One way of taking Jaques is to think of him as a picture, duly attenuated, of what Shakespeare himself might have become if he had let experience sour or embitter him, let his critical powers get the power of his imagination, ‘philosophy’ of poetry. As traveler-libertine Jaques has had his day. Now he would turn spectator-cynic and revenge himself on a world that can no longer afford him pleasure, by proving it foul and infected. The more his vision is darkened the blacker, naturally, what he sees becomes in his eyes. He would withdraw from society entirely if he were not so dependent on it for audience. That is his dilemma. So he alternatively retreats and darts forth from his retreat to buttonhole anyone who will listen to his railing. But when he tries to rationalize his misanthropy and pass it off as medicine for a sick world, the Duke Senior administers a deserved rebuke. Your very chiding of sin, he tell him, is ‘mischievous foul sin’ itself.
Jaques prides himself on his wit and wisdom. But he succeeds only in proving how little wit and even ‘wisdom’ amount to when indulged in for their own sakes and at the expense of life. His jests and ‘philosophy’ give the effect of having been long pondered in solitude. But the moment he crosses swords with Orlando and Rosalind, the professional is hopelessly outclassed by the amateurs. Extemporaneously they beat him at his own carefully rehearsed game. Being out of love with life, Jaques thinks of nothing but himself. Being in love with Rosalind, Orlando thinks of himself last and has both the humility and the insight that love bequeaths.”
And a bit on Touchstone:
“When I read the commentators on Touchstone, I rub my eyes. You would think to hear most of them that he is genuinely wise and witty and that Shakespeare so considered him. That Shakespeare knew he could pass off for that in a theater may be agreed. What he is is another matter. A ‘dull fool’ Rosalind calls him on one occasion. ‘O noble fool! a worthy fool!’ says Jaques on another. It is easy to guess with which of the two Shakespeare came nearer to agreeing. The Elizabethan groundlings had to have their clown. At his best, Touchstone is merely one more and one of the most inveterate of the author’s word-jugglers, and at his worst (as a wit) precisely what Rosalind called him. What he is at his worst as a man justifies still harsher characterization.
In her first speech after he enters the play in the first act, Rosalind describes him as ‘the cutter-off of Nature’s wit,’ and his role abundantly justifies her judgment. ‘Thou speakest wiser than thou art aware of,’ she says to him on another occasion, and as if expressly to prove the truth of what she says, Touchstone obligingly replies, ‘Nay, I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it’ Which is plainly Shakespeare’s conscious and Touchstone’s unconscious way of stating that his wit is low.
Our next reading: As You Like It, Act Two
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning