As You Like It
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Word quickly spreads of the cousins’ disappearance, and Duke Frederick recruits Oliver to join in the search. Hearing that his brother intends to kill him, Orlando flees. In the forest, Duke Senior and his companions are about toe at when Orlando rushes in with Adam close behind, both faint with hunger. Realizing who Orlando is, the Duke tells of his respect for Orlando’s father and invites both Orlando and Adam to dine.
Arden, it seems to me, occupies the boundary between barbarity and civility. Duke Senior and his lords make what they can of the forest, but the mixed nature of life there is somehow summed up in Amien’s song, performed as the company sits down to dinner in the wood:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art no so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Hey-ho, sing hey-ho, unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most love, more folly.
Then hey-ho, the holly;
This life is most jolly.
It is “ingratitude” of sorts that has banished the Dukes and lords to Arden – proof that the court is a most brittle world in which “most friendship is feigning.” Yet the song, celebrating the rustic life, finds a kind of liberation in adversity, like the Duke who, as Amiens earlier says, “can translate the stubbornness of fortune/Into so quiet and sweet a style.” “Let the forest judge,” Touchstone will comment, and here it grants the Duke and his men respite from the world’s troubles.
Not everyone in Arden is convinced by that transformation however. The Duke’s gloomy companion Jaques takes every opportunity to expound bad grace, for as he himself boasts, “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” Despite the Duke’s optimism about their condition, Jaques – wielding one of the most famous metaphors in all of literature – remains cynical: (Which is probably why I love Jaques):
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exists and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
The miserablist “ages” that Jaques goes on to sketch – all the way from the “infant,/Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” to the “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything” – make rich capital from the human comedy, but his laughter rings hollow.”
“I have already remarked that Shakespeare himself played the role of old Adam, the faithful servant who goes off with Orlando to the forest of Arden. The virtuous Adam is ‘not for the fashion of these times,’ as Orlando says, but represents rather ‘the constant service of the antique world.’ As You Like It is Shakespeare’s sweetest-tempered play, there is Twelfth Night, but in that play everyone except the superb clown Feste is a zany. Orlando, a youthful Hercules, is certainly not Rosalind’s human equal, but he is considerably saner than Twelfth Night’s loony Orsino, while Rosalind and Celia would be exemplary in any company, and in wisdom and wit are goddesses compared with those charming screwballs Viola and Olivia. I would grant to scholars that there are dark traces in the forest of Arden, for Shakespeare’s overwhelming sense of reality does not allow him to depict an absolutely unmixed realm. Having made this point, I am delighted to observe that the forest of Arden is simply the best place to live, anywhere in Shakespeare. You cannot have an earthly paradise and still have a stage comedy that works, yet As You Like It comes closest. Old Adam (Shakespeare) is nearly eighty, and nothing is said of his (or any other) Eve. We are in a lapsed world, silver at best, but it has a woman beyond Eve, the sublime Rosalind. Eve, the mother of all living, is celebrated for her vitality and beauty, and not always for her intellect. The exuberant Rosalind is vital and beautiful, in spirit, in body, in mind. She has no equal, in or out of Arden, and deserves a better lover than the amiable Orlando, and better wits for her conversation than Touchstone and Jaques. Each time I read As You Like It, I indulge a favorite fantasy, that Shakespeare had never written The Merry Wives of Windsor (unworthy of Falstaff, who is represented there by an impostor), and did not kill Sir John off in Henry V. No, if Sir John was to be seen in love, then he, and not Touchstone, should have fled to the forest of Arden with Rosalind and Celia, there to exchange Mrs. Quickly and Doll Tearsheet for Audrey and Phebe. What prose Shakespeare might have written for Falstaff and Rosalind in their contests of wit, or for Sir John to flatten Jaques! There is a critical point to my fantasy, since Touchstone and Jaques combined do not make me miss Falstaff less. Shakespeare sensibly would have rejected my suggestion: Falstaff, greatest of scene stealers, would have gotten in the way of our seeing Rosalind all round, as it were, and might have impeded Rosalind in her own educational venture, the instruction of Orlando, neither as brilliant nor as dangerous a student as Prince Hal.
Shakespeare’s invention of the human, already triumphant through his creation of Falstaff, acquired a new dimension with Rosalind, his second great personality to date, beyond Juliet, Portia, and Beatrice. Rosalind’s role was the best preparation for the revised Hamlet of 1600-1601, where wit achieves an apotheosis and becomes a kind of negative transcendence. Personality in Shakespeare always returns to me to the difficult enterprise of surmising Shakespeare’s own personality. Like Shylock, Shakespeare was a moneylender, and evidently became known as being rather sharp in his business dealings. Except for that, we do not encounter much that seems to find fault with Shakespeare, setting aside the early venom of the distraught Greene, failed rival dramatist. There are deep shadows on the speaker of the Sonnets, and some speculate that these are related to the anguish of bearing a wounded name in the later ‘Elegy’ for Will Peter, if indeed that isShakespeare’s poem. Honigmann sensibly advises us to live with two antithetical images of Shakespeare, one genial and open, the other darkened and reclusive, Falstaff and Hamlet fused in a single consciousness. What, besides, intellect, to Falstaff and Hamlet share? Nietzsche said of Hamlet that he thought too well, and so died of the truth. Can one joke to well? Falstaff dies because the order of play abandons him with Hal’s betrayal, that is a death not by wit, but by the loss of love, akin to the little deaths that Shakespeare (or his speaker) endures in the Sonnets. Genre is a fluid dissolve in Shakespeare, but Falstaff was allowed only the mock comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor, not the authentic comedy of As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
Rosalind’s high good fortune – which exalts her over Falstaff, Hamlet, and Cleopatra – is to stand at the center of a play in which no authentic harm can come to anyone. We are permitted to relax into our apprehension of Rosalind’s genius. Shakespeare the man seems to have had a healthy fear of being hurt or abused: the speaker of the Sonnets never gives himself away so fully as Falstaff does to Hal, or Hamlet to his dead father’s memory. Cleopatra, until Antony dies, protects herself from too much abandonment to her love, and even Rosalind is careful to pace her relationship to Orlando. Yet the glory of Rosalind, and of her play, is her confidence, and ours, that all things will go well.
Touchstone and Jaques, in their very different ways, do not go well with Rosalind, or with her ideal context in Arden. Touchstone’s indeliberate travesties far exceed his intentional fooleries, he is the total antithesis of Twelfth Night’s Feste, Shakespeare’s wisest (and most humanly amiable) clown. Jaques, a more complex botcher, has withdrawn from the passions of existence, but not in the name of any values that Rosalind (or we) can honor. Many critics rightly note that Rosalind and even her Orlando (to a lesser extent) have remarkably few illusions about the nature of the high Romantic passion that they share. They do not merely play at love, or at courtship, but they are careful to entertain play as a crucial element in keeping love realistic. Poise is Rosalind’s particular endowment, and Orlando learns it from her. Of Rosalind’s poise, it can be remarked that this quality emanates neither from manners nor from morals. Rather, such balance ensues from an intricate spiritual choreography, denied to Falstaff only by his passion for Hal, and abandoned by Hamlet because he internalizes the open wound that is Elsinore. Cleopatra is always too much the actress, attempting the role of herself, to rival Rosalind in grace and in the control of perspective. Is it an accident that Rosalind is the most admirable personage in all of Shakespeare? The very name seems to have had a particular magic for him, though he named his actual daughters Susanna and Judith. Love’s Labour’s Lost’s Berowne fails in his campaign to win the formidable Rosaline, and Romeo, before he meets Juliet, is also infatuated with a Rosaline. But Rosalind is very different from both Rosalines, who resist their admirers. No one knows the name of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, but we can be reasonably certain it was not Rosaline or Rosalind.
First in poise of all Shakespearean characters, the admirable Rosalind is also his most triumphant, both in her own fate and in what she brings about for others. Twelfth Night is As You Like It’s only rival among Shakespeare’s Romantic comedies, but it lacks Rosalind. The difference may be that As You Like It directly precedes the Hamlet of 1600-1601, while Twelfth Night follows directly after it, and Hamlet made another Rosalind unlikely for Shakespeare. Nietzsche thought Hamlet to be the authentic Dionysiac hero. Though Camille Paglia boldly speculates that Rosalind is a Dionysaic heroine, I am not altogether persuaded. Paglia strongly emphasizes Rosalind’s mercurial temperament, a somewhat different endowment than the one Nietzsche associates with Dionysus. Though anything but an academic feminist, Paglia shares in our current concern with the supposed androgyny of Shakespeare’s heroines who adopt male disguises. Julia, Portia, Rosalind, Viola, Imogen. I cannot assert that I completely apprehend Shakespeare’s vision of human sexuality, yet I distrust both G. Wilson Knight’s and Paglia’s notions as to a bisexual ideal in Shakespeare, though these critics are superb readers. Rosalind in any case hardly seems such a figure, since her sexual desires entirely center upon Orlando, a Herculean wrestler and by no means a diffident young man. Universally attractive, to women as to men (in or out of the audience), she is shrewdly absolute in her choice of Orlando, and she undertakes his amatory education in the role of a preceptor who is determined that he shall graduate. It is extraordinary that a dramatic character could be at once so interesting and so normative as Rosalind is: free of malice; turning her aggressivity neither against herself or against others; free of all resentments, while manifesting a vital curiosity and an exuberant desire.
Orlando is a dreadfully bad poet:
Therefore Heaven Nature charg’d
That one body should be fill’d
With all graces wide-enlarg’d.
Nature presently distill’d
Helen’s cheek, but not her heart,
Atalanta’s better part,
Sad Lucretia’s modesty
Thus Rosalind of many parts
By heavenly synod was devis’d,
Of many faces, eyes, and hearts,
To have the touches dearest priz’d.
And yet Rosalind is as integrated a personality as Shakespeare created: she is not a picnic of selves, as Hamlet sometimes becomes. Her changes unfold persuasively and only deepen the selfsame continuity of her nature. One of the most hideous of our current critical fashions, both academic and journalistic, calls itself sexual politics, and the sexual politicians all urge us to believe that Shakespeare abandons Rosalind to ‘patriarchal male bonds.’ It is not clear to me how Shakespeare could have avoided this supposed desertion of his heroine. Are Rosalind and Celia to marry each other? They don’t want to; Rosalind rushes to Orlando, and Celia (with startling speed) leaps toward the reformed Oliver. Was Shakespeare to kill off the superb Duke Senior, Rosalind’s affectionate father? Or was Rosalind to reject Orlando for Phebe? Let it suffice to affirm that no one else in the plays, not even Falstaff or Hamlet, represents Shakespeare’s own stance toward human nature so fully as Rosalind does. If we can point to his unshadowed ideal, it must be to Rosalind. His ironies, which are Rosalind’s, are subtler and more capacious than ours, and more humane also.
Most commercial stagings of As You Like It vulgarize the play, as though directors fear that audiences cannot be trusted to absorb the agon between the wholesome wit of Rosalind and the rancidity of Touchstone, the bitterness of Jaques. I fear that this is not exactly the cultural moment for Shakespeare’s Rosalind, yet I expect that moment to come again, and yet again, when our various feminisms have become even maturer and yet more successful. Rosalind, least ideological of all dramatic characters, surpasses every other woman in literature in what we could call ‘intelligibility.’ You never get far by terming her a ‘pastoral heroine’ or a ‘Romantic comedian,’ her mind is too large, her spirit too free, to so confine her. She is as immensely superior to everyone else in her play as are Falstaff and Hamlet in theirs. The best starting point truly to apprehend her is a single grand sentence she speaks, when Orlando protests that he will die if she does not have him. I have heard this great line thrown away too often, when actresses suffered bad direction, but clearly delivered it is unforgettable. ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ For wit and wisdom, that can compete with Falstaff at his greatest, after the Lord Chief Justice has chided him for speaking of his ‘youth’: ‘My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head and something of a round belly.’ That affirmation of agelessness is a personal triumph, Rosalind’s triumph is impersonal and overwhelming, and remains the best medicine for all love sick males. ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them’: death is authentic and material, ‘but not for love.’ Falstaff takes the Lord Chief Justice’s complaint, and explodes it with Falstaffian fantasia; Rosalind, an equal master of timing, deflates subtly and definitively the male refusal to grow up.
Chesterton said that ‘Rosalind did not go into the wood to look for her freedom; she went into the wood to look for her father.’ Though I worship Chesterton, that would have surprised Shakespeare; an undisguised Rosalind is not even in her father’s presence until she resumes female garments for her wedding. The search for the father has little importance in As You Like It, and Rosalind’s freedom is central to her. Perhaps, as Marjorie Garber suggests, Rosalind goes into the forest to mature Orlando, to improve him both as a person and as lover. Orlando is actually no more adolescent than most of Shakespeare’s males: did Shakespeare or nature invent the emotional inferiority of men to women? Rosalind is too pragmatic to lament such inequality, and is content to educate Orlando. She shares with Falstaff the educator’s role; Hamlet diagnoses everyone he encounters, and is too impatient to teach them. Rosalind and Falstaff both augment and enhance life, but Hamlet is the gateway through which supernal powers, many of them negative, enter as intimations of mortality. As You Like It is poised before the great tragedies; it is a vitalizing work, and Rosalind is a joyous representative of life’s possible freedoms. The aesthetic representation of happiness demands a complex art; no drama of happiness ever has surpassed Rosalind’s.
To be in love, and yet to see and feel the absurdity of it, one needs to go to school with Rosalind. She instructs us in the miracle of being a harmonious consciousness that is also able to accommodate the reality of another self. Shelley heroically thought that the secret of love was a complete going-out from our own nature into the nature of another; Rosalind sensibly regards this as madness. She is neither High Romantic nor a Platonist: love’s illusions, for her, are quite distinct from the reality of maids knowing that ‘the sky changes when they are wives.’ One might venture to say that Rosalind as an analyst of ‘love’ is akin to Falstaff as an analyst of ‘honor’ – that is to say, of the whole baggage of state power, political intrigue, mock chivalry, and open warfare. The difference is that Rosalind herself is joyously in love and criticizes love from within its realm; Falstaff devastates the pretensions of power, but always from its periphery, and knowing throughout that he will lose Hal to the realities of power. Rosalind’s wit is triumphant yet always measured to its object, while Falstaff’s irreverent mockery is victorious but pragmatically unable to save him from rejection. Both are educational geniuses, and yet Rosalind is Jane Austen to Falstaff’s Samuel Johnson; Rosalind is the apotheosis of persuasion, while Falstaff ultimately conveys the vanity of human wishes.
I have been urging us to see Rosalind in sequence, between Falstaff and Hamlet, just as witty and as wise but trapped neither in history with Falstaff nor in tragedy with Hamlet, and yet larger than her drama even as they cannot be confined to theirs. The invention of freedom must be measured against what encloses or threatens freedom: time and the state for Falstaff, the past and the enemy within for Hamlet. Rosalind’s freedom may seem less consequential because As You Like It brushes aside time and the state, and Rosalind has no tragic sorrows, no Prince Hal, and no Gertrude or Ghost. Rosalind is her own context, unchallenged save for the melancholy Jaques and the rancid Touchstone.
Jaques, poseur as he is, gets some of the best speeches in Shakespeare, who must have had a certain fondness for the fake melancholic. Like Touchstone, Jaques is Shakespeare’s own invention; neither of them figures in the play’s source, Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde. Whatever pleasure Shakespeare took in Jaques and in Touchstone, we are misled if we are persuaded by their negations (many scholars have been susceptible to Touchstone, in particular). Touchstone, authentically witty, is rancidly vicious, while Jaques is merely rancid (the Shakespearean pronunciation of his name plays upon a jakes, or privy). Both of them are in As You Like It to serve as touchstones for Rosalind’s more congenial wit, and she triumphantly puts them in their places. Her amiable triumphalism prefigures Propero’s, as Marjorie Garber suggests, though Rosalind’s mastery is a wholly natural magic, normative and humane, and shall we not call it Shakespeare’s own? Jaques and Touchstone are different but related disasters that the speaker of the Sonnets avoids falling into, despite the provocations to despair amply provided by the fair young lord and the dark lady, the two loves of comfort and despair.
Reductionism, or the tendency to believe that only the worst truth about is true, is a great irritant to Shakespeare, a grim joy to Jaques, and an obscene pleasure to Touchstone. Jaques is both a social satirist and a mocker of Arden; however, society is off stage, and we are in pastoral exile, so that the satirical stance of Ben Jonson is barely available to Jaques. That leaves only Arden, where Touchstone serves both as Jaques’s rival and as his colleague, another malcontent. Touchstone, who is both funnier and cruder, sees country innocence as mere ignorance; Jaques is only a little kinder on this. The major target for both would-be satirists is erotic idealism, or romantic love. but their mutual critique is redundant; Rosalind is both an erotic realist and a superbly benign critic of romantic love, and she makes both malcontents seem inadequate in their chosen modes. She exposes Jaques’s silliness and Touchstone’s absurdity, and thus defends Arden and its affections from an unhealthy reductionism.
Yet Jaques has qualities that partly redeem his silliness, more for us than for Rosalind, since she does not need him. Shakespeare makes us need Jaques by assigning him two great speeches, the first celebrating his meeting with Touchstone.
A fool, a fool! I met a fool I’ th’ forest,
A motley fool, a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool,
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun,
And rail’d on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.
‘Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I. ‘No, sir,’ quoth he,
‘Call me not fool, till heaven hath sent me fortune.’
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it, with lack-lustre eye,
Says, very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock.
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world sags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ‘twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe, and ripe,
And them from hour to hour, we rot, and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.’ Whe I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative;
And I did laugh, sans intermission,
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.
Touchstone, a truant court jester or ‘motley fool,’ refuses the title of fool until fortune has favored him, and puns rather pungently on ‘hour’ and ‘whore.’ Whatever tale hangs upon this rancid hint of venereal infection, we cannot be certain, but Touchstone’s effect upon Jaques is both profound and enigmatic, since it releases Jaques from his obsessive melancholy, for an hour anyway, and revises his sense of role as satirist:
I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please, for so fools have;
And they that are most galled with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why sir must they so?
The why is plain as way to parish church.
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob. If not,
The wiseman’s folly is anatomiz’d
Even by the squand’ring glances of the fool.
Invest me in my motley. Give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.
Shakespeare seems to glance slyly here at his friend Ben Jonson, and perhaps also conveys something of his own insight into the court fool’s dramatic possibilities, an insight that will be developed in the Feste of Twelfth Night and the great nameless Fool of King Lear. Duke Senior is quick to retort that the Jonsonian Jaques himself has manifested the flaws he now would censure:
Most mischevious foul sin, in chiding sin.
For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself,
And all th’embossed sores and headed evils
That thou with license of free foot hast caught
Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world.
Jaques defends himself with a Jonsonian apologia for the satirical playwright, who attacks types and not individuals. This defense is the transition to As You Like It’s most famous speech, where Jaques gives his own dramatic version of the Seven Ages of Man:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Powerful enough out of context, this speech has a very subtle reverberation within the play, since it enhances our sense of Jaques’s reductionism. Jaques knows, as we do, that all infants do not necessarily bawl and puke, and that all schoolboys do not whine. The lover and the soldier are better served by Jaques’s satirical eloquence, and we can imagine Falstaff laughing at those ‘seeking the bubble reputation/Even in the cannon’s mouth.’ Shakespeare, an inveterate litigator, invests considerable gusto in the reference to the well-known practice of stuffing judges with capons. Himself only in the middle of the journey, at thirty-five, Shakespeare (perhaps intuiting that two-thirds of his life was already over) envisions the silly old Pantalone of commedia dell’arte as a universal fate, preluding the second childhood of all humans who survive long enough: ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ That last line is Jaques’s triumph, it being a natural reductionism that even Sir John Falstaff could not dispute, and yet Shakespeare does, by entering as old Adam (a part, as I’ve noted, he himself performed). Orlando staggers onto the stage, carrying his benign old retainer, who has sacrificed everything for him, and yet who is precisely not ‘sans everything.’ The rebuke to Jaques’s reductionism scarcely could be more persuasive than Adam’s quasi-paternal love for and loyalty to Orlando.”
So…what do you all think so far? For me…I’m loving it. Perfect end of the year/holiday season play.
Our next reading: As You Like It, Act Three
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning