As You Like It
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Touchstone, meanwhile, has decided to marry Audrey, and rejects William, her current suitor. For his part, Oliver has fallen for Celia/Aliena, and agrees to marry her in front of Duke Senior the next day, leaving his estate to Orlando. Rosalind, still in the guise of Ganymede, promises Orlando that she will make his beloved appear by magic, and they will be married too. She also guarantees success to Silvius if he turns up with Phoebe. The big day arrives, and while everyone prepares, the disguised Rosalind and Celia slip out, before returning in their own clothes and accompanied, (somewhat surprisingly) by Hymen. Loose ends are tied up, and weddings finalized – Rosalind to Orlando, Celia to Oliver, Audrey to Touchstone, and, lastly, Phoebe (who finally realizes she can’t marry Ganymede) to Silvius. All are leaving joyfully when news arrives that Frederick has become a hermit, (!) leaving the kingdom in Duke Senior’s rightful hands.
Any problems left in Act Four are, fittingly, resolved by Rosalind in Act Five. Gathering everyone together – promising to Orlando that she will produce Rosalind as if by magic, and guaranteeing to Phoebe that ‘I will marry you if ever I marry woman’ – she orchestrates what turns out to be a veritable flurry of weddings officiated over by no less a presence than that of the god of marriage, Hymen. Even so, Rosalind is not permitted to end the play, just as its characters know that they cannot remain in Arden forever. Addressing the lovers, Hymen insists, “‘Tis I must make conclusion/Of these most strange events”:
Whiles a wedlock hymn we sing
Feed yourself with questioning,
That reason wonder may diminish
How thus we met, and these things finish.
However our ‘wonder’ diminishes, it will not disappear entirely, As You Like It deliberately teases its audience with the highest marriage-count of any Shakespearean comedy, yet asks us to believe in each and every one.
To conclude Camille Paglia’s take:
“At the climax of As You Like It, Rosalind constructs a ceremony of farewell to her androgynous self. It is her moment of maximum wit or creative intelligence. The play’s romantic entanglements are in total confusion. Rosalind proclaims that by ‘magic’ she will deliver to each person his or her heart’s desire. The revelation of her own identity and gender is the key: As You Like It ends in an alchemical experiment where Rosalind, as the hermaphroditic Mercurius, transmutes the play’s characters and destines, including her own. The magnum opus begins with a chant, a spell or litany of erotic fixation and frustration. The lines go round and round in circle magic, rings of the alchemical uroboros. (V.ii.82-118, iv.116-24). The play proposes a riddle, as snarled as the Gordian knot. Rosalind’s personality, self-displayed resolves these dismaying intricacies. When she appears undisguised, Rosalind is the surprise conclusion to an elegant sexual syllogism. Her shamanistic epiphany reorders the erotic chaos of the play. This Sphinx answers her own riddle. Oedipus’ reply, ‘Man,’ works again, for Rosalind is the anthropos or perfected man of alchemy.
Rosalind’s hybrid gender and perpetual transformations are the quicksilver of the alchemical Mercurius, who had the rainbow colors of the peacock’s tail. Jung says Mercurius as quicksilver symbolizes ‘the ‘fluid,’ i.e., mobile intellect.’ Mercurius, like Rosalind, is ‘both material and spiritual.’ Rosalind’s spirituality is her purity, purpose, and romantic fidelity; her materiality is her realism and mordant pragmatism. An alchemical treatise of the early seventeenth century is called Atalanta Fugiens, ‘Atalanta in flight.’ It makes the swift huntress a metaphor for the ‘strength of the volatile Mercury.’ As You Like It compares Rosalind to Atalanta and identifies wit with speed: ‘All thoughts…are winged.’ In her emotional reserve and verbal agility, Rosalind is an Atalanta fugiens. The Philosopher’s Stone or hermaphroditic rebis of alchemy often has wings, which Jung interprets as ‘intuition or spiritual (winged) potentiality. Both masculine and feminine, Rosalind is a Mercurius of swift, sovereign intelligence. Speed as hermaphroditic transcendence: we see this in Vergil’s Amazon Camilla and Giambologna’s ephebic Mercury in ecstatic flight.
Rosalind is the catalyst of As You Like It, the magic elixir transmuting base into noble metals. The editor of Atalanta Fugiens remarks, ‘Mercurius is the mercury in which the metals have to be dissolved, reduced to the primary matter before they can become gold.’ The rebis we noted, is often shown as incestuous brother and sister. Shakespeare alters the forest roles of Lodge’s Rosalynde and Aliena (Celia) from page and mistress to brother and sister, as if to facilitate an alchemical analogy. This change does not preclude eroticism, in view of the lesbian tinge to Rosalind and Celia’s friendship. As first cousins, they too risk incest. The primary transactions undertaken by Shakespeare’s Mercurius are the Sylvius-Phebe romance (which turns triangle) and the bamboozling of the lovelorn Orlando. These alchemical experiments, in the closed glass retort of the play, succeed. Like Nero, Rosalind experiments with person and place. But hers is white rather than black magic, leading to love and marriage rather than debauchery and death. Lodge’s Rosalynde claims to have a friend ‘deeply experienced in necromancy and magic,’ but Shakespeare’s Rosalind boldly arrogates these occult powers to herself. Rosalind is both producer and star of the finale. Her hierarchically most commanding moment is paradoxically the one where she ritually lays aside her hermaphroditism to take up the socialized persona of obedient wife to Orlando. Her incantatory speech in female dress ceremonially restores heterosexual normalcy to the play. In it she names and cleanses her major social relationships, then reifies them. A new social structure is being constructed, with her father reinvested with his ducal authority. ‘Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame,’ sings Jaques in the forest, a nonsense word bemusing scholars. I say, the duke is a dame. Rosalind, as much as her uncle, has usurped her father’s manhood. Now she surrenders what is not hers to reclaim her own sex.
Rosalind’s magic is real, for she produces Hymen, the marriage spirit who enters with her in the last scene. Hyman is a prominent figure in court masque, but he is conspicuously out of place in a Shakespeare play. He is an embarrassment to modern commentators on the play, who ignore him whenever possible. Why this allegorical invasion of the naturalistic As You Like It? First of all, Hymen symbolizes the mass marriages which end Shakespearean comedy. He is reconciliation and social harmony, knitting the classes and leading the banished characters back to the redeemed city. But Hymen is also a by-product of the play’s psychoalchemy. The alchemical operation had two parts: distillation and sublimination. Hymen, traditionally depicted as a beautiful young man, is a sexual sublimate. He is the emanation or double of Rosalind herself. He is the ghost of her maleness, exorcised but lingering on to preside over the exit from Arden. Shakespeare’s technique here is allegorical repletion, the term I invented for Leonardo’s The Virgin with St. Anne. Hymen’s odd doubling of Rosalind is like Leonardo’s awkward photographic superimposition of two female figures. Sexual personae flood the eye. The characters of As You Like It stand startled. Hymen is their collectively projected mental image of the transvestite Rosalind, now only a memory. Hymen is a visible distillation of her transsexual experience. In her romantic conspiracies, Rosalind has impersonated Hymen and hence evoked his presence. As the Mercurius who overcomes sexual duality and perfects base materials, she possesses the magnetic power of concord, ensuring the integrity of Renaissance social order.
Rosalind is, to borrow a phrase from Paracelsus, ‘a fiery and perfect Mercury extracted by Nature and Art.’ She reinterprets the classical Amazon, making physical prowess intellectual. Rosalind is Shakespeare’s version of Spenser’s glamorous androgynes. Britomart’s flashing armour and flaming sword become Rosalind’s unanswerable wit. Shakespeare’s transvestite heroine has masculine pride, verve, and cool aristocratic control – scarcely to be found in today’s simplistic, innoculous Rosalinds. The ideal Rosalind must have both lyricism and force. There must be intelligence, depth, spontaneity, something quick and vivacious, with a hint of the wild and uncontrolled. The girl-boy Rosalind is in Atalanta-flight from mood to mood, an adolescent skittishness. The closest thing I have ever seen to Shakespeare’s authentic Rosalind is Patricia Charbonneau’s spirited performance as a coltish Reno cowgirl in Donna Deitch’s film Desert Hearts (1985), based on a lesbian love story by Jane Rule.
Rosalind as Mercurius has a quick smile and mobile eye. Shakespeare’s view of women is revolutionary. Unlike Belphoebe or Britomart, Rosalind has a jovial inner landscape. It is not Spenser’s grim arena of virtue’s battle with vice. This landscape is airy and pleasant, full of charm and surprise. Rosalind’s self-pleasuring is not like Mona Lisa’s. No daemonic fog of solipsism hangs over her. Rosalind has an invigorating alertness. She is not smugly half-asleep, like Leonardo’s Renaissance woman. Mona Lisa still has the baleful Gorgon eye of archaic archetype. She burns us with her glance. The daemonic eye sees nothing but its prey. It seeks power, the fascism of nature. But Rosalind’s socialized eye moves to see. It takes things in. Hers are not the lustful rolling eyes of Spenser’s femmes fatales, which slither, pierce, and possess. Rosalind’s eye honors the integrity of objects and persons. Its mobility signals a mental processing of information, the visible sign of western intelligence. In Spencer, we saw, the virtuous eye is rigidly controlled. Until our century, a respectable woman kept her eyes modestly averted. Shakespeare legitimizes bold mobility of the female eye and identifies it with imagination. Rosalind’s eye is truly perceptive: it both sees and understands. Shakespeare’s great heroine unites multiplicity of gender, persona, word, eye, and thought.”
And from Harold Bloom, picking up from where I left off in my last post:
“Only Rosalind and Orlando could sustain their finest exchange, as their play-of-two concludes:
Why then tomorrow I cannot serve your term for Rosalind?
I can live no longer by thinking.
Again, despite the critics, Orlando’s tone is light rather than desperate, but sexual urgency is well conveyed, and signals that he is ready to graduate from Rosalind’s school. Are we? Rosalie Colie noted that ‘the love at the center of the play is not a particularly pastoral love,’ which helps save As You Like It from the death of the pastoral convention. William Empson, in his classic Some Versions of Pastoral, returns to the First Folio text of Touchstone’s ironic address to Audrey:
No trulie: for the truest poetrie is the most faining, and Lovers are given to Poetrie: and what they swear in Poetrie, may be said as Lovers, they do feigne.
The pun on faining (desiring) and feign (simulate or pretend), highly appropriate for Touchstone and Audrey, would not work if we applied it to Rosalind and Orlando, since their desire and playacting are one, even when Orlando cries out that he can live no longer by thinking. The subtlest moment in this masterpiece of all Shakespearean comedies comes in the Epilogue, where the boy actor playing Rosalind steps out before the curtain, still in costume, to give us her final triumph of affectionate wit, of faining and feigning in harmony:
It is not the fashion to see the lady in the epilogue; but it is no more handsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs no bush, ‘tis true that a good play needs no epilogue. Yet to good wine they do use good bushes; and good plays prove the better with the help of good epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am neither a good epilogue, nor cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play? I am not furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not become me. My way is to conjure you, and I’ll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as pleas you. And I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women – as I perceive by your simpering none of you hates them – that between you and the women the play may please. If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
In these curious days for literary criticism, this Epilogue stirs up the expected transports of transvestism and transgression, but such raptures have little to do with Shakespeare’s Rosalind and her final words. I prefer Edward I. Berry, who is splendidly on target:
‘As the director and ‘busy actor’ in her own ‘play,’ and the Epilogue in Shakespeare’s, Rosalind becomes in a sense a figure for the playwright himself, a character whose consciousness extends in subtle ways beyond the boundaries of the drama.’
Rosalind again makes a third with Falstaff and Hamlet, also figures for Shakespeare himself. ‘Play out the play!’ Falstaff cries to Hal, ‘I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff.’ ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,’ Hamlet admonishes the Player King. ‘I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women,’ Rosalind adroitly pleads, ‘that between you and the women the play may please.’ The voice in all three, at just that moment, is as close as Shakespeare ever will come to letting us hear the voice of William Shakespeare himself.”
And finally, from James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, another view of the play’s final moments:
“In the final scene of the play, Shakespeare pulls out all the stops. There is nothing in his earlier works – or indeed in earlier scenes of As You Like It – to prepare audiences for this grand finale. He had taken naturalism unusually far in this artificial pastoral, but, as he subsequently showed in his late romances, naturalism, too, had its limits and was not an end to itself. Rosalind (as ‘Ganymede’) slips offstage, promising to return and magically produce the actual Rosalind. She returns, along with Hymen, god of marriage. This divine intervention is unnecessary, for Shakespeare had resolved all outstanding conflicts. Shakespeare again offers his audience more than they expected, for the scene is the first masque in his work, anticipating by roughly a decade those in The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. Bridging the divide between courtly and popular theater, Shakespeare makes available to ordinary playgoers a taste of the expensive and spectacular symbolic drama of the court.
Modern directors, drawn to the play’s naturalism, are mystified by the Masque of Hymen and most go to any length to work around it, playing it as a joke rather than the transcendent scene Shakespeare had written. Nowadays, as often as not, the actor playing Corin or another minor rustic character recites Hymen’s lines and the scene becomes a little playlet directed with a wink and a nod by Rosalind. From the perspective of these directors, the play has already worked its magic, and they’re at a loss to deal with Shakespeare cutting back across the grain, introducing a god in his search for a more profound comic pattern.
While we don’t know what audiences made of it four hundred years ago at the Globe, we do know that the Masque of Hymen marshals all the special effects that Shakespeare had at his command. The stage directions don’t make clear how Hymen enters, but there’s a possibility that, like the divine entrances in Shakespeare’s late plays, Hymen appears from above, descending in a throne from the cover of the Globe’s stage. If so, it shows off for the first time at the Globe the stage technology previously unavailable to Shakespeare company at the Theatre or Curtain. Hymen enters to the sound of ‘still music’ and intones:
Peace, ho! I bar confusion.
‘Tis I must make conclusion
Of these most strange events
Here’s eight that must take hands
To join in Hymen’s bands,
If truth holds true contents.
The four pairs of lovers – Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Phoebe and Silvius, and Audrey and Touchstone – come forward and are confirmed in their vows and a final song follows, celebrating the act of marriage that is at the heart of comedy:
Wedding is great Juno’s crown,
O blessed bond of board and bed!
‘Tis hymen peoples every town;
High wedlock then be honored.
Honor, high honor, and renown,
To Hymen, god of every town!
Duke Senior, following up on Hymen’s order that the eight lovers ‘must take hands,’ calls for the formal dance that symbolically ends both masque and play, specifying ‘measures’ or a stately court dance like a pavan: ‘Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,/With measure heaped in joy, to th’measures fall.’ Shakespeare seems to have gone a step further here than he had recently done with the ending of Julius Caesar. After seeing Julius Caesar at the Globe, Thomas Platter recorded in his notebook that ‘at the end of the play they danced together admirably and exceedingly gracefully, according to their custom, two in each group dressed in men’s and two in women’s apparel.’ Alan Brisenden persuasively argues that the extremely elegant (‘uberausz sierlich’) dance Platter describes was mostly like a court dance, such as ‘pavan, almain, or even the faster coranto.’ The formal dance tagged on to the end of Julius Caesar in lieu of a jig had become with As You Like It part of the fabric of the play itself.
If this were not enough to absorb, one last innovation follows, for the play ends but doesn’t stop here. Once the dance is over and the other characters exit, the young actor who played Rosalind steps forward to interact with the audience directly, in an epilogue. The audience would have been shocked by this, and the actor must begin by defending why ‘Rosalind’ defies convention in this way: ‘It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue.’ Now that the play is over, does this young actor recite these lines in his own voice or is he still playing a woman’s part? If he hasn’t dropped his voice a register (speaking, say, as ‘Ganymede;) or taken off his wig, how are we to know if we are supposed to be hearing a man or a woman? Halfway through the epilogue the actor himself takes up this delicate question, making unambiguous that, though still dressed as a woman, he’s really a young man: ‘If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not.’ Though he assures us that he’s not a woman, seconds later he curtsies rather than bows to us. This is more realism than we bargained for. But Shakespeare is quick to remind us, as human as we feel Rosalind is, there’s a young actor who really is human and deserves our applause; Rosalind is a fiction and realism a convention, an illusion. To the very end, Shakespeare insists that we share the play’s skepticism about conventionality. One last time he confounds our expectations, forcing us to abandon the self-satisfaction that comes from watching the characters discover in the end what we knew all along. Rosalind’s last conditional “If’ (a word repeated about once a minute in the play) reminds us that unlike comic closure, real life is open-ended and provisional.
Nowhere else in his works does Shakespeare break the frame in quite so disconcerting a way, confronting us with the fact that we are watching cross-dressed actors and that we are complicit in the lie upon which Elizabethan theater depends. Even as we believe that Shakespeare’s plays are made of truth, he reminds us that we know he lies. We are left, in the end, in Orlando’s shoes: educated and delighted by Rosalind, forgetful at times that we are listening to a boy playing the part of a woman, and in danger of being a bit too comfortable with conventions, with how we like it.
The suppression of simple truth – cousin to what Coleridge called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ – turns out to be at the core of the theatrical experience. In exchange for forgetting that Rosalind is really a boy playing a woman’s part, we, like Orlando, are rewarded with more complex truths. In the end, play is what’s real, and in the epilogue, Rosalind – or whoever it is that is speaking to us – won’t let us forget it: ‘I play as please you; and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women – as I perceive by your simpering, none of you hates them – that between you and the women the play may please.’ Jaques had it right: all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. The epilogue is an assertive ending to a daring play. Shakespeare had offered more and demanded more in return. If playgoers missed the point, it would have been underscored for them a final time as they filed out of the new theater. On the sign the Chamberlain’s Men displayed outside the Globe was a reminder: ‘Totus mundus agit histrionem’ – we’re all players.”
So what do you all think? Share your thoughts with the group!
Here’s our schedule for the next few weeks: I’m planning on two more posts regarding As You Like It – one with highlights from Tanner, Garber, Goddard, etc. The following post will come from actress Rebecca Hall, talking about the challenges of playing Rosalind. Following that we’ll have a Sonnet, and then…I’m going to take a little holiday break (although I might post a couple of fun things during that time) before we all start Hamlet after the 1st of the year.
Obviously, that’s going to be a big one, so I have a question for you all about scheduling and posting. I was thinking a longer period for each act (if I assign, let’s say, Act One in the Sunday evening post, we’ll move on to Act Two in the Thursday evening post), and instead of doing long blog posts, maybe I’ll do a shorter post every day for Hamlet (and, if it works for everyone else, for the rest of the major tragedies as well). What do you think would work best for you? Leave a comment and let me know…