As You Like It
By Dennis Abrams
In my last post, we looked at Marjorie Garber’s perspective on As You Like It, ending with the first answer to the question: “Why doesn’t Rosalind reveal her identity to Orlando?’ Here, we see Garber’s second answer:
“But what about the second reason for Rosalind’s remaining as ‘Ganymede,’ the reason, or set of reasons that might be connected to the unconscious, to desire, and to the realm of symbol? ‘Ganymede,’ like the changeling boy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is what we call a phantasmatic placeholder. He, or she, is that with which people fall in love. And Ganymede – it is time to take him out of quotation marks – has a quite distinct reality within the play, whether or not we call him, as Orlando does, by the name of ‘Rosalind.’ Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede, and so perhaps does Orlando – but no one wins Ganymede at the close. After the ‘holiday humor’ of the play, the marriages blessed by Hymen, who ‘peoples every town,’ are, apparently, somewhat more conventional pairings: Silvius and Phoebe, Touchstone and Audrey, Orlando and Rosalind. When the play presents Rosalind finally as both ‘Rosalind’ and a boy actor – a little like Snug the joiner in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with his head protruding from the lion’s costume – where is Ganymede? A boy actor playing a woman dressed as a boy, and demanding to be addressed as ‘Rosalind,’ Ganymede is necessary to falling in love. We could almost say that Ganymede is love in As You Like It, or in the world of ‘as you like it.’ Phoebe, and Audrey, and Rosalind herself were all played by boy actors on Shakespeare’s stage, but the magic of Ganymede is not reducible to the gender conventions of the Elizabethan playhouse. Ganymede is that which escapes – the extra something, or something missing, that is the ‘overestimation of the object’ associated with falling in love.
As is usually the case when Shakespeare populates his plays with several pairs of lovers, the characteristics of each pair balance the others. Thus, for example, the overidealized infatuation of Silvius for Phoebe is balanced by what might be called the underidealized, or overly pragmatic, relationship between Touchstone and Audrey. Each of these eccentric pairs represents an aspect of, and a potential danger for, Rosalind and Orlando – and, indeed, for Celia and Oliver. Silvius is a kind of Orlando to excess, a spirit of pure doting, in love with love as well as with the disdainful Phoebe. He is the typical sighing shepherd of pastoral, and also the typical love-struck lover. And it is Silvius whom Rosalind first encounters in the forest, pouring out his tale of love to the old man Corin in a sequence that will develop as a dialogue about lovers’ amiable vices. The young shepherd-old shepherd dialogue is, again, a staple of pastoral poetry, appearing, for example, in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender. But another model for this conversation, more dramatic and potentially more tragic, is the colloquy in Romeo and Juliet between Romeo and Friar Lawrence in the friar’s cell. There Romeo, like Silvius in As You Like It, finally rejects his old counselor as one who has not loved.
How many actions most ridiculous
Hath thou been drawn to by thy fantasy?
Into a thousand that I have forgotten.
O, thou didst then never love so heartily.
If thou rememberest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in thy mistress’ praise,
Thou hast not loved.
O Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe!
Rosalind, an unseen spectator to this little dialogue, exclaims feelingly, ‘Alas, poor shepherd, searching of thy wound,/I have my hard adventure found my own,’ and is quickly matched, and at the same time undercut, by Touchstone, ‘And I mine. I remember when I was in love I broke my sword upon a stone and bid him take that for coming a-night to Jane Smile, and I remember the kissing of her batlet, and the cow’s dugs that her pretty chopped hands had milked.’ Here is the whole spectrum of love, from Silvius’s romantic excess to Touchstone’s cynical realism, with Rosalind, as she will so often find herself, in the middle, sympathetic but not excessive. She knows the follies and pains of love, but she also knows its limits. When Phoebe scorns the adoring and available Silvius in favor of the elusive and unattainable Ganymede, Rosalind will admonish Silvius, ‘Tis not her glass but you that flatters her,/And out of you she sees herself more proper/Than any of her lineaments can show her.’ Silvius is now a mirror, Phoebe’s flattering glass. And as for Phoebe:
[M]istress, know yourself; down on your knees
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love;
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can. You are not for all markets.
Phoebe is not so far away as she thinks herself from the rams and she-lambs being mated by Corin. Love is a real as well as an ideal commitment. In fact, Rosalind functions throughout the play as the voice of common sense as well as of passion. She has something of Juliet’s lyricism, something of Portia’s wit and worldly wisdom, and something of Teste’s license to be rude. She does not hold herself aloof from love, but can be as eager a participant as she is a judicious critic. When Celia teases her about Orlando, revealing that she has encountered him in the forest, Rosalind’s response is immediate and unfeigning, a torrent of questions:
Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose! What did he when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein was he? What makes me here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted with thee? And when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.
‘Answer me in one word’ is the closest Rosalind gets to excess, a desire to cram all the world’s responses, all possible information about the beloved Orlando, into a single moment in time. (We may contrast this with Orlando’s own initial speechlessness.) Celia can hardly get a word in edgewise: Every time she tries to resume her narrative, Rosalind interrupts her with a question, or a smug lover’s observation. Remember that she is – as she playfully laments – dressed in her man’s clothes. Every once in a while, therefore, she will interject a reminder about her ‘real’ gender: ‘Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak. – Sweet, say on.’ The play is careful to keep reminding the audience of this circumstance (Rosalind/Ganymede grows faint, for example, at the sight of blood). The purpose is not to emphasize a woman’s weakness as contrasted with a man’s strength, but rather to keep all the plates spinning in the air (a boy playing a woman playing a boy playing a woman…). And throughout, we hear the clear voice of Rosalind, surprisingly wise in her understanding of love. One moment she will explain – as will Juliet, and later Cleopatra, in their plays – that love is necessarily akin to excess.
O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love. But it cannot be sounded. My affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal.
The next moment, tempering Orlando’s Petrarchan extravagance, she will take pleasure in deflating him. When Orlando tells Ganymede that he would die for Rosalind he gets an astringent reply: ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ Like ‘Sell when you can,’ this is advice from the working-day, not the holiday, world.
But if Rosalind is Ganymede as much as Ganymede is Rosalind – if the boy actor at the close represents another one of the play’s imponderable ‘if’s’ – then questions of gender and sexuality will also come under the rubric of ‘as you like it,’ and the play emerges as not only a fantasy of genre, a pastoral fantasy, but also a fantasy about gender, a fantasy, that is, about the very nature of human desire.
So the love pair of Rosalind and Orlando are framed by the instructive – and amusing – examples of other lovers. On one side is the romantic excess of Silvius and Phoebe, and indeed of Orlando himself. On the other side, offering, as we have noted, a necessary balance, is the carnality of Touchstone: ‘As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling.’ In an exchange indicative of the comical cross-purposes with which he and Audrey often speak, he defines ‘poetry’ as a kind of ‘feigning,’ or lying, and wishes she were ‘poetical’ for strictly unliterary reasons; ‘for thou swearest to me thou art honest. Now if thou wert a poet, I might have some hope thou didst feign.’ So much, Touchstone suggests, for the pretensions of poets. Orlando’s penchant for poeticizing has already been noted by Jaques, who at one point takes his leave with the startling and frame-breaking observation, ‘God b’wi’you an you talk in blank verse.’ (Shakespeare here anticipates in As You Like It the famous discovery by Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme that he has been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it.) Touchstone’s genial earthiness – ‘Come, sweet Audrey,/We must be married, or we must live in bawdry’ – calls attention to the importance of sexual desire, at the same time that it marks the dangers of ‘bawdry.’ The false marriage by the hedge-priest with the wonderful name Sir Oliver Martext, like the moving but unofficial marriage ceremony between two young ‘men,’ Ganymede and Orlando, is succeeded by a cluster of ceremonial unions: Phoebe and Silvius, Celia and Oliver, Rosalind and Orlando. Among this genteel company Touchstone will intrude himself to make a fourth pair: ‘I press in here, sir, amomgst the rest of the country copulatives, to swear, and to forswear.’
Poetry is traditionally associated with timelessness, and social life, marriage, and procreation with the world of ongoing time. The wedding song at the end of the play points, significantly, to human as well as seasonal renewal, and to urban as well as country life: ‘Tis Hymen people’s every town.’ Of all Shakespeare’s plays, none has more – or more beautiful songs, and the five songs in As You Like It perform something of the same function as the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, containing and defusing both emotional and potential tragedy. Amien sings:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although the breath be rude
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky.
That doest not bite so nigh.
As benefits forgot.
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
This is a statement of the difference between ‘nature’ and humanity. We have noted that it predicts, in a few simple lines, the plot and major imagery of one of Shakespeare’s most profound and powerful tragedies, King Lear. But in As You Like It, where things can be ‘as you like it,’ this song is sung as an entertainment. The wind does not blow while it is sung, nor does the bitter sky freeze, any more than the lion attacks Thisbe. (And, as Bottom intends to assure his audience, ‘Pyramus is not killed indeed.’) The dangers and the evils of the world are encapsulated in song, and therefore controlled by art. But the play’s songs, taken as a series or a cycle, have another function as well, traversing the distance between winter and spring, from the coldness of repression and banishment to the springtime of love, marriage, and a reinvigorated social order. Thus the songs progress from ‘Under the greenwood tree’ (‘Here shall he see/No enemy/but winter and rough weather’) to ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ to ‘What shall he have that killed the deer?’ – a song about the festivities of hunting that is, at the same time, an explicit, if joking, acknowledgment of human sexuality and the dangers of cuckoldry, here seen as a ‘natural’ crest of heraldic badge, older than any aristocracy:
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn;
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father’s father wore it,
And thy father bore it.
The lovely song of the fifth act will celebrate the return of spring, love, and marriage:
It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass
In springtime, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey-ding-a-ding ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.
Like the more schematic songs of Winter and Spring that end Love’s Labour’s Lost, these songs mark the pattern of cyclical renewal in art, in nature, and in human eroticism and love. The play ends, as we should expect, with a reminder of the working-day world, the world beyond the forest. Duke Senior will regain his lands and his dukedom; Orlando will become the Duke’s heir; Oliver and Orlando will take up their roles in the world, the crisis created by primogeniture here having been averted by Orlando’s fortunate marriage to a duke’s daughter. Jaques alone will remain behind, absenting himself from the rustic revelry of the traditional marriage round: ‘I am for other than for dancing measures.’
And yet, as the play begins to move toward its ending, there comes a crucial moment, the moment when Orlando learns that his brother and Celia have fallen in love and will marry. Now, for the first time, he is dissatisfied with his love games. Now, in a moment that is for him a real rite of passage, he wants the real Rosalind, and the real love. ‘O,’ he says to Rosalind/Ganymede, ‘how bitter a thing is it so look into happiness through another man’s eyes.’ And this exchange follows:
Why, then, tomorrow I cannot serve your turn for Rosalind?
I can live no longer by thinking.
This is the key phrase, the final turning point for Orlando: ‘I can live no longer by thinking’ – that is, by imagining or fantasizing. In this moment he speaks the magic word, the open sesame, the formula that breaks the spell, returning the play to ‘reality’ – and returning ‘Rosalind’ (the role played by Ganymede) to Rosalind.
For if that is really his wish, says Ganymede, seizing on the moment, it can be fulfilled. “I have since I was three year old conversed with a magician, most profound in his art, but not damnable’ – a good magician. And the powers learned from that magician will make it possible to produce the real Rosalind ‘human as she is,’ before his eyes tomorrow, ‘and without any danger.’ Orlando is nonplussed. ‘Speakest thou in sober meanings?’ he asks, and Rosalind/Ganymede replies, ‘By my life, I do, which I tender dearly, though I say I am a magician.’
The denouement unfolds in a familiar romance manner, as the Duke begins to note some marks of resemblance between Ganymede and his daughter. Orlando agrees, but explains, with the wrongheaded superiority that Shakespeare often gives to his young lovers and then forgives in them, that ‘this boy is forest-born,/And hath been tutored in the rudiments/Of many desperate studies by his uncle,/Whom he reports to be a great magician/Obscured in the circle of the forest.’ The magic trick that Rosalind says she will perform is in fact the restoration of reality, producing Rosalind ‘before his eye,’ where she has always been. The magic, that is, is at once the magic of love and the magic of theater. And yet is well to point out that this unmasking is also a re-masking. Which is the ‘human’ truth – the boy actor or the female character?
That Rosalind is a magician is a point she will make, once again, in her epilogue, one of the most compelling moments of Shakespearean stage management in any of the plays. ‘My way is to conjure you,’ she will say, reappearing onstage in her women’s clothes. As it never does to try to upstage Shakespeare, we should permit his remarkable character to have the last word here, bearing in mind all the boundaries that she traverses as she does so, standing on the end of the stage, at the end of the play, poised between playing-space and pit, between actors and audience, between female and male, woman and boy. In a modern all-male version of this play I had the good fortune to witness, the actor playing Rosalind dropped his voice at ‘if I were a woman.’ (The effect was very similar to the moment, in a modern production of The Tempest, when the actor playing Prospero, delivering his epilogue, deliberately lost the amplified power of the microphone, leaving him with a voice that was simply, and only, human.) Here is Rosalind:
It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true that the 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 by 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 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. 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, of sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
From Samuel Johnson:
“General Observation. Of this play the fable is wild and pleasing. I know not how the ladies will approve the facility with which both Rosalind and Celia give away their hearts. To Celia much may be forgiven for the heroism of her friendship. The character of Jaques is natural and well preferred. The comick dialogue is very sprightly, with less mixture of low buffoonery than in some other plays; and the graver part is elegant and harmonious. By hastening to the end of his work, Shakespeare suppressed the dialogue between the usurper and the hermit, and lost an opportunity of exhibiting a moral lesson in which he might have found matter worthy of his highest powers.”
And I think I’ll give the final word on the play itself to one of the greatest of all Shakespeare critics, William Hazlitt:
Shakespeare has here 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 arises 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 is 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 breathe 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 or petulance.
And this their life, exempt from public haunts,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Jaques is the only purely contemplative character in Shakespeare. He thinks, and does nothing. His whole occupation is to amuse his mind, and he is totally regardless of his body and his fortunes. He is the prince of philosophical idlers; his only passion is thought; he sets no value upon anything but as it serves as food for reflection. He can ‘suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs’; the motley fool, ‘who morals on the time’, is the greatest prize he meets with in the forest. He resents Orlando’s passion for Rosalind as some disparagement of his own passion for abstract truth; and leaves the Duke, as soon as he is restored to his sovereignty, to seek his brother out, who has quitted it, and turned hermit.
–Out of these convertites
There is much matter to be heard and learnt.
Within the sequestered and romantic glades of the Forest of Arden, they find leisure to be good and wise, or to play the fool and fall in love. Rosalind’s character is made up of sportive gaiety and natural tenderness: her tongue runs the faster to conceal the pressure at her heart. She talks herself out of breath, only to get deeper in love. The coquetry with which she plays with her lover in the double character which she has to support is managed with the nicest address. How Full of voluble, laughing grace is all her conversation with Orlando:
–In heedless mazes running
With wanton haste and giddy cunning.
How full of real fondness and pretended cruelty is her answer to him when he promises to love her ‘For ever and a day’!
Say a day without the ever: 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: I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen; more clamorous than a parrot against rain; more newfangled than an ape; more giddy in my desires than a monkey; I will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and that when you are inclined to sleep.
Orlando. But will my Rosalind do so?
Rosalind. By my life she will do as I do.
The silent and retired character of Celia is a necessary relief to the provoking loquacity of Rosalind, nor can anything be better conceived or more beautifully described than the mutual affection between the two cousins:
–We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together,
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
The unrequited love of Silvius for Phebe shows the perversity of this passion in the commonest scenes of life, and the rubs and stops which nature throws in its way, where fortune has placed none. Touchstone is not in love, but he will have a mistress as a subject for the exercise of his grotesque humour, and to show his contempt for the passion, by his indifference about the person. He is a rare fellow. He is a mixture of the ancient cynic philosopher with the modern buffoon, and turns folly into wit, and wit into folly, just as the fit takes him. His courtship of Audrey not only throws a degree of ridicule on the state of wedlock itself, but he is equally an enemy to the prejudices of opinion in other respects. The lofty tone of enthusiasm, which the Duke and his companions in exile spread over the stillness and solitude of a country life, receives a pleasant shock from Touchstone’s sceptical determination of the question.
Corin. And how like you this shepherd’s life, Mr. Touchstone?
Clown. Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life;
but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In
respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect
that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is
in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in
the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, took you, it
fits my humour; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes
much against my stomach.
Zimmennan’s celebrated work on Solitude discovers only half the sense of this passage.
There is hardly any of Shakespeare’s plays that contains a greater number of passages that have been quoted in books of extracts, or a greater number of phrases that have become in a manner proverbial. If we were to give all the striking passages, we should give half the play. We will only recall a few of the most delightful to the reader’s recollection. Such are the meeting between Orlando and Adam, the exquisite appeal of Orlando to the humanity of the Duke and his company to supply him with food for the old man, and their answer, the Duke’s description of a country life, and the account of Jaques moralizing on the wounded deer, his meeting with Touchstone in the forest, his apology for his own melancholy and his satirical vein, and the well-known speech on the stages of human life, the old song of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter’s wind’, Rosalind’s description of the marks of a lover and of the progress of time with different persons, the picture of the snake wreathed round Oliver’s neck while the lioness watches her sleeping prey, and Touchstone’s lecture to the shepherd, his defence of cuckolds, and panegyric on the virtues of ‘an If.–All of these are familiar to the reader: there is one passage of equal delicacy and beauty which may have escaped him, and with it we shall close our account of As You Like it. It is Phebe’s description of Ganimed at the end of the third act.
Think not I love him, tho’ I ask for him;
Tis but a peevish boy, yet he talks well;–
But what care I for words! yet words do well,
When he that speaks them pleases those that hear;
It is a pretty youth; not very pretty;
But sure he’s proud, and yet his pride becomes him;
He’ll make a proper man; the best thing in him
Is his complexion; and faster than his tongue
Did make offence, his eye did heal it up:
He is not very tall, yet for his years he’s tall;
His leg is but so so, and yet’tis well;
There was a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper, and more lusty red
Than that mix’d in his cheek; ’twas just the difference
Betwixt the constant red and mingled damask.
There be some women, Silvius, had they mark’d him
In parcels as I did, would have gone near
To fall in love with him: but for my part
I love him not, nor hate him not; and yet
I have more cause to hate him than to love him;
For what had he to do to chide at me?
In my next and last post on As You Like It, we’ll be looking at Rosalind from the actor’s point of view.
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning