Monday, April 30, 2007

Week 15, William Shakespeare's As You Like It

Notes on William Shakespeare’s As You Like It

Act 1, Scene 1

The bad characters in comedy tend to be stick figures whose villainous behavior seems rooted in insecurity and selfishness. We aren’t dealing with the ancient problem of evil here, at least not in a serious way. Oliver is jealous of his brother’s virtues, and holds to an “economy of scarcity” model of status and virtue: more love and honor for one person means less for him. On the whole, such men are more like absurd bogeymen than real, complex “evildoers.” Oliver is simply an uncharitable brother. Comedies don’t represent the social order or human nature as intractable—there would be no point in bothering with comedy if that were the cause. We don’t need to worry about providing compensation for insupportable loss, as in King Lear or Oedipus the King. The goal is instead to restore happiness to individuals and smooth functioning to the social order, and to allow people to hope for better things to come. A key concept is balance: how can we bring people together in such a way as to achieve happiness and harmony, even if perfection may be beyond our reach? Coleridge says that literary symbols can “balance or reconcile opposite or discordant qualities.” That’s more or less what comedy does: it reconciles and balances out people who might otherwise stay in conflict, and makes possible a dynamic but sustainable social order. In the first scene, Celia and Rosalind give us a fine example of true friendship that further condemns Oliver’s vicious dislike of his brother. Celia and Rosalind are cousins and not sisters, but their reciprocal generosity is no less complete for it.

Act 1, Scene 2

As for the attraction between Rosalind and Orlando, well, as Marlowe says in “Hero and Leander,” “Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight?” This notion is typical in comedy. The ancient idea is that love strikes people first through the eyes, as if the lovers had been struck with cupid’s arrow. Accordingly, the love between Rosalind and Orlando begins with sudden attraction. Orlando doesn’t yet know himself and can hardly speak to his new admirer, but Rosalind sees his integrity and potential. It is of course improbable for Orlando to win his match against the powerful Charles the Wrestler, but he is an important device in that Orlando’s desperation drives him to go forwards with the match, and thereby he wins Rosalind’s heart. The text doesn’t say exactly how Orlando defeats Charles, though the BBC version starring Helen Mirren as Rosalind makes Orlando’s victory a matter of clever strategy.

Act 1, Scene 3

Duke Frederick is a competitive, ill-spirited ruler. He obviously believes in an economy of scarcity when it comes to virtue: he tells Celia regarding her friend, “she robs thee of thy name, / And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous / When she is gone” (80-82). He is little more than a straw man, and his threat to Rosalind sounds awful, but rings hollow: “if that thou beest found / So near our public court as twenty miles, / Thou diest for it” (42-44).

Act 2, Scene 1

There are different perspectives to be heard about the Forest of Arden, and in this scene we hear the view of the banished Duke Senior, who considers it a place to gain spiritual insight, and seems to like living there for a time. It suits his contemplative nature, and in this he is almost a Renaissance Henry David Thoreau: “Sweet are the uses of adversity, / Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; / And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in every thing” (10-17). But his is not the only perspective, as we will find later in Act 2 and of course throughout the play.

Act 2, Scene 3

In this brief scene, Adam warns Orlando of his brother’s plot against him, and offers his life savings to help the young man escape: “fortune cannot recompense me better / Than to die well, and not my master’s debtor” (75-76).

Act 2, Scene 4

Silvius complains to Corin about his unrequited passion for Phebe, and moves Rosalind, who overhears him. Meeting the shepherds, she offers to buy the sheepfold and cottage, which, as Corin informs her, is for sale. That part of the Forest is for sale reminds us that while the place is a Green World, it isn’t exactly a paradise: there’s “winter and rough weather,” poverty, ignorance, and commerce. On the whole, the Forest of Arden is closer to Virgil’s reality-tinged pastoral locations in the Eclogues than to an earthly paradise. For the shepherd Corin, indeed, Arden is a rather harsh terrain where a man may eke out a living. (Country people often seem to regard the woods this way.) So while Amiens’ songs sometimes promote an idyllic image of Arden and the Duke is pleased with the “lessons” he learns from the woods, that isn’t the way all the characters regard Arden. Incidentally, there is a real Forest of Arden, and Shakespeare must have been familiar with it as a child growing up in Warwickshire.

Act 2, Scene 5

Jaques shows himself a melancholy-making machine, drawing his rather perverse sustenance even from Amiens’ more conventionally comforting songs: “Here shall he see / No enemy / But winter and rough weather” (6-8). Jaques turns this song into something quite different: “If it do come to pass / That any man turn ass, / Leaving his wealth and ease / A stubborn will to please . . .” (50-53).

Act 2, Scene 6

In this brief scene, Adam is on the point of perishing, and Orlando promises to help him. In terms of Christian symbolism, “old Adam” or unregenerate man is aided by his younger counterpart, the one who is poised to enjoy the benefits of regeneration in the Forest. But I wouldn’t lean too heavily on such symbolic interpretations; after all, Adam is a model of uprightness and faithful service, not a fool or sinner.

Act 2, Scene 7

Jaques tells everyone how impressed he is with Touchstone, whose particular brand of foolery he seems to find attractively broad in comparison to his own narrower spectrum of observation. (Touchstone is free to draw out what’s valuable in people, but Jaques’ view is more limited; his insight is drawn through a filter.) Orlando bursts in on the bantering, and tries to commandeer some food for Adam. It soon turns out that there’s more civility in the Forest than he had thought possible, as Duke Senior promises him all he needs: “Your gentleness shall force, / More than your force move us to gentleness” (102-03). As for Jaques, he delivers his excellent variation on an old theme: the Seven Ages of Man: “All the world’s a stage,” he says, and all of us play our parts, which consist in the seven ages: infant, schoolboy, young lover, soldier, mature professional (“justice”), declining pantaloon, and, finally, second child, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing” (166). This is a hollowed-out conception of humanity, whereby even the most heartfelt passion is entirely scripted by one’s time of life. This kind of insight is, of course, part of the fun in comedy—what is Orlando but a stock lover when he scribbles his bad poems all over Arden’s trees? Still, individuation plays a more important role in comedy than in Jaques’ view, which insistently stresses dis-individuation. Comedy makes fun of us and our pretensions to uniqueness and high-serious significance, but it ultimately accepts us with our follies; Jaques’ melancholic outlook sees life as always being in the shadow of “mere oblivion” (165).

Jaques himself is a stock melancholy traveler. Melancholia was a popular subject in Elizabethan / Jacobean times and attained something like cultic status later in the 1600’s. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy attests to its significance in Shakespeare’s day. Depression was thought to be cause by an excess of black bile, and indeed the word “melancholy” comes from the Greek words melas (black) and kholē (bile). Jaques, as a melancholy traveler, goes around looking for things that accord with his sadness and isolation from others. So while his “Seven Ages of Man” speech in 2.7 is excellent, it consists of stock ideas and I don’t think we’re meant to agree with it—he reduces life too willingly to its bleakest and most hopeless level, and his simplistic view is promptly undercut by the entrance of the aged servant Adam, who remains cheerful and kindly disposed towards the younger generations. The scene ends with Duke Senior welcoming Orlando for the sake of his father, Sir Rowland de Boyes, and we find that civility, not the savagery Orlando had expected, reigns here in Arden.

Act 3, Scene 1

The usurping grinch Duke Frederick is at it again, booting Oliver out of the realm to search for Orlando, who has earned his ire by defeating Charles the Wrestler.

Act 3, Scene 2

Touchstone, who here engages in an epic battle of wits with Corin the Shepherd, is the play’s “all-licensed fool” who has great scope to offer his perspective. As such, he is a fine foil for Jaques as well as for the lovers. Touchstone employs a kind of schoolboy chop-logic against Corin. The whole argument should probably go to Corin “by a decision,” as they say in boxing. The old shepherd has the innate civility of a country fellow who knows his limitations but also his values, so he doesn’t take Touchstone seriously. Touchstone’s conflation of good manners with theological grace—“thy manners must be wicked, and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation” (42-43), he tells him—seems ridiculous to Corin, who doesn’t share in his courtly understanding of the supposed affinity between moral goodness and fine appearance. (That there’s a close connection between physical beauty and moral goodness is a Neo-Platonist view that we can find in Castiglione’s The Courtier and other key Renaissance texts). Touchstone is also more interested in words than in action, even though he is (unlike Jaques) willing to take part in the play’s marriage festivities. Jaques wants no-one, but Touchstone will soon have Audrey to think of, silly as the match may be.

Also in this scene, Rosalind parries wits with Touchstone, who tries to reduce her love for Orlando to mere physical desire: “He that sweetest rose will find, / Must find love’s prick and Rosalind” (111-12). Meanwhile, Orlando, author of those poems that Touchstone calls “the very false gallop of verses” (113), meets up with an unadmiring Jaques and sends him on his way, dismissing his attempt to typecast the young man as a stock lover. And finally, Rosalind, disguised as Ganymed, meets Orlando and offers to school him in courting his beloved Rosalind—but I will reflect on their conversations in the Forest later.

Act 3, Scene 3

As is evident from his silly courtship of Audrey, Touchstone’s coming marriage to this country lass is more a thing of words, a cover for his lust, than a legitimate institutional act, or at least that’s how the clown at first wanted it—an attitude that shows in his desire to let the incompetent Oliver Martext perform the ceremony. Audrey, as we can see from their conversation in Scene 3, understands very little of what Touchstone says, so there’s no question of their being meet company. On the whole, Touchstone is what his name implies: a sharp stone of a wit who draws sparks and tests the quality of others. He will later join in the marriage rites, but does not much appreciate matrimony’s holier dimension—that key attitude for romantic comedy is left to other characters, most particularly to Rosalind and Orlando, and perhaps to Celia and the transformed Oliver. For Touchstone, marriage isn’t holy and steeped in honor—it is something a person does to keep up appearances and serve his or her own convenience. Shakespeare by no means condemns court life, but here in the attitude of Touchstone, he points out the courtly tendency to slide towards hollowness and ceremonialism. Well, at least Touchstone is honest about his limitations—he doesn’t pretend to be better than he is.

Act 3, Scenes 4-5

Rosalind, invited by Corin, eavesdrops on Phebe as she overplays her hand, while Silvius is loyal to her far beyond her desserts. Rosalind briskly reminds Phebe that she is “not for all markets” and that she ought, therefore, to sell while someone is still willing to buy (60). This match is hardly going to be perfect; Phebe, we may assume, will never love Silvius as much as he loves her, but that’s perhaps rather common: do two people generally love each other to precisely the same extent? I doubt it. Silvius and Phebe it will have to be—they are a match sufficient for civilization’s purposes. Silvius is a good example of the sort of stereotype that Orlando inhabits partly and for a limited time; even so, Silvius is a fine fellow in his way: decent and faithful. Even Phebe’s high ideals, while misplaced, are by no means contemptible. Of course, “Ganymed’s” sage counsel only makes her fall hopelessly in love with him, and we see that firmer guidance will be needed in her case.

Act 4, Scene 1

Rosalind’s deflation of Jaques at the scene’s beginning is decisive even if not devastating. He professes the goodness of his disposition, saying, “Why, ‘tis good to be sad and say nothing” (8), and Rosalind answers him, “Why then ‘tis good to be a post” (9). She ventures that it seems foolish to her to go about seeking experiences that make you sad: “and to travel for it too!” (39) With that remark, Rosalind is on to her pretend/real courtship with Orlando.

As for the value of their dialogue in 4.1, Shakespeare recognizes that for the most part people inhabit types and that a great deal depends on how they inhabit a given type, or how they inflect it. We are not dealing with romantic originality and uniqueness here, and not with the utilitarian-style “bourgeois self” concept of somewhat later times, even if there are perhaps touches of this sensibility in Shakespeare’s plays. There is always some Jaques-like way of describing our present stage of life. The question is, does the type swallow us up, or do we improve upon it or at least inhabit it competently? Orlando (what with pinning bad verses on trees) has played the lover’s type. The present scene, however, shows how the Forest allows both him and Rosalind the time and distance they need to play around with love’s lore and with gender typification. Both will emerge the better for their experimentation. The “masks” they wear for a time allow them to speak and act with frankness and a degree of detachment. Often, Shakespeare treats love as something like a game with its own rules and conventions that must be learned. Those rules turn out to be flexible, but they’re not altogether to be dismissed.

What do men and women say about and to one another? It is difficult for them to be honest in real-life situations, so the disguisings and conversations that occur in the Forest of Arden are valuable to Rosalind and Orlando as they move towards a more complete accommodation of each other’s desires. Rosalind’s characterizations of men and women are appropriately mocking: “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” (146-48).

“Give a man a mask,” says Oscar Wilde, “and he will tell you the truth.” Rosalind’s mask is “Ganymed,” so we have Rosalind pretending to be Ganymed pretending to be Rosalind: just the right degree of anonymity necessary for her to sort out Orlando’s qualities as a suitor. As for Orlando, those who believe most fully in the ideal vision of love most need distance from such idealism: “idealizing eroticism” is noble, but it has its risks, disillusionment and eventual cynicism being the most severe among them. Orlando needs to be tested: he must show some capacity to moderate and reflect upon his high passions since that is partly what makes a marriage successful. He plays his role as suitor to Ganymed-as-Rosalind with good cheer, putting up with his opposite’s whims and generally saying and doing the right things. As the play in its entirety shows, Orlando’s inner worth is greater than the silly stereotype he has temporarily inhabited: a successful comic hero, he plays a role without being completely reduced to it or permanently trapped by it.

Shakespeare writes perceptively about love as a potentially destructive experience because it threatens to obliterate a person’s boundaries. (“Sonnet 129” and Othello give us the darkest presentations of what love can do, while the comedies deal with the lighter and more uplifting dimension of love, with its civilizing and uniting power.) Distance and reflection seem appropriate as “preventative medicine,” given this tendency of love to strip us of our capacity to define, judge, and maintain our sense of who we are. The playfulness of Rosalind in particular allows her to keep some sense of an independent identity.

Act 4, Scene 3

Rosalind sees her opportunity to transform Phebe’s cruelty towards Silvius into acceptance, and, as Ganymed, orders the intransigent shepherdess to love Silvius instead. Oliver, rescued by his brother just when he is surrounded by two predators—a snake and a lioness—is suddenly transformed. We don’t need to see a painful, penance-driven process of transformation. He doesn’t for a moment believe that Ganymed is male, but goes along with the act nonetheless.

Act 5, Scenes 1-2

In the first scene, Touchstone gets a chance to impress Audrey by chasing away a rustic suitor. In the second scene, Oliver’s recent alteration is supplemented by his equally sudden love-struck decision to marry Celia as “Aliena.” This newest alteration may in part be a perspectival device whereby the brief courtship of one couple appears more credible in comparison to the even briefer one of another—one so brief that it really isn’t a courtship at all. Oliver even tells Orlando that he’s decided to give their father’s estate to him and “here live and die a shepherd” (12).

Act 5, Scenes 3-4

In the third scene, we witness the knotty situation that must shortly be untied: Phebe is in love with Ganymed, Orlando in love with Rosalind whom he sees nowhere around, and Rosalind pines “for no woman” (88). Two young pages crown the third scene with a song about the associations between spring and marriage rites, only to be dismissed by Touchstone’s criticism of their voices.

The fourth scene offers the pleasant interlude of Touchstone’s famous recounting of a courtly quarrel which, he claims, began when he professed to “dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard” (69-70). He sets forth a preposterously detailed series of insults and counter-insults between himself and the courtier with the disagreeable beard. But the whole thing begins and ends in words, and they “part company” without exchanging a single blow. The reason? Cowardice—neither of them ever had any intention of getting into an actual fight. So much, then, Touchstone suggests, for a great deal of masculine “honor.” This insight allies him with Sir John Falstaff from I and II Henry 4, and certain other of Shakespeare’s deflators of male puffery. This play is more tolerant of love-driven exaggerations and rituals than it is of honor-based ones.

Finally, Hymen the god of marriage does the honors after Rosalind enters in her own person and clears up the reigning confusion. Hyman is an urban god, so his presence is a reminder that most of the characters will soon return to the court. The right matches have been made, and in any case society demands not perfection but adequacy: it needs “country copulatives” and Touchstones and Audreys as much as it needs the near-perfect Rosalinds and Orlandos. The phrase “as you like it” seems to mean “follow your desire,” so long as your desire doesn’t impede the charitable disposition of things.

Jaques de Boys (the brother of Orlando and Oliver) informs everyone that Duke Frederick has been turned away from his wicked intentions in the Forest by an “old religious man,” and now intends to stay on in the Forest, where he will live retired life of religious devotion. Jaques the Melancholy Traveler will follow this newly retired Duke Frederick; he did not join with the lovers in dancing to Hymen’s tune, and now prefers to remain in the Forest of Arden because he believes there’s more to learn there than at court. Jaques is the odd man out, but he only matters a little in this play. As You Like It doesn’t have the bittersweet quality of the romances, and in general seems satisfied with its sunny comic perspective on life. And comedy is, after all, not only a genre but a perspective on life, just as tragedy and romance are life-perspectives. Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t monolithic in tone or degree of optimism—they range from dark (Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice) to light fare such as the present play, which is perhaps the most perfect of its type in Shakespeare’s canon.

Now that all is done, what exactly might we say is the magic of the Forest of Arden? It’s appropriate to borrow the phrase “freedom and variety of situations” from Wilhelm von Humboldt. Arden has a power to transform people, to alter their perspectives, and set things between them to rights. It’s a liberating place where you can either find out over time who you are (like Rosalind and Orlando do by way of romantic experimentation), as well as a place where you can go and “just change,” as Oliver does. It is markedly different from the Court or cityscape, where competition and greed may hold sway. Of course there’s something of the seasonal cycle’s magic there, too: spring is the time of regeneration and hope. But “nature” is a very complex concept in Shakespeare, and his exploration of it varies from play to play. In King Lear, the King sees Edgar in the guise of Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, and declares him “the thing itself: a poor, bare, fork’d animal.” But that play as a whole surely doesn’t tell us we should reduce ourselves to such an extreme; we are not most authentically ourselves when stripped and “unaccommodated” by the arts and considerations of civic and family life. Artifice is part of our nature as human beings, it seems. The Forest of Arden encourages artifice and play, and its magic consists in the freedom to experiment with the styles and types that are undeniably part of life.

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