Monday, July 12, 2010

As You Like It

For anyone interested in Shakespeare's comedies, As You Like It (1599) is a good place to begin; and the best way to begin is by reading Anne Barton's first-rate Introduction in the Riverside Edition of 1997, (most of which I shall shamelessly reproduce here) just before—or, better— after you read the play.

"In Love's Labor's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare had experimented with the reduction of plot entanglement, actual story line, to a minimum. AsYou Like It too is a play which stresses words above action, matter above words. There is a flurry of events at the beginning—Oliver's various attempts to rid himself of his virtuous younger brother, the banishment of Rosalind and then of Oliver himself—but these are transparently devices for getting all the major characters away from the familiar world and into the forest of Arden, rather than incidents exploited for their own sake. Near the end another little explosion of events precipitates four marriages and releases all the exiles from their pastoral life. In between, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to avoid generating suspense. Celia and Oliver, Audrey and Touchstone have agreed to marry almost before we what is happening. Rosalind has only to abandon her disguise as Ganymede —and there is no reason on the level of plot why she should not do this as soon as she is safe in Arden—for Orlando to declare himself and Phebe to recognize that she must be content with her faithful Silvius after all.

"As You Like It replaces a developing intrigue, of the kind exemplified by Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night, with a structure of cunningly juxtaposed characters and attitudes which Shakespeare has elaborated until it becomes a substitute for plot. As the days go by in Arden, two or more characters meet, converse and part, to be succeeded on the stage by another group of people concerned to explore a different, but related, point of view. Without being in the least undramatic, As You Like It is singularly still at the center in a way that focusses attention upon ideas and thematic material. Unlike Ben Jonson, refuses to legislate or even to take sides in the various rivalries the comedy sets up: between court and country, nature and fortune, youth and age, realism and romanticism, inherent nobility and the virtue that is acquired, the active and the contemplative life, laughter and melancholy. These polarities, the subject of ceaseless debate and meditation, tend to be identified with particular characters, but the comedy as a whole is far more interested in doing justice to the complexity of the argument than in prescribing correct choices.

"No society, if it is honest with itself, can pretend that these antinomies do not exist. Equally, no society can have any true cohesion of or self-respect if it does not try to accommodate them all, fairly, within its total structure. Rosalind is extraordinarily important in As You Like It, as central and dominating a figure in her fashion as Hamlet is in his own, very different play, because in her these warring opposites are reconciled and live and peace without for an instant losing their force and individuality. Like Jacques, Rosalind knows that human beings die and worms eat them. Like old Corin, she is aware that even the most passionate love diminishes with time, and like Touchstone, that lovers are objectively ridiculous and their airiest flights grounded in the senses. She knows these things immediately and emotionally, not merely in the abstract, and yet they do not sour her gaiety or trivialize the essential seriousness of her commitment to Orlando. Speculative and thoughtful, she is nonetheless able to give a positive shape to her own existence and to that of several other people as well. Detached but involved, she laughs at herself as much as she does at Phebe, Silvius, or Jacques, yet manages to be gentle and generous to them and perceptive in her own affairs. Life is at best imperfect, even in Arden, but Rosalind suggests that there are ways of living it well and to some purpose, despite the pessimism of Jacques.

"By 1599, Shakespeare  had already written at least seven comedies, most of them built on the idea of two localities, one heightened and more remarkable than the other. Like Belmont [in The Merchant of Venice], Navarre [Love's Labor's Lost], the wood in Two Gentlemen of Verona or A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Arden is a place set apart from the ordinary world. It is emphatically not a paradise. Winter, cold winds and rain, the penalty incurred by the Old Testament Adam, come to it. Some of its native inhabitants are churlish and stupid. Yet the forest is essentially a good place, not because it possesses limitless wealth or supernatural power, but because in Arden fortune does not oppress and stifle nature. People are free here, as they are not in the nervous court of Duke Frederick, to realize their own potentialities. Worldly assets and success cease to matter. In the forest, judgements are made only in  terms of what people really are. Some people, like Orlando and Rosalind, gain from the opportunity. Others do not.

"The idea that sophisticated people, suddenly made part of a rustic life of which previously they had the most distant and imperfect knowledge may discover  truths obscured or undisclosed in the court is a very old one. Pastoral is a complex and enduring [literary] form, not because it is escapist but because it is basically tough: it is a way of testing both the self and the assumptions of ordinary urban society. As You Like It is a pastoral in this sense. It begins with a disordered society, a corrupt court in which violence and broken ribs are considered entertaining and men like Le Beau have to hide their own intuitive sense of justice under a foppish mask; where Oliver, simply because he is an elder son can treat his servants and younger brother like animals. It moves from this nightmare world into Arden, an exile which is really a liberation, where ideas and relationships can be honestly examined. Long after such masculine impersonation is necessary, Rosalind clings to the part of Ganymede because of the freedom it allows her. In her boy's disguise, she escapes (for a time) the limitations of being a woman, Duke Senior's daughter, the conscious object of Orlando's love. She learns a great deal about herself, about Orlando, and about love itself which she could not have done within the normal conventions of society. This knowledge is, in a sense, the gift of the forest but it can only come to full fruition in the world outside. Sooner or later, Rosalind must stop play-acting, must reveal herself Orlando in her own person, and recognize the fact that Hymen, the god of marriage, presides not over the fields and woods but over the town. (V.4.141-46)

"There is some truth in Jacques' accusation that Duke Senior and his companions in exile are as much usurpers in a world whose natural balance they have disturbed as Duke Frederick himself. Arden is not a place where people who are not really farmers or goat-herds can live permanently, however useful it may be as a temporary refuge. At the end, most of the characters return joyously to an urban world, which thanks to what they have learned during their banishment, they will transform. The pattern here is one that is standard in pastoral literature, and one of the sources of its enduring fascination. Shakespeare must have known Spenser's particularly haunting version of it in Book VI of The Faerie Queene. He returned to it himself in Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. As You Like It, however, stands out among the other plays of Shakespeare's which might be described, at least in part, as pastorals by its essential optimism and by its insistence upon the tolerance and inclusiveness of the new society epitomized in the final dance.

"It is true that there are some ungainly participants in this concluding ritual. The elephantine caperings of Audrey are no more "seemly" than they ever were. More important, the relativism, the sceptical attitude of Touchstone remains unchanged. Like all Shakespeare's fools, Touchstone is a corrupter of words. Language itself is one of his main preoccupations, and he likes to bewilder simple souls like Corin by demonstrating the superiority of words over facts. It is entirely characteristic of Touchstone that he does not care on which side of a question he argues. In fact he reverses himself twice in the course of his court-versus-country dispute with Corin. What matters to him is a denial of the single, objective nature of reality: the reality believed in by men like Corin who earn what they eat, get what they wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness, and never question either the values implied by these attitudes or the words used to express them. Corin is finally silenced by Touchstone's "courtly" wit. He is not, however, exactly defeated. He and the fool simply represent antithetical ways of looking at the world. Neither perspective is advanced as a model. Corin's simplicity is obviously limited, but then so is the willful complication of Touchstone's verbal kingdom.

"Shakespeare's fools are usually solitaries, men who can comment on society in the way they do partly
because they themselves are set apart, free of domestic entanglement or even of a personal past. Touchstone is unusual in that he does not merely talk about getting married: he actually does it . . . The bride of this man for whom words are all important is a girl unable to comprehend or make effective use of even the simplest verbal constructs . . . her mistakings are comic, but her relationship with Touchstone gives them a special significance. Audrey cannot find meanings for words; Touchstone can find too many. Both, however, are "sure together, / As winter to foul weather" (V.4.135-36) because when it comes to the point of choice, of action, they fall back on appetite, non-verbal sense experience of the kind that man shares with the brute creation. Both characters make us laugh, Audrey unwittingly, Touchstone because it is his profession, but there is in both cases a fundamental misadjustment between language and fact. Certainly Touchstone does not represent a point of view to be trusted in this play, as Feste and Lear's fool do in theirs. Although the scepticism of Touchstone does distinguish gold from dross in a wholes series of different encounters—with Le Beau, with Jacques, with Corin, Rosalind and Orlando —the agent is in no sense to  be confused either in nature or quality with what it is there to verify or expose. A touchstone identifies gold: it is not in itself a precious substance. The man totally without illusions is ultimately as much a fool as his romantic opposite, Silvius. Even the most skilfull use of words, the most intelligent awareness of the multiple nature of reality, if it is without commitment or generosity, leads in the end to a rigid and reductive kind of behavior, imprisoning man within the skin of the animal.

"There are two important absentees from the final dance, as well as two erratic performers. Orlando's faithful servant Adam is simply too old to help initiate the new social order. Silently, he has vanished from the play. As for Jacques, although he is present in the final scene, he is adamant in his refusal to join in the dance.  It is one of the few absolutely just and perceptive decisions he announces in the course of the comedy. A man unbalanced in his pessimism, delighting in his own melancholy and unsociability, Jacques has hitherto dealt in judgments that were somehow incomplete or askew. Oliver confounded men with beasts but Jacques, in his reported soliloquy on the herd-abandoned deer, makes the opposite mistake interpreting animal behavior as though it were human. Throughout Act II he clings perversely to prose and discordant sounds while all around him the play is lifting into verse and song. As the comedy progresses, he continues to fare badly. Only Jacques fails to recognize that, in their encounter in the forest, Touchstone has cleverly parodied his own style:

And then he drew a dial from his poke [says Jacques],
And looking on it, with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, "It is ten a' clock.
Thus we may see, " quoth he, "how the world wags.
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven,
And so from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale."                          (II.7.20-28)

These melancholy certainties which Jacques so much admires are platitudes of the most obvious kind. Even without the Duke's barbed reminder that Jacques own libertine past scarcely qualifies him to scourge vice in others, it would be hard to see what value a satirist could have who relied upon moralizings so dusty.

"Jacques famous account of the seven ages of man, for all its verbal poise and inventiveness, is also a set piece which, for Elizabethans, must have verged on the banal.  Moreover, it is generalized and demonstrably untrue. Orlando, Touchstone is quick to point out, may be absurd when he hangs love sonnets on trees. There is still far more value in his relationship with Rosalind than Jacques accounts for in his dismissal of man as lover. Again, Jacques reduces old age to 'second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything' (II.7.165-66). The words are no sooner spoken than Orlando enters bearing old Adam: a man enfeebled by his years, dependent now on a younger life, but also a living image of all that Jacques left out of his type picture: loyal, honset and discriminating. His age has its own kind of value, 'frosty but kindly', and the tenderness of Orlando, as well as the respect of paid Adam by Duke Senior, ridicules Jacques' despair. With Orlando and Rosalind, Jacques makes even less headway. Orlando flatly declines the satirists invitation to join him in a verbal assault on the world 'and all our misery': 'I will chide no breather in the world but myself, against whom I know most faults.' (III.2.278-81) Rosalind, even more crushingly point out that Jacques' ideal of silent unresponsiveness is one realized by the average fence-post (IV.1.8-9).

"Throughout As You Like It Jacques has functioned less as the representative of a valid point of view than as a measure of the essential sanity and balance of those characters who stand closer than to the center of the play. He too is a kind of touchstone testing the strength of that optimism and faith in the future characteristic of Rosalind, Orlando, Celia and Duke Senior with his continual reminders of death and decay. None of them attempt to deny the facts of death and time, but all reject the hopelessness of Jacques: the notion that life is without purpose or meaning because it finishes in the grave. The new society forged in Arden is not flawless. Nevertheless, the final dance is a triumph, an image of harmony, and its movements disciplined and artful though they are, are flexible enough to accommodate the awkwardness of the goat-girl and the fool. Jacques is respectful of what has been achieved, yet he insists at the end that there is a world elsewhere, beyond the scope of comedy. This why he casts in his lot with the penitent Duke Frederick, a man who is still asking questions, as opposed to celebrating a resolution. Jacques's response, here is, for once, justifiable. He right to remind us that the comic dance, for all its generosity, its vigor and grace, cannot hope to contain all aspects of human experience."


  1. Thanks for the comment, my friend, whoever you are, but couldn't you at least tell me why Anne Barton's introduction is so very poor?