In As You Like It, Shakespeare virtually dispenses with plot. After a fairly hectic first act, we find ourselves in the pastoral surroundings of the Forest of Arden, where time effectively stands still. It’s not a perfect idyll: the forest harbours snakes and lions, there’s hardship, there are brambles and cold winds, there’s unrequited love, and the shepherd Corin speaks of masters of “churlish disposition”. But for all that, as the deposed Duke says, it is better than the tyranny and the ingratitude of the court. And it is in the Forest of Arden that men and women find their true selves. It is in this forest that Oliver becomes humanised, and it is at the very entrance of this forest that the usurping duke becomes reformed. And it is here that Rosalind, surely amongst the most delightful of all literary creations, finds her true self in disguise.
It was, obviously, quite deliberate on Shakespeare’s part to do away with a plot. It’s not so much that nothing happens – it’s more that Shakespeare just doesn’t seem interested in the events. Old Adam may be close to death at one point, but we know that there’s succour close at hand, and we don’t worry too much. There may be lions and serpents, but the very fact that Oliver tells us of them indicates that he has escaped unharmed. And the story of the usurping duke’s incursion into the forest is told in the same speech that tells also the story of his repentance. Each crisis is over even before we identify it as a crisis. This creates a sense of a timeless idyll – but it also means that there is no dramatic tension.
To be entirely honest, I have never really quite warmed to this play. I give it a respectful nod, of course: Shakespeare, at the height of his powers, has achieved what he had set out to achieve, and it’s a brave man who would quarrel with that. And of course, there are many who love this play dearly, and speak of its charm. It’s certainly true that a good Rosalind can project a quite formidable charm. It is hard, after all, not to be charmed by that wonderfully witty and lyrical scene (written, surprisingly, in prose rather than in blank verse) in which Orlando pretends to woo Rosalind while thinking her to be Ganymede. It is hard to resist the charm of lines such as this:
The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’ But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
And it is hard also not to share in Rosalind’s unalloyed joy when, after Orlando’s departure, she says:
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…
There is a surprising level of homo-eroticism in this scene, because, although this is ostensibly play-acting, as in the play-acting scene in Henry IV Part One, the actors begin to live their roles, and Orlando undeniably falls in love with someone he believes is a man. Of course, there is tremendous sexual ambiguity in Rosalind’s part – she is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. And I’m sure Shakespeare intended a further level of complexity, because, of course, Rosalind would have been played by a teenage boy – i.e. Rosalind would have been a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. (Indeed, the epilogue to the play, delivered by Rosalind, would make little sense were it not delivered by a male actor.) So it does seem eminently reasonable to play As You Like It with an all-male cast. But at the same time, there are comparatively so few great stage roles for actresses, it would be a shame to rob them of one of the loveliest of all roles. (I have tapes of Vanessa Redgrave in this role, and it is one of the most charismatic performances I have come across!)
But other than this scene, and other than some of Jaques’ lines (including the famous Seven Ages of Man speech), I honestly can’t rank this play amongst my favourites. It’s not that I think the play is flawed: Shakespeare achieved perfectly what he set out to achieve. It’s just that I, personally, happen not to be particularly enamoured of what he set out to achieve. I do miss the dramatic tension. I miss also the complexity – not merely thematic complexity or the complexity of characterisation, but also the complexity of the reader’s (or the audience’s) response.
The clown, too, I find rather unlikable. At the end, he lines up with the country wench Audrey alongside all the other married couples, but it’s hard to see how this paean to married love (complete with the mythological figure of Hymen) could accommodate this couple. “An ill-favoured thing, but my own,” he says of his bride, which is an unpleasant thing to say even if it were true. This is miles away from the famous sonnet “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”: in that sonnet, Shakespeare, after denying that any of the usual poetic conceits are applicable to his love, protests all the same the intensity of his feelings (“And yet by heaven I think my love as fair as any she belied with false compare”). But at no point does Touchstone make any declaration of love at all. Quite the opposite; he declares quite clearly that he is going to desert her after he’s had a bit of fun. I find it leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth, and I am not at all sure if this is what Shakespeare had intended – and if so, why.
There are many passing felicities in this work, but on the whole, I am afraid this is one play that tends to pass me by. My latest reading didn’t really reconcile me to it.