I’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with As You Like It. While I recognise it to be a charming pastoral idyll, I don’t really see enough in the play to account for the reverence many feel for it. For instance, in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, eminent Shakespearean James Shapiro refers to As You Like It as Shakespeare’s finest comedy, while, at the same time, he characterises Twelfth Night as relatively safe and conventional, a step backwards from the glories of the earlier work. As someone who reveres Twelfth Night, and who, admittedly to his embarrassment, has never seen much more to As You Like It than a certain charm, I found Shapiro’s evaluations of these works somewhat startling. And, since I read a Shakespeare play each month anyway – these works are, after all, to be lived with, not just read once and put away – I decided it was high time to revisit As You Like It.
Having now read it again, I must say that it seems to me still a sunlit pastoral idyll, a work of tremendous charm and delight, but with little or none of the profound darkness and melancholy that seems to me to push Twelfth Night towards the realms of the tragic. But that does not necessarily make As You Like It a lesser work – unless one were to imagine, as, I must admit, I sometimes tend to do, that the tragic gives us a more profound vision of life than the comic can.
However, all authors of sunlit idylls need to decide how much if any of the world’s darkness to depict, or even to acknowledge; and darkness is not entirely absent from As You Like It. Indeed, the opening act of the play, like the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most definitely contains at least the seeds of tragedy. But as we move from the court to the enchantment of the wilds, these seeds fail to bear fruit: the dark shadows seem, in both plays, to dissolve, and give way to something wondrous.
In order to achieve this, realism has to be suspended. Oliver, for instance, whom we see at the start of the play mistreating his brother Orlando, and who later follows Orlando into the Forest of Arden meaning to hunt him down, is transformed when this same Orlando, returning love for hate, risks his own life to save that of his murderous brother. And once this murderous brother is converted to good, there remains not the slightest taint of the evil that had previously consumed him: there remains not even an awareness of the misery that his past evil had brought on others, or any hint of remorse that would normally accompany such an awareness. Even more oddly, perhaps, this lack of remorse is not noticed: no-one, not even Orlando, holds his past against him. This evil, which had been utterly unmotivated from the start, vanishes completely, leaving not a rack behind.
Something similar happens to the usurping Duke, Celia’s father. Although he is, we are told, a usurper, he has allowed his niece, Rosalind, daughter of his exiled brother, to grow up in court with his own daughter. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, and without any motivation, a madness seems to take hold of him: he banishes Rosalind from the court on pain of death; and goes even so far as to threaten Oliver with banishment and with seizure of possessions should Oliver fail to bring back his brother Orlando, dead or alive. But by the end, this same usurping Duke is also miraculously converted to good: marching into the forest to finish off his banished brother, he is met by a hermit, and, as with Oliver, all the evil in him miraculously vanishes, as if it had never been.
Since this play is an idyll, Shakespeare does not, after the first act, focus on the evil. Indeed, he keeps it as far from the action as possible. Once we are in the Forest of Arden, we see Oliver only after he is already converted, and the danger of his evil has passed. Similarly, we hear of the Duke’s incursion into the forest at the same time as we hear of his conversion: the encroaching evil has vanished even before we get to hear of it.
It is not surprising that Shakespeare should keep the dark shadows of evil so firmly in the background in this the sunniest of all his plays; but such a vision of evil is very different from the one presented in his tragedies – in Macbeth, say. In As You Like It, evil is an external force, almost an illness, which may infect a person, but which is not an integral part of that person. In a work such as Macbeth, however, evil is not the monster out there, but, rather, the monster that resides within. In all these tragic masterpieces, the capacity for evil is presented as an innate aspect of our human condition: our ability to be evil is, in short, one of the features that make us human.
However, in his very late play, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare seemed to return to the way he had viewed evil in As You Like It: once again, it is seen as an external force, a sort of illness that infects us, and from which it is possible to be cured. Macbeth or Lady Macbeth cannot be cured of their evil: what’s done cannot be undone; but Leontes’ case is different – his evil departs as mysteriously as it had appeared. And there seems to me in As You Like It something very Leontes-like both in the usurping duke and in Oliver: they are evil for reasons not apparent; but then they are “cured”, and the evil disappears completely. Indeed, it is hard not to see the usurping duke very much as a prototype of Leontes when we see him banishing Rosalind on the pain of death, or when he threatens Oliver: mere anarchy seems loosed upon the world.
At the end of the The Winter’s Tale, the vision is darker than in As You Like It, and the joy is subdued. Perdita, she who had been lost, is restored, and Hermione, in a prefiguring of the Resurrection itself, returns from the dead. But Mamilius remains dead; and there can be no recompense for the lost years, for all the immense suffering that the illness of evil has brought into the world, both to those it had infected, and to those it hadn’t.
All this is very far from the world of As You Like It. Here, evil is kept on the sidelines of the action, very much out of view, and when it vanishes, it does so without leaving a mark behind. And if such a vision of life does not give us quite the richness of Twelfth Night (which, I must admit, still seems to me the greater work), it communicates nonetheless a formidable charm, and, perhaps, teaches us that our life, such as it is, is more to be valued than to be lamented. All in the end are here reconciled – except Jaques, who scorns the very idea.