As I liked it

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.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael Harvey on October 24, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Enjoyed your thoughts on AYLI. I’ve always loved it. I once played Orlando, and many of the lines are in my head. And it still makes me laugh. ‘Sell where you can, you are not for all markets’ And, yes, the play has dark corners. Sometimes poroductions overdo the darkness. I remember a Stratford production with Julie Stevenson that overemphasised that element disastrously. But the play, for me is about the journey from winter to spring. And while you’re making the journey, the play says, have fun, make love, tell jokes, write poetry, sing a song or two, eat and drink, fantasise, be reconciled………

    Reply

    • Hello Michael,

      Yes, seeing it as a journey from winter to spring does seem a good way of looking at it. Certainly by the end the winter clouds have all lifted, leaving a clear blue sky. In contrast, the melancholy Twelfth Night cannot be lifted. In As You Like It, Jaques is not part of the harmony because he refuses; in Twelfth Night, Malvolio cannot be part of the harmony because, given the humiliation he has suffered, being part of a harmony is impossible for him. It’s a very different world. My inclination is still towards Twelfth Night, but i am trying to see As You Like It in its own light, as a work with a very different outlook on life.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. I’m not convinced As You Like It is a pastoral idyll at all; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a piss-take of pastoral idylls. One of the keynotes of this play it seems to me is cynicism: Jaques and the Fool seem to spend the entire play vying with one another in their cynical attitude towards life and love; and Rosalind’s romance is based upon a cynical view of the traditional romance (a deconstruction of it). The “other” romance in the play – the proper pastoral romance – in contrast, Shakespeare makes incredibly boring. There are odd passages throughout it undercutting the idea of pastoral romance (I watched 2 film versions when I read it, and noted that both excerpted the majority of these passages). And what is the short scene involving the character William to do with the rest of the play? I’m inclined to think it’s a private joke of Shakespeare’s. And what’s the meaning of the title, As You Like It? – I kept thinking, reading it, that I’d really like to direct a version which emphasised these other aspects.

    Reply

    • Yes, i agree there is much cynicism and piss-taking, but neither is incompatible (at least in Shakespeare’s world) with celebration Shakespeare can surely have his cake and eat it. Certainly, for all the undermining of the pastoral tradition, this tradition is at the same time celebrated. Even as Rosalind is making cynical comments about the nature of love, she is many fathoms deep in love herself: her professing to “cure” Orlando of his love is a means of making him fall into love even deeper.

      And I can see no clouds in the sky at all by the end. And perhaps this is why i find it such a difficult work to appreciate!

      The scene with William does seem odd, and I think I agree with you thatthere’ ssome in-joke in there somewhere. Of fthe top of my head, I think this is the only occasion Shakespeare had given a character his own name. I wonder what the in-joke could have been!

      Reply

  3. Great post as always.

    It has been a little while since I last read this or saw a performance.

    One thing that I do seem to remember, that I think makes this a great play and leads me to revere it, is the language that Rosalind uses in describing her own act of falling in love. She seemed to analyze it in a relatively objective and perceptive way while using sublime language to do so. As you mention in your reply above, it seems a deconstruction of the emotions involved, presented artfully and with wit. I do think that the analysis is cynical, but at the same time it conveys a sense a joy and fulfillment.

    I must read this again soon.

    Reply

    • Rosalind’s analysis of love – to Orlando, whom, she claims, she is “curing” – may be cynical, but its effect, perfectly achieved, is to make Orlando fall even more deeply in love with Rosalind. Or, rather, with Ganymede before she is revealed to be Rosalind (there is considerable homo-eroticism in these scenes – especially as Rosalind/Ganymede would have been played by a teenage boy). The cynicism is only apparent: rosalind doesn’t mean a word of it. And there’s no hint of anycynicism in teh scene of multiple marriages at the end: I see nothing but joyous celebration.

      It’s a curiou splay, and my latest reading has brought me a bit closer to it, I think.

      Reply

  4. Very thought provoking post. As always, I feel the significance of much of the play’s text is lost when it’s just read – these plays are meant to be heard and seen. The darkness in AYLI can be emphasised or downplayed, making for completely different experiences, and aspects such as the fight between Orlando and Charles can make a big difference between productions but are unlikely to have much impact on the reader. Similarly, in Twelfth Night, the difficult scene where Malvolio is tormented by Sir Toby and Feste has a much more visceral impact when seen on stage compared to the reading of it. Tastes have moved on, and it’s hard to enjoy such a scene nowadays – current productions usually show Sir Toby as a thoroughly unpleasant character.Twelfth Night is also a tricky play to pull off on stage; its blend of light and dark has to be kept in balance or the whole thing falls apart, whereas AYLI benefits from a darker beginning leading to a happier ending. I’ve almost always felt uplifted on leaving a performance of AYLI, but TN is another matter.

    Incidentally, I think your comment regarding Leontes’ ‘evil’ disappearing ‘as mysteriously as it had appeared’ is a bit unfair. The man is in the grip of an extreme passion – unfounded jealousy – and on hearing that his wife, whom he suspected of committing adultery, has died, his attitude changes, sure, but it’s not mysterious. Many people in close relationships – the love/hate kind – can flip their emotions like this when someone dies. I’ve experienced and seen this in my own life; all the bitterness and rancour evaporate when there’s no one to hold it against. Again, in performance this is usually easier to see, and is perhaps one reason why Paulina chooses to lie about Hermione’s death. Leontes then goes through a very long period of suffering to achieve his redemption, with Paulina constantly re-opening the wound on a daily basis.

    Still, this post is about AYLI, and it’s a good reminder of the variety of styles Shakespeare encompassed in his writing. Many thanks.

    Reply

    • Hello Sheila, and sorry about teh late reply: I had been away.

      “Twelfth Night” is certainly a very difficult play to bring off: there’s such a delicat ebalance between so many diverse elements, that the slightest misjudgement can bring the whole thing down tumbling. But the darkness is not dissipated by the end of “Twelfth Night”: in “As You Like It”, I think it is.

      Of course, AYLI requires careful balance as well. Underplay the darkness, and the journey from winter to spring that Michael speaks of above will not seem particularly significant; overplay the darkness, and it would not be believable. However, if sdone well (and the best production I have seen of it was in the Bolton Octagon theatre some 30 or so years ago!) and it does indeed make for a wonderful evening in the theatre.

      I think I agree with you that this particular play absolutely demands to be seen: it can really come alive ina good production. I am also a fan of reading the plays: they offer, I think, a different experience from seeing them. Of course, these plays need to be seen, but experiencing them in print gives one the leisure one does not have in the theatre of pondering upon and savouring the language, and untangling the various levels of meaning; or simply reliving a particular passage over again. It’s a ery different experience from seeing it, but, to me at least, just as valid.

      Fortunately, one doesn’t have to choose between the two.

      I find it fascinating tracing similar themes across different works in Shakespeare’s plays. for instance, I can’t help thinking of the closing scenes in “Much Ado About nothing” as being a sort of “Winter’s Tale” in fast motion: the man denounces the woman he had loved; discovers her innocence but thinks her dead; does penance; and she is finally restored to him. There is clearly something about this story of transgression and expiation that resonated with Shakespeare.

      And yes, you are also right that Leontes’ sudden recovery is not without reason: I was wrong to have referred to that as “mysterious”. But his jealousy is surely unmotivated. With Othello, there can be legitimate disagreement on the reasons for Othello’s jealousy, but any intelligent interpretation of the play has to address the question: in “Winter’s Tale”, however, the question “why?” is not even to be asked – Shakespeare quite deliberately gives us no hint of a motivation. The evil seems to be an external force that takes Leontes over, rather than something that develops from within himself. And teh unmotivated malice we see in Oliver and in the usurping Duke at the start of the play seems to me very much of the same kind – some external force that has taken these characters over.

      But it does seem to me that as the play progresses, the clouds do lift one by one, leaving by the end a sky of clearest blue. At least, that’s the picture I got from my latest reading!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Hi Himadri

        Sorry I haven’t got round to reading your reply sooner – stomach bug! Just getting over it and starting to face the world again.

        Thanks for you response. I agree that it’s useful to read the plays as well as see them acted: I’ve learned a great deal by going through the text afterwards and spotting dialogue, and even whole scenes, that were cut from a production. I’m still torn between wanting to know the plays better from studying the texts and being open to whatever is put in front of me on the stage – fortunately, as you say, we can do both.

        Thinking about the jealousy theme, I think Shakespeare’s depictions of jealousy mostly show it as unfounded, suggesting that it’s a form of madness rather than an explicable human choice. Iago does have some reasons to hate the Moor, but he sneaks the (potential) cuckolding aspect into the list at the very end, as if hoping no one will notice. Othello, Leontes and Mr Ford (Merry Wives) are all shown as suffering from unfounded jealousy. Othello’s “green-eyed monster” has tragic results, Leontes is fortunately in a tragi-comedy – a form being developed at that time – so he gets a happy resolution after much suffering, while Ford is subjected to nothing worse than his neighbours’ ridicule and lots of audience laughter too.

        The jealousy in As You is the same kind of thing, and the craziness of the forest itself has to shoulder the responsibility for removing it from Oliver. It’s interesting that in both As You and Winter’s Tale, the countryside has the life-altering, redemptive quality while the court is heavy with corruption and vice. Perhaps I should put a picture of some sheep on my wall.

        Finally – sorry to be so long-winded – if you like your comedies in the darker side, I can recommend the current pairing of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado (aka Love’s Labour’s Won) in Stratford this winter. The natural darkness at the end of LLL is emphasised by placing it just before the start of WWI, but the humour still sparkles like a Christmas bauble. (And there are even some of those in Much Ado). I hope to catch up on my notes for these sometime soon.

        All the best
        Sheila

      • Hello Sheila, it’s my turn now to apologise for teh late reply – and i don’t even have the excuse of a stomach bug! – I trust you are better now.)

        I’d love to see Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much ado About Nothing as a double bill: I’ve read fine things about both productions – although it seems you haven’t got round to reviewing them on your blog yet! (That wasn’t meant as a hint, by the way: given how delightfully detailed your reviews are, I can imagine how long it must take to write them!) Love’s Labour’s Lost is a great personal favourite of mine. It was the first play I ever saw in Stratford, in the now legendary production by John Barton, and featuring Michael Pennington, Jane Lapotaire, and Michael Hordern. I love that sudden change of tonality at the very end, when reality suddenly intrudes upon the revels. There’s a veiled melancholy about that final scene that Chekhov would have been proud of. I think I’ll have to wait till these productions come to London next year. (Our teenage daughter, incidentally, who is now at college, is a great fan of Much Ado About Nothing, so we could make this a family trip.)

        All the best for now,
        Himadri

  5. Thanks, all, for your comments. I’m not at home right now, and only have limited access to wifi, but I’ll respond to everyone once I get back this weekend. Sorry for the longer-than-usual delay!

    Reply

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