As You Like It

So, yeah, needed a nice fluffy comedy this week.  Crazy, crazy week.  But enough about me.  Let’s talk about crazy people running around the woods.

A concept popular amongst slasher movies and Shakespearean comedies.

As You Like It is a weird little comedy about love.  But it is specifically in a genre known as “the Pastoral,” where courtly people run around and interact with the simple folk of the country. Traditionally, pastorals portray a return to what was perceived as simpler times, like a “Golden World” or “Antique world” before paved roads or indoor plumbing or useful things like that.  But also before globalization made pretty much everything we enjoy in our society tainted by the rape and murder of someone else’s society.

Not joking. Everything they talk about in Blood Diamond is also applicable to cell phones and pacemakers. It's called coltan. But I digress...

Strange, how that line of thought predates the hippie movement by millenia.  But it does, and that just goes to show how the material in this comedy is still relevant.  The trick is to keep it funny.  So let’s start with the silly premise.

Orlando is in love with Rosalind, but he is exiled before anything can really develop between the two.  Unbeknownst to him, Rosalind also gets banished after falling out of favor with her uncle, Duke Frederick.  Frederick, a raging dickhead, also usurped his own brother – Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior – years before.  So Rosalind goes to seek her dad in the Forest of Arden.  But since “Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold,” Rosalind dresses up like a boy, and as a boy becomes friends with Orlando.  And, as a boy, Rosalind attracts the attention of a shepherdess named Phebe.  But Phebe is blindly loved by a boy named Silvius.  Try to follow me here. On top of this love parallelogram, Rosalind simultaneously fends of Phebe’s affection while seducing Orlando.  Yes, still pretending to be a boy.

Like if Iceman turned out to be Kelly McGillis' character in disguise. What was her character's name again? Oh, right. "Charlie."

Rosalind – calling herself “Ganymede” – makes up a story on the fly about how “an old religious uncle” taught her how to cure anyone of lovesickness.  Since Orlando has gone out of his mind writing bad poetry and pinning it to trees around the forest, she offers to cure him by pretending to be Rosalind and acting the same way that Rosalind would.  For some reason, he readily agrees to this experimental form of therapy.

"'I would kiss before I spoke.' And then we kiss, right?"

Meanwhile, there are a whole mess of other lovers roaming the forest.  Rosalind brings her cousin with her, the Duke’s daughter, named Celia.  She doesn’t don a drag king’s suit to travel, but merely rubs dirt on her face to look poor.  Later on, Celia meets Orlando’s brother Oliver, and they immediately fall in love with little explanation.  Rosalind and Celia also bring a clown with them, on a whim -named Touchstone – and he is in love with a random wench named Audrey, who apparently has something going with a boy named William but Touchstone doesn’t care because he is horny.  Ah, yes, the word horny.  As in, to have a horn in one’s pants.

"The horn, the horn, the lusty horn is not a thing to laugh or scorn"

On top of the basic silliness of gender-bending, there’s the slew of penis jokes  that – if taken as penis jokes and not regurgitated as some dead idea of respectable Shakespearean grammar -will still land with a modern audience.  The part that will not land with a modern audience is the whole wordplay with horns and “cuckolds.”  A cuckold, in case you are curious, is a man whose wife is unfaithful – traditionally depicted as a man with horns.

"Many a man has good horns, and knows no end of them. Well, that is the dowry of his wife."

And that is really a shame, because the fear of infidelity is a significant part of being in love, and Shakespeare spends a decent amount of time talking about it honestly.  Touchstone ruminates at one point that “As a wall’d town is more worthier than a villiage , so is the forehead of a married man more honorable than the brow of a bachelor; and by how much defense is better than no skill, by so much is a horn more precious than to want.” But let’s be honest: most modern people who know what a cuckold is only know it because of the sexual fetish, and few of them will get the horny symbolism.  So you’re just left with penis jokes, really.  Penis jokes and the ridiculous situations ways that these people are falling “in the very wrath of love” with each other.  But I guess that’s something.

In addition to the romantic love that encourages so many stupid decisions and causes so much madness, there is also the curious and equally tumultuous nature of brotherly love in this play.  Frederick was exiled before the play even begins by his own usurping brother.  The play opens with a violent argument between Orlando and Oliver, and Oliver even conspires multiple ways to kill his brother in the first act.

His first plot involves the inherently homoerotic sport of wrestling.

The absurdity of the situation escalates as the play goes on – Rosalind continues to seduce the man who apparently hangs out with her dad more than she does, Touchstone tries to pull off a Vegas style wedding with Audrey, and Oliver is sent out in to the forest by Frederick to bring his brother back “dead or living”.  However, Oliver is nearly killed simultaneously by a snake and a lion, and when Orlando HAPPENS to be going by… he saves his brother’s life with his bare hands.

A traditional indication of badassery.

Seriously, people who have killed lions with their bare hands: Hercules, Samson, and apparently Orlando.  So really, Orlando must be a seriously intimidating hulk of muscle or something.  If we play with the stereotype of the meat-headed jock, it actually does make more sense that Rosalind has to play these games in making sure his love is real.  It also seems a lot more hilarious that this is the sort of man frolicking about the forest writing bad poems.  While I’m on the topic of archetypes, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone remind me of that pretentious Hipster trend.  They don’t actually do any work, and even though they pay the real shepherds to do the work for them for food and shelter, they still think they are living the hard life of a forester.  Also, their idea of having fun is showing off obscure knowledge and insulting each other.

And androgyny.

Which brings me to the melancholy Jacques, the tree-hugging Emo kid with an identity crisis.   We first hear about him crying over the corpse of a deer and exclaiming how wrong it is “To fright the animals, and kill them up in their assign’d and native dwelling-place.” When we first see him, he is listening to sad music.  He is the one who famously declares that “All the world’s a stage, and men and women merely players.” It describes the way that we all fill different roles in society, and these roles change as we get older until eventually we come full circle to the care of a nurse while toothless and wearing diapers.  It’s pretty profound, but mostly depressing.  And Shakespeare punctuates the monologue with the entrance of Adam, the old man who used to serve Oliver but left to help Orlando in his banishment. We saw him collapse from hunger in the previous scene, and while it can be played funny – and probably should be – it’s a small spot of dark humor that we NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN in the script after Act II.  Sure, he could probably hang out silently with Duke Senior and the rest of the exiled lords, but it’s interesting to think that he might have just died once he brought Orlando to safety.  It’s part of the darkness that resides outside the edges of the fantasy.  The play is all about love in it’s youth, but the older characters are distinctly single.  We never even know what happened to Rosalind’s mom.  Corin is a cool old guy who tries to explain young love to Silvius, but we have no indication that he was ever married, if not widowed.  The pastoral environment promises a simple life, but evidently there are lions in this wilderness that are starving enough to attack humans.  And there is constant reference to “winter and rough weather” that we never actually see.  Horrible, bad things happen in life; but these fanciful moments are still precious and necessary.  So, whether Shakespeare is hopeful or cynical in that presentation of love, it’s still pretty up in the air…

"Tis fools such as you That makes the world full of ill-favour'd children."

The play ends very suddenly and randomly.  A third brother of Orlando and Oliver, another Jacques who was mentioned briefly at the beginning of the play, and is completely forgotten until the last scene, suddenly appears as everyone is gathered to see how .  He announces that Frederick has voluntarily given up his tyrannical regime in favor of religious solitude, and has restored all of the property that he stole to his former subjects.

Point 1 for cynicism.

Rosalind continues with her deception, fabricating “a magician, most profound in his art, and yet not damnable,” that she also learned from and promises to set everything right.  Now, we know this is a lie.  The whole story about Orlando fighting a lion with his bare hands COULD be a lie, but we’ve witnessed his fighting skills onstage.  Rosalind, on the other hand, we saw in court and know that she has no magician friend in the woods that she knew from infancy.  Yet, she still manages to summon the god of wedlock – Hymen.

Above: God

Now, I don’t think Hymen is commonly staged as a disembodied vagina floating down from the heavens.  But that is how I would do it, because the scene is already ridiculous enough to merit that (in my opinion).  In any case, Hymen reveals the truth to everyone, and all is magically resolved.  Rosalind appears as a woman, is reunited with her dad, and married to Orlando.  Celia is married to Oliver.  Silvius is married to Phebe.  Touchstone is married to Audrey, too, for better or worse.  In Touchstone’s words: “Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness! sluttishness may come hereafter.” In any case, the god Hymen presides over a song and dance, and Duke Senior exclaims – optimistically – “Proceed, proceed: we will begin these rites as we do trust they’ll end, in true delights.”

Adam presumably appears in this scene as a ghost.

In the epilogue, Rosalind takes a moment to thank the audience for coming out, and hopes they liked the show.  And with all the fantastical crazy stuff we just witnessed, perhaps it is necessary to pull everyone back into reality.  This is a stage, and we just watched a play, and this woman who just spun an elaborate lie to find the truth of her love is actually an actor… who just spun an elaborate lie to find the truth of love in life.  So that’s kind of cool, I think.  So many different types of love are explored, and as absurd as they seem they are all recognizable in life.  They are the beauty that keeps darkness and tyranny on the edges of the forest, and at the end of the day the fantasy is still part of reality.  Or perhaps I’m thinking about it too much, and should all just enjoy the penis jokes.

It’s a funny play, you should see it some time.

If you want to read along with me, doing an act a day, I’ll be posting my definitive list soon.  I’m definitely not going to stay in the order of how he wrote everything, because that means I get to the end of it all just to reward myself with Henry VIII.  Actually, I’m reading the fat man next.

Until next time, remember:

“Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy: this wide and universal theatre Presents more woeful pageants than the scene Wherein we play in.”

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  1. […] harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”  It is a dark echo of many motifs seen in As You Like It, with Lear’s famous conversation with a storm highlighting the issue: “Rumble thy bellyful! […]



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