Thoughts on Shakespeare’s As You Like It (by Bethany)

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The weekend before last, Jill and I took a quick trip to Tahoe to see As You Like It at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. I’ve attended this festival – which used to be called Shakespeare at Sand Harbor – several times before. I saw As You Like It there in 2004 with my friends Tara and Bill, and when I heard the festival was showing this play again this year, I was a little miffed. But then I thought – oh, wait. 2004 is TEN YEARS AGO. It only FEELS like it was just a couple of years ago. That’s what happens when you’re over 35: an entire decade collapses into one long all-nighter in which you alternate back and forth: one-hour shifts of grading essays, plunging the toilet, and waiting on hold with Covered California. This happened in a Sartre play, right?

I remember exactly nothing about the production of As You Like It that I saw in 2004, except that at one point a shepherd boy came out on stage holding a sheep over his shoulders, and Tara and I fell over laughing. A few years prior, when we were in grad school, Tara and I signed up for a course in Pastoral Literature. I’m not sure about Tara, but I was interested in the course because the entire syllabus was made up of texts that I had never studied before: lots of ancient Romans, some medieval folks, and two Shakespeare plays: A Winter’s Tale and As You Like It. We were a little nervous because we were the only M.F.A. students in a class full of M.A. and Ph.D students, and there was a fair amount of rivalry between the creative writing types and the lit types in our English department. The professor was a little nervous because on the first day of the semester, a grad student walked into a professor’s office and shot him at point-blank range, an act that he followed a moment later with a suicide. It didn’t really occur to me until later how scared the professors must have been of us.

Long story short, we both dropped the class. I think we lasted two weeks. The professor was disorganized and tongue-tied (understandable under the circumstances but still annoying) and, to our surprise, pastoral literature turned out to be about fucking sheep.

What’s that? You say I’m oversimplifying? Well, of course I’m oversimplifying. I’ll explain a bit more: Pastoral literature idealizes country life, which many writers throughout history have associated with childhood. In the minds of these writers, the countryside takes on the status of Eden: a prelapsarian paradise where fruit is ripe for the picking and where self-consciousness and shame haven’t yet been invented. Because shepherding was the job most often assigned to young boys in the countryside, shepherding gets a lot of air time from pastoral writers, who long for the simplicity and wholesomeness and solitude of the time they spent in nature.

That, and they miss fucking sheep. Apparently many boys were still in their shepherding years when they began to feel the first stirrings of puberty. They were alone most of the day, and even when they were off duty they had been well schooled by their priests to stay away from the local girls. But then there were all those long silent days on the hillside with the sheep, and – well – I suppose the sheep started to look pretty darn appealing after while. So along with the memory of the simplicity and slower pace of childhood – a lighter, less sinister understanding of the world that they mistake for a lighter and less sinister world – the adult pastoral writers also longed for this sinless sex. In some cases, these episodes may represent the only time in the lives of these writers when they could enjoy a sexual release without any fear of retribution, disease, pregnancy, or – worse – marriage.

If you haven’t read it, check out James Dickey’s poem “The Sheep Child” here. It’s a modern poem in this tradition and is damn good.

You’ve probably already noticed that there are a number of ironies floating around the pastoral tradition. The poets writing in this tradition were adults. They were usually well educated and had traveled at least a little – to a major city center and/or to a university. They had studied their Greek and their Ovid and St. Jerome’s disgraceful butchery of the Christian scriptures. They were likely married, possibly more than once, and perhaps there had been dalliances with whores, with servant girls, with servant boys – the works. Hell, they probably even had their own flocks of sheep by this point – what was stopping them from muttering something about the outhouse and stepping out to the barn for a little roll in the shit-speckled hay? Nothing was stopping them – but the thing is, they don’t really want to fuck sheep. They want to fuck sheep as children, when fucking sheep felt blissful and secret and grown-up and mysterious. They want to go back to Eden. They want to un-eat the apple from the tree of knowledge. Fucking sheep as an adult is just gross.

Even if these adult writers were to go back to the idyllic hillsides of their childhoods, they wouldn’t find Eden. They would find humidity and mosquitos and loneliness and sheep crap everywhere. Even if they did happen upon the hillside on a temperate, dry day when all the sheep were constipated, they still wouldn’t find the paradise they were looking for, because they would still be there: their big, sweating bodies, their cynical minds, their backs and legs aching after a morning of climbing hills. It took the human race as a whole an unconscionably long time to figure out how subjective reality is, but the pastoral writers have known for centuries that no one ever really sees the world for what it is. The world we see is filtered through the lens of our own consciousness and is shaped by our memories, our desires, and our prejudices.

All this is a very long way of telling you that when that shepherd boy stepped out on stage in 2004, Tara and I fell apart laughing. WE know what YOU do with THAT SHEEP! we whispered back and forth to each other. But it turned out that the shepherd boy had very little to do with the play as a whole, and I remember exactly nothing else from that entire theatrical experience.

The production we saw last weekend, on the other hand, may be the best live production of a Shakespeare play that I’ve ever seen. The director chose to update the play and set in in the early 20th century, but the Elizabethan language was retained. The setting was an industrial city in New England, with the understanding that the forest scenes were in some Walden-like woodsy area near the city. Overall, though, the updating of the setting is a minor point – the quality of the acting was what made me enjoy the play so much.

I meant to read the play before we went to see it, but of course I was behind in my reading schedule as usual, so I read it last week and finished it tonight. Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, I kind of hated reading it. The comedies just don’t translate to the page the way the tragedies and histories do. When I’m reading, I groan every time Touchstone (the requisite clown or Fool figure) steps onstage, because I know that when the clown shows up, there is going to be witty banter, and it’s going to revolve around slang terms for genitalia that no one has used for four hundred years, and I’m going to feel kind of stupid. On the contrary, Touchstone was one of the highlights of the live performance. He still rambled on and on and there were puns that I didn’t get, but his face was so expressive and his body language was perfect and it didn’t matter if I understood exactly what that whole diatribe about the pancake and the mustard (I.ii.65ff) was supposed to mean.

As I’ve said before, I was a slow learner when it came to Shakespeare. I was exposed to his plays fairly extensively: we read Romeo and Juliet in the 7th grade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 8th, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet (again) in 9th, Othello and Julius Caesar in 10th, and, as you know from our AP Challenge, we read Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet in our senior year of high school – and we were also briefly exposed to King Lear via a film adaptation. Yet in spite of all these plays I ostensibly studied, I felt hopelessly behind the game. I had a knack for writing essays about books I hadn’t read (something I NEVER do here on Postcards from Purgatory, I promise), so I think the fact that I had a nasty case of Shakespeare-induced dyslexia managed to slip under the radar. It honestly wasn’t until my senior year of college that I was able find a few small snippets of meaning and beauty and insight in Shakespeare: first in Henry IV, Part I, then in Hamlet. I did make up for these deficiencies in grad school – when I took a great Shakespeare course and also read a number of the plays out loud with friends and on my own – and later, when I was a teacher and had no choice but to learn how to explain first Macbeth, then Othello and Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and King Lear. Nowadays, I consider my ability to read and teach Shakespeare to be one of my strengths, but the journey to this point was a long one, and I still get defensive when I read the long passages of comedic wordplay attributed to characters like Touchstone. I feel my former self giving up, tossing As You Like It aside and picking up The Great Santini.

In some ways, As You Like It is an easy play to read. Without actually counting words, I think this play contains a higher ratio of prose to poetry than any other Shakespeare play I can think of – and the prose is often easier to read than poetry (though in Shakespeare I usually like poetry better). The language is more straightforward than in Shakespeare’s other plays. But, this being a Shakespeare comedy, we still have all kinds of people in disguise and mistaken identities and multiple people with the same name – just to make sure we’re on our toes.

Somewhere along the line I retained the fact that “melancholy Jaques” is a character in this play – and he is. When I scanned the list of characters in my copy of the play, I saw that Jaques was the second brother in Oliver and Orlando’s family – i.e. the second son of Sir Rowland de Boys. In the play, though, Orlando and Oliver show no sign of recognizing Jaques or having happy childhood memories of fucking sheep together, as one might expect from brothers. I examined my copy of the play more closely and saw that in fact there are TWO characters named Jaques in this play. One is the second brother, who only appears for a moment at the end of the play, though he is mentioned earlier. The other Jaques is the melancholy one, the one who recites the “Seven Ages of Man” speech that everyone studies in school at some point. Why would Shakespeare do this? Do there need to be two characters named Jaques? There are no comedic consequences or mistaken identities surrounding this name, and neither is a major character. This reminds me of the time a small-town New Hampshire newscaster was relating an incident about a serial killer who had exactly the same name as the newscaster and never commented on the coincidence.

Here’s the plot: Orlando is the youngest son of the deceased Sir Rowland de Boys, and at the beginning of the play his complaint is that his brother Oliver was instructed by their father’s will to educate Orlando well and to ‘breed’ him with a marriage partner suited to his status in the world. In reality, though, Oliver treats Orlando like crap, going so far in scene 1 as to try to rig a wrestling match so that Orlando will be “accidentally” killed by Charles the wrestler (Jill and I were both disappointed that Charles the wrestler didn’t reappear later in the play. Didn’t he have anyone that he wanted to marry in the woods? Everyone else seemed perfectly happy to jump on that bandwagon).

But Orlando survives his wrestling match with Charles but soon receives word that his brother is going to continue to try to have him killed, so Orlando arranges to escape with Oliver’s servant Adam, an elderly man who is loyal to Orlando’s late father and shares Orlando’s contempt for Oliver. Adam pledges his loyalty to Orlando and promises to cash in his 401K to support the two of them during their sojourn in the woods (think I’m kidding about the 401K? Check out II.iii.39ff – it’s there, I promise). Orlando accepts this offer readily – this offer of a elderly servant’s last penny – which struck me as kind of a shitty thing to do, but whatever. Cultural relativism.

It turns out that there’s this whole subculture in the Forest of Arden. It reminds me a lot of what the eastern end of Golden Gate Park – the part right across the street from the Stanyan Street McDonalds – looked like when I was a kid, circa 1978 or so. The phrase ‘the Great Unwashed’ comes to mind. There’s a duke hanging out in the forest – he was usurped by his brother, heretofore known as the Asshole Duke – and he has the sort of retinue that a duke might be expected to cart around with him. Jaques – the melancholy one – is one of these courtiers. Many of the courtiers have names that sound rather French, and it occurred to me as I was reading the play that the Forest of Arden – as it’s called in the play – may be what was later known as the Ardennes forest – famous for playing host to the Battle of the Bulge? This is neither here nor there, really, though I should point out that the placement of this play in Belgium becomes somewhat problematic when a LION shows up roundabout Act IV and mauls Orlando. I mean, where were this lion’s great-great-great grandchildren back when we could have used some help kicking some Nazi ass?

The exiled duke has a daughter named Rosalind, and the Asshole Duke has a daughter named Celia. Rosalind has not been exiled alongside her father but has been allowed to stay with Celia because they’re such good friends. But around the time that Orlando is fleeing into the woods with an elderly servant’s life savings, the Asshole Duke is deciding that maybe he doesn’t trust Rosalind after all. He exiles her, threatening to execute her if she isn’t gone by morning. So Rosalind does what any reasonable character in a Shakespeare comedy would do in that situation: she dresses up like a boy. Not to be outdone, Celia dresses up like – well, a girl. But a poor girl, the kind of girl who would live in the woods and have brothers who might occasionally fuck sheep.

But here’s the thing: Rosalind and Orlando have already started to consider the possibility that they are in love with one another. They met on the night of the wrestling match. So Orlando starts writing poems about Rosalind and leaving them in the trees for her to find. She finds them, mocks them gleefully when she’s alone with Celia, and finds Orlando and offers to pretend to be Rosalind so he can practice seducing her. This is the sort of thing that happens in just about every Shakespeare comedy. If at least two characters aren’t in disguise as someone else while pretending to be themselves, then the play most likely hasn’t started yet.

And then there are some ‘rude mechanicals,’ who are actually not called ‘rude mechanicals’ in this play (I borrowed this expression from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which this play somewhat resembles) but who all seem to want to marry someone who doesn’t love them back. Shakespeare was cynical about love, of course, largely due to his own unhappy marriage, and over and over again his comedies end with marriages that any reasonable person – or at least any reasonable person who watches Dr. Phil – knows are doomed. Sometimes marriages are given as punishments, and elsewhere characters who just happen to be standing around when the other weddings are taking place sort of shrug and agree to get married too. In this play, Celia does absolutely nothing besides dress up as a girl (in spite of the fact that she already is a girl) and give Rosalind someone to talk to – but all of a sudden she is madly in love with Oliver, Orlando’s older brother who tried to have him killed a few times (imagine Thanksgiving dinner in that family). Oliver, of course, is no longer a jerk; he saw the error of his ways when Orlando saved him from the lion. And did I mention that there is another Oliver? Yep, there is. He’s the local priest. He only shows up once or twice to make some vague pronouncements. For the rest of the play, I picture the other Oliver joining forces with the other Jaques for some doobie action in the costume shop.

Oh, and one more thing – guess who shows up at the wedding? Hymen, the god of marriage! Yes, really. There was a time when I was wondering why this play is not often taught in high schools, but I think I may have my answer now.

So I’ve allowed this post to get very long and very silly, and I’ve enjoyed writing it and hope you enjoyed reading it. There’s more I could say about any number of the characters, and the strange, illogical ways Shakespeare blends poetry and prose, and, in particular, there’s a whole lot more I could say about the pastoral motif, which, all kidding aside, I find very compelling. Once you start looking for the pastoral motif, you’ll find it everywhere. It’s the central tension in the Eden story, and it’s hard to imagine a coming-of-age story without it. I’m going to sign off here without digging into this play in more detail. I will say, though, that I don’t like this play one bit, but I am also very happy I read it. Over and over again, this is how I react to Shakespeare’s comedies. All the coincidences, all the cross-dressing and coincidences and punishment marriages and fools and silliness – who needs it? But even the lamest of Shakespeare’s comedies give a person more to think about and react to than the greatest works of almost every other writer. It’s a cliché even to say this, but it’s true.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Shakespeare’s As You Like It (by Bethany)

  1. Tara says:

    Ha! I hardly remember a thing about the production of As You Like It either–but I do remember you there and being happy to see you! I also can’t believe it’s been 10 years. OTOH, I remember a lot about that pastoral class, mostly the way we laughed and laughed after class as you came up with the plan to drop the course and we ran to Jim’s office to use the PHONE, not the computer back then, to drop it. It was such a joyful decision, and I’d never thought of doing anything like it. I still think it was such a good move. Remember the book that was accidentally assigned. Now I am off to read your review of The Goldfinch because I am nearly finished with it.

    • bedstrom says:

      Yes, I remember dropping the class by phone in Jim’s office and getting dirty looks from that professor. And yes also on that modernization of the Vergil poems that she was up in arms about after she assigned it without reading it herself.

      What did you think of The Goldfinch?

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