Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Shakespeare's As You Like It - The Original Four Weddings

As You Like It

I have had a rather odd relationship with this particular play. I first read it during university and it really didn't appeal to me, especially since the lecturer that we had seemed to be obsessed with sex. At the time I really didn't like the idea of sexualising Shakespeare; until I realised that Shakespeare is actually really, really dirty (though due to the language most of the references simply go over our head). However, it wasn't until one of my friend's put on a production of this play that I suddenly understood what was going on, and that my lecturer was only outlining what many of the academics had been saying for quite some time. Still, it is certainly not one of my favourite plays, and many of the elements that appear in As You Like It also appear in his other plays.

Now, as I have said elsewhere, reading a play can actually be quite difficult, particularly since all you have are names and dialogue. Shakespeare is even more difficult in that he generally does not use any stage directions and is very sparse with his information outside of the dialogue. In a sense, if the character doesn't say it then it is unimportant, and everything you need to know about a character is in the dialogue. So, before I go any further, here is a video I found on Youtube of a performance of the play:

If you do insist on reading the play, you can find an online copy here.

The Play
Normally I would give a brief synopsis of the play, however as I was looking for a full length performance on Youtube (and there are a few, which include some of the movies) I came across this guy who does a pretty good job using post-it notes:

Oh, and before I go any further, I will also mention that I have written a commentary on the play on Goodreads, though most of what I say there I will probably be covered there as well (if I can remember all of the ideas that come out of the play, and if not, you can always go to Sparknotes).

Bell Shakespeare Production
One of the great things about plays, especially those of Shakespeare, is that every production is different. Well, okay, there are quite a few plays out there that can only be performed one way, but with Shakespeare there seems to be so much more room for creativity. Sure, a number of the performances probably used Elizabethan dress, however these days the directors seem to put a lot of effort into making their plays unique, and this is very much the case with Bell Shakespeare.

I should mention that this was John Bell's, the founding father of the company, last performance, so this would have been a special one for the fans and followers of his company. While I have known about his work and his company, it wasn't until I came to Melbourne that I have been able to see a number of his performances (and occasionally have even travelled to Sydney for the experience). What is surprising is that they never seem to travel to Adelaide, even with the performance that they take out to regional Australia (last year it was Henry V, this year it is Hamlet), though that isn't much of a concern to me these days.

Anyway, the performance had more of a 50s feel to it, with an old record player at the back and one of those old microphones on the stage (which was used for some of the musical pieces that appeared in the play - which is another good thing about watching a live performance). The forest of Arden was portrayed using flowers hanging from ropes, though during the production they had to lower the scaffolding so that the players could unwind the ropes. Still,it worked quite well, once again creating that timeless feel that you get with a lot of his plays - and this is especially the case with this play due to the timelessness that the pastoral setting creates.

Duke Senior and his Merry Men
An interesting thing that I will touch upon are the similarities between As You Like It and Robin Hood. It would not be all that surprising for Shakespeare to have drawn upon that legend for his play, including basing the character of Duke Senior upon Robin. However, despite the similarities, Duke Senior does not come across as a rebel who is waging a guerilla war against his brother. In fact you get the impression that he actually likes living in the forest. Still, I don't think we can discount the connection, and there are versions where the duke does dress and Sir Robin. However, we also note that even after Duke Senior has lost his position (though we do not learn how that happened, but then again that is something that is not all that important - or at least Shakespeare didn't seem to think that it was important because all we are told is that his brother usurped his position, and now he is living in the forest) many of his followers fled the city to join them. This also is the case with Rosalind, though the main reason that she leaves is because she is sent into exile as opposed to leaving of her own free will.

Life in the Forest
Okay, there are only two of Shakespeare's plays that I can think of where the forest plays an important role: this play and Midsummer's Night Dream. However, in both of these plays the role of the forest is similar. The forest is created as a world apart from the world of the court, or the city. In Shakespeare, the court, and by extension the city, is a place of political intrigue where dukes and lords tussle with each other for power. It is a place of commerce, and a place that is serious. We see these power struggles clearly in As You Like It with Duke Frederick toppling Duke Senior and establishing his rule. We also see it with the brothers Oliver and Orlando, the sons of the deceased Roland de Boyes. This culminates in the wrestling match, which Oliver orchestrates to remove his brother from the picture so they he might inherit all of the estate as opposed to sharing it. We also see this power struggle when Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind for fear that since she is the true heir to the throne: she might in turn topple him.

Wrestling Match

In contrast to the political intrigue of the city we have the forest of Arden. All of the characters in As You Like It end up in the forest, and the forest ends up having a transforming effect upon its inhabitants. Duke Frederick, who enters the forest to put an end to the possibility of Duke Senior returning with an army and removing him, encounters a monk, ends up repenting of his ways, and gives up his title and his lands to live a life of contemplation. A similar thing occurs with Oliver, who enters the forest to put an end to his brother, and in doing so is confronted by a lion. Orlando, who sees this, slays the lion, and forgives his brother for his trespasses.

Where the court is a place of intrigue, the forest is a place of peace and harmony. In a way Shakespeare paints it in an almost edenic fashion in that the sin and corruption of the world does not exist within the confines of Arden. Another edenic aspect of the forest is that time does not seem to pass within its confines. The world of the court is ruled by time where people must attend meetings and go about a busy daily schedule. However once one enters the forest the hectic schedule suddenly vanishes. The forest exists as a world apart from the world of the dukes and the lords, where everybody is equal and live at peace with each other.

Jasper Francis - Autumn Pastoral

This contrast between the court and the forest in a way still plays out in the world today. I would probably suggest that the contrast could be seen as the conflict between the city and the country, which in many ways is still the contrast between the court and the forest. Though I have lived in cities all of my life, when I travel out to the country, or meet people who have grown up in the country, I notice that there is almost a different culture. There are many who live and work in the city, yet flee its confines every weekend to spend time in the country. The city reflects progressive values and technological advancement, while the country reflects conservative values and are slow to change. Many in the country decry the growth of even the regional centres as the progressive attitudes of the city begin to permeate the people therein. You even see this with the voting patterns: the inner city electorates have a much more progressive voting pattern to those in the country, who tend to vote mainly for the conservatives.

Maerten Rychaert - Pastoral Landscape

In a sense the forest also has a tendency to trump the court. We see this in As You Like It with Oliver and Frederick being transformed as soon as they step out of the court. This idea can also be seen in the above painting by Maerten Rychaert were we have a ruined city (possibly Rome) that has been covered with trees. There is actually quite a bit of truth to this assumption. I remember that there was a restaurant near my parents house that had long closed down and the site was sitting unused for years. Over that time a number of plants had managed to bust through the asphalt and if left untended would have quickly taken over the site. Anybody who has, and tends, a garden would also see this since left untended a garden very quickly grows out of control. For a garden to remain a garden it must be tended on a regular basis.

Plants outside Restaurant.

Courtly Romance
Another reason why it is better to watch Shakespeare performed as opposed to simply reading the play is that the written word does not effectively bring out the comedy of the piece. Mind you, you probably need to see a performance by a good company because the comedy really does rise and fall on the production, and of course the actors. However, the other problem is that many of the concepts that Shakespeare was poking fun at are not necessarily understood in the same way today as they were understood by his original audience, and one of those concepts is the idea of courtly love.

Leighton - God SpeedThe idea of courtly love developed during the middle ages as explored conventions of where the lover (the male) would go to incredible lengths for the benefit of the beloved. In a way one can see these concepts arising from the Bible, with the idea of God sacrificing his son for the benefit of humanity, or with the writings of the Song of Songs. However, Shakespeare thought this idea was utterly ridiculous, and regularly mocks it through many of his plays. We see it here in As You Like It with Rosalind and Orlando falling in love the minute they set eyes on each other, with Orlando becoming seriously ill due to his love for Rosalind, and then proceeding to carve a series of ridiculous poems into the trees in the forest. It is interesting noting Shakespeare's contempt towards courtly love, despite him writing sonnet 18 (though it has been suggested that is was written for a man and has some more homeo-erotic elements).

The thing about courtly love is that in the medieval tradition it was always between a male (the lover) and a woman (the beloved). The male was the active participant where as the woman was the passive. However Shakespeare turns that concept on its head. Look, to suggest that Shakespeare was exploring the idea of homosexual relationships is probably transposing modern, 21st Century, thinking into the 16th Century mindset. Sure, homosexuality existed back then, as it did during the Roman and Greek civilisations, but the idea of a homosexual union being equal to a hetro-sexual union is something that is not considered (especially since Phoebe rejects Rosalind upon her discovery that she is a woman - something that Rosalind expected to happen when she made the proposal to Phoebe). However that does not necessarily mean that such a relationship was unthinkable. In fact we see this with the relationship between Celia and Rosalind, as well as Orlando being more than happy to play romance with Rosalind, despite him believing her to be male.

Gender Identity
On the surface, it is quite logical for Rosalind to disguise herself as a male for the journey to the Forest of Adren because for a couple of women to travel unaccompanied through the country would no doubt invite trouble. In fact, the sad truth is that even in our enlightened society woman still face immense danger when travelling out alone at night. While that should not be the case, unfortunately it is and too many women are killed when travelling alone, even in the city. However, this was much more the case back in the 16th century. The country was a dangerous place, even for men, as they could be waylaid by bandits, or even attacked by wild animals. Sure, the two girls did have the Jester Touchstone with them, but that did not necessarily mean that the danger would be less.

RosalindHowever, there is another side to this idea of gender on the play. It should be remembered that in Shakespeare's day, woman did not appear on stage, so the female characters would all be played by boys. Thus, in As You Like It, we have a boy, playing a girl, who pretends to be a boy, and at one stage takes on the part of a girl to teach Orlando how he can woo her. We also see this in the epilogue where Rosalind says 'if I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me'. Yet despite Rosalind indicating to the audience that she is not actually a woman, she still opens the epilogue with 'it is not a fashion to see a lady in the epilogue'. In a sense, she is both a male (the actor) and a female (the character).

It was suggested by my English lecturer that there was a belief in those days that one could take on a different gender simply by taking on the aspect of the character. This idea does come out in this play as Rosalind disguises herself as a man, but does not drop the disguise once she reaches the forest (particularly since her father is in the forest, and once she had reached the forest, and her father, there would be no need for the disguise any more). Yet in another sense the gender identity of Rosalind has become significantly blurred to the point that she is no longer male or female. She takes on the name Ganymede, which in one sense hardly sounds very masculine, and is also the name of the boy in Roman mythology who become Jove's beloved. Note also that Orlando is more than comfortable to court Ganymede, despite believing her to be a male.

A Couple of Characters
I feel that an exploration of As You Like It would not be complete without touching upon the characters of Touchstone (the Jester) and Jacques (the Philosopher). While they are supporting characters, both of these characters do play an important role in that they are mouth pieces for other ideas. Touchstone, taking the role of the fool, generally comments on the nature and attitudes of other characters in the play, while Jacques, being a philosopher, tends to criticise society at large.

The character of Touchstone has had a subtle impact upon our society, including a website that offers financial advice not so much taking his name, but rather his moniker, the Motley Fool. As they say on their website they took the name as the fool in Shakespeare could instruct and amuse, and speak the truth to the king without getting their heads removed (yes, it is almost word for word, but I couldn't have said it better myself). This is one of the things that I have always appreciated about the fool in Shakespeare because, in reality, they are anything but fools. I guess the reason that they are able to get away with speaking the truth is because everybody looks upon them as fools. The one fool that seems to sit as a prime example is the fool in King Lear. As the saying goes:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
Yet some have suggested that Touchstone is not the classic example of the fool that we see in King Lear. While he is able to point out the follies and mistakes of those around him, he does so in a more vulgar and quite direct way. Yet he still gets away with it. In the end he marries the shepherdess Audrey, though it is suggested that this marriage is doomed to failure, namely because Audrey doesn't marry him for love, but rather marries him to become a courtly lady. Since Duke Senior seems to have no intention of leaving the forest, it is more likely than not that her dreams of becoming a courtly lady are going to be dashed.

As for Jacques, well, he is a very dour and cynical man, yet speaks the famous 'All the World's a Stage' piece where he compares our life to be little more than a play where we pass through seven acts, all different and all in contrast with the other. Jacques is more of an observer than a character, which is true of many of the philosophers throughout the ages. In a way philosophers are both observers and commentators, but then like the fool, they are also critics and seek to challenge us in our way of thinking. Unlike the fool, the philosopher is much more in danger of getting his head cut off (or being forced to drink poison).

William Hodges - Jacques

Creative Commons License
Shakespeare's As You Like It - The Original Four Weddings by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


  1. I am hoping to get to Los Angeles this summer with the kids to see this one. It will be a first for them, although I have seen it twice, if memory serves. The whole gender-bending aspect of Shakespeare is both fascinating and fun. (I saw Twelfth Night again this year, and keeping track of who is which gender must have been particularly fun when all the actors were male.)

    You mention Courtly Love. Have you read C. S. Lewis' work on the old romances, The Allegory of Love? I found it enlightening, particularly in the way that love was always adulterous in the old stories, because that was the kind that could be chosen for one's self, rather than by family, duty, and economics.

  2. Apparently the female characters were played by boys, who tended to have higher pitched voices. I hope you enjoy the Los Angeles production. We don't get much in the way of Shakespeare down here in Australia, so I have been fairly luck of late with the plays that I've seen.

    I quite like C.S. Lewis, and I have heard of that work, though I haven't read it. I must keep an eye out for it.