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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

"As You Like It" by William Shakespeare

Not one of William's best. There is even a suggestion that the title reflects the fact that it was written to please the groundlings: As You Like It.

I read it. Then I saw it broadcast live from the RSC on Wednesday 17th April at the Vue Cinema in Bedford. The production transformed my view of the play.

First of all, the RSC included audience participation. They took 'As You Like It' seriously. They suggested that this is the play more than any other in which Shakespeare breaks down the fourth wall. I'm not 100% sure what this means. Does this mean that the actor speaks directly to the audience? Because if that is the case then one might suggest that every soliloquy in Shakespeare is a fourth wall destruction. Or do they mean that the actor interacts with the audience which implies that the audience itself has an input? Certainly in this production the actors, from time to time, jumped off the stage, they distributed Orlando's poems to members of the audience, then collected them again, Orlando even invited four members of the audience up on to the stage to act as trees on which he could hang the letters of the word ROSALIND. But this is not the same as interaction. Interaction implies that some input from an audience member might have the power to alter what is happening on the stage. This never happened. Might it? One of the features that distinguishes drama as entertainment from, for example, sport as entertainment is that in drama every moment is scripted and preordained whereas in sport no one can be certain what is going to happen next. Perhaps this is why sport has mass appeal and my beloved theatre is a minority art form nowadays.

So I don't really understand this fourth wall business. But how was it that the RSC production transformed what I thought was a rather silly play, with some obscure Shakespearean jokes and far too many minor characters, into nearly three hours of enjoyment?

One of the things that an actor does is to take words and add physicality. Time and again the RSC company added their bodies to transform the script. Here are a few examples:

  • Humour I had thought obscure and difficult became bawdy jokes. For example, there is one bit where Touchstone (played as a wonderfully seedy Rod Stewart) is teasing Corin about whether the countryside or the court is better and Corin tells him that courtiers are better because they have hands perfumed with civet rather than hands filthied from touching sheep and Touchstone makes a joke which depends on the audience knowing that civet comes from the anal glands of cats and it worked!
  • LeBeau (played superbly by Emily Johnstone), a courtier who supervises the wrestling match became a short lady in a tight skirt and high heels that tilted every time that she walked on the grass wrestling ring. Her timing was perfect and her gestures and facial movements enhanced the comedy. 
  • When Touchstone (superbly played by Sandy Grierson) goes into the country with Rosalind and Celia he is the one to take a suitcase on wheels (which enables him to climb down to the stage with the suitcase dangling from his foot!). 
  • Another clever moment was the wooing of Audrey by Touchstone; Audrey was played as a deaf character and Touchstone required William to sign for him which meant that when he calls Audrey a slattern he tries, unsuccessfully, to stop the signing. When Celia hides on stage she covers herself with her skirts creating a sort of brown mound which gets sat on. Rosalind hid by dropping off the stage into the stalls.
  • Anthony Byrne playing a chillingly evil Duke Frederick went from gracious ruler to cold-blooded tyrant in a breath with a pause and a twist of his face. Leo Wan achieved the same effect as Oliver. (Neither actor had the same opportunities when they played nice people, which suggests that either Shakespeare is really best at villains or that I prefer wicked characters.)
The question has to be asked whether Shakespeare himself was sufficiently wonderful a dramatist that he knew that his words would be interpreted in such a way. Harold Pinter's stage directions are detailed and exact: he tells the actor precisely how to play the scene. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has sparse stage directions (as was the fashion of his time). Was this deliberate? Was he giving his actors freedom to interpret his words how they wished to? Is it this (which clearly actors relish) that has given him longevity?

It is my belief that Shakespeare was a playwright who wrote for the company he knew (and with which he acted) and that therefore the paucity of stage directions is partly due to the fact that the plays were created together with the cast. As You Like It is actually a key piece of evidence for this theory. It has been suggested by James Shapiro ('1599') that the clown who played Falstaff left the Globe company after Merry Wives and before Henry V, which is why Falstaff does not appear in Henry V (we learn of his off stage death) and that the new clown was a very different character for whom Shakespeare wrote the part of Touchstone and subsequent comic parts. This supports the idea of Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright who worked with a company of actors, rather than an amateur such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.

The likely dating of the play shows that it was written at a very interesting moment in the canon. The Oxford Schools Shakespeare edition edited by Roma Gill with additional material by Judith Kneen (1977) dates it to 1599 (part of the evidence for this is Phoebe's lines in Act Three Scene 6 (lines 80-81): “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:/ ‘Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?’” when she quotes Marlowe and by describing him as dead it is taken to be a reference to the fact that Marlowe is already dead which happened in 1593; also in AYLI (3.3) Touchstone says that "When a man’s verses cannot be understood ... it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room" which is sometimes taken to be a reference that Marlowe was supposedly stabbed after a quarrel about a bar bill) shortly after Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing and during the hiatus between Henry IV part 2 and Henry V.

There were some wonderful performances.  Beside those already mentioned, Sophie Khan Levy played Celia, a part that really hasn't much meat, beautifully. David Ajao was a great Orlando who recruited audience members to act as trees so he could hang his lobe letters. Rosalind and Touchstone really made the most of Shakespeare's laughing at the poor quality of these poems. But the absolute star of the show was Lucy Phelps as Rosalind. She could change in an instant from Rosalind to Ganymede, she was able to communicate with the audience by more changes of her features which enabled her to provide a sort of commentary on the play, she was able to rush through some of Shakespeare's lines at breakneck speed and still keep the sense, she was superb.

The part of Rosalind, the girl who disguises herself as a boy who pretends to be a girl is a wonderfully strong female part and the part of Jaques, the melancholy man, is also brilliant. These are definite pluses for the play.

On the other hand, despite Jaques having the famous "All the world's a stage" speech, there are fewer quotable quotes than Shakespeare's normal quotient. This might be because there is a lot less poetry in this play; a surprisingly large number of the lines are in prose.

I would have advised Will on some cuts to improve this play. For example, in Act Five Scene 1 Touchstone and Audrey meet William who wants to marry Audrey; Touchstone teases him and William departs. There is almost no point to this scene. Remove it! Furthermore, in a desperately contrived ending, the good news that the bad Duke has had a change of heart and is retiring in favour of the good Duke is brought on by a new character called Jacques who is the apparently long-lost middle brother of Oliver and Orlando and absolutely no relation to Jaques. Get rid of him. Find someone else to break this news if you really can't find a more satisfactory resolution to the play. Or if you can't do that rename him. Essentially this play suffers from too many characters and too much plot and too little thoughtful development of character. At the end there are four happy marriages made, mostly between people who have fallen in love at first sight.

And how on earth is anyone to believe that Rosalind can get away with pretending to be a boy to her father or (repeatedly) to the man who loves her and who even woos Rosalind as a boy pretending to be his girlfriend Rosalind. It's bonkers. Disbelief seriously suspended.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in Shakespeare's Workmanship states that “The opening act of As You Like It abounds in small carelessness of detail. Rosalind is taller than Celia in one passage, shorter in another.”

But there's a wrestling match and there are a lot of songs. The sort of play with plenty of spectacle which makes actors happy: they love to show off and sing and dance. And the RSC managed to turn an overcast play with a bonkers plot into fun entertainment which , after all, is what it's all about.

The overabundance of detail my be due to Shakespeare's source material. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate points out that Rosalynd, a 1590 novella by Thomas Lodge, was the model for As You Like It. “It begins with the legacy of a gentleman to his three sons and the ill-treatment of the youngest at the hands of the eldest. The latter plans to do away with his brother by having him killed in a bout with a supposedly invincible wrestler at court; amazingly, though, the youth wins the wrestling match and in doing so attracts the eye of Rosalynd, daughter of the rightful king who has been forced into exile by a usurper. Further schemes against the hero, Rosader, force him to leave home; he goes to the forest of Arden, in company with his faithful retainer, Adam Spencer,; there he meets up with the exiled king and his courtiers.Meanwhile, Rosalynd is banished. Alinda, the daughter of the usurping king, determines to go with her. Since two women travelling alone would be vulnerable, the tall Rosalynd dresses as a boy and pretends to be Alinda’s page; they call themselves Ganymede and Aliena. In the forest they encounter an old shepherd and a young man, the latter complaining about his unrequited love for a shepherdess named Phoebe. The princesses in disguise give financial help to the shepherds; the court-in-exile gives civil welcome to young Rosader and hungry old Adam. The princesses meet up with Rosader, who has been busy writing love poems in praise of Rosalynd. Ganymede pretends to be Rosalynd, so that Rosader can rehearse his wooing of the real Rosalynd ...” (p 141) It is clear that As You Like It was an adaptation of Rosalynd. However, Shakespeare adds the clown Touchstone and the melancholic Jacques, who are probably the keystone characters of the play. (p 142)

Shakespeare's thesis is that love at first sight is lasting and that the life of simple rustics is so much better than the life at court; that bad thoughts can be healed by nature: “... Are not these woods/ More free from peril than the envious court?” (2.1.3-4). Classic romantic pap. I'm surprised that either Rosalind or Jaques will stand for it.

The Oxford School Shakespeare edition of the play states that there are three themes introduced in the first scene of the first Act, one of which is "the envy that is provoked by goodness". You could say that As You Like It was another exploration by Sahkespeare of jealousy, a theme developed more fully in King Lear and The Winter's Tale.

But it does have some good quotes:
  • “Hereafter, in a better world from this,/ I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.” (1.2.258-9)
  • “Treason is not inherited, my lord.” (1.3.56)
  • “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” (2.1.12)
  • “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” (2.5.11)
  • “If he, compact of jars, grow musical,/ We shall have shortly discord in the spheres.” (2.7.5-6)
  • “ And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,/ And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot,/ And thereby hangs a tale.” (2.7.26 - 28)
  • “Do you know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” (3.3.225)
  • “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.” (3.3.280)
  • “Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark-house and a whip as mad men do.” (3.3.359)
  • “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men's.” (4.1.20- 21)
  • “Men have died from time to time - and worms have eaten them - but not for love.” (4.1.92 - 93)
April 2019

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog:

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