Shakespearing #22 by David Foley
As You Like It
I’ve probably fallen too easily into the assumption that the order I’m using for Shakespeare’s plays reflects an actual order of composition. Go online and you’ll find chronologies that vary significantly from Riverside’s. So my sense that As You Like It acted for Shakespeare as a kind of palate cleanser between Julius Caesar and Hamlet might be an illusion. But I like the idea. I like the idea that Shakespeare fell upon As You Like It with a kind of relief. The play takes us out of the churn of history and politics, far from Rome’s clashing ambitions and Elsinore’s venal and venomous court. Even Much Ado About Nothing seems, by comparison, poisoned by intrigue, ambition, and malice.
It’s not that there isn’t malice in As You Like It. Duke Frederick and Orlando’s brother Oliver are the Malice Twins, so alike that they can’t stand each other. “I never lov’d my brother in my life,” says Oliver. “More villain thou,” says the duke, seemingly without self-consciousness. Duke Frederick has, of course, overthrown his own brother and banished him to the woods, which turns out to be like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.
This is the relief of As You Like It: how lightly, how charmingly it slips away from the conniving world. In Much Ado, villainy must be revealed and expunged. Here it’s powerless to breach the forest borders. Duke Frederick makes it only to “the skirts of this wild wood” before he’s converted and wanders off to a monastery. Oliver falls asleep in the forest and wakes up reconciled with his brother. It’s true that while he slept “a green and gilded snake…wreath’d itself” around his neck, and “with her head nimble in threats, approach’d/The opening of his mouth,” but “with indented glides [she slips] away” when Orlando appears. Maybe it’s a good thing Oliver has denied Orlando the education proper to his station. It gives him power not just to deflect the coiled serpents that fill a courtier’s mouth with lies, but to kill a lion, exorcising the court’s corruption and the forest’s dangers in one swift sequence.
But the great relief of As You Like It is Rosalind. She shakes us free, and you can feel Shakespeare shaking himself free as he writes her. There’s no accounting for a Rosalind. There’s no accounting for the way a character can take hold of a writer’s pen (or keyboard) and seemingly write herself, so that it becomes impossible to think of craft or construction, only of being, perhaps the way Gaston Bachelard describes a poetic image as an “origin,” “[spoken] on the threshold of being.” Perhaps we can try to account for Rosalind, like that poetic image, through language. Rosalind rides language like a windhover, whether she’s disparaging love (“Men have died from time to time, and worms of eaten them, but not for love.”) or pining for it (“I’ll go find a shadow, and sigh till he come.”), whether she’s bantering with Jaques or insulting Phebe.
Her imposture as Ganymede seems not so much to free her as to express her freedom, to make it visible. She is the “master mistress” of the final pageant, promising a return to order through a kind of jazz improvisation. (“And I for no woman!”)
But, in truth, we haven’t been much disordered. We found a new order when we entered the forest, and it’s almost a disappointment to see Rosalind emerge in women’s clothes at the end of the play, as if we’ve retreated from the threshold of being.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.