Why This Play?:
I chose it because I’ve just finished James Shapiro’s 1559: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare. It’s fascinating, reiterating some of the stuff I know from that year (e.g. Essex and the Irish war), but expanding greatly on other things I hadn’t yet learned (details on how/why the Theatre was moved south of the Thames to become the Globe). The book talks about four of Shakespeare’s plays that were written around this year, and I’ve already written about three of them – Julius Caesar, Henry V, and Hamlet. The remaining one is As You Like It, and Shapiro’s take on the theatre scene and how it affected that work is really interesting. Why is it so musically inclined? Why the pastoral setting, when it was already going out of fashion by that time? Is the Forest of Arden a nod to where young Shakespeare grew up? These are the nerdy, nerdy items that interest an armchair scholar.
I love a good romp in the woods. It’s still, in today’s world, an ideal we hold: escape to the wilderness to get away from it all. Shakespeare already explored this idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the lovers of Athens escape from the oppressive court to wild fairyland to find their romantic happiness. While reading AYLI, I was on vacation far away from my busy California home, visiting my parents in the mountains of North Carolina (hiking Pisgah National Forest, visiting Sierra Nevada’s Brewery, and taking in all the fresh, green quiet of early spring). We slowed down and got away from work and schedules. Focused less on rules and more on fun. We all need rejuvenating periods like this to reflect, assess, and just blow of steam. But everyone gets back to reality at some point – even Rosalind will leave the forest and return to court. So, spiritually speaking, how does one balance a courtly life of duty with a frivolous forest life?
So What Happens?:
A man of little means, Orlando, complains to elderly servant, Adam, about his situation. He’s a noble’s son, but when daddy died his big brother Oliver was put in charge of the estate. Oliver provides for the middle bro (Jaques de Boys) but has put baby bro Orlando to work and skipped over his education entirely. Poor guy feels neglected of his due. He confronts Oliver about it, asking to either be treated as a noble’s son within the family or to be given his monetary inheritance to make his own way in the world. Oliver isn’t hearing it, and they get into a tussle that old Adam tries to break up. Oliver orders them both out. It’s unclear why, exactly, he’s such a jerk. The Duke’s royal wrestler (yeah, that’s a thing), Charles, arrives for a visit. We learn that Duke Frederick holds the court now, but only because he ousted his brother, Duke Senior, who fled with some of his men to the Forest of Arden. Fred’s daughter Celia is current princess, and Senior’s daughter Rosalind was allowed to stay at court since the girls are best buds. Charles says word on the street is that Orlando is going to try to best him in wrestling at court, and he just wanted to give Oliver a heads up that he’ll go easy on him. Instead, Oliver convinces Charles that baby bro is a horrible person, so it’s cool if Charles knocks him out. Oliver can’t quite explain why he hates his bro, but he’s pretty pleased to have a plot to be rid of him.
At the palace, Rosalind misses her father. Celia tries to coax her into a livelier mood, with the help of court clown Touchstone. Courtier Le Beau comes to make room for the big wrestling match, and the ladies request to speak with the challenger. Orlando comes forth, and they beseech him not to fight. He impresses them with his earnestness and good manners. The entire court watches the fight, and Orlando easily and quickly bests Charles in a major upset.
An impressed Duke Frederick asks after the winner, and Orlando proudly announces that he’s the son of the deceased Sir Rowland de Boys. Duke Fred is instantly upset at this news – he saw de Boys as a “traitor” who didn’t support his usurpation of power. He exits in a huff, and Le Beau tells Orlando he better high tail it out of there if he wants to keep his head. Smitten Rosalind gives him a chain and kind words about their fathers’ friendship, and Orlando can barely speak, as he’s so infatuated with her.
Celia teases Rosalind about her sudden feelings towards Orlando. Duke Fred busts onto the scene, in a raging fit. He turns on Rosalind, banishing her from the court with some pretty weak reasoning about how much the citizens love her. He’s sniffing out treason in every party except himself. The ladies are astounded and each try to plea Rosalind’s innocence, but ol’ Fred is resolute. Rosalind must be gone in ten days or face death. Loyal Celia proclaims that as she loves her cousin, she is as good as banished too. Celia hatches a plan for the two to run away to the Forest of Arden in search of Duke Senior. She’ll disguise herself as peasant girl “Aliena” and Rosalind determines to disguise herself as a boy, “Ganymede”, to make their travel safer. They’ll also bring Touchstone for good measure (entertainment is a great comfort in these stressful times). Celia the optimist vows to view their adventure as freedom rather than exile.
Duke Senior is kicking it in the Forest of Arden with his buddies Amiens, Jaques, and a couple of other banished lords/servants. He waxes philosophical about how the forest has freed them from the pressures of court, and that nature is a lovely teacher. Jaques, naturally drawn to melancholy, keeps disappearing to sigh and lament the state of man. Back in civilization, Duke Frederick is livid that Celia has gone, and he thinks that Orlando may have something to do with it. Meanwhile, the old de Boys family servant, Adam, warns Orlando to get away from home due to the vengeful (and murderous!) Oliver. Adam proposes that they take his meager life savings and run away to the forest together. With no better options, Orlando agrees, soothed by the man’s heartfelt loyalty.
Rosalind (as “Ganymede”), Celia (as “Aliena”), and Touchstone are exhausted from their flight into the woods. They come upon two shepherds arguing – Silvius is in love and rebukes the older Corin for not understanding. The travelers approach and inquire about food and shelter. Corin obliges, telling them of his cottage and provisions they can purchase. Elsewhere in the wood, Amiens sings sad songs and Jaques revels in them while they prepare for Duke Senior to settle down to supper. Adam and Orlando are weary and starving from their flight to the forest. Orlando heads off in search of food – when he finds Duke Senior’s band at supper, he threatens them. The Duke gently remonstrates his behavior, choosing instead to welcome him as a guest. Orlando gratefully and peacefully retrieves Adam and joins the Duke’s crew. Duke Senior remarks that we all have parts to play, and Jaques expounds on the theme, laying out the seven stages of man. Orlando reveals himself as the son of Rowland de Boys, and Duke Senior welcomes him as a friend.
Duke Frederick is livid that Orlando hasn’t been found. He threatens Oliver with banishment, even though Oliver states that he has no love for his brother. Contrary Fred claims that fact makes Oliver a villain (in a massive case of the pot calling the kettle black). In the forest, Touchstone debates the shepherd’s life with Corin, and “Ganymede” finds love poems addressed to Rosalind tacked on surrounding trees. Touchstone cracks jokes about how bad the poetry is, but Celia says she knows the author. After much teasing, she confirms it’s Orlando, who is hanging about the wood with Rosalind’s father. Wandering Orlando meets Jaques, and they have a witty spar in which they decide they really don’t need to get to know each other. Orlando then comes across “Ganymede”, who convinces him to undergo lessons to cure his lovesickness. The best way to do so? “Ganymede” will pretend to be “Rosalind” and Orlando must woo him/her. The characterization here is starting to resemble matryoshka dolls.
Touchstone’s found a lady friend! He’s wooed peasant girl Audrey and has even gone out of his way to secure a vicar (Sir Oliver Mar-text) to marry them. Jaques happens along the scene and convinces them not to marry in a bush like beggars. Also, Rosalind is out of sorts since Orlando is late for their first date. When she and Celia see Silvius’s rebuffed attempts at wooing local girl Phebe. When “Ganymede” scolds the girl that she should be grateful for the shepherd’s affection, Phebe instead falls for “Ganymede”, and then enlists poor Silvius’s help in delivering a love letter to “him”.
Orlando finally arrives for their date, and Rosalind-as-“Ganymede”-as-“Rosalind” chastises him for making a lover wait. He tries to apologize by saying he would die for her, but Rosalind insists that’s hyperbolic; no one has ever actually died of love. Orlando willingly plays along with the game of wooing Rosalind, and (admirably, at least in the text) never breaks on the idea. Rosalind then pulls Celia in to mock-marry the couple. Orlando heads off to attend to Duke Senior but promises to return in a couple of hours. To pass the time, Jaques commands a song about deer-slaying. When the ladies return to the spot to meet Orlando, they instead meet Silvius. He delivers Phebe’s letter to “Ganymede”, who assures Silvius she’ll try to unite him with his beloved.
Suddenly, Oliver bursts in. This is a new and improved Oliver, a complete character reversal from the brother-hating villain we knew before. The ladies don’t recognize him. Oliver’s flailing around with a bloody cloth to give to “Ganymede”. He tells a story of how he was attacked by wild animals, then Orlando found him and beat off a lion, sparing his brother rather than exacting revenge for his past treatment. At the receipt of such kindness, Oliver instantly has changed his ways. Orlando was hurt in the scuffle, and asked him to relay the cloth to “Ganymede” with apologies for being late to their next date. “Ganymede” faints upon seeing the cloth, but recovers quickly with a story that she was just staying in character as Rosalind. Oliver is more than a little suspicious of the swooning and its meaning.
Touchstone mercilessly teases Audrey’s other suitor, a country bumpkin names William, but Corin calls them to attend on “Aliena” and “Ganymede”. Oliver and Orlando are doing a little overdue brotherly bonding. Oliver loved “Aliena” at first sight and is willing to give the De Boys estate entirely over to Orlando and remain in the woods as a married shepherd with her. “Ganymede” arrives, and Orlando confesses he isn’t content to play at their love game any longer. “Ganymede” claims to have a magician’s knowledge and that he will conjure the real Rosalind for marriage the next day. Phebe and Silvius arrive, and “Ganymede” promises marriages for all – he would marry Phebe if he ever marry a woman, but if that can’t happen, Phebe agrees to marry Silvius as Plan B. Everyone agrees to meet the following day. Touchstone and Audrey are equally excited for their wedding, and they listen to a fun little ditty about love in springtime.
It’s wedding day for a whole buncha folks! The Duke and his whole crew show up in support for the carious couples. “Ganymede” checks in with Orlando and Phebe/Silvius to make sure they’re all still on board with their promises to wed. Touchstone puts on a show of silly wisdom on the subject of duels and quarrels. Hymen, the goddess of marriage herself, enters with the undisguised Celia and Rosalind. Everyone’s properly amazed, Rosalind’s plans for couples are revealed, and Hymen sings four couples (Rosalind/Orlando, Celia/Oliver, Phebe/Silvius, and Audrey/Touchstone) into marriage.
The middle De Boys brother (another Jaques) bursts in. He just happened upon them with the most opportune news ever! Turns out Duke Frederick went into the forest to hunt for his daughter and to come after Duke Senior once and for all. But he came across a religious hermit instead and was converted. He’s seen the error of his ways and wants to relinquish his stolen power. He returns the dukedom to Duke Senior and all seized property to anyone else who was in exile. Duke Senior grasps the cause for celebration, but insists that everyone enjoy a big country party in the forest before they depart for their newly restored lives at court. Jaques isn’t having any of the merrymaking – he runs off to join Duke Frederick and the hermit for a solitary life. Everyone dances, and Rosalind wraps up the whole affair with another play on the boy-woman plot by entreating the audience to applaud both as a womanly character, and as a male actor.
Check This Out:
This is RSC’s take (from 2013) on the lovely scene (3.2) when “Ganymede” first meets Orlando and offers to cure him of his infatuation. Beautiful tension between the actors, and a great example of theatre being slightly (effectively) adjusted for filming.
Many a thesis has been written about the importance of the Forest of Arden in this play. The Globe Theatre’s blog has a great 101-type post that reviews the importance of the forest. I’ll touch a bit on this idea below.
This play had me thinking a lot about all of my personal favorite wilderness memories. Much like Rosalind and Celia, the forest was my first taste of independence – for four summers, I spent a glorious full week away from my family and everyday home life. I moved around a bit in my childhood, but one constant was summer camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. Campers couldn’t even get there by car – parents would take us to the dinner cruise ships in the main part of town, and we’d be a wild bunch of kids on a ferry to arrive at camp. Sort of like a pilgrimage to Neverland, minus the ferry dust. Every kid should have the means of doing something like this, regardless of location, income, or background. Camp Sweyolakan for life!
Need a mini-break to make you relax and get in tune with yourself, when you can’t escape the humdrum of life? There’s a Spotify playlist for that! It’s called Lost in the Woods, by Spotify UK. It’s dreamy, slow, and perfect for having on in the background whilst you think your deepest thoughts.
Thoughts and Themes:
The idea of court vs wilderness is the theme that’s easiest to spot in As You Like It. But it’s such a good examination of the idea! Duke Frederick’s court is a place of restrictions, where all characters have to tread a tightrope carefully to remain in favor and stay out of danger. Powerful men make the rules, and everyone has to fall in line and live accordingly. You never know what’s going to give, whether you confront injustice (like Orlando to Oliver) or try to continue along under the radar (such as Rosalind giving up her place as princess). When Rosalind is banished from court for no reason, Celia urges, “Now go we in content to liberty, and not to banishment” (1.3) before they head off for the woods. Even though the Forest of Arden is full of unknown dangers, at least they’ll be free of the oppressive regime.
And the forest ends up being pretty great! There are all sorts of fun and kind shepherds and banished nobles there. In the woods Rosalind can make the rules, orchestrating her wooing game to test Orlando. There’s singing everywhere and (bad) poetry on the trees. Everyone’s up for a skirmish of wits; romance is abundant. But it’s FLEETING, y’all. The happy ending restores Duke Senior to his power and sets forth plans for the various newlyweds to return to court. Party’s over, folks. And it leaves me wondering – how do they take all the revelry, the freedom, the truth, and the love that they gained in the forest and apply that back into their lives at court?
We, the audience/readers, have a similar existence to the characters: a duality in our lives. Similar to the court setting, we have our everyday existence – jobs or school, family and friends, schedules, bills, obligations. These aren’t bad things. But they are busy things, and it’s very easy to get caught up in the routines and processes without much room for relaxation or self-assessment. Which is why we also go on vacations – our modern-day equivalent of banishment to the wilderness. It can be really hard to “get away from it all”, particularly when we’re living lives that we’ve worked hard to build. But when you do actually disconnect from the bureaucrazy and the business of your life, how do you achieve peace and introspection…and manage to take it back with you? Seriously, this question is so important, I've already asked it thrice in one blog post.
I just got back from a big birthday bash for my father – my brother and I plus our spouses and children flew from urban CA to the mountains of NC for this. We all holed up in my parents’ house for a week. Aside from a couple of outings, we had no schedule to speak of, plus there’s unsteady internet access at their place. Nothing really to keep us latched to the sense of busy I’m so used to (especially when my mama insists on all the cooking, leaving me with not much to work on!). So we just…hung out instead. We drank beer, talked, played games, went for walks, and listened to music. Faced with stretches of quiet time with my laptop and no good wifi, I got some writing done, endeavoring a first draft of a short story and a character sketch for a longer one. I read two books and one play when I was there. I did yoga every day. I had quality time with people I that fiercely love. Hubs and I went on a walk, where I told him about the ideas I was batting around on As You Like It and this blog post. We both agreed there’s something about the wilderness (i.e. vacation) that slows you down and helps you connect with yourself and your passions. We like to go over goals/dreams for the rest of the year when we're on vacation and have a chance to really examine our lives from the outside. We just needed to put those things into action, and the question nagged us both on how you retain a bit of that magic when you return to back to life, back to reality.
In case I haven’t stated it enough in previous postings, I’m a lucky person and so grateful that I’ve gotten to spend the past year focusing entirely on my family rather than the career I left behind. While we were away, I realized I want to give two of my interests more attention and try to develop some real skills there. I’m ready to start moving out of my comfort zone. The biggest item is that I want to start taking writing more seriously and making it a habit. So upon returning home, I started another MOOC through FutureLearn. Unrelated to Shakespeare this time, it’s about starting the creative writing process. It’s time for me to come out of my current safe hidey-hole of only writing by summarizing famous plays. One of the driving ideas of this blog was to examine Shakespeare in the 21st century everyday life, but also just to get me writing again so I could tackle bigger things.
This class had a lesson on writing rituals and practices. How to find the best time and setting for you to devote yourself to your craft. And I realized it’s a lot like vacation and this idea of “getting away from it all.” We procrastinate all the time, talking ourselves out of taking time off (or in my case, writing) because we keep searching for the perfect circumstances for when we can escape. If my family holds off on vacation until we find the magical time when we’re not too busy to take it…then we’ll never go. And if I insist on finding the same magical, quiet 2 hour period to write each day…I’ll never get any thoughts on paper. So we need to work with what we have. Catalog the business that absolutely needs to be done each day, then compare that to what we want to achieve. Complete the must-dos, set aside some things that can wait, and make a little more time (for me, it’s not in the same time/place every day!) for the things that we enjoy that will feed our souls. What’s that for you? For me, it’s playing with my kids, having real conversations with my husband, writing and reading, and practicing yoga. So I’m starting small. If I can work in 20 minute increments and not procrastinate or focus on other items during that short period, then I count that as a win. I’m trying to keep up with that 20 minute focus idea each day to make it habit forming. We'll see how that goes, I guess.
I mentioned a second interest that I want to focus on in my post-vacation haze of good intentions. I also stated that I was ready to get out of my comfort zone. It’s been 12 years since I was last on a stage in a performance capacity (years of sales and HR presentations don’t count!). I miss acting and I don’t want to wistfully think “what if” or “maybe someday, when I have more time” about it any more. I want to be an example to my kids that you can still try new things at any point in your life. So when I found out that a local community theatre is having general auditions for their upcoming season, I signed up. In mid-May, I’ll perform 2 monologues for a small group of directors and just see what happens. I’m mentally channeling Rosalind here – donning the costume, throwing caution to the wind, and just trying to live for a moment. For us both, it’s not necessarily about expecting results, but rather just making an honest effort for something we want. And that little bit of fun on the horizon has brought out a strange and intense new focus that’s breathing some new life into my days back at home, in the business of my everyday living.
In the meantime, we just get through every day as best we can. Take care of the things we have to do, and make a little space for the things that feed us.