Sunday, July 12, 2009

As You Like It - Arden

Gilbert writes:

Dear Denizens of the Deep,

Back to the realm, literally, of Comedy and to The Plot: a young man meets and desires a young woman, but obstacles to their union arise, until these are resolved and a new society is formed, most often by marriage, or at least a new harmony as symbolized by a dance. The obstacles, from Menander onward, are most often a parental generation blocking the union, but it may be law, family enmity (Romeo and Juliet is such a comedy until Capulet takes a wrong turn in Act III), or perhaps the need for the young man to prove himself worthy. In As You Like It, it is the young woman more than the young man who is in pursuit, and the obstacles are placed by both a repressive society and the necessity of the young man to pass a test (which he does not know he is taking). The resolution seems to be brought about by place, the Forest of Arden, as catalyst.

The structure of As You Like It is similar to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play starts at a court ruled over by a repressive autocrat. The usurper Duke Frederick is more villainous than Theseus, but both impose edicts that drive the young couple into exile, into the forest, under threat of death. As You Like It doubles the threat; Oliver de Boys has reduced his youngest brother, Orlando, to uneducated servitude. Among the entertainments at Duke Frederick's court is gladiatorial sport in which the house wrassler is charged with maiming or killing all comers, specifically Orlando, who, somehow beats him, and therefore must flee for his life. So into the woods we go, the Forest of Arden.

I first saw this referred to as "the green world" in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, though perhaps this term was already a commonplace. The Forest provides freedom, respite, space so the obstacles of the court society can be resolved. In Midsummer Night's Dream the forest is supranatural, conjured by magic, whereas Arden is pastoral, imbued with the innocence attributed to Nature. Here Duke Senior is free to discover his inner self, apart from the social and political strictures of court, playing like the old Robin Hood of England; Rosalind, disguised in breeches, can display her assertive imagination; naïve Orlando can practice expressing love. The pastoral is an artificial literary convention, shepherds and shepherdesses but no beshitten sheep nor wolves, so it is essentially innocent and charming. However, Shakespeare does not send the exiles into a hermetically sealed otherworld. Duke Senior introduces Arden with a conventional:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The season's difference, as the icy fang
And churlish slicing of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say,
"This is no flattery: these are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am."
Sweet are the uses of adversity, (II.i.1-12);

that is, Arden is not court ("painted pomp"), and yet it is not prelapsarian Eden. Senior praises the winter wind because, somehow, it underscores his mortality. This is less the pastoral convention of Theocritus as anticipation of the Romanticism of Wordsworth, where the tongues of trees, the books of running brooks, and the sermons of stones teach essential good. Senior goes too far, into "green" sentimentality, when he considers harvesting some deer, and "yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,/ Being native burghers of this desert city, / Should in their own confines with forked heads/ Have their round haunches gor'd." I find it pretty difficult to assign idealism to someone salivating for venison burgers [sic]. But the ancient servant Adam (interesting name especially after the reference to Eden's old Adam) provides the key to the play as he and Orlando prepare to escape the court: "O, what a world is this, when what is comely/ Envenoms him that bears it!" (II.iii.14-15).

Soon Rosalind and Celia and Orlando and Adam will encounter the true denizens of Arden, not Oberon, Titania, and Puck, not Peaseblossom, Mustardseed or Moth, but the array of shepherds, from Corin ("I am a true laborer"), Sylvius, and the sweetly innocent William, to the anti-Rosalind Phoebe and the randy Audrey, and it is interesting that in this supposedly transformative world, only the court jester Touchstone is actually affected by interactions with them, and then it is more stones than trees and brooks that move him (sorry―strike that).

Thus, Arden is merely Not-Court rather than a green world, and when all the matches are made―Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and a miraculously repentant Oliver, Touchstone and Audrey (betimes finding an official blessing for their coupling), Phoebe and Silvius―and after Duke Frederick, though viciously determined to hunt down the merry folk in Arden, encounters some "old religious man" in a cave and is inexplicably converted to Saint Francis-like serenity, then we find that Duke Senior and Orlando and all the Merry folk except Jaques put venison and campfire songs behind them and repopulate the court with all deliberate haste.


PS: Time permitting (and if anyone is interested) I will review a survey of 400 years of production to see if the Forest of Arden has been set the way A Midsummer Night's Dream was, real trees and live rabbits. Or one of us might consider Rosalind in disguise, a boy actor cast as a woman disguised as a man pretending to be a woman so a man could practice courting her; or what happens if Maggie Smith is bitten in the face by her dog?

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