Tuesday, July 21, 2009

As You Like It - No Evil Shall Escape My Sight

Randall writes:

Arden-t readers,

Derek started us off by stating that one of As You Like It's great points "is that, for once, there really is evil." I've been thinking about evil and Shakespeare for some time, and evil itself fascinates me in all its literary incarnations.

For example, I taught a class today in which students are writing an analytical essay on Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' Green Lantern, issue 76 (1970), and they are trying to discern what is remarkable about the comic's story. One idea that emerges pretty quickly is that, as a student named Conor put it in the last session, "evil doesn't always have to don a costume and have super powers; normal evil people have fairly similar goals to normal people, only with more devious ways of achieving them." Today, I noticed a couple students were throwing the "evil" word around somewhat carelessly, so I asked them to make sure the explained what they meant by "evil" if it was going to be a focus of their essays.

Over on the Shakespeare Geek blog, Duane is asking readers to consider which Shakespeare villains suffer no guilt for their actions. He writes:

"It’s easy to find ways in which Shakespeare’s villains feel guilt for their actions, whether it’s Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, or Claudius’ outright 'My offense is rank, it smells to heaven' prayer. Should we count Edmund’s last minute redemption, too?

"What I’m interested in is bad guys who feel no guilt at all. I was trying to explain to my boss last week why Iago is such a nasty son-of-a-gun, and I realized that when it comes to his actual crimes, there are other bad guys that did far worse. It’s just something about him. I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that, as far as I can tell, he never feels a shred of anything for his victim, right up until the last words we hear. That’s what’s so scary."

I think Duane's question gets to the heart of evil, that to be evil, not just to do evil, demands that one knowingly act to the detriment of others without remorse. In the golden and silver ages of the comic book world, stories are full of villains bent on world domination, the destruction of the human race, theft of various items for no other purpose than to perpetrate the theft, etc. Just evil. Frequently, a character in a comic will refer to the villain as an "evil-doer," a term few outside the comic book world actually use (except our former president who once said, "My administration has a job to do and we're going to do it. We will rid the world of evil-doers.").

In the Green Lantern issue, a slumlord named Jubal Slade is evicting impoverished, elderly, immigrant residents so he can convert the property to a profitable parking lot. He asks Green Lantern, "You expect me to pass [up] a fat profit 'cause a lot of worthless old geeks are gonna get rained on?" The question is rhetorical, and if we focus on his use of the word "worthless" we can see that Slade is more than just an uncaring businessman, he's a misanthropist. The story is entitled "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!" (comic books are all about exclamation points), and O'Neil's scenario connects Slade with the title's "evil"; he is the remorseless villain. And an actual criminal ― he tries to have Green Lantern's pal Green Arrow assassinated. I'm sure you visual pun lovers would enjoy the story's final scene in which Green Lantern, who can make the green beam that emanates from his power ring take any shape he wants, transports Slade to prison pinned in a giant rat trap.

We've previously noted the presence of dark undercurrents in Shakespeare's comedies ― Duke Solinus's death sentence for Egeon at the beginning of Comedy of Errors, Egeus's demand that Hermia either marry Demetrius or be put to death in Midsummer Night's Dream, Shylock's determination to kill Antonio if his bond is not paid in Merchant of Venice, Don John's parthenogenic villainy in Much Ado About Nothing. Derek's claim ― that the villainy in As You Like It achieves the level of evil, that this evil outweighs the villainy of Shakespeare's other comedies, and that in threatening the power of goodness and virtue, evil carries the play closer to tragedy than we expect comedy to go ― relies on a fairly severe assessment of Duke Frederick and Orlando's brother, Oliver. This assessment is not as simple as it might sound. Ernst has suggested that one of the great qualities of Shakespeare is that he has endowed his characters, no matter how small, with clear motivation. And motivation, especially if it relies on a connection to some moral or legal foundation, to my mind, is the enemy of evil.

Solinus must obey the law, which forbids that Syracusians caught in Ephesus, die. What's more the law has a twin in Syracuse. What's more Solinus clearly feels conflicted about the law. His decision, then, to condemn Egeon is not evil, although it is misguided.

Egeus also has the law ("the ancient privilege of Athens") to rely on and one might argue he has no intention of having Hermia put to death, that rather he expects his appeal to Theseus will result in Hermia's obedience. What's more to Egeus, it is Hermia's disobedience that is the transgression. As Thesus explains to Hermia, "to you, your father should be as a god," and gods must be obeyed.

Shylock also has the law (do we detect a theme here), his bond, and it takes some pretty semantic slight of hand by Portia to free Antonio of its stipulation. Shylock cannot be evil unless we see him as deliberately undermining the legal system in order to kill Antonio, and while that may have been the way one saw him in the 17th century when his Vice characteristics would have highlighted his villainy, it's hard to look past Shylock's explanations for the fatal consequence of forfeiture ― that he and his people are spit upon by the likes of Antonio and that those who make the laws do not see jews as people ("if you prick us…") or respect their traditions (i.e. lending). There is righteousness as well as cleverness in his revenge (the kind of thing Europeans have celebrated in folk tales for centuries, I might add).

Setting aside, for the time being, Don John, we come to As You Like It. In the three previous examples, none of the "evil-doers" thinks he is doing evil. But in Duke Frederick and Oliver, as Derek suggests, we find both the logic and the evasiveness of villainy. One might argue that Oliver is a lot like Egeus. Despite his brutish treatment of Orlando, he has the law, of primogeniture, on his side. His father's will works against Oliver's behavior somewhat, but he is the inheritor of the estate and has near absolute power over it. But Oliver goes outside the law's power and plots to have Orlando killed. To do so, he lies to Charles the wrestler, claiming that Orlando is "a secret and villainous contriver against me, his natural brother," a calumny more true of Oliver than Orlando. What's more, Oliver knows what he is doing is morally wrong:

"I hope I shall see an en end of [Orlando], for my soul ― yet I know not why ― hates nothing more than he. Yet he's gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved, and indeed so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized" (1.1.161-168).

This recognition of Orlando's qualities is extraordinary and, coupled with Oliver's confusion about his hate's source, indicates the older brother's awareness of his own turpitude. Neither Shylock, nor Solinus, nor Egeus ever claim to not understand why he wanted something that might result in the death of another.

Duke Frederick, as we often find in Shakespeare, echoes Oliver's experience. He also has a brother he hates and has found a way to drive him out. He does not, though, have the law on his side; he is a usurper, so he's already off the moral path. After the wrestling match, when he explains his animosity toward Orlando, his rationalization directly parallels Oliver's about Orlando: "The world esteemed thy father honorable,/ But I did find him still my enemy" (1.2.220-221). Evil, here, is that which willfully does wrong against the innocent, even in the face of general recognition of the victim's virtue. To fully compare As You Like It to Comedy of Errors, Midsummer, and Merchant, we might also look at the virtue of Egeon, Hermia, and Antonio, but I suspect that none of them are as spotless as Orlando and Duke Senior.

So I think Derek is right, that As You Like It opposes its heroes and heroines with something closer to evil than most of Shakespeare's previous comedies. I would argue that Two Gentlemen of Verona, specifically Proteus's machinations against Valentine and Julia, approaches the level of evil we find here. And then there's Don John, who for me is not a three-dimensional character as the others we've discussed are. Instead he's more of a stock character, malcontent or vice or what have you, and I guess I would ask if that qualifies his evil, which is every bit as repugnant as that we see in Duke Frederick and Oliver. Don John would be at home in a Green Lantern comic book.

I'm not sure what Harold Bloom means by "suffers," and specifically I'm confused by his application of the term to Rosalind (although I haven't read the article which Derek quotes). Is her expulsion from the court her burden? I'd agree that it doesn't seem that evil, but again, it's not what one does but what one is, that invokes the evil. Oliver's suggestion that it is his soul that hates Orlando is provocative. But it suggests that evil comes from deep within and is subject to no external law.

What accounts, if anything, for this difference in seriousness of Shakespeare's comedies? What has happened to the concerns about law? As we move on, does this growing presence of evil in non-tragic story suggest an evolving way of looking at comedy, at the world? Does any one know Lodge's "Rosalynde" and what it makes of these characters?

Not looking for any trouble,

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