Wednesday, July 22, 2009

As You Like It - Rare Triumphs

Ernst writes (from Northport, Maine):

Ladies and Gentlepods,

My special interest in As You Like It is, of course, how the play fits in to the development of the stage malcontent, of which Jacques is a major part.

I believe the stage malcontent developed out of romances—both written (Sidney’s Arcadia, Lyly’s Euphues, Greene’s Romances, etc.), and dramatic (Lodge’s and Lyly’s plays—primarily). I include my dissertation discussion of a relatively early play (1582) that seems to me to contain an important "malcontent"— although he is never named as such (the first dramatic use of the word "malcontent" comes in a Lyly play of 1584, in which two minor characters banter: "Are you a male-content? No, I’m a fe-male content."

The term "malcontent" was pretty frequently used during the ‘80s. Greene writes of having toured Europe and come home to "Ruffle out my silks as a malcontent," a use of the term suggestive of what I take as a vogue among University and law-school students, not unlike the "punks" or "Goths" of our own time. These young men wore black, brooded publicly, felt quietly superior, read satirical or philosophical books, had often traveled, had a liking for bitter satire—often attacking women—and dressed sloppily, often crossing their arms and wearing black.

It was a popular pose—so much so that when Hamlet asks his friends not to let on to his post-Ghost disguise, his audience knew that he was going to cross his arms, start reading a philosophical book, and unlace his black clothes a bit.

The romances of the '80s and early '90s very often consisted of a court that retires to the pastoral world, where things change and odd characters appear, who eventually solve their various problems and return to civilization. The play I discuss herewith is a fine example of how this sort of arrangement could play out on the stage—complete with its own proto-malcontent.
There was increasing bitterness about the regime as Elizabeth’s reign drew toward a close. Sure, the victory over the Armada brightened things up a bit; but, on the other hand, the death of Elizabeth’s most admired "Renaissance Man," Sir Philip Sidney, in 1586 seemed a waste. Crops were often bad. Too many were graduating from the law schools and the universities for the jobs open to them (hence, a number turned to writing), and even older sons found making their way into the Elizabethan establishment difficult (think of Orlando’s problems with his brother).

As a result, the urge for satire grew increasingly during the late 1580s and '90s. Marlowe’s plays were actually quite satirical (or, at least, filled with political advice) as were Kyd’s. Lyly got himself fired around 1586—probably for coming too close to "advising" the Queen in his romances (which were all variants on Elizabeth’s court).

Indeed, a group of satirical writers including George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (Marston = "mar stone" = castrator = kinser (a castrator of sheep) = kin to a satyr = kinsader (also a castrator), which is the pen name Marston used in his satires. There was a wild outpouring of verse and prose satires in the late '90s—so much that satire writing was banned—with the partial result the above-mentioned three satirists turned to (generally satirical) playwriting—mostly for boys’companies, popular with the educated and upper classes.

The satires these three wrote never directly attacked the Elizabethan establishment, but they readily attacked many of the types the satirists saw moving about their world. In one such satire, Marston established the character of Bruto, the malcontent, whom he describes at some length.

This, then, was the world for which Shakespeare wrote As You Like It. And, of course, he seems unable to have avoided putting a malcontent satirist into the middle of it. Thus the conversation between Jacques and Duke Senior is similar to the discussions going on at the time, and the "All the world’s a stage" set-piece was similar to some of Bruto’s (and others’) spoutings, only a heck of a lot better.

One thing that is remarkable to me is that this is the first instance (I think) in which Shakespeare pulled a voguish (somewhat literary) contemporary character into his play—specifically. I might note that, as the above-mentioned satirists turned to playwrights they were—at this very moment—moving in the direction of "Humors" play, plays containing a number of "humorous" (i.e. "type,") flat characters.

Chapman was the first one to do this; however, Jonson took over the idea and wrote a number of plays containing such characters. The notion was that such characters were "in their humor" and the play’s dramatic action revolved around their being got "out" of their various "humors." Jonson usually did this by creating a central, righteously noble, character (quite like himself), who helped arrange things so that the humors characters would be made fools of or suffer some sort of miserable defeat that shook them into reforming themselves. After a while, other playwrights grew a bit tired of Jonson’s personal self-pride (and that of his central characters)—so that they started to make fun of him. This led to the "War of the Theaters," but that is another story.

Shakespeare is said to have "put Jonson down" at some point. If such a thing occurred in any of his plays, I wonder whether or not the self-imporant, judgmental, and humorless Malvolio was not taken as an attack on Jonson by some.

So one could argue that Shakespeare went, in As You Like It, from borrowing one "humors" character from the world and writers about him to, in Twelfth Night, borrowing a whole raft of flat humors characters to be "got out of their humor" in the course of the play—a play whose title suggests 12 days of bingeing, after which period most of us would probably be very likely to change our ways. (One could carry this a step further by suggesting that Hamlet is also a "humors" play—as Hamlet is, like Viola, surrounded by a bunch of relatively flat characters who, like all the narrow-minded, stupidly stubborn obsessives we encounter daily, are especially difficult to deal with.)

Both Jacques and Malvolio go off at the end of their plays—although one feels Malvolio as a far more dangerous person in a far more dangerous world. More on this when we get to Twelfth Night. I also sometimes wonder if, at one point while As You Like It was a-making, Shakespeare didn’t consider making the OTHER Jacques, Orlando’s and Oliver’s third brother, into his malcontent/satirist. He was, after all, a "student," and, as I have suggested above, too much education can produce a malcontent’s world view. Fortunately, Shakespeare didn’t follow through on this. It would probably have pushed the DeBoys family complications over the edge.

On the As You Like It we watched at the Globe. It was a solid production, much praised in the press. We sat way to the side, and so it was hard to get the perspective from the front. Both Jacques and Touchstone appeared to be relatively young—in their early thirties, I would say. Jacques seemed much less a grumpf than I might have expected (never having seen the play); rather he acted benevolent and friendly throughout. Touchstone was a lusty young man. He didn’t pronounce the gloriously dirty "Hour to hour" speech as broadly in the direction of "whore to whore" as I would have expected, but the audience seemed to get it. I thought the Rosalind character was a bit TOO boyish. She was played by a quite boyish actress. I had little sense of the woman underneath the disguise. One of the most enjoyable characters, one we might barely notice on the written page was Amiens, the singer, who was about fifty (although thin and fit) and had a lovely tenor voice. He drew out the songs a bit—moving back and forth along the apron of the stage as he sang. Delightful.


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