Recently I offered my thoughts on As You Like It for 1623 Theatre Company to accompany their forthcoming Shakespeare night, which this month is framed around that play. I focussed on the fact that I think that the supporting characters are very well written. This may seem like a pre-requisite but there are many instances in Shakespeare (and beyond) where some minor parts are there purely to provide exposition, with no other discernible character traits. With As You Like It, there is a rich supply of fun character parts; Corin the humble shepherd, Charles the arrogant wrestler, William the buffoonish would-be suitor of Audrey, and several others, which all add to the joyous atmosphere that the play creates.
Since recording that snippet I've been thinking more about what makes AYLI so successful and if you'll indulge me I'd like to share a couple of other thoughts with you, if you're still reading this. Thanks, by the way!
First, a bit of history about my association with it. It was the play in which I made my professional Shakespearian debut (along with A Midsummer Night's Dream in a UK tour) so I have something of an emotional attachment. I played the parts of Adam, (Orlando's faithful old servant), Touchstone (The fool of the piece) and Jacques De Boys, who delivers the most wonderfully tacked on ending to a play I've ever experienced, (more on that later on). More recently I revisited the part of Touchstone for 1623 in their compilation piece, Stand-Up Shakespeare.
During the tour I did a radio interview to promote one of our performances and I was asked why people should come and see it. I still remember my response. It took the form of a clumsy simile but it sort of works so bear with me! I compared it to a 'greatest hits' album in that it had all the aspects one might expect from a Shakespearian comedy, (Girl dresses as boy, romantic confusion, big happy ending) alongside parts that, although one might know they were Shakespearian, they might not know from what play, such as the Seven Ages of Man speech.....
On reflection it's a rubbish simile. Perhaps it's best to refer to it as a great play to start with if one is new to Shakespeare. Alongside the aforementioned reasons it has a very straightforward plot and not much in the way of 'B stories' to detract from the main event. Yes there's the subplot of Touchstone's pursuit of Audrey but for me it serves as an accompaniment to Rosalind and Orlando's story rather than an additional thread to follow.
Another of the play's strengths is something some commentators see as a detriment. While the characters are well written, some events in the play are seemingly plucked out of thin air, and contrivances & coincidences happening even more frequently than usual for a comedy. For me, (and I'm something of an idiot so this may well be completely wrong), this is Shakespeare just having fun and letting the Forest of Arden take on an almost mystical quality. If you haven't seen the play, let me outline a few of the instances where I think Shakespeare is just having fun with his world and not giving two hoots about logic!
First off, aside from the opening couple of scenes, the entire play takes place in the Forest of Arden where the exiled Duke Senior, his court, and latterly his Daughter, her best friend and the court Fool reside. That a seemingly huge forest, large enough to hide exiled dukes and contain at least one lioness. (yes, lioness. We'll come to that shortly) is also small enough for the characters to all find each other with some ease has always amused me. Perhaps it isn't so unlikely and small forrest communities were common in Elizabethan England but to me it's more likely that Shakespeare is having his pastoral cake and eating it.
The lion. So, Oliver, Orlando's brother, hates his sibling. Why he despises Orlando so much is down to nothing more than jealousy of his brother's popularity. Unlike Iago's sly, manipulative ways of exploring his envy, Oliver just arranges a wrestling match between Orlando and Charles, wanting the latter to break the former's neck. When that doesn't work and Orlando escapes to the forest, Oliver gives chase but gets himself into a pickle when first a snake, then A BLOODY LIONESS attacks him, Orlando scaring both away. First of all, It's very fortunate that his brother was around in the exact same part of the forest to help him escape. A forest, that we have established, is large enough to house a Duke and his retinue. Second, IT HAS A LIONESS IN IT! Was there an Arden Zoo that had a bunch of escapees? I've read that the inclusion of a serpent and lioness (who it seems has a litter, MORE LIONS!) is to reflect the nature of killing for necessity versus killing for fun (much like Jacques mourning the killing of a deer) which sort of makes sense, but why a Lioness? It just seems fantastical.
Last of all (though there are other fun contrivances along the way) the ending. Rosalind marries Orlando, Oliver Marries Celia (another little knot tied for seemingly the hell of it!), Touchstone marries Audrey and Silvius Marries Phoebe. Then, out of nowhere, a hitherto unmentioned third brother of Orlando and Oliver, Jacques appears. Why didn't Orlando go and stay with him instead of dragging a pensioner around a forest?
'Hey Orlando, Oliver plans to set fire to you as you sleep'
'Oh God, what can we do, Adam?'
'Well, Jacques lives in the next town over'
'Nah, let's use your life savings and go on the run'
'Less talky, more walky, old man'.
Jacques then goes on to explain that the previously evil Duke Frederick, who had been complicit in the plot to kill Orlando, who had banished his brother and niece out of pure spite, who seems basically to exist to be as much of a despot as possible had a religious conversion while on the hunt for his brother.
Duke Frederick, hearing how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,Address'd a mighty power; which were on foot,In his own conduct, purposely to takeHis brother here and put him to the sword:And to the skirts of this wild wood he came;Where meeting with an old religious man,After some question with him, was convertedBoth from his enterprise and from the world,His crown bequeathing to his banish'd brother,And all their lands restored to them againThat were with him exiled. This to be true,I do engage my life. (5.4.1)
Right. So there's this bloody great forest where the exiled Duke is but it's taken all this time for him to decide to go hunting for him, and though everyone else in the dukedom can find Senior with ease, Frederick bumps into a hermit (who must be mightily hacked off that his once empty contemplative space is now busier than Elsinore) first!
It seems like I'm dismissing the contrivances as poor writing but to me Shakespeare is more concerned with the world inside the forest where anything can happen, including the most magical of things: falling in love, than he is with events in the cold, calculating court. Once Frederick steps inside he too is subject to the magical spell seemingly at work. That Duke Senior and the rest of the exiles (excluding Jacques) choose to return to the court is, strangely, the only thing that doesn't make sense to me in this topsy-turvy world.
To sum up, As You Like It isn't Shakespeare's best and yes, there are points where it wavers into the absurd (one last time, LIONS! Is it just me?) but these moments can be seen as huge advantages in just letting the story flow and result in a thoroughly entertaining play.