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As I Like It Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Pallavi Mogre, India Mar 28, 2006
Culture , Human Rights   Opinions
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Opinion about William Shakespeare’s “As you Like It”, has often been polemic, what with some critics labeling it a ‘sentimental pastoral’, while others like G. B. Shaw contending that it is more ‘lucrative’ than ‘sentimental’. Shakespeare, Shaw tells us, "was forced to write popular plays to save his theatre from ruin", and that, "he did it (i.e. wrote these popular plays) mutinously, calling the plays 'As You Like It', and 'Much Ado About Nothing'".

William Empson’s critique is a departure from extreme polemics. He identifies as a pastoral any work that contrasts simple and complicated life, to the advantage of the former. In Empson’s view, this mode of life serves as an oblique way to criticise the class structure of society. Shakespeare’s “pastoral” adheres to this definition, though not in its entirety.

Shakespeare’s attitude to either the country or the city is not unproblematic. He cannot be accused of conventional “pastoral” oversimplification. His ambiguous outlook is presented through antagonistic juxtaposition of characters – Jaques Vs. Duke Senior, Jaques Vs. Touchstone, Audrey Vs. Phebe are but some examples of the same.

Classical poets have idealised pastoral life as possessing features of the mythical ‘Golden Age’; and ‘country life’ symbolizes an innocent alternative to ambition, disturbance and war. Here, the court, as Duke Sr. tells us, is nothing but “painted pomp” – it is “envious”, and full of sycophantic “flattery”. To cut a long story short, the country is the city’s antithesis.

If the court is corrupt, the Forest of Arden should have been Elysium. But as we step into the forest with Rosalind and Orlando, we are greeted with the negative – their precise tautology confirms Arden as a “desert place”. Also, the wind is cold, and the weather such that protection becomes preferable. If Andrew Marvell in his “The Garden” painted a picture of plenitude with lines like, “The Nectaren, and curious Peach / Into my hands themselves do reach”, Shakespeare shows us that labour is a sine qua non.

Unlike Ben Jonson, Shakespeare does not declare that, “the painted partrich lyes in every field/ And, for thy messe, is willing to be kill’d”. Exploitation is acknowledged through Jaques accusing the Duke of being a greater usurper than the brother, who has banished him. That humans are essentially “tyrants” and “usurpers”, whether they live in the country or the city, seems to be the message that Jaques wants to convey.

Nevertheless, his moralizing is lopsided. He considers usury, exploitation and neglect of the “bankrupt” not just human, but also “natural”. The deer episode exemplifies this. In a way, he contradicts his own invective against the Duke by providing him a reason for usury – nature is no better than man, so why not exploit it? – capitalist exploitation is absolved. He considers the “careless herd” callous without realizing that if they neglect the wounded deer, it is only because the herd cannot help him. Ironically, though being a man, and hence being capable of aiding the deer, Jaques isn’t proactive. Pontifical verse is more than enough to quell the qualms of his conscience.

Deviating from the quintessentially romanticized picture of love and friendship that pastoral eclogues portray, “As You Like It” does not provide a motive (it is either love/lust at first sight) for love. As one critic puts it, "Love is all romance and poetry; in Orlando and Rosalind, Love is pastoral convention carried to ridicule in Silvius and Phebe. Love is a parody in Touchstone and Audrey. Love is prose, matter-of-fact in Oliver and Celia. “As You Like It” also questions the nature of “true love”. Rosalind and Touchstone are instrumental here.

Rosalind, in her “hose and doublet”, catechizes Orlando as regards love, and informs him that though, “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love”. Touchstone parodies Orlando’s callow love-eclogues, and his love for Audrey is blatantly lecherous and debauched. To speak in capitalist terms, love comes across as a ‘mutual contract’ – an ‘investment’ with its own liabilities. Rosalind, while educating Phebe crudely, observes that, “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets”.

What Helen Gardner calls the ‘Mozartian’ nature of the play also adds to their ideological refrain with its, “Most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly”. This wonderfully witty play with its bold and outspoken heroine, and core of optimism and romance, pokes gentle fun at the game of love, while praising its virtues and celebrating its triumphs.

In conjunction with love, we see Shakespeare ostensibly questioning what it means to be masculine or feminine. Orlando to Rosalind, to use a cliché, is like the candle held to the sun. Rosalind’s scintillating wit has endeared her to many feminists. Consequently, they have been able to excuse Shakespeare for his rather tawdry representations – namely, Phebe and Audrey – one a coquette, and the other a fatuous country lassie, who not unlike Mr. Morel in “Sons and Lovers”, can make no sense of Touchstone’s poetry and incisive wit. (Weird, isn’t it, that some feminists should find this double indictment of gender and class innocuous?)

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