"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 1, 2011

As you Like It - Rosalind, A Tough Cookie


I have three books of  general Shakespeare criticism (i.e. that cover all the plays) that I use as primary reference sources for Shakespeare’s plays – Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human (1998) ; A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare The Thinker (2007); and William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817).  I use Bloom because I think he is the best, most insightful, most thorough, and most entertaining of them all; Nuttall because of his erudition which matches Bloom; Hazlitt because all modern critics respect and refer to him.  Bloom and Nuttall refer frequently to the early criticism of Samuel Johnson, and later Coleridge whom I have not read but intend to.  I read Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964) and A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) on tragedy, the latter being one of the very best books on Shakespeare; and the former offering the most important view of the Histories and the historical tragedies that I have read.

Bloom and Nuttall, the critics I rely on for the Comedies, are both scholars and interpret Shakespeare within a broad historical perspective, drawing on Greek tragedy, Roman and Greek myths (to which Shakespeare often referred), the Bible, earlier critics like Samuel Johnson, specialized critics like Nietzsche and Freud whose critical lenses are very focussed, contemporary Elizabethan history, literary traditions (such as the Pastoralism central, in their minds, to As You Like It), and as a counterpoint to their arguments, Post-Modernist Historicism.

In most cases this scholarly, if not academic approach to the plays is the right one to take, for Shakespeare was aware of, made reference to, and was influenced by current and past history, literary trends, the work of his contemporaries such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, the Bible, and the Classics.  As importantly it is relevant to do ex post facto criticism – relying on Freud and Post-Modernist gender theory to help elucidate and explain the complex of factors that were behind characters’ actions, inactions, and reactions.  One cannot read Hamlet without thinking of Oedipus; nor Macbeth without turning to Freud; or Richard III without Nietzsche.  Jan Kott grew up in Soviet era Poland, and his theory of the Grand Mechanism is derived in large part on this experience.

In most cases this erudition does not get in the way of interpretation.  On the contrary, it is essential for deconstructing and analyzing the plays.   In the case of As You Like It, however, this academicism gets in the way of appreciating the central character in the play, and one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations – Rosalind.  Bloom and Nuttall write almost exclusively about pastoralism, the conflict between rural and courtly (urban) life, Arden before the Fall, etc.  The melancholy or pessimism of Jaques or the cynicism of Touchstone are important for putting Rosalind’s exuberance in perspective, not only important for their commentary on rural and courtly life.  Here is Nuttall:

This [Touchstone’s wish that Audrey could be more ‘poetical’] is more dazzling than profound.  But it is embedded in a pastoral, and pastoral has built into it certain philosophical potency…Pastoral, the poetry of shepherds, was bequeathed to the Renaissance by classical antiquity as was Stoicism.  But whereas Stoicism is a philosophy that aims at static unity, a closed and invulnerable integrity…..Nature in pastoral literature is made antithetical to art, and so becomes distinctively green….

Artful Touchstone is hardly satanic, but he is certainly subtle (the word applied to the serpent in Genesis).  He introduces sexuality into Eden/Arden and seeks to induce a Fall…

Come on! Touchstone is a boring court jester who, cynical of the rural environment in which he finds himself, nevertheless marries Audrey because he wants to get laid.  Crude, yes, but true.  Touchstone wishes that Audrey could be more like him and have his culture and intellect, but obviously he’ll take whatever he can get.  Rosalind’s admonition to the ugly Phebe,  “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets” is appropriate here.  He does not get what he deserves, in the view of these critics, he is “transformed” by the idyll of Arden like the usurping Duke who finds pastoral religion there. 

Both Bloom and Nuttall love fools and jesters or characters who are like them.  They are in love with Falstaff (Bloom in particular), Feste, Lear’s Fool, etc. for their witticism and intelligence, which, in academia counts for a lot.  To me Touchstone is a distraction from Rosalind and her spirited, funny, and strong manipulation of Orlando; her spirited reaction and handling of the improbable love of Phebe for her; her lively putdown of both Phebe and Silvius; and her happy and conspiratorial relationship with her cousin (who loves her in more than a family way). 

Rosalind is another of Shakespeare’s strong women, of whom there are many; but she is unique in her dismissal of pomp and circumstance, puncturing both men’s and women’s faulty and idealistic views of themselves, but still wondering at the many forms that love can take and its importance in life.  I call her a Tough Cookie because she pulls no punches, is extremely confident of herself, and there are no holds barred.  Her disguise lets her play both sides, and she does it to perfection.  Here is her marvelous pillorying of men:

Were it not better,

Because that I am more common tall,

That I did suit me all points like a man?

A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,

A boar-spear in my hand; and in my heart

Lie there what hidden women’s fear there will,

We’ll have a swashing and martial outside,

As many other mannish cowards have

That do outface it with their semblances

When she reads Orlando’s poems that he has lovingly posted on trees in the forest, Rosalind says:

O, most gentle Jupiter, what tedious homily of love have you wearied your parishioners withal, and never cried, ‘Have patience, good people!’

She is merciless in her description of simpering male love:

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not….a beard neglected, which you have not….your hose ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation…You are…point device in your accoustrements, as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.

And the famous and oft-quoted:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause.  Troilus had has brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could do to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love.  Leander [died from a bathing accident, not love]…Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

When Rosalind is explaining her ‘cure’ to Orlando, she makes fun of women in their fickleness, ruses, and manipulation of men; and makes fun of men for being duped by them:

I would be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles…would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, now spit at him…and in this way I will take upon me to wash your liver as clean as a sound sheep’s heart, that there shall not be one spot of love in’t

She punctures Jaques’ pomposity concerning his education, enriched by travels, when she says: “I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s.  Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands”.   No one escapes her poison darts.  She makes Silvius’ love for Phebe seem ridiculous:

Come, come, you are a fool,

And turned into the extremity of love.

I saw her hand.  She has a leathern hand,

A freestone-colored hand.  I verily did think

That her old gloves were on, but ‘twas her hands.

Rosalind, like Prospero in The Tempest, forgives all, and all live happily ever after.  She gets what she wanted all the time – Orlando.  She settles for him.  After all she has played him like a puppet for the whole play. She proclaims her love, but we have to doubt the sincerity of this.  In fact, all the relationships are distorted in some way.  Hers for Orlando; Phebe and Silvius – she didn’t much like him, and he had an overly romantic view of her; Oliver and Celia because if there was ever an unreal love at first sight, this was it; Touchstone and Audrey because, as I said before, he just wanted to get laid in the forest.  So, actually, we end the play suspecting that all these marriages will go on the rocks soon, but who cares?  Rosalind has been our hero.

In closing, I still wonder why the critics didn’t write more about this nexus of love-false love-foolishly romantic love-pessimism-cynicism the center of which was the dynamic, energetic, ebullient, and irrepressible Rosalind?  I, like Bloom, prefer Twelfth Night and think that it is the best of the comedies, but, like Bloom, have to give As You Like It a close second because of Rosalind.  I am bored with Touchstone and Jaques, the insipid Orlando, and the incidental Phebe, Silvius, and Audrey.  I enjoy the girls’ night out conspiratorial hijinks of Celia and Rosalind (although Cleopatra is much, much funnier with her minions and retainers laughing at Antony); but all these secondary characters do not diminish the play because of the genius of Rosalind.

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