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as you like it

29 september 2015

As You Like It is a lovely and lucid play, one of the most famous of Shakespeare's, one of the most frequently performed, one of those that I've read and seen most often. It is the quintessence of what C.L. Barber famously called "festive comedy." Things are going wrong in the political and personal worlds of all the characters. They abscond to a magical forest, everything starts going right, they all find partners and they all return and live happily ever after.

There isn't a whole lot of plot to get in the way of the story, as Joe Bob Briggs likes to say. A substantial bunch of singles and prospective couples meet up in the Forest of Arden, a preserve run by an exiled Duke. They spend almost the entire action of the play courting one another, at pleasing cross-purposes that also involve cross-dressing. You know the rest, or if by some chance you don't, you could fill it in by yourself. The melancholy Jaques and the snarky Touchstone are the only dissenters from the lovey-dovey mood, and even Touchstone gets married (a match Jaques sees as bound to end badly, though he would, wouldn't he).

As You Like It is witty without getting snarled in quibbles. It has strong ideas about sex differences that it undercuts by spending most of its central energies on a moonstruck boy courting another boy, who of course is a girl, who of course was played originally (and in some notable recent productions) by a boy. It has some nasty characters who make inexplicable hairpin turns toward niceness halfway through. It has an on-stage wrestling match. Seriously, what's not to like.

But not all productions of As You Like It are likable. I have always appreciated the chemistry between Elisabeth Bergner and Laurence Olivier in Paul Czinner's 1936 film version, where most of the other performances are orotund and ponderous. But Michael Hattaway, in his edition for Cambridge, expresses keen dislike of Bergner's Rosalind, "which now looks not like cinematic acting but a record of a bad theatrical performance" (75). That's harsh. But I can understand the hate when I compare Bergner's Rosalind to a bad Rosalind I saw in Brooklyn a few years ago, Rebecca Hall. Both Bergner and Hall seemed improvisational at times, trying to make Rosalind's famous dialogue seem off-the-cuff or impulsive. Bergner was at least energetic. Hall's threw away half her lines, as if apologetic about having to utter them. But for all that she bewails her own feminine impulsiveness, Shakespeare's Rosalind doesn't improvise. She's in control of the whole play, and it's probably best to play her as a woman who knows what she wants but has to go about it obliquely for all kinds of political and sexual reasons.

Bergner was directed by her husband, Czinner. Hall was directed by her father Sir Peter, and the good knight chose to emphasize the sinister aspects of France or whatever country the nice characters of As You Like It are exiled from. The usurping Duke played a little like Juan Peron in Evita, and among the extras were menacing secret police. Of course, there are moments of malice that threaten Shakepeare's Arden. But overall, the totalitarian setting was a solution in search of a problem. As You Like It ain't Macbeth. No sooner does the bad Duke lead his police force into the woods than he repents and joins a monastery. In one of the loopiest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote, Orlando's vicious elder brother Oliver gets an infusion of joy juice and becomes much nicer than any of the nice characters. These scenes seem too good to be true because they are. I think you have to play them for their over-the-top departures from character: embrace the lunacy.

Amid the lunacy are some of Shakespeare's best-known songs and two of his great set speeches. The latter come relatively early in the play and from relatively minor characters. The exiled Duke's "Sweet are the uses of adversity" is important as a thematic keynote for the enchanted-forest setting. The melancholy Jaques' "All the world's a stage" is less well-integrated, and can seem a bit gratuitous. It sounds a discordant note, and I reckon Shakespeare knew how discordant it was – the speech isn't just thrown into As You Like It because he had it in the trunk and didn't know where the heck else to put it.

As You Like It builds toward a final moment of perfection where the Duke is restored and every conceivable couple happily married. Ever after? Jaques points out that nothing is ever after. Everybody changes, day by day, "slips into" the next of a series of temporary identities. The Duke was in, then he was out, now he'll be in again; even his own great speech about how the forest is "more free from peril" than life at court will be pretty quickly discarded once he gets a chance at court life again. Jaques' point may be "enjoy the show" – or, if you're melancholy enough, don't; but never forget that it's only a show.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. 1623. Edited by Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. PR 2803 .A2H35