This is the play that contains the famous line “All the world’s a stage.” It’s the beginning of a speech by a melancholy poseur named Jacques, which the text says is pronounced “Jakes.” I enjoyed saying Ja-queeze to myself because Jacques just barely avoids being a Peter Sellers character, so seriously does he take himself. In a different play he might be a tragic figure, but in this comedy/fantasy, his self-absorption and sense of superiority are company enough for him. When he goes off at the end to join a monastery, I wonder if the Order will be able to distinguish his posing from their own.
In any case, the Forest of Arden where most of the action takes place, is a little stage where everyone is watching everyone else. Over and over the stage directions tell some of the characters to enter to the side where they watch and sometimes comment on what their fellow characters are up to. If there is a director in the Forest of Arden, it would be Rosalind but I’ll get to her in a minute.
Among the forest residents are both the natives and escapees from dangerous situations in town. So we are presented with a pastoral setting and various responses to it. The Elizabethans were wild about pastoral poems, plays and songs. Their shepherds sat around and wrote elegant poetry, everyone was kind and generous and lived simple, healthy lives. Kind of a like commune without the drugs and the religious cults.
With the first flush of out-of-towners is Duke Senior who has been usurped by his younger brother. The Duke hopes to set up a utopian society and for the time being seems to have succeeded because they all sit around eating great food, drinking sack, talking philosophy and listening to music. No mention of drugs. Towards the end of Act II as they are sitting around their utopia, Jacques holds forth:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II, vii)
Just as Jacques has put the final touches on his speech about the meaninglessness of life, here comes Orlando who has fled his murderous older brother, practically carrying his decrepit but loyal old servant Adam. The contrast to Jacques is deliberate as is every other loving relationship in the forest.
The next people to show up are Rosalind and her cousin Celia, having fled the court of the usurping Duke after learning he intends to kill Rosalind. Rosalind has disguised herself as a young man the better to help her slip out of town.
Rosalind is a rare mixture of maturity, capability, loveliness and merriness. She is in that pantheon of Shakespeare’s women who cross-dress as young men: Viola, Portia, and Imogen. I’ve come to the conclusion that one comment Shakespeare might be making in this mechanism is that women are often just that: mature and capable besides being merry and lovely. But they don’t have any power unless they disguise themselves as men. He manages to make it both an observation and an ironic commentary.
Rosalind is in love with Orlando and Orlando is in love with his image of a woman he calls Rosalind. They rediscover each other because Orlando has been writing her bad love poetry and pinning his poems to trees all over the Forest of Arden. So he’s kind of a puppy. Rosalind stays disguised and keeps her wits about her while she slowly brings Orlando to understand that a woman is a person, not a fantasy. When she is satisfied that he gets this fact, one that many people in our century still haven’t figured out, she reveals herself. She also engineers the romances of everyone else in the Forest. When you want something done, get a woman.
Though there are many layers and other strong characters in As You Like It, in many ways, it is Rosalind’s play and she’s adorable. In the end everyone finds their own unique meaning of life, which, in my opinion, is better than a utopia.
Here we go with lines I never realized came from this play:
*Well said, that was laid on with a trowel. (I, ii)
*O how full of briers is this working day world. (I, iii)
*Sweet are the uses of adversity. (II, i)
*True is it that we have seen better days. (II, vii)
*Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see no enemy
But winter and rough weather. (II, v)
*Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp. (II, vii)
*I do so desire we may be better strangers. (III, ii)
*O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful, wonderful! and yet again wonderful! and after that all out of whooping! (III, ii)
*Thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love;
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can, you are not for all markets. (III, v)
*Come, woo me, woo me! (IV, i)
*Men have died from time to time,
and worms have eaten them, but
not for love (IV, i)
*One can desire too much of a good thing. (IV, i)
*For ever and a day. (IV, i)
*Men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. (IV, i)
*The fool doth think he is wise,
but the wise man knows himself to be a fool. (V, i)
*It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring. (V, iii)
Too late I learned that I’d been reading the plays from an edition with decorous footnotes. The editors comment mildly “with ribald connotation” over passages that cannot be ignored but give no idea of the tremendous richness of sexual innuendo and double entendres that pervade the plays. Now that I’ve found out what I’ve been missing I am going to have to read the plays all over again! Can you spot the double meanings in this bit from As You Like It:
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot
And thereby hangs a tale. (II, vii)
OK, the images are of fruit hanging on a tree. Also genitalia hanging on a body. Ripe can also mean sexually ready, sexually wanton, or marriageable. Rot can refer to constant copulation or to venereal disease. A tale is a story, and a tail describes a non-erect penis.
The context is our friend Jacques quoting Touchstone, the fool. Although Jacques is mocking him, Touchstone sounds an awful lot like Jacques himself. A touchstone is a stone that is used to ascertain the precious metal content of say, a piece of gold. And Touchstone, the fool, is a measure of other people’s wisdom and self awareness.