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As You Like It and MPs

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Image: Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare's As You Like It, now playing in Stratford-upon-Avon, has something to say to MPs who thought that the public should be paying for their second homes, gardens and refurbished kitchens. It also has a great deal to say to politicians cocooned in Washington and Brussels. And it has much to say to me. I only understood how much when I read Wendell Berry's book, Standing by Words. Here's an excerpt -

All the characters in the play are brought down to better knowledge than they began with. There is now inevitably a "sophistication" (i.e., ignorance) that will look upon this descent as an "escape from the real world". This is apparently because the play has country people in it and takes place mainly in a forest, and most educated people now do not know much about either; they think that country people are stupid and that forests are places where one can be thoughtless and indulge in idle fancies. A "comedy" that takes place in a forest will, therefore, necessarily be frivolous. There is, of course, plenty of fun in As You Like It, and some frivolity too. Nobody gets killed, and the ending is happy, for the time being, for everybody. But a play whose themes are political corruption, family hatred, exile, courtship, marriage, and renewal of the human estate within nature, which in theme and (here and there) in diction echoes the New Testament and the Book of Job, and which has in it an old man named Adam, might reasonably be suspected of some measure of seriousness. . .

As you know, Orlando defeats the wrestler who, at his older brother Oliver's instigation, meant to maim or kill him. He wins the love of Rosalind, and goes into exile in the Forest of Arden with Adam, the family's loyal old servant. Rosalind is then almost immediately sent into exile by the reigning Duke Frederick, her uncle, who has usurped the throne. Disguised as a young man, with her loyal cousin Celia and the clown, Touchstone, Rosalind leaves for Arden, where her father and his retainers are living 'like the old Robin Hood of England'.

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Crackley Wood in the Forest of Arden
Image: Heart of England

The Forest of Arden, then, has become the gathering place of a number of people who in the briary "working-day world" have lost everything. Their destitution is not so great and tragic as Job's, but, like him, they have lost their lives as they were. The Forest, however, is not a place of loss; it is a place beyond loss, where they find their lives as they are - reduced to nothing by the standards of the working-day world, but, by the standards of nature, in the forest and in themselves, abounding. They lose their lives in order to find them, and that finding is the business of the last four acts.

To a modern reader, the speech of the exiled Duke at the beginning of Act II is apt to look like a piece of shallow optimism. But it is more sensible and more complicated than that, and to see that it is, we have only to recognize the traditions in which it is firmly set. The pastoral theme of a descent to true knowledge is stated plainly: "Are not these woods /More free from peril than the envious court?" - which would be no more than pretty patter, maybe, if this were merely a "scenic" forest, but, as we learn later, there are dangerous beasts in it.

The Duke's question carries the bitter insight that nothing in nature is so dangerous as human made "unnatural" by vice. The seasons and the weather are not flatterers but forces of the natural world that strip away the falsely human and reveal the true: "these are counsellors / That feeling persuade me what I am." And the speech ends with the famous lines, which, if we are not careful, "sophistication" will persuade us to regard as "escapism" and a frivolous indulgence in the pathetic fallacy.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

If we think that "the mind is its own place", these lines are frivolous; if we think that our place is in nature and that we are therefore obliged to learn from natural things, they are not frivolous, but true, and moreover traditional.

In the forest, "humans appear as fully human, not as functions or functionaries of governmental power". To survive in a forest - or to earn a living outside government today - is not easy. The exiles will not survive unless they help each other.

. . .The forest provides the play an elemental setting, which transforms what at court would be mere civilities to a profound and feeling eloquence, not the etiquette of people who feel obliged to defer to one another, but the true courtesy of people who have understood the need to love one another. . .

The play's "savage" humans are all solitary: the two wicked brothers, made lonely by their greed and violence, and the "one man" of Jacques' speech on the seven ages. Jacques' detachment, since it is a detachment from his own kind, can only be cynical. His point of view is resolutely ontogenetic; he gives the life history of a lone specimen, made utterly destitute by old age: "second childishness and mere oblivion, /Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything". And these lines are immediately followed by phylogeny, history, community, all that holds the possibility of meaning for humans - surely the most eloquent and moving of stage directions: "Enter Orlando, with Adam."

This Adam is an old man saved from despair by the love of a young man, who has been saved from despair by the love of a young woman. And the play is spindled on the progress of the young man from hate and despair through these loves to maturity.

As You Like It may be said to be about maturity, the acceptance of a place properly human in the the world as it is, and the willingness to act responsibly in that world - a maturity very close to what Pope and Jane Austen would call "sense".

I like it.

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