As You Like It
Shakespeare has here converted the forest of Arden into another Arcadia, where they ‘fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’. It is the most ideal of any of this author’s plays. It is a pastoral drama in which the interest arises more out of the sentiments and characters than out of the actions or situations. It is not what is done, but what is said, that claims our attention. Nursed in solitude, ‘under the shade of melancholy boughs’, the imagination grows soft and delicate, and the wit runs riot in idleness, like a spoiled child that is never sent to school. Caprice is and fancy reign and revel here, and stern necessity is banished to the court. The mild sentiments of humanity are strengthened with thought and leisure; the echo of the cares and noise of the world strikes upon the ear of those ‘who have felt them knowingly’, softened by time and distance. ‘They hear the tumult, and are still.’ The very air of the place seems to breathe a spirit of philosophical poetry; to stir the thoughts, to touch the heart with pity, as the drowsy forest rustles to the sighing gale. Never was there such beautiful moralizing, equally free from pedantry or petulance.
And this their life, exempt from public haunts,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Jaques is the only purely contemplative character in Shakespeare. He thinks, and does nothing. His whole occupation is to amuse his mind, and he is totally regardless of his body and his fortunes. He is the prince of philosophical idlers; his only passion is thought; he sets no value upon anything but as it serves as food for reflection. He can ‘suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs’; the motley fool, ‘who morals on the time’, is the greatest prize he meets with in the forest. He resents Orlando’s passion for Rosalind as some disparagement of his own passion for abstract truth; and leaves the Duke, as soon as he is restored to his sovereignty, to seek his brother out, who has quitted it, and turned hermit.
—Out of these convertites
There is much matter to be heard and learnt.
Within the sequestered and romantic glades of the Forest of Arden, they find leisure to be good and wise, or to play the fool and fall in love. Rosalind’s character is made up of sportive gaiety and natural tenderness: her tongue runs the faster to conceal the pressure at her heart. She talks herself out of breath, only to get deeper in love. The coquetry with which she plays with her lover in the double character which she has to support is managed with the nicest address. How Full of voluble, laughing grace is all her conversation with Orlando:
—In heedless mazes running
With wanton haste and giddy cunning.
How full of real fondness and pretended cruelty is her answer to him when he promises to love her ‘For ever and a day’!
Say a day without the ever: no, no, Orlando, 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: I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen; more clamorous than a parrot against rain; more newfangled than an ape; more giddy in my desires than a monkey; I will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and that when you are inclined to sleep.
Orlando. But will my Rosalind do so?
Rosalind. By my life she will do as I do.
The silent and retired character of Celia is a necessary relief to the provoking loquacity of Rosalind, nor can anything be better conceived or more beautifully described than the mutual affection between the two cousins:
—We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together,
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
The unrequited love of Silvius for Phebe shows the perversity of this passion in the commonest scenes of life, and the rubs and stops which nature throws in its way, where fortune has placed none. Touchstone is not in love, but he will have a mistress as a subject for the exercise of his grotesque humour, and to show his contempt for the passion, by his indifference about the person. He is a rare fellow. He is a mixture of the ancient cynic philosopher with the modern buffoon, and turns folly into wit, and wit into folly, just as the fit takes him. His courtship of Audrey not only throws a degree of ridicule on the state of wedlock itself, but he is equally an enemy to the prejudices of opinion in other respects. The lofty tone of enthusiasm, which the Duke and his companions in exile spread over the stillness and solitude of a country life, receives a pleasant shock from Touchstone’s sceptical determination of the question.
Corin. And how like you this shepherd’s life, Mr. Touchstone?
Clown. Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, took you, it fits my humour; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach.
Zimmennan’s celebrated work on Solitude discovers only half the sense of this passage.
There is hardly any of Shakespeare’s plays that contains a greater number of passages that have been quoted in books of extracts, or a greater number of phrases that have become in a manner proverbial. If we were to give all the striking passages, we should give half the play. We will only recall a few of the most delightful to the reader’s recollection. Such are the meeting between Orlando and Adam, the exquisite appeal of Orlando to the humanity of the Duke and his company to supply him with food for the old man, and their answer, the Duke’s description of a country life, and the account of Jaques moralizing on the wounded deer, his meeting with Touchstone in the forest, his apology for his own melancholy and his satirical vein, and the well-known speech on the stages of human life, the old song of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter’s wind’, Rosalind’s description of the marks of a lover and of the progress of time with different persons, the picture of the snake wreathed round Oliver’s neck while the lioness watches her sleeping prey, and Touchstone’s lecture to the shepherd, his defence of cuckolds, and panegyric on the virtues of ‘an If.—All of these are familiar to the reader: there is one passage of equal delicacy and beauty which may have escaped him, and with it we shall close our account of As You Like it. It is Phebe’s description of Ganimed at the end of the third act.
Think not I love him, tho’ I ask for him;
Tis but a peevish boy, yet he talks well;—
But what care I for words! yet words do well,
When he that speaks them pleases those that hear;
It is a pretty youth; not very pretty;
But sure he’s proud, and yet his pride becomes him;
He’ll make a proper man; the best thing in him
Is his complexion; and faster than his tongue
Did make offence, his eye did heal it up:
He is not very tall, yet for his years he’s tall;
His leg is but so so, and yet’tis well;
There was a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper, and more lusty red
Than that mix’d in his cheek; ’twas just the difference
Betwixt the constant red and mingled damask.
There be some women, Silvius, had they mark’d him
In parcels as I did, would have gone near
To fall in love with him: but for my part
I love him not, nor hate him not; and yet
I have more cause to hate him than to love him;
For what had he to do to chide at me?