by Kirk Woodward
[Kirk Woodward’s newest contribution to Rick On Theater is a speculation; Kirk’s going to guess at how William Shakespeare, undoubtedly the greatest playwright in the English language and, arguably, in the theater world, came up with the text of As You Like It (which Kirk happens to be directing right now). This speculation is intended to be an attempt to illuminate how some writers compose their works (regular ROTters will know that Kirk’s also a playwright himself).
[First, let me cop to something: Kirk’s very description of the structure of AYLI demonstrates why it’s just not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Though Kirk’s always liked it—which suggests he knows it pretty well—I’ve never been fond of it (or Shakespeare’s other “pastoral” play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). That said, I think this is a terrific examination of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy—or, at least, one possible account of it. In any case, Kirk makes a good argument for the writing process he presents.
[Kirk’s written for ROT on the subject of Shakespeare several times before. “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” posted on 4 June 2010, and “Directing Twelfth Night for Children,” 16 and 19 December 2010, are accounts of productions Kirk staged in 1969 and 1972, respectively; and “Frank Kermode On Shakespeare’s Language,” 26 January 2016, and “Asimov’s Shakespeare,” 6 April 2016 ,are pieces based on his readings of a couple of reference works he found particularly useful: Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language (2000) and Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov (1970). “Evaluating A Director,” 1 March 2017, concerns Shakespeare in the sense that it’s an account of the auditioning process through which Kirk went to get the gig directing the production of As You Like It on which he’s currently engaged. Perhaps another pertinent post for this article is Kirk’s “How To Write A Play,” 18 February 2016 , which is self-explanatory, I imagine. ~Rick]
William Shakespeare has left few clues about his life, to the extent that some people claim he did not write the plays attributed to him, but was the “beard” or front man for another writer. I’m not one of the people who think so, but it’s true that we’re missing a great deal of basic information we’d love to have about him.
For example, we don’t have his actual date of birth; the traditional date (April 23, 1564) is based partly on romantic speculation (he died on another April 23, in 1616), and partly on a deduction from the date of his baptism (April 26, 1564).
We don’t know for sure where he went to school, assuming he did (which certainly seems likely). We have only guesses about what his marriage to Anne Hathaway (1555 or 1556-1623) was like. We don’t know anything at all about what he did between 1585 and 1592, a gap that has been filled by a number of conceivably fanciful tales.
We know very little of his career in the theater in London, although we know he had one, and we don’t know how thoroughly he retired from theater, if at all, or what he did at home once he went there, or how he died. We have a few samples of handwriting, a will, a grave, some remarks by others – that’s about it.
Oh, and we have his plays – there’s some argument, of course, about how many he wrote and/or co-wrote – and the Sonnets, plus two long poems. It’s difficult for any writer who’s not the merest hack to disguise his entire self within that much creative output. A modern day parallel might be the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, who reveals a great deal of his emotional life in his songs. On the other hand, Dylan is so secretive about his private life that he might as well be, well, Shakespeare.
Dylan’s songs, of course, are lyric, meaning that more often than not they express the thought or feeling of a “speaker,” whether that “speaker” is actually Dylan or someone else, either real or imagined. It is easy to imagine, at least, that we are hearing Dylan’s real feelings in his songs.
Shakespeare’s plays, on the other hand, are dramatic, meaning that the thoughts and feelings within them are assigned to characters, and those characters may or may not reflect Shakespeare’s own personality.
Figuring out what Shakespeare was “really” like is an exercise carried out in literally hundreds, if not thousands of books. Those numbers demonstrate how uncertain the venture is. Still, the effort is practically irresistible, as I’ve discovered recently while directing a production of As You Like It (AYLI), a comedy by Shakespeare written, perhaps, in 1599, and first published in the First Folio of 1623.
I can’t say that I’ve discovered any truths about Shakespeare’s “real” (or “everyday”?) self, but I do believe there are some interesting observations to be made about Shakespeare’s writing process, if we are willing to grant three assumptions. I freely admit that there’s no way to verify any of these assumptions. I’m making them for the sake of discussion.
The first assumption is that the text of the play as found in the First Folio is the text as Shakespeare wrote it, or at least very close. The question of what corrections, emendations, and plain old mistakes have crept into the printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays is a major one, especially when multiple versions of a play exist, as is the case with Hamlet. However, that doesn’t apply to AYLI, which makes its first appearance in the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays.
The second assumption is that the plot of AYLI is what Shakespeare wanted it to be, and not simply a repetition of his source material. I believe this is a reasonable assumption. Wikipedia’s summary of Shakespeare’s sources makes it clear that he did not simply borrow an entire plot for AYLI, using it whole:
The direct and immediate source of As You Like It is Thomas Lodge‘s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, written 1586-7 and first published in 1590. Lodge’s story is based upon “The Tale of Gamelyn,” wrongly attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer and sometimes printed among his Canterbury Tales. Although it was first printed in 1721, ”Gamelyin” must have existed in manuscript form in Shakespeare’s time. It is doubtful that Shakespeare had read it, but Lodge must have built his pastoral romance on the foundation of “Gamelyin,” giving it a pastoral setting and the artificial sentimental vein, much in fashion at the time. The tale provided the intertwined plots, and suggested all the characters except Touchstone and Jaques.
Some have suggested two other minor debts. The first is Michael Drayton‘s Poly-Olbion, a poetic description of England, but there is no evidence that the poem was written before As You Like It. The second suggested source is The Historie of Orlando Furioso by Robert Greene, acted about 1592.
I have not read Rosalynde, but I have read enough summaries of it to see that Shakespeare did significant work on the plot. All in all I believe we can make the assumption that the plot of AYLI is the result of his own decision, not because of his source.
The third assumption I want to make is that Shakespeare wrote the play more or less from start to finish, with few if any corrections and revisions, and that when he was finished with it, he turned it in. Obviously I can’t prove this, but there is no doubt that around the time the play was written, Shakespeare was a busy man.
Figuring out when Shakespeare wrote particular plays is another knotty scholastic problem, but it appears that within a year or so before and after the composition of AYLI, he also wrote Henry IV Part 2, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. That is heavy lifting for any writer.
Additionally, there’s the title of the play, As You Like It. Bernard Shaw cited it frequently, suggesting that Shakespeare meant it to say, “You wanted it, so here it is.” I feel that Shaw pushes that point too far. However, there’s no question it’s suggestive.
If we accept my three assumptions, which I feel are reasonable if by no means certain, and then look at the play, we see – possibly – an interesting picture of a writer in the process of working.
The setting of the play is France. However, absolutely nothing is made of this except for some character names. The play “feels” consistently English, right down to the name of the Forest of Arden (perhaps originally the Forest of Ardennes?). Even before the play begins, then, we have an element of the story that’s not even acknowledged, much less used in the play.
The first scene of the play sets up a conflict between brothers – Orlando, the younger, and Oliver, the older and very unsympathetic – that quickly devolves into a physical fight. When Orlando leaves, Oliver enlists the aid of a wrestler to kill Orlando in a forthcoming wrestling match.
We then see Rosalind and her close friend Celia. They are presented fully and sympathetically and that treatment continues throughout the play, whenever they appear, with sprightly and clever dialogue, some of the most entertaining that Shakespeare ever wrote.
Their conversation is interrupted by a character, a courtier, named Le Beau. As best as I can tell, Le Beau is intended when we first see him to be a supercilious sort, a fop, something like Osric in Hamlet.
Duke Frederick, a usurper, then appears, and at first it’s hard to see anything wrong with him – he is anxious that the younger wrestler (Orlando, as it happens) not get hurt, which is commendable. After the match, which Orlando wins, Frederick starts to congratulate him, but realizes that Orlando is the son of one of his enemies, and he then snubs him.
Before the wrestling match, Orlando has seen, and fallen in love with, Rosalind. He now asks Le Beau who she is, and Le Beau answers him not only straightforwardly, but sympathetically. Le Beau in fact criticizes Duke Frederick, and warns Orlando that he is probably in danger.
My impression of this encounter is that, having set Le Beau up to be one sort of person, Shakespeare now finds he needs him to be someone else – instead of a vacuous insect, to be a man of real character. So Shakespeare, not bothering to go back and revise our first look at Le Beau, essentially turns him into a new person.
Duke Frederick now banishes Rosalind from the court, and Duke Frederick’s daughter Celia decides to go with her – Rosalind’s father, the overthrown Duke, is now living in the forest, like Robin Hood. At this point the plot is not only realistic but potentially threatening – the forest presumably is a dangerous place, Duke Frederick is a wild cannon, and Orlando also clearly may be in trouble.
We then see the banished Duke in the forest. However, what follows is not danger but comedy, as we hear about the funny things one of the Duke’s people, Jaques, has said about a deer he saw in the woods. The play appears to be lightening up. We can certainly feel that it will be a comedy.
But the next two scenes work the other way – Duke Frederick sends troops to find and capture Rosalind and Celia, and Adam, Orlando’s servant, warns Orlando that he had better escape from the Duke’s castle while he can.
The relation of these events to the previous comic scene are not faults in the play, of course – Shakespeare is fully entitled to juxtapose different kinds of scenes next to each other, and he does, throughout his whole career in fact, to brilliant effect.
Nevertheless, the first time we saw Adam, he seemed to be a conventional old servant. Oddly, now, when he warns Orlando of danger, he turns into a comic character, a sort of Foster Brooks (for those who remember him), verbose and somewhat muddled:
The enemy of all your graces lives:
Your brother – no, no brother; yet the son –
Yet not the son, I will not call him son
Of him I was about to call your father…
Again we see Shakespeare adding traits to a character as he needs them. In this case, I would say, he wants to keep the tone of the play from becoming too serious, so he uses Adam for that purpose. Adam talks a great deal (there are some indications that Shakespeare played the role!).
Shakespeare now takes us back into the forest, where Rosalind and Celia meet a shepherd and decide to buy a property from a character the shepherd describes:
My master is of a churlish disposition,
And little recks to find the way to heaven
By doing deeds of hospitality.
This churlish character, who sounds potentially interesting, will be referred to once more in the play, but will never appear. It is fairly unusual for a character in a play to be introduced and then dropped in this fashion. My feeling is that perhaps there was an intention to bring him on stage – but that that didn’t work out, perhaps because it wasn’t necessary.
The next scene is a song. It has no plot function at all – I wrote in my script, “Why is this here?” This is not the last song Shakespeare will introduce in this play without much reason for it to exist. (Some have called AYLI “Shakespeare’s musical,” presumably like a musical of pre-Oklahoma! vintage.)
Orlando now bursts into the banished Duke’s camp, demanding food for the starving Adam and himself. The Duke is friendly and convinces Orlando to bring Adam to him, so he can be fed. After Orlando leaves, the Duke remarks to Jaques that “Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy,” to which Jaques replies with the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech. (The scene ends with another song, incidentally.)
Clearly, then, Shakespeare is doing some fine writing in this play. But I hope the description of the story so far has made it clear that the work to this point is uneven. Shakespeare appears to be meeting the needs of the moment without a great deal of concentration on the plot (cf. that first, oddly inserted song) or consistency of character. One gets the feeling – at least I do – of a writer forging ahead in the task of creating a play, not tossing it off, but also not sweating the details.
The next scene finds Duke Frederick, who has now become thoroughly brutal, terrorizing Orlando’s brother to the point where the following brilliant dialogue would fit just as well in one of the history plays:
Your lands and all things that you dost call yours
Worth seizure do we seize into our hands,
Till you canst quit you by your brother’s mouth
Of what we think against you.
O that your highness knew my heart in this!
I never loved my brother in my life.
More villain you.
The preparation has at this point been made for something like the following: Duke Frederick will assemble an army, invade the forest, and attempt to capture Rosalind and Celia. The banished Duke, with Orlando as his second in command, will oppose Frederick, and after appropriate ups and downs, will defeat him.
This, I feel, is a reasonable expectation in view of the story so far. Frederick will lose; but the struggle will be fierce. We have already seen a good bit of violence in the play – brother fighting brother, the wrestling match, death threats, a Duke increasingly savage. Watch out!
What now? Well, Rosalind is in the forest, dressed as a man called Ganymede, and Orlando is in the forest, in love with the Rosalind he thinks he left behind, so Shakespeare brings them together again.
As is well known, in Shakespeare’s time women did not perform on stage; female roles were played by men. So Rosalind’s male appearance is easy to establish, and we don’t need to fret that Orlando certainly ought to recognize her. (It appears that they had both lived in the same castle!)
I don’t consider this one of the marks of inconsistent or unconsidered plot development in this play. Shakespeare often uses this same device, for example in Twelfth Night, and it is basically a “convention,” an established way of doing things, in his plays. However, there will be another example of non-recognition later that is more extreme.
While Rosalind and Orlando are working out their relationship – Rosalind offers to “cure” Orlando of his love by pretending to be, well, Rosalind, and Orlando accepts – Shakespeare introduces not one but two other pairs of lovers.
Their existence in the play is not unreasonable – I’d say that the major theme of the play is the nature of love. But the characters are given a great deal of stage time, and not much happens in that time except that they talk.
As a director, I can state that the best way to stage these scenes is to have very fine performers playing them. Otherwise they are likely to strike the audience as “dead time.”
One reluctantly feels that Shakespeare, with not a lot of plot in hand and not a lot of energy for complications, felt at this point that he had to write something. The dialogue in these scenes isn’t “bad.” It’s not priceless either, and the plot points are easy to grasp – the audience, one suspects, “gets the message” long before the scenes are finished.
I should add that along the way there is also a substantial amount of comic dialogue (in prose), most of it in scenes featuring Touchstone the clown. Shakespeare appears to have had a fine actor (Will Kempe) available to play this kind of role, and no doubt it was easy to create lines for Kempe like the following:
Of a certain knight that swore by his honour they were good pancakes and swore by his honour the mustard was naught: now I’ll stand to it, the pancakes were naught and the mustard was good, and yet was not the knight forsworn.
This kind of thing may have been hilarious in context and as performed by Will Kempe. It is difficult for us today not to stare at it with a cold eye, and in fact I cut that particular speech from our production, along with some other “comic” dialogue, because I was unable to think of any way to make it intelligible. (It brings to mind the parody “Shakespearian” comic speech in the British comedy revue of the 1960’s, Beyond the Fringe: “I’m from Lancaster, and that’s to say for good shoe leather!”)
I have neglected to keep mentioning the songs in the play, but I should point out one (“What shall he have that kill’d the deer?”) that occurs because Shakespeare, clearly bored by the requirements of plot by this time, needs to separate two scenes between Rosalind and Celia. In order to indicate that time passes, people come out, sing a song, and leave. This is not, in anybody’s book, brilliant play construction.
Finally, late in Act IV, Shakespeare begins to feel the need to bring his story to a conclusion. You will recall my speculation above that Duke Frederick will come into the forest with an army. This is not exactly what happens.
Instead, Oliver, Orlando’s vile brother, appears with a story of having rescued Orlando from a lion, and while telling the story, falls in love with Celia. He is a thoroughly redeemed – in fact, completely transformed – character.
Orlando, frustrated that his brother has found his true love while he can’t find his, tells “Rosalind” (Rosalind) that he can’t pretend any more, whereupon Rosalind promises to straighten everything out.
After another unmotivated song, the main characters of the play gather to see what Rosalind can do. The Duke and Orlando have a mystifying conversation in which we learn that the Duke has failed to recognize his own daughter:
I do remember in this shepherd boy
Some lively touches of my daughter’s favour.
This is carrying Shakespearian disguise pretty far; but never mind, because there are more wonders ahead.
Suddenly more music – honestly, it almost is a musical – plays, and Hymen, the goddess of marriage, appears and sings a song, introducing Rosalind as, well, Rosalind.
I have been asked in rehearsal what in the world Hymen is doing there – there are no other mythological characters in the play – and all I can guess is that perhaps that she wandered in from a Masque (a courtly form of entertainment often featuring mythological characters).
Then – in a stupendous feat of dramaturgy – a new, previously unseen character appears. He is Jaques de Bois, Orlando’s middle brother, and if you have been paying attention you will note that he shares a first name with another character in the play – the Jaques of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech, a character invented by Shakespeare, not in the source material.
In other words, at this point Shakespeare brings in a new character and doesn’t even bother to think up a new name for him.
Jaques de Bois, in a nod to my notion of where the plot might have gone, reports (we don’t see this happen) that Duke Frederick did indeed lead an army into the forest, but that he met “an old religious man,” perhaps a monk, and was converted! He will now be a monk himself, and he is giving the banished Duke back his dukedom. Ta da!
It’s certainly a happy ending. Frankly, though, I get even greater pleasure from the glimpse that I am convinced the play provides, of a writer too busy to rewrite, who makes decisions as he goes along without worrying too much about them, and who nevertheless produces a lovely, if definitely curious, play.
One reads that some critics consider AYLI a masterpiece, while others consider it deeply flawed. Surely the answer is not an “either/or” matter. Who says it has to be perfect? It is lovely. And fun. And a little odd.
I am delighted that AYLI is a play with its strengths and curiosities both on display for us – not, for example, a powerful machine of a drama like Othello, where every detail packs a punch.
Sometimes the majesty of Shakespeare’s achievement feels like it’s too much for us to take in. On the other hand, here is a holiday of a play, written, without a lot of stress, to delight us, and also perhaps to get us to scratch our heads once or twice. In it, I am convinced, we get to see the author at work.
Not every play has to be a masterpiece in order to be a treasure. As You Like It is definitely the way I like it.
[Among the things in William Shakespeare’s bio about which we don’t know the truth is his religious affiliation. (Much is made of this in Will, the fictionalized bio series about the Bard on TNT.) Some biographers posit that he was a Catholic—perhaps a secret Catholic—while others assert he was a true Anglican. I believe there’s little or no evidence to support either contention. (Will is far from a great show, but, like the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, it’s a good example of how we fill in the gaps in what we know about the playwright with imagined—and often far-fetched—history.)
[Guessing how Shakespeare wrote As You Like It with so little evidence—based solely on reasoning—reminds me of two acts of imagination. One’s an old cartoon, maybe from the New Yorker, maybe Playboy. A man dressed in skins is lolling on a beach, noodling with some stones. In the last panel, he gets up and walks away and we see what he’s left behind is Stonehenge: he was a giant and all the theories we’ve made through the centuries to explain how Stonehenge was built the way it was are just wrong!
[The other thing is Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia in which Lord Byron scholars, doing research in an old English country house where the poet is supposed to have stayed, are putting together their interpretation of evidence about Byron and a hermit who lived on the grounds 150 years earlier. Their logical conclusions turn out to have been all wrong—as we learn because the play takes place alternately in the present and in the 1800’s
[Like most Stoppard plays, Arcadia plays with language and perception (many of his plays, starting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are about how we know what we know—or think we know) and has a puzzle at its center. A little like Artist Descending a Staircase (1972/1989), Arcadia also plays with time—in the sense of how a story is told. Artist is told backwards and Arcadia is told in two time periods alternately (like James Michener’s 1965 novel, The Source). So while characters in the present are piecing together clues about an event in the past, we see that past event unfolding in intervening scenes.
[The present-day characters draw a logical conclusion about the unrecorded historical happening, but the characters of the past didn’t actually behave out of reason; sometimes they just did things on a whim—like that giant playing with rocks on a beach in the cartoon. No logic in the world could predict a giant playing “pick-up-rocks”! Just like no one can reason out why Shakespeare, who my undergrad director and theater teacher used to say was just a hack—and sometimes he simply had to churn out product, wrote a scene or inserted a song into a play just because he felt like it at the moment or didn’t take the time to come up with a better idea.]