Fantastic Mr. Fox, the greatest movie of all time, has very little to do with this post. But I cannot help but think of Franklin Bean telling Petey he’s written a bad song before chucking his cigarette at him when I read what is typically considered a “bad” Shakespeare play. Anyone familiar with the movie knows that Petey’s song is nearly as fantastic as Mr. Fox himself, despite the fact that he was “making it up as [he] went along.” But we at times wonder if that was what Shakespeare was doing in some of his plays, and this would apply to the popular comedy As You Like It.
I actually had no design to read this play, but having the opportunity to see the play performed this weekend, I naturally sat down and read it. As I previously mentioned, As You Like It was a poorly written play in the sense that it seemed to be a bad combination of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It isn’t like we haven’t had a bunch of characters frolicking in the woods already, and in this case the reason they’re all there in the first place seems a bit suspect (especially considering how quickly the antagonists change their views at the end). Furthermore, while Rosalind’s “sex change” is far more complex in this play than Twelfth Night (she is a woman played by a boy, dressed as a man, pretending to be a woman, all the while being wooed by a woman who believes her to be a man), the situation itself seems anti-climatic and far less satisfying in the sense that its less humorous.
All this to say, the play was highly humorous, and Shakespeare’s genius comes out in a couple of characters, one specifically who represents melancholy.
Rosalind: They say you are a melancholy fellow.
Jaques: I am so: I do love it better than laughing.
The character of Jaques is the most satisfying and depressing character in the play. His lines, along with Touchstone’s, are some of the wittiest you will find, yet the overall tone of his character is that of sadness. While most tragedies have those instances of comic relief, this play, devoid of any true antagonists and plot complications, has an underlining tone of melancholy which transcends the play itself. For the play is not a melancholy play, it is one in which all that is lost is put right: Eden is recovered.
This is what draws us into the play, even if it is only the ending which fully satisfies. “Proceed, proceed: we will begin these [marriage] rites, / As we do trust they’ll end, in true delights” says the restored Duke as they dance to music in the forest. A plethora of marriages are taking place, Rosalind is a girl again, the Duke is restored, Orlando’s bad poetry is taken down from the trees, all is made well. We accept this unlikely plot design not because we care about any of the characters but because we believe in a type of perfection, an Eden. If we did not believe a perfection existed, there would be no cause for frustration or melancholy in our world, yet that is exactly how we feel in Shakespeare’s comedies — frustrated that the characters are so dense.
Part of our fallen world consists in our inability to love well or love at all. Much is said or implied about the feigning nature of love in this play, and Touchstone sums it up well.
No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning; and lovers are given to poetry; and what they swear in poetry; it may be said as lovers they do feign.
Rosalind’s character adds that “love is merely a madness” as Jaques tells Orlando that “the worst fault [he has] is to be in love.” Amiens concludes that “most friendship is feigning; most loving mere folly”, and Celia sums it up quite well when she says “it is as easy to count atomies [tiny particles] as to resolve the propositions of a lover.” Shakespeare often pokes fun at the idea of love at first sight. This type of head-over-heels love (which is probably closer to lust) causes much folly to happen. He even goes on to quote Marlowe in the play posing what may be a sarcastic question: “Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?” The irony here is that Phebe, a shepherdess, is speaking this concerning Rosalind who is disguised as a man. It suggests the opposite may actually be closer to the truth, and anything else is mere folly.
Part of the melancholy of this play is this insistence that much of our “love” in this world is mere feigning love because it happens so quickly. Indeed, many of the romances in this play occur quickly. But the deeper melancholy of the play presents itself in man’s battle with Lady Fortune. Touchstone rails against the sad fortunes of the transient. Rosalind claims that “this working-day world” is “full of briars.” Adam suggests that the world is cruel because even “what is comely envenoms him that bears it” and that fortune couldn’t treat him better but to let him die well and free of his debts. Orlando selfishly complains “how bitter… it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.”
But no character’s melancholy exceeds that of Jaques.
It is a melancholy of my own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.
The Duke even tries to sway Jaques early on in the play stating that “we are not all alone unhappy”, prompting Jaques to recite the most popular line of the play.
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 act being seven stages.
These seven stages begin with a puking infant and end in our second childhood, old age. The speech is almost a type of aside with the Duke and Jaques as Orlando leaves and returns when it is over. It spans 27 lines detailing the seven stages which give a very pessimistic outlook on the cyclical nature of life. The melancholy of it all is that it is nearly quite true. The humorous part of it all is that the Duke completely ignores the entire speech. Orlando’s return engenders his full attention, and after Amien’s depressing song during their dinner, the Duke again ignores the negativity as if it was never spoken, focusing solely on the fact that Orlando is a friend of his. Jaques focuses on the negative, the Duke
ignores fights it, going as far to embrace it for good.
Sweet are the uses of adversity, / Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head: / And this our life… / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything. / I would not change it.
It is fitting then, excluding the pointless epilogue, that the Duke is the character that gets the final word in this play, a happy story with a thread of bitter cynicism woven through. The play shows that although there is a time for sad contemplation on life as a wise man once said, there should always be a return to the joyfulness of our youth, the return to Eden. Indeed, while it may be better to be in a house of mourning so as to lay our ends to heart, it does not hold that we are to despair in this cycle. We don’t pretend melancholy doesn’t exist. We ponder it, knowing that our baseline in life is one of joy. With our faces toward the end, we look forward to our future Eden when that Bride will be reunited with her Groom. For that matter, I suppose I will hold off chucking any cigarettes at Shakespeare this weekend and applaud him for this melancholy little ditty full of “hey-ho, the holly” for “this life is most jolly.”