Thursday, April 13, 2006

"As You Like It" Day

Yesterday was-- well, not National Reading Day exactly, apparently, but someone declared a do some reading day (apparently outloud to your kids) and for my part I read "As You Like It". This most joyous of comedies naturally makes those times spent in reading it joyous themselves, though perhaps the thrill of discovery having first been met in 6th grade I may be forgiven for having turned my attentions today to two of Bacon's political essays, "Of Empire" and "Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates." But one should not flee the vernal byways of the Forest of Arden in haste, and I have been careful to return to pay further respects to Rosalind (particularly in Act 3 sc. 2 and Act 4 sc. 1) and her company, as well as to reread Susan Snyder's essay on the play at the back of the Folger edition. Despite a willingness to overplay the egalitarianism of Arden to the point of apparently denying Rosalind's own rhetorical triumphs (according to Snyder there are just no winners and no losers-- perhaps she too is a traveler?), she generally does justice to the play, and even sensibly echoes some of Camille Paglia's concerns about endless role-playing as a potential deadend. But then-- and also like Camille-- she has a rather exaggerated account, in my view, of how many compromises the post-Arden world will impose upon our heroine. But won't Duke Senior's new court be a rather jolly place? I can see it all, rooms of white and pale blue, hung with fully-clothed pastoral scenes like those Viennese Rococo paintings that adorned my childhood Mozart cassettes from Allegro. After all, Celia and Rosalind weren't having so dark a time of it there until Frederick sent them packing, and now he is gone, gone quite from the world in fact, there should be nothing to darken anyone's brow.

And so I don't fear for Rosalind's compromised female integrity-- why on earth would it be compromised?-- but I do wonder at Jacques' parting shots. It's as if, in cinematic terms, we pulled back at the close, our minueting marrieds (excuse my 18th Century anachronisms) frolicking in the depth of the frame while we huddle with Duke Senior and Jacques in the foreground. Jacques is no Malvolio, of course, plotting any sort of offstage mischief (I doubt Malvolio's potency to accomplish any, which is why I rather wonder that so many seem to feel that "Twelth Night" leaves such a dark shadow), but one may wonder why Shakespeare feels the urge to highlight his desire to continue his philosophic quest from the peripheries, substituting the once-disenfranchised Duke Senior in his pastoral idyll with the now-resigned usurper Frederick, who presumably will become some sort of Charles V-style holy man-- we might hope, one more holy and less inclined to wish for his old prerogatives. As Bacon says at the beginning of the essay "Of Empire", in a proposition I have previously applied to the postcurtain Prospero, "It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire, and many things to fear; and yet that commonly is the case of kings." So that he who has reached the pinnacle of his worldly fortune "falleth out of his own favor, and is not the thing he was." To what then does Jacques lead us?-- a pleasant "nook merely monastic", or a change of direction for the dramatist himself, as if to say, "Now I put my frolics behind me and take up the dark and mystic path that leads through Elsinore, past the cliffs of Dover and the tawny Nile, to the drowned book and Prosper's isle." Is Jacques a stand-in for Shakespeare, inventor of the human, preparing to interrogate the melancholy Dane, Iago and Edmund, Prospero and Perdita, turning his stage from breezy wood to blasted heath?

Rebecca West might lead us to ponder just what has been lost, that Shakespeare never again was so purely joyful a writer. If only "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is comparable in its sweetness (and even there we have more shadows, more overt unpleasantness), should we be willing to ask Shakespeare for more comedy, less tragedy? But be that as it may, let us forever stand at the side of Rosalind, who delights us with the picture of all that is best in us, commingling as only she can a vernal freshness that is enduring, a talent for androgeny that is rare, and an idyllic backdrop that is sheer fantasy made real. Giddiness is no alien to High Art, or High Thought, though few pedagogues and fewer sorts in the street will allow it, and Rosalind's musical wit, ever flowing and ever golden, and in concert with her merry and melancholy assortment of companions, offers us a literary concerto grosso whose irridescence will never pale, as long as we have ears to hear it.

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