"It goes like this..."
As You Like It: The Plot Plays On
by Rob Kendt
A plot in a play is like a melody in a song: It's the clearest characteristic the layman can point to and say, "It goes like this..." It's also the thing the average theatregoer or listener is apt to find missing from a piece he doesn't like. A tune we can hum, a story we can follow—that's all the people ask for. Is that so wrong?
Well, it may not be wrong, but based on many of the works that have survived as classics, it would seem to be mistaken. Try to hum a Bach tune, if you would, or a Chopin etude. And while you're at it, try to recount the plot of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's most beloved romantic comedies.
You're forgiven if you falter, for As You Like It doesn't have a fully operative story so much as a riot of incident early on—multiple banishments and a would-be deadly wrestling match—and another rash of reconciliations at play's end. These storm-like outbreaks of plot are separated by several cloudless acts of sharp, funny chatter in the Forest of Arden, a seemingly timeless and weightless idyll where not much is in a hurry to happen—unlike, say, the woods of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where mischief and mayhem are the norm.
So why do we keep returning to this smiling, saturnine meditation on love and forgiveness from 1599? And why is Rosalind—a banished noblewoman disguised for much of the play as a boy, mainly for her own perverse amusement—considered such a great role, played in recent times by the likes of Peggy Ashcroft, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juliet Stevenson, and Adrian Lester (in Cheek by Jowl's all-male 1991 production)? Surely it can't just be that she's got the most lines of any female in the Bard's male-dominated ouevre, though that's closer to the mark.
For in As You Like It, Shakespeare comes as close as he ever did to a kind of Socratic dialogue in theme-and-variations form, with characters gathering in various combinations in their languorous forest exile less to advance the plot than to talk, mock, and muse. The mere wisps of story Shakespeare provides are there primarily to usher the characters into the forest as quickly as possible, and later to provide a quick and painless ending. At the play's center, then, are some of the Bard's great ruminative exchanges on life and love, sharpened by contrasts—male and female, jaded and hopeful, city and country—and leavened by an easy laughter that bubbles throughout like an unhurried brook.
One clue to the play's unbuttoned, conversational tone is the relative scarcity of verse: The lovesick Orlando writes doggerel poems to his beloved, and there are verse passages almost arbitrarily scattered throughout, but for the most part As You Like It is as unconstrained by linguistic form as by story structure. Not even Rosalind's Epilogue, in which she steps out of the action and addresses the audience directly, is written in verse.
But there is a form behind the seeming formlessness, or a genre, at least—one that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's contemporaries. The "pastoral" narrative, which juxtaposed the rustic, idealized lives of shepherds with the craven, petty society of the court or the city, was commonplace at the time. Indeed, Shakespeare's source for As You Like It, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, had been a popular pastoral romance only 10 years before Shakespeare's play. Lodge himself took inspiration from a 14th century poem, "The Tale of Gamelyn," which concerned itself greatly with the injustices and intrigues of a usurper who sent his enemies into exile.
Both Lodge and then Shakespeare, by focusing more on the exile than the usurping, turned to the pastoral tradition for inspiration. As a style, the pastoral is distinguished more by poetry and song than story; by eulogy as much as mirth; and above all by a conscious idealization of the bucolic over what we might call the cosmopolitan. Most writers in the pastoral mode—which dates back to Greek and Roman literature—did not intend this elevation of country life over court intrigues literally, like some kind of Elizabethan version of our own Jeffersonian myth of the gentleman farmer. Instead they used it figuratively, formally, as a way to critique the mores of contemporary society. The moralizing of the pastoral could also be prone to extremes: Lodge's Rosalynde includes a number of deaths, as well as justice for the story's usurpers.
Shakespeare not only excised the fatalities and the payback, he largely ignored the verse form that characterized most pastorals. Perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare did not use the rustic setting primarily to mock the manners of the court but allowed both "sides"—wise shepherds as well as witty courtiers—plenty of stage time to share and compare points of view.
Rosalind is at the center of this lively symposium, and her willful, even manipulative personality is the key to the play's tone. Dressed as a boy, Ganymede, for her own safety in transport from the court to the country, she remains disguised well past the need for safety—to test the love of Orlando, presumably, but more generally, as she puts it to her friend Celia, to "play the knave." When she chooses to end the charade, it's in her own good time, not because her hand has been forced by an ever-thickening web of lies built on mistaken identities, as with Shakespeare's "twin" comedies—The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. Nor is she cross-dressing to pull off a specific scam, as do Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.
This Rosalind is such a cool customer, in fact, that when she meets her long-estranged father, the banished Duke, in the woods, she stays in disguise till play's end. Compare this attitude to Twelfth Night's passionate Viola, whose feigned role as servant boy to the man she loves causes her more anguish than joy, and whose reunion with her surviving twin Sebastian, which clears up all the confusion, is sincere and immediate.
There's a subversive appeal, of course, in such a smart, contrary leading lady. Think of the snappy Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, or even of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew: These are not shrinking violets at men's mercy, though both are ultimately humbled (in wildly varying degrees) into matrimony. Rosalind is no less feisty, but she's considerably slyer: She realizes she can be both more saucy and more mock-subservient as a boy than she ever could be as a strong, thoughtful woman. And she finds that fun—fun to pull off the ruse, and rapturous to hear her lover talk about her as if she's not there. How can we not root for a woman who gives in to such harmless pleasures—who has the savvy, essentially, to treat exile like a sort of vacation? After all, she even packs her fool from court, Touchstone, for the journey.
Comedies are characterized by a movement from discord to harmony, which is why so many of them end in marriages and reconciliations. The special genius of As You Like It—a title whose self-confidence mirrors its heroine's—is that Shakespeare managed to minimize the discord so he could vamp expertly on his chosen themes, like a composer holding a suspended chord in mid-air until he's good and ready to resolve it. It's a rarefied comedy form, certainly, but consider the durability of such plot-light and argument-heavy antecedents as The Importance of Being Earnest, Heartbreak House, or the entire ouevre of Chekhov, who famously thought of his plays as comedies. As You Like It proves, as if we needed proof, that Shakespeare's virtuosity is in his insights as much as his imagination.
Rob Kendt writes about theatre for the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, LA Stage, and the Downtown News.