As You Like It

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gary Griffin

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Mar. 4, 2011

Though I'm tempted to start this review by asking how people cope with oppression, the better question may be why people tolerate oppression at all. Reason dictates that it's a matter of value: confronting oppression may impose greater hardship than declining to confront oppression promises reward. Nevertheless, many insightful people do manage the isolation that ignorance and irrationality force on them, often going so far as to develop creative ways to contend with obtuseness and intransigence, and with the harm those two breaches of human intelligence cause. Luckily for our cultural evolution, some of those people, those who have some mettle along with their wit, try to make the world a less severe place by changing hearts and minds one at a time, even if a full-scale social revolution never comes about.

Such intervention abounds in literature and theatre, especially at the hands of smart female characters. We have, for example, Sophocles' Antigone and Aristophanes' Lysistrata. There's also Scheherazade. From more-recent centuries, we have Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, and Ursula Brangwen. Even Harper Lee's schoolgirl Scout displays an incipient no-nonsense spirit that we predict will mature into a personality that doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Enter Shakespeare's Rosalind in As You Like It. A favorite among feminist critics, she's a daring and witty young woman who doesn't hesitate to challenge, scold, and criticize, in effect subverting Elizabethan social restrictions from her own corner of the world. Being imaginative, she disguises herself as a young man in order to win the trust of the man she loves and to instruct him in the art of being a better lover. It's hardly likely that an Englishman of A.D. 1600 would have solicited, or permitted, such tutoring from a woman. Her boldness, however, isn't untempered. Being wise beyond her years, she has a sense of how much provocation those around her will tolerate from a woman. Thus, even though she doesn't routinely hide behind the powder puff, she does sometimes retreat there when prudence recommends it. In other words, Rosalind's idealistic spirit of activism is also practical. In Chicago Shakespeare Theater's current production, Emily Shain showed Rosalind's feminine and masculine sides (if my reader doesn't scoff at bifurcating personality traits by gender), but, like many actresses who portray Shakespearean heroines masquerading as men, she couldn't conceal the inherent femininity in her voice, stance, or hip-to-waist ratio. It was so hard to envision Shain's Rosalind as a passable man that I had to remember I was watching a fantasy that had already made demands on my "suspension of disbelief".

However -- and this is a critical 'however' -- that very effeminacy, which made it hard to see Shain's Rosalind as a man, was necessary to achieve the sexual ambiguity that confirms the continuum of sexual intimacy that this play celebrates. Homoeroticism being a major theme of As You Like It, Rosalind assumes the identity of "Ganymede", who, in Greek mythology, was a boy whom Zeus abducted into the role of his eromenos. Orlando is in love with Rosalind even while he willingly role-plays in a romance with the beautiful Ganymede, a girlish boy who perhaps appeals to Orlando more than does the woman he supposedly loves. As scholars argue, male homoeroticism during the Renaissance, which Shakespeare explores liberally in his works, was a logical consequence of the fear of female sexuality. However, although male homosexuality doesn't correlate with misogyny or gynephobia, we rarely see homophobia directed by men at men in the absence of belief in a sexual hierarchy. Therefore, male homosexuality can be used to fuel misogyny or it can be used to bring it down by forcing a reconsideration and rejection of binary attitudes toward gender.

Shain was too meek to match Matt Schwader's aggressive Orlando, despite her character's superior wit and sophistication. Whereas Rosalind should upstage Orlando, Schwader often overshadowed Shain, especially in their exchanges on the subject of love, which he dominated. Nevertheless, he played right into Orlando's painful banality on that subject, especially through his incompetent verse, and thereby cast Orlando as Rosalind's intellectual antipode; this was a contrast the audience clearly enjoyed.

Schwader put so much nervous energy into Orlando that one wonders what the Renaissance equivalent of "adult deficit disorder" would have been. The man fidgeted, yelled, and bounded. Barely did he finish verbalizing a thought before running off stage, leaping from something, or lunging at someone. And Schwader channeled this ebullience into Orlando's role as a Petrarchan lover who writes to his inamorata love poems dripping with preposterous sentimentality. But Schwader checked Orlando's youthful impetuosity just enough to make his reaction to Ganymede's advice on love seem believable, amounting to what we might call an "adjustment" of Orlando's understanding of love, rather than to a radical reconfiguration.

Jacques, who attends the banished Duke, is an aspiring fool who muses on the nature of life and comments on the motivations of those around him. He sits proudly on the throne of cynicism, participating little in life while passing judgment on those who do. To read his words in print is to see Jacques as a strangely melancholy character in a cheerful play. And even though his most famous musing lacks originality, it does give the actor not only a chance to find some insight in that very old notion that another actor hasn't already claimed, but also, and more importantly, a chance to shape Jacques' uniqueness among the other characters in this story.

"All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players" (II.vii) is an ancient figure with which educated Elizabethans were well familiar; thus, Shakespeare rightly expected his audiences to understand it, even though they probably considered it corny. Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx about the three ages of man, Hippocrates posited four ages of man, and Aristotle laid out three ages in Rhetoric. But Shakespeare presented the idea as a theatrical metaphor, having Jacques in As You Like It elaborate Antonio's pithier obiter dictum in The Merchant of Venice: "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano --/ A stage, where every man must play a part..." (I.i). It wasn't Shakespeare, however, who introduced this metaphor, as Erasmus, Montaigne, and others had earlier likened the world to a stage on which each man must play his assigned role. Even so, it was Petronius who wrote

Non duco contentionis funem, dum constet inter nos, quod fere totus mundus exerceat histrioniam.
(I don't pull the rope of contention while it's agreed among us that nearly the whole world practices acting.)

Condensed, it became the Globe Theatre's motto,

Totus mundus agit histrionem.
(All the world plays the actor.)

These words are very close to those with which Jacques begins his contemplation, and their spirit is what Ross Lehman used to solidify his vision for this character. As I said above, the comparison of the world to a stage was a bit banal even in Shakespeare's day, let alone ours, but Lehman turned it into an impromptu oration that gave Jacques unexpected sincerity. His spontaneity led me to believe that even though Jacques knew the metaphor was threadbare, he also knew that a cliché becomes a cliché because it starts life as a catchy expression of some truth. And this particular cliché gave Jacques pause, as it did everyone within earshot, because of its uncomfortable accuracy. Lehman's Jacques seemed to be speaking without rehearsal, from the heart, if you will, especially as he wound down into the final line, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything". His thoughts flowed directly to his mouth after forming in his mind, almost without being filtered. Jacques' potential blather at the beginning proved to be sincere wistfulness, an acknowledgement of the unchangeable reality that all of us face. In effect, Lehman elevated Jacques from inanity to sagacity. Admittedly, the appropriateness of his interpretation can be debated, but it did set Jacques in very interesting relief against the other characters. For example, it blurred the contrast between Jacques and Rosalind. Whereas his criticism of those around him is written to be awkward and hers graceful, Lehman diminished the distinction by infusing substance into Jacques' insights. It was all in the attitude.

Lehman's poignancy as Jacques put power into a major theme of this play. Lehman was telling us that change is inevitable and that it's no frivolous matter. With an accidental nod to the second law of thermodynamics, he laments the irreversibility of our gradual deterioration, but he implies that change can indeed be good, even if temporary. Jacques' speech testifies to both the speed at which, and the depth to which, people can change. In As You Like It, the characters' transformations are abrupt and dramatic because Shakespeare altogether omits the mechanisms, one example being Duke Frederick's sudden renunciation of fratricide. The "happy ending" of this play satisfies the fantasy element of the story (the magical Forest of Ardenne) and punctuates the message that positive personal change can have positive social consequences. After all, the duchy is going to be more just after restoration of the banished duke, its rightful ruler, to his throne. And at the end, as four marriages take place and as peasants dance with royals, we witness the healing of wounds and the rectifying of injustices (at least by Elizabethan standards).

This play's emphasis on balance is timeless. Although Shakespeare's context is the dissimilarity and the complementarity of urban life and pastoral life, his message is broader. Calming one's mind is restorative, he teaches us, and this is achievable by turning one's attention away from routine stressors and surrendering to peaceful influences. After such restoration, one is ready to return to real life and to make improvements however he or she can. The symbolism is clear in the transformations that occur, which I mentioned above, and in the general healing of all who come through the magical forest. After spending some time in Ardenne, each person is ready either to return to the city or to move on. City-dwellers benefit from relaxation as country-dwellers do from sophistication, in a balance in which neither the city nor the country can function optimally without the other. But, as I argued in my review of Twelfth Night, we might apply this lesson equally well to other life dichotomies that pivot on a balance point. This I have to wonder whenever I see someone on the street listening to music on one device, playing a game on another device, and talking on a third device, oblivious to the people he or she has just forced to make way.

This production artfully manipulated the feeling in the theater. First, it gave us the real world. Then, it drew us into a fantasy world. And finally, it restored us to reality, though this time into a world that reflected what the characters themselves had come to know during their foray into Ardenne. We were leaving the forest as they were, with hearts lightened and lessons learned. The theater had become Ardenne for us, but Rosalind brought us back in the epilogue by dropping her stage identity and gently reminding us that artificiality is only as meaningful as what it teaches us about reality. How fanciful is it to believe that oppression can be eliminated one person at a time? Or that love has to be as rational as it does emotional? Or that gender isn't static? Or that theatricality is a part of life? Or even that morality lies on a continuum? To answer these questions, I'd just defer to the title.