STRATFORD, Conn.--To be fair. I had best start with a confession: As You Like It is not a play I particularly treasure. Sooth to say, I would if pressed have to place it, in the entire Shakespearean canon, about three-quarters of the way down the list. I know, I know: critics the world over continue to acclaim the work in rapture, and teachers ecstatically lead their charges through it in almost every high school in the land.
Yet I must to my own self be true, and I simply remain unconvinced. The great Elizabethan scholar Alfred Harbage (whom Harvard and the world lost only recently), having devoted most of his life to Shakespeare, said of As You Like It that "a fondness for it is the best single test of a reader's compatibility with Shakespeare." So I stand condemned.
Nonetheless I am thankful that As You Like It was written. But for me its chief virtue lies in having provided Shakespeare some practice in romantic comedy. Much Ado About Nothing, which I would like to think followed shortly after, since I consider it more successful, afforded further exercise in the genre. As a result, Shakespeare was fully equipped a year later to create Twelfth Night, which is not only his greatest achievement in this category but also the supreme romantic comedy in the English language.
I am quite willing to concede that As You Like It contains a host of wonderful things. But taken as a whole it seems an artistic failure. Shakespeare used as a basis Thomas Lodge's silly novel Rosalynde, which had appeared a few years earlier; he followed it rather closely, compressing and eliminating along the way.
The play, as it emerged, is not skilfully managed. Most of the plot is crammed into the first act, yet there is unnecessary repetition. Here too characters inform others of things already known to the hearers, while nobody ever tells anyone else--or us--why the animosity developed between the evil older brother Oliver and the good younger brother Orlando.
Shakespeare's real interest is in getting away to the Forest of Arden, where nothing much happens for three acts except a parade of bantering duologues. When it's time for us to go home, the playwright suddenly in the fifth act rounds people up for a quadruple wedding, has someone report that the usurping duke has reformed offstage, and (in a gesture unique for the period) bids the heroine directly dispatch us from the theatre in an epilogue.
The nitpicker might complain also that Shakespeare for some reason gave two different characters the same name of Jaques; that he forgot to assign the rightful duke any name at all; that Celia is described as taller than her cousin Rosalind early in the play, and shorter later on; that he confused Juno and Venus; and so on. This is not a careful piece of work.
More important is the question of general theme. Shakespeare was exploring here how one might best lead the Good Life. Can it be better achieved at court or in the country? Or is place ultimately irrelevant? Should we be content with the "real" world or espouse the pursuit of an idealized pastoral existence? And how can romantic love best function? In the tradition of the medieval and Renaissance poetic contests (such as the debat, disputaison, tenso, and conflictus), the play's cast becomes something of a debating society, and the text is filled with double-entry bookkeeping. This is, then, a highly literary play as well as a highly artificial one. It is also eminently lyrical, although nearly two-thirds of it is written in prose rather than verse.
The current production, directed by Michael Kahn, is the third one the American Shakespeare Theatre has mounted. The first, in 1961, was visually a horrible hodgepodge of styles and periods and a gallimaufry of gimmicks. It offered, however, in Donald Harron the only flawlessly spoken and acted Orlando I have ever encountered. When the work turned up here again in 1968, there was not a single tree in the Forest of Arden.
This time there are indeed trees, but they create the wrong effect. This play and this production are fine examples of the vital importance attaching to set design and color. Here Kahn presumably settled on the concept and the gifted John Conklin fashioned his scenery accordingly. The first act presents the discordant environment of the "envious court" and "the foul body of th' infected world." For this Conklin has provided barren brown trees. No complaint here.
The remaining four acts, however, except for three extremely brief scenes, take place entirely in the Forest of Arden. And what do we look at? Nothing but more bare brown trees. The whole point of the play is blunted.
From the start to the finish of this production there is not so much as a single green leaf. Not only that, but we get a chilly mist and even a snowfall; inhabitants blow on their frozen fingers and carry with them a brazier to warm themselves by. What is idyllic about such a wintry environment?
As You Like It is, after all, Shakespeare's bow to the vogue of the pastoral, with its shepherds and shepherdesses and attractive landscape--inspired by the publication a decade earlier of Sidney's Arcadia. The work is also Shakespeare's answer to two popular Robin Hood plays staged the previous year by a rival troupe. Indeed the exiled men are here explicitly compared to "old Robin Hood" and his "many merry men," whose Sherwood Forest has become Arden Forest.
To be sure, this Arden is not a realistic one; it is semi-magical. But whatever it is, the forest must contain greenery (the very word 'forest' occurs 23 times in this play, whereas no other Shakespeare play uses it more than thrice). The text mentions not only mossy oaks and osiers but also olive and palm trees, which are both evergreens; and it cites using the shade of boughs and bushes.
One might adduce the references in the text to "rough weather" and the like, or the presence of a song like "Blow, blow, thou winter wind." But these are not allusions to the current climate, which should be temperate throughout the play. The most important thing that goes on in Arden is ardent young love and courting (of several kinds), which are hardly abetted by snow on the ground and bare branches in the air. "Men are April when they woo," says the heroine.