"As You Like It is an exception to the rule that the essence of drama is conflict." Do you agree?
It is easy enough to discount the presence of conflict within As You Like It, swept away as we are by the sparkling wit of the play, its numerous songs, and the use of stage spectacle (such as the masque of Hymen). But precisely what enables Arden to have such a profound effect on the visitors (Rosalind, Orlando, Duke Senior et al.) is the fact that it is a retreat from the "painted pomp" of the "envious court". The twisted morality of the court, where Duke Frederick hates Rosalind for her virtue, is very much necessary for the purpose of the drama of the play; it is only through the disparity between the court and the Forest of Arden that there is dramatic significance in the movement to Arden and the play of Arden. So while the world of As You Like It is one of reduced intensity (even while the cynic Jacques is loved by the Duke Senior, who loves to "cope him in his sullen fits"), it would be to glib to dismiss conflict from the play.
Admittedly, much of the charm of the play lies not in the perfunctory plot: the news told by Charles, about Duke Senior's banishment to a place where he and his followers "fleet the time carelessly" like Robin Hood and his merry men, is so old that its only purpose seems to be to speed up the exposition. As You Like It entices us because it is willing to sacrifice plot considerations and credibility -- for instance, in the sudden transformations of Oliver and Duke Frederick -- to pursue seemingly pointless moments such as the songs. The sheer number of musical interludes, from "Blow, blow, thou winter wind" to "What shall we have that killed the deer?", shows the play's willingness to submit itself to natural rhythms, the ebb and flow of life. This is the very heart of comedy; adhering to natural rhythm, ending with marriages that will help keep up the flow of life. Not for this play the irreversibility of actions in the tragedies; instead, we witness sudden conversions, which allow for the element of surprise necessary for comedy. If "there is no clock i' th' forest", neither is there one in As You Like It; time "trots" and "gallops" withal depending on circumstance.
However, the absence of conflict in Arden does not mean that conflict is unnecessary to As You Like It. The fact that the play opens with three scenes set in the court, where minor characters long for a less brutish world (Le Beau's comment that "Hereafter, in a better world than this, / I shall desire more love and knowledge from you" is apposite here), sets up Arden as a retreat. Like any other retreat, it offers one opportunity to discover oneself through play (as Celia's cry of "To liberty, and not to banishment" shows, Arden, has liberating qualities), but like any other retreat, it can only work its magic on temporary inhabitants. "If all the year were playing holidays / To sport would be tedious as to work" (1 Henry IV), and indeed the characters, after enjoying one last bout of "rustic revelry", must return to the court. It is precisely this contrast between a court of conflict, peopled with eavesdroppers and other practitioners of deceit, and Arden, where they feel only the penalty of Adam, that allows for the sense of liberation and exuberance Rosalind feels in the forest.
In any case, Arden is not free of conflict totally. What makes it different is only that its inhabitants "translate the stubbornness of fortune / Into so quiet and so sweet a style". By adopting the disguise of Ganymede, Rosalind turns her expulsion by Duke Frederick (and it is worth noting here that conflict was necessary to move the characters towards Arden) into an occasion for adventure, where she can test her love for Orlando and correct Orlando's overidealisation of her. As You Like It is not a naïve play: it fully recognises the existence of conflict and the trauma of unrequited love. The essence of its drama lies perhaps not in the absence of conflict, but the conscious disregard it has for conflict.
Disguise and role-play bring in an element of irony to As You Like It, and the disparity of perceptions between the audience, those characters "in the know", and the ones taken in by the guises, does much to fuel the drama. Much of the fun of the scenes of Orlando wooing Rosalind as Ganymede-playing-Rosalind comes from the gap between our knowledge of Rosalind's game, and Orlando's ignorance of it. Thus, we feel Rosalind's pain when she moans that "Alas, dear love, I cannot lack thee two hours", especially when it is contrasted with Orlando's perception of the relationship as merely a means by which he can pretend to be with Rosalind ("If thou wert indeed my Rosalind"). Conflicting perceptions, while not as striking as out-and-out rivalries or power struggles, are certainly an element of conflict neceessary to fuel the play.
Even when Shakespeare parodies conflict, it contributes to the play's charms as William is summarily dismissed by Touchstone (using his wit as usual), this satire of the pastoral convention of overcoming obstacles to love is humorous. Likewise, Phebe's insults of Silvius and Ganymede's chiding of Phebe draws laughter from the audience.
To conclude, therefore, conflict is not absent from the play totally. It is As You Like It's knowledge and recognition of the dangers of love "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love" and is still capable of being lovestruck: the affection being like "Bay of Portugal"), and how it plays off that against the comedic exuberance of its interludes, verbal sparring and digressionary expositions, that provides the drama of the play. "Sweet", indeed, "are the uses of adversity".
Written by Daryl Sng, 2A01B, 12 September 1996.
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