Shakespeare's As You Like It is a complicated debate on the relationship between love, power and identity. It provokes disparate often controversial arguments and original and inventive productions. At its center is Shakespeare's Rosalind, one of the most engaging women in the entire canon.
Two critical interpretations of Rosalind suggest the polemical extremes of Shakespearean scholarship. Comparing her to Hamlet, critic Harold Bloom sees Rosalind as the supreme representation of the possibilities of human personality. He writes, "We rejoice in her because no other figure in Western literature, not even in Shakespeare, is at once so accomplished in wit, and so little interested in the power that great wit can bring if properly exercised" (5). Neo-feminist Camille Paglia disagrees. Exploring what she labels an unnoticed theme in the play, Rosalind's attraction to the macho extremes she ascribes to in her masculine disguise, Paglia writes, "Rosalind as Ganymede pretends to be a rakish lady-killer and, at her assumption of that sexual persona, actually becomes one. A superb language of arrogant command suddenly flows from her...She is all sex and power" (203). Such critical disagreements are not uncommon, for As You Like It is both a gentle, pastoral comedy of love, and a dark and sexually ambiguous comment on gender construction and patriarchal control.
Shakespeare himself delighted in contradiction and dialectical opposition of character and theme. In As You Like It he wallows in the conflict of opposites; pitting nature against civilization, masculinity against femininity, idealism against cynicism, youth against age, child against parent, time against timelessness and love against hate. Even the comic structure of his play belies its content. In the end the characters choose to renounce the Forest of Arden and return to the social restraints of the real world, yet this ending does not provide adequate resolution. The conflicts at play are merely assuaged, not fully resolved.
Successful productions of the play have sought to enact this complexity on the stage without losing its strong comic core. The first modern production, according to Shakespearean scholar Sylvan Barnet, occurred in 1919 when Nigel Playfair staged his interpretation at Stratford as inspired by the radical aesthetics of the Ballet Russes. This show was bright, lively and musical, infuriating many critics. Following Playfair, however, subsequent stagings began to explore the text's darker edges. Michael Elliott's 1961 production at Stratford explored the seasonal changes within the text, setting the early Arden scenes in a winter atmosphere. Theatre-goers at a 1966 production at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis found the play to be set in the somber aftermath of the American Civil War. Another similar example was a San Diego production in 1976 set among the displaced North American Indians in colonial French Canada. Barnet writes, "perhaps we can now generalize, and say that from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, As You Like It was sometimes seen not chiefly as a happy pastoral play but as a Chekhovian play, or even something much darker" (244).
While productions grew darker and more experimental, As You Like It still managed to attract some of the strongest actresses to ever grace the stage. Dame Edith Evans successfully played Rosalind in Esme Church's 1936 rococo production at the Old Vic in London. At 24 years of age, Vanessa Redgrave leapt onto the Stratford stage barefoot and denim-capped to accolades of the highest caliber. In Michael Elliott's 1961 production, Redgrave was inelegant, brusque, engagingly aggressive and boyish. Her performance opened new doors to young actresses and is still fondly remembered today as one of the greatest Rosalinds of all time.
In Adrian Noble's 1985 modern dress production at Stratford, Jungian psychology and contemporary, postmodern theory informed Noble's visual motifs and metaphors. As Rosalind, stage and film actress Juliet Stephenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) explored the character's contemporary resonance. In an interview she explains the play to be "a vital exploration of gender, the male and female within us all." According to Stephenson, "Rosalind is very released when her masculine aspect is allowed release" (qt. in Gay 76).
Finally, two idiosyncratic productions explored the changing nature of contemporary Shakespearean staging. Clifford Williams' 1966 production at the National Theatre and Declan Donellan's 1991 staging (which toured New York City this past fall) were both distinguished by all male casts. Neither production was presented as camp novelty, nor were they a recreation of an Elizabethan convention, using adolescent boys in the female roles. In fact, both productions found their inspiration in contemporary dramatic theory.
The motivation for Williams' production was Jan Kott's essay "Shakespeare's Bitter Arcadia" in his Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964). Writing about As You Like It and the conventions of Shakespeare's Elizabethan theatre, Kott noted a boy actor "disguised as a girl plays a girl disguised as a boy. Everything is real and unreal, false and genuine at the same time. And we cannot tell on which side of the looking glass we have found ourselves. As if everything were mere reflection" (270).This all-male production worked, because at the heart of Williams' vision was the desire to explore more clearly Shakespeare's debate on identity, love and power. By alienating his audience from any kind of heterosexual infatuation, Williams was able to explore an interior truth--the spiritual dialectics of gender and sexuality.
Declan Donellan's staging was not as much about sexual ambiguity as it was a comic meditation on the metamorphosis of performance itself. This production celebrated the roles human beings play everyday. Donellan's first images were stark. Michael Gardiner, the actor who played Jaques, spoke the first line of his famous "All the world's a stage" speech and abruptly smeared another actor's cheek with mud. With that gesture, a blank white stage, inhabited by a group of men dressed in black tuxedo pants, was transformed into a pulsing, spontaneous world. Inspired by the metatheatric theories of postmodernism, Donellan created a memorable, stage picture of metamorphosis that defined the elemental magic at the root of all theatre.
by Jeff Turner
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