Theatre Review: ‘As You Like It’

‘As You Like It’, Aldwych Theatre, London

“Was Shakespeare a revolutionary?” is about as facile as “Was Shakespeare a petty-bourgeois reactionary?” The answer to both is that Shakespeare was far too complex a writer to be slotted into any such categories. What can be said is that there are elements in his plays which can be seen to have revolutionary implications, just as there are elements which have reactionary implications. One of the beauties of Shakespeare is that the richness of the texts enables them to be seen as a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, now showing one aspect now the other. Productions of the plays can emphasise many different points; much depends on what the individual director sees.

But at first glance a play like AS YOU hardly strikes director or reader as having revolutionary implications. In so far as there is a plot, it tells of rather soppy true love in a romantic forest where shepherds and shepherdesses form a backdrop to what in essence, is a voyage of self discovery of the principal lovers, and the several secondary ones. Not much revolution going on there.

But as with all Shakespeare, as Celia put it in the play, “There’s more in it”. The play actually draws a sharp and bitter contrast between two societies, the Court and the Forest. The former is painted in colours of unremitting evil. Tyrant Duke and tyrant brother, as Orlando calls them, rule a Society where the worst evils of greed are callously exposed. The usurping Duke seizes lands and lives, and the Court reaches the stage where Touchstone exposing the folly of it all (as well as the avarice) can say: “The more pity that fools may not speak wisely, what wise men do foolishly”. Not only is the Court evil, Shakespeare is saying, the tyranny results in stupidity.

But is it arguable that Shakespeare is saying more than this. The Court can be seen as representative of emerging capitalist society and Shakespeare is inveighing against it for all he is worth. Rosalind’s hilarious advice to Phoebe to “sell when you can, you are not for all markets”, could be taken as the philosophy of the rising merchant class of the time.

In contrast is the society in the forest of Arden. Home of the banished Duke, here a society is presented without the absurd values of the Court. Here people seek the food they eat, and are content with what they get; here the enemy is not other people but winter and rough weather. No one deludes themselves that the life in the forest is easy; “Ay, now am I in Arden”, says Touchstone, adding realistically, “the more fool I”, but at least the difficulties are knowable and can be overcome by social cooperation. In this society the evils of the wealth grabbing usurping Duke have no place; the forest almost magically wipes them out. And when the usurping Duke finally comes to the forest full of barbarous intentions, the very air of the forest (he meets an old hermit and is “converted”!) almost sufficient to change his wicked ways.

The forest society is aware of the advantages and disadvantages of Court life. No easy answers are posited, but even though they have all either left or lost “wealth and ease, a stubborn will to please”, the attendants in the forest can say to the banished Duke that they would not change this life. Jacques even goes so far as to say that if he were given leave to speak his mind he would “through and through cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world”. (What else are socialists trying to do?).

The Lovers too when they arrive in the forest, can escape the corrupting influence of the Court. Their escape is essentially personal, whereas the Duke’s escape has a far more universal quality. Nevertheless, the point is still there; here in the forest they can all be “themselves”.

There are a lot of backward (and therefore, potentially reactionary) references in the play — in particular the vision of the golden world of the past. However, what this production does, is to transform the forest, where all the escaping characters arrive, into a sort of idealised Winstanley-type diggers’ community in accordance with Winstanley’s vision of a free cooperative, moneyless society. (Though without the productive foundations of Winstanley’s scheme. See the Socialist Standard June 1978 for more on Winstanley). It is not primitive communism; there are still the (textually inevitable) differences between Dukes and Servants, sheep-owners and labourers. Nonetheless, the picture of human satisfaction in contrast to the evident dissatisfaction of city (here equal to property) life is beautifully drawn.

Ronnie Warrington

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