Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: As You Like It

Thus we begin another year of doing The Gospel According to Shakespeare. Long term readers know that each year, I try to track along with the Cincinnati Shakespeare festival's season and hold a discussion section for each of the Shakespeare plays they produce. Part of the reason why is that I like Shakespeare -- but we're also trying to communicate to the literary/arts world that evangelical Christians care about literature, beauty, and art.

Basically what we do is look at themes that crop up in the play and look at them as pointers to scriptural stories, images, and truths. This is not to say that Shakespeare intended all of his plays to point to scripture. He was a playwright interested in telling good stories and making a few shillings. He was also steeped in a classical and biblical tradition where many of these images came to his mind almost unconsciously (much like commercial jingles and advertising slogand come to our minds unbidden and often to annoying effect).

So, tonight at 6pm, we'll discuss the first play of the season, As You Like It. One of Shakespeare's better comedies, As You Like It is a romance -- set in the mythical Forest of Arden (for those unfamiliar with the play, see the plot summary here)

Shakespeare sets up Arden as a kind of Edenic refuge from the intrigues and betrayals of the larger world. Arden is where the exiled Duke goes to escape his scheming younger brother -- the same for young Orlando who goes there to escape his scheming older brother -- the same for young Rosalind who is exiled by her scheming uncle. You get the idea. In Act 1 Scene 1, one character describes the Duke's flight from his usurper brother: “They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.”

Shakespeare is clearly painting Arden as Eden here, for the phrase "the golden world" refers to the edenic state of Classical Mythology. Ovid (whom Shakespeare relies on heavily for his classical allusions) describes this golden world this way:
“Golden was that first age, which, with no one to compel, without a law, of its own will, kept faith and did the right. There was no fear of punishment, no threatening words were to be read on brazen tablets; no suppliant throng gazed fearfully upon its judge’s face; but without judges lived secure. Not yet had the pine-tree, felled on its native mountains, descended from there into the watery plain to visit other lands; men knew no shores except their own. Not yet were cities begirt with steep moats; there were no trumpets of straight, no horns of curving brass, no swords or helmets. There was no need at all of armed men, for nations, secure from war’s alarms, passed the years in gentle ease. The earth herself, without compulsion, untouched by hoe or plowshare, of herself gave all things needful. And men, content with food which came with no one’s seeking, gathered the arbute fruit, strawberries from the mountain sides, cornel cherries, berries hanging thick upon the prickly bramble, and acors fallen from the spreading tree of Jove. Then spring was everlasting, and gentle zephyrs with warm breath played with the flowers that sprang unplanted. Anon, the earth, untilled, brought forth her stores of grain, and the fields, though unfallowed, grew white with the heavy bearded wheat. Streams of milk and streams of sweet nectar flowed, and yellow honey was distilled from the verdant oak.”

Notice in particular how the Earth responded without tilling or plowing -- it's a very clear parallel to the Edenic state of Genesis 1-2.

The Duke, when we first meet him at the start of Act 2, echoes this idea in his assessment of his exile to the Forest of Arden:
“Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here we feel not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Shakespeare uses this language to excite our senses and lull us into a dreamlike state. He taps into our deep yearning for a return to Eden -- for a return to Idyllic bliss where we escape the dangers of usurpers and betrayers. In the dukes band of men in Arden, even the cynical Jacques is welcomed and embraced.

Yet Shakespeare is not a pie-eyed Romantic -- he recognizes that part of the duke's perspective on his exile is mindset. Immediately following the above speech, the Duke's retainer, Amiens, comments “Happy is your Grace, that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so quiet and so sweet a style.” Amiens recognizes that exile is hard -- it isn't as pleasant on the body as court life. Yet the Duke has such generosity of spirit that he can "translate" his circumstance into something sweet. In essence, Shakespeare is undercutting the dreamy eyed romantic -- not trying to disabuse him of his dreaminess, but to say that it is still something of a dream.

And this is where we lose what Shakespeare is trying to say -- we don't know if he believes in any kind of edenic bliss at all or whether he simply is enchanted with the dream. I suggest that as Christians we can read this as indicative of a deep yearning within Shakespeare (and indeed within us all) for that edenic golden realm -- a yearning for a home. As Shakespeare fleshes out this yearning, we find that it is rooted in relationships of generosity, loyalty, and committment. We see the Ruth-like devotion of Adam to Orlando and Celia to Rosalind. Though Orlando and Rosalind are the ones exiled, Adam and Celia profess their committment to stick with them out of their deep friendship. We see the generosity of spirit the Duke extends to Orlando and that Orlando extends toward Adam and toward his brother.

But the main way we see the yearning for this edenic state is through romance (this is after all Shakespearian comedy). The wooing of Orlando and Rosalind is but one of four romantic relationships involved in the play. The young lovers all are intoxicated with being in love. In act 5 scene 2, we see an extended discourse on love, where Rosalind asks young shepherd Silvius what love is -- he replies:

"It is to be all made of sighs and tears….
It is to be all made of faith and service….
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all observance."

The breathless infatuation with the lover is an inheiritance of the courtly love tradition (think King Arthur and his knights)- and it is a convention of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Shakespeare paints this kind of love as transformational -- it ennobles. But he also realizes it's limitations. After all, long before we hear Silvius' explanation of love, we see him in discussion with an older and wiser shepherd, Corin:

Corin: That is the way to make her scorn you still

Silvius: O Corin, that thou knew’st how I do love her!

Corin: I partly guess, for I have loved ere now.

Silvius: No, Corin, being old, thou canst not guess
Though in thy youth thou wast as true a lover
As ever sighed upon a midnight pillow.
But if thy love were ever like to mine
As sure I think did never man love so
How many actions most ridiculous
Hast thou been drawn to by thy fantasy?

Corin: Into a thousand that I have forgotten

Silvius: Oh, thou didst then never love so heartily.
If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make the run into,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
Wearing thy hearer in they mistress’ praise,
Thou hast not loved.
Or if thou hast not broke from company
Abrubptly, as my passion now makes me,
Thou hast not loved.
O Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe!

Corin's wisdom and restraint is brushed aside by the self-absorbtion of the young lover who thinks no-one could possibly understand the intensity with which he loves. Here again, we see Shakespeare undercutting his ideal. Though relationships of love and commitment are an essential part of his edenic vision, they are insufficient.

Here the skeptic or scoffer would say say that it's all a farce -- and this is the kind of thing that Jacques does. Even so, Jacques, the cynic is undercut as being a self absorbed fool -- both Rosalind and Orlando out-wit him in verbal contests. No, Shakespeare doesn't have the darkness to say it's all illusion. In MacBeth, the villan will make such a claim ("Life's but a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot full of the sound and the fury, signifying nothing") -- but he is after all, a villan, not Shakespeare's mouthpiece. No, it seems that Shakespeare is hinting that there is some essential reality to the love, generosity of spirit, escape from betrayal, and earthly goodness. All these intimations of Eden but point us to a world in need of redemption and a hope for redemption. We as Christians understand that Christ came not just to give a get out of Hell free card, but to renew and restore all of creation. He uses us as His body in the working out of this plan until His return when He will bring it all to culmination.

Beyond the lighthearted banter, the bawdy jokes, the romantic games, and the charming dialogue that this play is known for, there is a deep hope for a better world. We know something of that world. Hallelujah, Amen

Soli Deo Gloria

Other Gospel According to Shakespeare Posts:
Richard III
Julius Ceasar
Titus Andronicus part 1
Titus Andronicus part 2
Will in the World
Shakespeare and Christian Themes