As You like it : Romance and the Romantics
By Leslie Albiston
..this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (“As You like it” II i 16-18)
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. (“The Tables Turned” William Wordsworth)
Thursday October 30th. I’m in the library of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford on Avon, looking at the prompt book from the 1973 Royal Shakespeare Company production of “As You Like It” which yesterday I reserved from the archives. Around me, researchers are busy studying various texts, making notes whispering earnestly to each other. In a corner a large pin board holds clippings from productions of “Henry V” including the present production, just as you would expect in this, the sixth hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. I was there myself- not Agincourt- but at the anniversary presentation of the play last Sunday, St Crispin’s Day, six hundred years to the day since the battle. The performance was preceded by a short presentation by Greg Doran, Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the production’s director. At the play’s close the actors were met with an ovation and showers of red roses. An exceptional Sunday performance, the last presentation in its run, it was part play, part celebration, a memorable moment in the life of the theatre. Here in the library, the atmosphere is of quiet focused work and earnestness. I study the prompt book. Buzz Goodbody’s penciled notes sit alongside what looks like pages cut out from the Penguin Shakespeare edition of the play.
I saw this production as a young English literature student on the annual Exeter University study week in Stratford and have seen the play several times since. In February our OIB students in Terminale will see “As You like It”, not in Stratford but in The National Theatre, London. As this is not a play they have studied, I’m trying to write a short paper, either to give as a lesson or as a handout for the students to read, to prepare them for the play. I’m trying to link it to their study of Romantic writers, which is their synoptic topic in the OIB Literature examination. “As You like it” is a “romance.” My argument is that Romanticism is born of nostalgia, the presiding western European obsession with the past- the past as better than now, that is. For centuries literature has been obsessed with the tantalizing notion of a golden age which we’ve lost but can imagine, judged against which our present is rather tawdry and compromised. In the last few centuries it’s been compounded by the notion that somehow in industrial and post-industrial societies man lost his innocence, lost that contact with nature which was in fact our moral guide.
Wordsworth and his followers banged away at this idea, as illustrated in the second quotation at the beginning of this piece, and in their university educated, bourgeois way, tried to fashion a life and a universal philosophy drawn from the “eternal” values of nature, where man needs no other guide and teacher than Nature itself. This is of course utter nonsense. They thought they were championing a life which stood as a challenge to what they saw as the creeping shallowness and anonymity of urban existence. What they actually created was a notion of nature which is entirely sentimental and spurious. Nature is not eternal, it is specific. It is merely the product of this tiny speck of dust, planet earth lost in the universe, a lump of rock containing certain elements, which happens to rotate on its axis in a certain rhythm and circle a star in a certain time lapse, creating the “natural” environment, the night, the day, the seasons, in which we live. Nature is not a moral guide because nature is amoral. Nature, as Darwin demonstrated, is quite simply about the survival of the fittest. It’s a mechanism not a moral code.
This is why I take as the first quotation of the piece, lines from “As you Like It”, the banished Duke’s claim that he and his followers are happier living a simple life in the forest surrounded by Nature than they ever were in the corrupt court- and for court read city. And yet, at the end of the play, when the wicked usurping brother miraculously disappears, the Duke and all his followers joyfully hotfoot it back to the life they apparently found so shallow.
I believe that “As You Like It” is not just a romance, it’s a satire of the romantic, in which a group of townies, rather like Marie-Antoinette dressed as Bopeep in her “hameau” at Versailles, play at being rural for a while, have lots of amusing encounters with the picturesque locals, and then scurry back to the town once the coast is clear. “As You like It” is a shrewd analysis of the folly and hollowness of the rural idyll, which is in fact no more than an urban myth.
George Crabbe (1783) a true countryman claims the country never was idyllic for those who live in it. Here I quote from the programme for the 1973 RSC production of “As You Like It.”
I grant indeed that fields and flocks have charms
For him that gazes or for him that farms;
But when amid such pleasing scenes I trace
The poor laborious natives of the place,
And see the mid-day sun, with fervid ray
On their bare heads and dewy temples play;
While some, with feebler heads and fainter hearts,
Deplore their fortune yet sustain their parts;
Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trapping of poetic pride?
No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain
But own the Village Life a life of pain.
Shakespeare, the Stratford man and London playwright, the man of town and country, the genius, realized this truth- that truth resides not in a flight to some Arcadian bolt-hole, but in a struggle with the here and now, the effort to wring the chaotic elements which surround us into something recognizable, something knowable and thus shape them into our destiny.