As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

Many years ago, I saw As You Like It performed by RADA graduates and was thoroughly impressed by both the play and the production. I’ve always had in mind that it’s my favourite Shakespeare comedy, and Jaques (who was played as if he were Eeyore) my favourite Shakespeare character, and I’ve been meaning at some point to look into it more.

These last few days then, I have read the play, and I have watched the 1936 “Laurence Olivier”-version and the 2006 “Kenneth Branagh”-version; and, to be honest, I’m not sure where I stand now.

Reading the play through wasn’t the most wonderful experience: it seemed a curious, meandering thing, without much of a plot – and that occasionally absurd – odd characterisation, and bizarre excisable scenes (the film adaptations certainly agree with me on this). It has one good speech (the “All the world’s a stage” bit) and one good scene (in which Rosalind pretends to be Rosalind).

Having watched the two film versions too, I have also concluded the following:

  • There are 3 good characters in the play: Touchstone, Jaques and Rosalind; the rest of the cast are just foils
  • I haven’t any idea how the part of Rosalind can effectively be pulled off – I’m referring to the woman-as-a-man sections (the films are almost polar opposite: Elizabeth Bergner in 36 plays her as a giddy-in-love prankster (with an incredibly strange German accent), while Bryce Dallas Howard plays her as a swaggering youth). Neither works fully, and yet both have something going for them.
  • The films excise large chunks of the play – entire scenes, large sections of mono-/dialogue; fair enough, of course, if you want to reduce it to 1.5/2 hours; but unfortunately a lot of what’s cut out is what I take to be the meaning of the play, so that we’re just left with a basic and tedious love story (who’d want to watch such a thing!).

My issues with the specific films:

1936:

  • Laurence Olivier is dreadful (apparently he wasn’t too happy during filming)
  • In fact, there’s very little life to anyone in it, with the exception of Bergner (whom some find a bit too alive)
  • Jaques is almost entirely removed from the play – a wood needs its Eeyore!

2006:

  • It’s set in c19th Japan but (and you have to watch it properly to understand) there seems not the slightest reason for this; perhaps, just that Branagh wanted to have a sumo wrestling scene?
  • Jaques still seems a bit chipper to me
  • They have a vegetable stew rather than killing a deer

What neither film addresses, it seems to me, is the idea which is at the heart of the play, and is endlessly repeated throughout the play (a lot of the time, in the scenes excised), which is this conflict between idealism (be it the idealism of love / the lover, or the idealism of the pastoral and the simple life – and poetry – poetry most of all) and cynicism, or at least scepticism (as portrayed especially by Jaques and Touchstone – the fools, as it were – and sometimes Rosalind). Because this play, it seems to me, is part romance and pastoral, and part piss-take of romance and pastoral, and to leave this element out is just to have a hollow, empty production. – And this is also why Rosalind’s part seems so difficult for me to pitch: she is playing the cynical fool contemptuous of love whilst addressing the man with whom she’s desperately in love.

So I find myself left wondering what it was, aside from Jaques, I saw in that production long ago that made me so like As You Like It. I must see more productions, I think, in order to garner ideas.

(Oh yes, and what exactly is the point of the redundant Act V Scene 1? The one in which Touchstone steals Audrey off the idiot yokel William. Stephen Dedalus would no doubt imagine it some grievance Shakespeare was working through).

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6 thoughts on “As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

  1. A friend of mine was in the RSC for a year and both enjoyed it and found it put her off productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

    The actors approached the speeches like they were guitar solos so as a whole the plays rarely hung together when the actors went off on one.

    The productions that tried to counter this tendency were heavily criticised by the regular audience so the practice of standing on stage and rattling off the text continues ( Park and Bark as it is known in the biz ).

  2. It’s a problem with any production of Hamlet: the “to be or not to be” is too identifiable for anyone to carry it off as actually being an integrated part of the play. One’s immediately reminded that one is sitting in a theatre watching actors, and recognises one has to pay particular attention to the acting at this point.

    The more I think about it, the more “All the world’s a stage” is integral to the feel of the play: it comes back to the posing fakery involved in all these love games. That’s the problem with Shakespeare: he becomes more interesting when you start to think about him.

  3. I saw an all-male production of this by Cheek by Jowl: it was brilliantly acted and it also solved the whole girl-dressing-as-boy problem.

  4. It always adds another dimension: boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy. – I once saw an all-female production of Henry V.

  5. Yes, and after the usual British giggles at men dressed as women it sort of norms the whole cross-dressing aspect and makes it easier to accept. Or at least I found it so.

    What did you think of it?

  6. I would have to say of it, that it’s only interest was that it was an all-female production. The people I went with left at the intermission and did not return; I sat it out, though why now I do not remember. No doubt it lacked Henry V turning out to be a woman in disguise.

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