How the first two scenes of Shakespeare's As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream foreshadow the major themes of both plays
How the first two scenes of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream foreshadow the major themes of both plays; specifically the political ones.
It is important to enter the reading of any Shakespeare play with a little knowledge of the Divine Right of Kings. This belief was prevalent in Shakespeare’s day, and was one to which he was devoted. Put simply, it was the belief that church and state were united unequivocally, that the coronation was sacramental and as such the king was all-powerful, answering only to God. Of Shakespeare’s subscription to this belief, John Wain (1970) says,
No one has affirmed the doctrine in more vigorous terms than
Shakespeare. But equally, no one has scorched it with fiercer irony. (p. 27)
Indeed, Shakespeare thrived on political comment, criticism and satire. From the scrutiny of the pastoral form in As You Like It to the fronting of law, class and social convention in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are, of course, certain surface parallels between the two comedies; both plays are about relationships. Such similarities are understandable since both plays are believed to have been written around the same time, somewhere in the 1590s. They each start in similar veins; both open with a spirited family quarrel which will have strong repercussions as the plays progresses. As You Like It is about relationships between men and women, appearances and reality (and unreality); A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the relationships between those with power, and those without it. And it is to this latter play that we now turn.
Just from its title, one should anticipate something supernatural about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is set around the summer solstice, a very short time of profound astronomical irregularity. And in the confines of the play we have histrionic love, magic potions and, of course, the magical woodland. The play opens with a discourse between the Duke of Athens and Hippolyta. That Theseus is marrying Hippolyta shows how this society can overpower even the most powerful women (in this case the queen of the Amazons, a nation of women warriors). This theme, of gender and power, is the leading issue in the play. Three more acts elapse before Hippolyta has anything more to say.
To you your father should be as a god; (I.1.42)
This Theseus says to Hermia, explaining that he composed her, as one might carve a chess piece, and should be allowed to play this pawn at his discretion. Her love, Lysander, is an unworthy suitor. Theseus contends that “Demetrius is a worthy gentleman” (I.1.54), to which Hermia retorts, “So is Lysander” (I.1.55). We come to the real crux of the issue;
This is a preview of the whole essay
In himself he is.
But in this kind… (I.1.56-7)
We learn that the two men are equals, except in the context of marriage. Lysander is a social inferior – but worse than that (or because of it) he has another flaw acting against him, he doesn’t have the approval of Hermia’s father, Egeus. The allusion of Egeus to a god foreshadows a discourse between Oberon and Titania later in the play. Oberon’s words are something of a reverberation;
…am I not thy Lord? (II.1.66)
In a twisted way perhaps we can understand Egeus’s point of view; when Hermia gets married, surely Egeus has the right to decide to whom he relinquishes control of her. Egeus does her the service of offering a choice. Hermia either marries Demetrius, or else chooses between a life of chastity or no life at all. Death as the price for dishonour and disobedience, especially administered from father to daughter, is rather uncompromising. A key theme of the play unveils itself when Shakespeare phrases this first option with the words “the society of men” (I.1.69) Hermia goes on to say she would rather die than give her virginity to a man she didn’t love; and in it we see that in real terms, the only power women have is their sexuality.
So will I grow, so live, so die my Lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke,
My soul consents not to give sovereignty. (I.1.82-5)
This is Hermia’s greatest affront to the politics of the time. Not only that she denies her father’s choice of suitor, but that she denies her father that control over her emotions. He can control what she does, where she goes, what freedom she has; but he cannot control how she feels. This is the most significant comment on power in the whole of the first scene, and it reflects on much of the forest scenes to follow; power is control, it is getting people to do as you command. Once people stop doing as you command, you have no power. Hermia’s actions show Egeus and Theseus that their power is not infallible.
To glance back again at the argument over Demetrius and Lysander, we can pinpoint another motif of the play. Egeus’s dogmatic material preference for Demetrius is embroidered with the word “judgement” (I.1.60) Looking past that garnish it is clear to see that in this context judgement is synonymous with subjectivity and unreliability. As the play unfurls, with particular reference here to the effects of the eye drops administered in Arden, we see judgement is the last thing that should be relied upon. Notable is that the female characters never lose sight of who they really want, it is the men who are capricious. This is a play about men’s judgement, and how, like their power, it isn’t infallible.
As You Like It sees another retreat to the idealised rural life, an escape from the political to the pastoral. Wain (1970) locates a certain irony when he defines the pastoral as an urban form, conceived by “civilised and learned poets” (p.81). If the need is there for a “poignant contrast between the artificiality of their own way of life and the natural simplicity of the country man’s” (p.81), why not reform that from which they take flight? This, to a small extent, we do see at the play’s close; after Shakespeare has scrutinised and flouted the pastoral arena in which most of the play takes place.
Penny Gay calls As You Like It a “damning indictment of a power-hungry urban society” (1994, p.48). Many of the same socio-political themes in A Midsummer’s avail themselves of As You Like It. In this latter play, to which we now turn, we see a similar patriarchal political structure. But when we join the play, Duke Frederick has rebelled against his elder brother, the Duke Senior, defeated him and usurped his position. This power-hungry political structure has been assaulted. As Duthie (1966) says, “The court milieu at the beginning of As You Like It…is one in which disorder flourishes” (p.63). This is an “envious” court (II, 1, 4), one where people cannot speak their minds; “The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly” (I.2.81-2), says Touchstone, who may only speak his mind on account of his position as the court’s fool. Oliver is desperately jealous of the affection his brother Orlando receives from Oliver’s “own people” (I.1.158). Of great significance to the whole play is Jacques’s speech in II.7l;
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely
players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man
in his time plays many parts. (II.7.139-41)
A major theme of this play is people assuming false identities. Oliver’s solution to his jealousy necessitates his pretending to be what he is not. For him, the obvious solution is to arrange Orlando’s death. Oliver’s discourse with Charles sets this up. With gentle ease Oliver slips into the persona of a concerned, upright brother, and explains the danger Charles is in;
…I assure thee (and almost with tears I speak it), there is not
one so young, and so villanous this day living… (I.1.143-5)
As readers, we can almost see Oliver practising his lines when he is left alone by Dennis; repeating “I assure thee” over and over again under his breath until he hits upon the right intonation. And when he is left alone again after his performance, we can picture Oliver wringing his hands and sneering as he says, “Now I will stir this gamester” (I.1.153). Oliver is a histrionic villain, somewhat exaggerated, but never taken too far. Let us not forget that the intimacy of the Elizabethan stage was such that even the most subtle facial expressions and physical gestures would be noiced and appreciated by the audience.
Just as the villainy of the court is personified in Oliver, so are the extremes of the pastoral Arden manifested in Orlando. Shakespeare has Orlando carving love poems on trees in III.2, and we are left to interpret it in two ways. Either it is stretching the conventions of the pastoral form right to their limits, or else Shakespeare is flouting the concept. This confusion is suggestive of Shakespeare’s sonnets. His eighteenth sonnet likens someone to a summer’s day, bloated with extravagant poetic similes. In contrast to it is his one hundred and thirtieth sonnet, which describes someone in far less flattering (but more believable) language, concluding that this language of love is as heartfelt and true as any “belied with false compare”. In the traditions of courtly love is Orlando’s raising up of his conception of Rosalind, putting her on a pedestal, making her unattainable. It puts one in mind of Cervantes’ Don Quixote as his fevered mind revered Dulcinea del Toboso. Save that Orlando’s reverie doesn’t have such a misplaced and doomed origin.
It is especially noticeable in As You Like It that Shakespeare is organising the scenes very skilfully. Reynolds (1988) suggests the scenes are “juxtaposed in order to make dramatic effects and meaning” (p.12). In the first scene of the play we are presented with Orlando and Oliver, who at one stage in their discourse get into a violent brawl. Then in the next scene we have Rosalind and Celia, very amiable cousins. Celia greets Rosalind, “sweet my coz” (I.2.1), Rosalind reciprocates that affection with, “Dear Celia” (I.2.2). The two embark on a friendly word game, volleying comebacks to one another. What they have is nothing special, but is profoundly special in the context of the (envious) court.
Orlando’s victory in the wrestling match Oliver attempted to fix hints at an important motif in the play. After the apparently ghastly demise of his last opponent, Charles is seen as a dangerous match for Orlando. Duke Frederick entreats Rosalind and Celia to dissuade Orlando from the fight. His spirits are too bold for his years (I.1.163-4), and his loss is anticipated. But his triumph is symbolic of the “deceptive nature of appearances” (Reynolds, 1988, p.14). Furthermore, something else can be elicited from the wrestling; Orlando and Rosalind falling in love. It is deeply over-played in the text, and leaves tremendous scope for similar theatrical exaggeration on the stage. The two lovers gaze upon one another, and when Celia addresses her cousin (I.2.43) , she has first to pluck Rosalind’s sleeve to get her attention. Orlando leaves the scene (and closes it) with [a presumably sighed], “But heavenly Rosalind!” (I.1.277) Both of them are speechless; Orlando says, “What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?” (I.2.44-5) and at the beginning of the next scene we have this conversation between the two cousins;
Celia. Why cousin, why Rosalind…Cupid have
mercy! Not a word?
Rosalind. Not one to throw at a dog. (I.3.1-3)
It comes as no surprise at all to find Orlando writing love poems on trees two acts later!
Discussion of As You Like It cannot be considered complete by any standards without a mention of the play’s final scene. We have Duke Frederick converted by an old religious man, the marriage and resolve of four separate couples and the banished Duke returned to his rightful position. Highly suspicious is Celia’s marriage to Oliver. It is absurd that the two cousins, so close and alike all through the play, could at the end marry such different people. Hussy (1992) says it is
…perhaps a contrived solution for two characters who would
otherwise have been left over (Hussey, p.213)
By far the most intriguing thing is Rosalind’s epilogue. Shakespeare has her challenging all the conventions of the Elizabethan theatre, essentially saying that if a man can have the first word, why not a woman the last word? From the very beginning Rosalind has served a vital role most succinctly defined by Penny Gay; a role that has seen her dressing first as a man, and then as a man dressed as a woman. Gender ceased to be a significant issue, it was merely a role to be assumed with values to have imposed.
As you Like It affects, through Rosalind’s behaviour, the most
thorough deconstruction of patriarchy and its gender roles in the
Shakespearean canon” (Gay, 1994, p.49)
We have looked at the political themes of both the comedies, and we come now to the entwining of the two. Both plays are about relationships. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about the relationship between men and women, since men have power and women do not.
Duthie, G. I. (1966) Shakespeare, Hutchinson & Co., London.
Gay, P. (1994) As She Likes It, Routledge, London.
Hollindale, P. (1992) A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Penguin, London.
Hussey, S. S. (1992) The Literary Language of Shakespeare, Longman, London.
Reynolds, P. (1988) As You Like It, Penguin, London.
Wain, J. (1970) The Living World of Shakespeare, Macmillan, London.
Waller, G. (1991) Shakespeare’s Comedies, Longman Group UK, London.