Acting and authenticity in As You Like It

As You Like It, written in the middle part of Shakespeare’s career, is one of the dramatist’s more serious and sophisticated comedies. While classical Greek comedy was generally laden with farce and satire, the Elizabethan form, and Shakespeare’s in particular, was more like modern “situation” comedy. In the latter, characters typically find themselves in problematic but not dire situations and fumble around searching for some way out of their predicament. Much of the humor results from the genuine cluelessness and blundering of some of the characters, while other characters eventually manage to achieve a satisfactory resolution of the difficulty. In Shakespearean comedy the key problems are almost always romantic in nature, and (unlike most modern examples) the eventual resolution is one or more marriages.

As You Like It hews closely to this pattern, but Shakespeare also uses it as a vehicle to illustrate the contention enunciated by Jaques early in the play:

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.

The ensuing action can properly be called a play-within-a-play. Although Shakespeare used that device explicitly in other famous examples (Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream), in this case it is a little less overt. The plot here is that one Duke has been overthrown by his younger brother (Frederick). The usurper banishes the older Duke and most of his courtiers, who take up a new life in the Eden-like Forest of Arden. The older Duke’s daughter Rosalind remains behind out of close friendship with her cousin (Frederick’s daughter) Celia. Rosalind is also in the early stages of a romantic affair with Orlando, the young son of another noble family.

Soon Orlando too becomes persona non grata in the new court as scion of a family that Frederick regards as an enemy. And Rosalind also is banished simply because she is the older Duke’s daughter. Celia chooses to leave with Rosalind rather than remain with her own father. However, Rosalind realizes the danger – the serious vulnerability – that confronts two young women traveling in the hinterlands without male protection (I.3):

Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far!
Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.

Celia immediately proposes a solution:

I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire
And with a kind of umber smirch my face;
The like do you: so shall we pass along
And never stir assailants.

And Rosalind without hesitation concurs:

Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand; and–in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will–
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.

So begins the inner drama, as the two young women plot the new roles they will play, including even details of their costumes. Notice the extra layer of impersonation Rosalind contemplates. Like Celia she will pretend to be a person she is not, but she will also adopt the mien and bearing of someone who has much less fear than she actually feels – just as she knows is common in “mannish cowards”. This is entirely like the kind of act that many if not most people need to put on often in the social roles they find themselves having to play.

All that really needs to be said of the rest of the plot is that Rosalind and Celia (under their assumed identities as “Ganymede” and “Aliena”) eventually meet up with the older Duke and his followers, as well as Orlando, who has already joined the banished ones on his own. In her assumed identity Rosalind for awhile thoroughly enjoys Orlando’s professions of affection towards her (without actually recognizing her). However, of course, her inauthentic persona as Ganymede is ultimately a far less satisfactory one than her true identity as Orlando’s lover. So the play wraps up with all romantic entanglements being resolved in Rosalind and Orlando marrying along with three other couples, in a ceremony that Rosalind – the director of her own personal dramatic production – has scripted.

As an aside especially for naturists, this play could very appropriately be performed with most of the actors naked most of the time. After all, Shakespeare has deliberately likened the Forest of Arden to the Garden of Eden. “Arden” even sounds almost the same as “Eden”. (Nominally Arden is considered to refer to Ardennes, now in Belgium, or to Arden in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire.) One character early in the play describes where the old Duke and his retinue have gone:

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.

The “golden world” is the idyllic state where humankind is described in many mythologies as living before “modern” times, just like the Biblical Eden. Naturists can certainly identify with that. A major theme in As You Like It involves a favorable comparison of such a world to the decadent present-day world. (The possible shortcomings of the comparison are also hinted at.) Of course, being naked would play havoc with Rosalind’s disguise as a man. However, one could assume that the rural inhabitants comprise both people who wear clothes and some who don’t (the hard-core back-to-nature types). Then Rosalind’s true identity could eventually be disclosed if she is challenged to go naked with the other “naturists”.

But to return to the main point, Rosalind cannot sustain her false identity for long, however much she may enjoy it in the short term. She can’t sustain it because it lacks authenticity – it is not her “real” self. And this is a problem that almost everyone faces in real life. Pragmatism forces most of us to play roles on the world’s stage that are not our real self, whatever that may be. Practical considerations force us to be inauthentic.

As naturists generally understand, clothes – costumes, in other words – form a major part of the inauthenticity that real life forces on us. We do not feel we can be fully ourselves when we have to wear clothes. We have to wear whatever uniform is deemed most appropriate for the roles we have to play. Although it could be an illusion, naturists tend to feel that they can most authentically express their true selves when they are naked. And that people can relate to each other most authentically when they’re naked. These are ideas we’ll examine further in another post.

We’ll also consider the fact that sociologists have long recognized at least a kernel of truth in Jaques’ proposition that “all the world’s a stage” and most of us are just playing out our appointed roles on that stage. This idea is examined, for instance, in the classic work by Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

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One Response to Acting and authenticity in As You Like It

  1. Pingback: I’m slowly learning not to let my happiness depend on other people. | Naturist Philosopher

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