Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Shakespeare's As You Like It

I went to see a play by Shakespeare the other day, entitled As You Like It. 'twas in the beautiful garden of Trinity College! Taking into account that Shakespeare's language could be quite awkward, especially for a non-native speaker, and that I was sitting completely on the side behind a big guy with a broken neck that was hiding most of the scenes to me (I ended up quite liking him nevertheless, as he and his wife were among the most strongly laughing people in the audience), it isn't hard to imagine that some small subtleties (say 60 per cent of the play) escaped my understanding.

From what I gathered, the play is about the son of a banished duke, Orlando, who gains the love of her cousin (?) Rosalind by beating up in a formal fight the wrestler hired by his brother to kill him. He falls in love too, but unfortunately is forced to flee. Her love is also banished, and decides to take the disguise of a man (for some reason, which the guy in front of me must have understood thoroughly). They meet again in the forest, but she stays under cover (did he break his neck in a car accident?). So naturally the rest of the play for Rosalind consists of testing the loyalty of his love to her and finding the way to reveal her true identity to him---and to the foolish girl who fell in love with her. The play ends in a happy quadruple wedding, celebrated in an uninhibited orgiastic dance. Not the deepest of Shakespeare's plays, nor the most brilliant actors either, but rather fun in any case.

What really interested me was the short epilogue written for the actor playing Rosalind (I emphasize):

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no
epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good
epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am
neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with
you in the behalf of a good play! I am not
furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not
become me: my way is to conjure you; and I'll begin
with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love
you bear to men, to like as much of this play as
please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women--as I perceive by your simpering,
none of you hates them--that between you and the
women the play may please. If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good
beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my
kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.


So we have sweet Rosalind, who spent more than half of the play pretending to be a man which we spectators knew was really a woman, speaking to us not as a character, but as the comedian playing her---a man in Shakespeare's time! (although it was a proper girl that day in the gardens.) Funny Will is just messing up with our gender preconceptions here:

During the play did you, if you're a man, fall in love with the beautiful Rosalind, or did you, if you're a woman, fall in love with the spiritual man she's been faking?

In either case what do you say now that Rosalind shows you what's really under her dress?

This kind of Brechtian distanciation effect was quite visionary.
(The last I saw was in Cassavetes' Opening Night (1977), specially at the moment where the perturbed actress asks for a light from the stage to the backstage to light her cigarette.)