Study Guide

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare

As You Like It Essay - Reification and Utopia in As You Like It: Desire and Textuality in the Green World

Reification and Utopia in As You Like It: Desire and Textuality in the Green World


Reification and Utopia in As You Like It: Desire and Textuality in the Green World

Hugh Grady, Beaver College

Power and the Green World

As You Like It, written and performed sometime between 1598 and 1600, pre-dates the plays discussed hitherto and in some ways seems to come from a different world. And yet this genial comedy can be linked with King Lear, and to a lesser extent the other Jacobean tragedies: although this 'most Mozartian' of Shakespeare's plays has long been celebrated for its geniality, a number of critics have also noted—and been puzzled by—the uncannily large number of parallels in structure and themes with what is otherwise its generic opposite, King Lear.1 The resemblance is based on the depiction by both plays of the division of families and the disruption of the polity as a reified power establishes itself at the expense of the customary bonds of traditional culture. Refugees from the disrupted world react through communal solidarity to create a social space as an alternative to that of reified power; in this Utopian space eros functions, however, not as a metonymy-metaphor for reification (as in the earlier plays discussed), but as a social force creative of community (albeit one with disruptive tendencies uneasily contained through the problematic solutions of patriarchal marriage). And as the play develops, this space is itself put under interrogation and suspicion, in an open-ended dialogue with the representations of the real which flit in and out of the text of the play in counterpoint to its Utopian projections.

In addition, Robert Wilson's cultural materialist reading of the play has recently supplied us with another area of commonality between the two: both plays may be linked to a social subtext constituted by the rioting against enclosure in the Midlands (the area including Shakespeare's Warwickshire) in the 1590s.2 Wilson has unearthed valuable historical material here, and his argument is illuminating and convincing in its basic outline. In the 1590s the woodlands had become a highly contested political battleground in which squatters were resisting the encroachments of market-driven land enclosures. Armed rebellion erupted in 1596 at Rycote, and the festivals of the following autumn were marked by agitation for 'a rising of the people'.3 The play As You Like It, Wilson argues, with its depiction of social transformation, hunger, and the woodlands as a sanctuary, is the Shakespearean text most marked by consciousness of the famines, riots, and disorders that swept over the English Midlands, with King Lear offering more generalized allusions to the same events.

Instead of seeing with Wilson a kind of betrayal in Shakespeare's comic development of this material, or as part of a larger project of state co-optation of peasant rebellion,4 however, we can read the play as an enactment of Utopian projections based in part on the phenomenon of enclosure, but focusing not on a realistic disclosure of injustice so much as an exploration of Utopian alternatives to new reifications of market and state power, one quite material manifestation of which Wilson defines for us. The play's many parallels with King Lear, noted briefly by Wilson, can lead us into this topic.

As in the later play, the familial treacheries of brother against brother recapitulate and vary a more socially consequential familial treachery within the state. Power has been reduced to a few brush-strokes here, but we get glimpses of its corrosive effects in ways that anticipate Lear's later tragic developments: families and friendships are split, secret violence is plotted, and power can only maintain itself by violations of the customary boundaries which structure the lifeworld within which it is functioning. And if Wilson is right in constructing for this play a context of peasant rebellion against the capitalization of farming, we have to add to the overt, thematized reifícation of power a latent, displaced reifícation of nascent capitalism at work in the disruptions of the customary lifeworld of Midland (and other) peasants as enclosures of formerly common lands cause major social disruption and rebellion.

Of course the play's two-family exposition is also giving us that sine qua non of New Comedy, the two lovers whose union so many critics have understood as symbolically unifying and overcoming the tensions investigated in the play—it took Nahum Tate to recognize a similar potential in Lear when he had Edgar and Cordelia fall in love and marry at the end of his tragicomic version. Here the spark of love must be struck even as the logic of power unfolds and darkens the proceedings. But, I will argue, the union of erotic polymorphous perversity with the Utopian projections of green-world comedy will prove to be the chief contradiction in Arden.

In King Lear the temporary triumph of reified power led to the heath-scenes' radical evacuation of traditional values before the play depicted a slow, painful, and equivocal construction of alternative values from the play's lower social strata. In As You Like It, in contrast, it is the moment of evacuation that is equivocal and fleeting, the construction of counter-community and alternative values taking centre-stage. If the comedy thus seems less radical than the tragedy, it is certainly in a sense more pragmatic, more interested in exploring alternatives to emerging modernity than in ideology-critique per se. What takes the place of Lear's portentous raging and sympathetic identification with poor Tom is a delineation of one possible countercommunity—and its problems.

The banished community created by reified power's colonization of the lifeworld if marked early in As You Like It with the aura of utopia; the old Duke is already there as the play begins:

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. (1. i. 114-19)5

In As You Like It, as in the late romances, we can find both ideological and Utopian holders for that place which the text of King Lear signified by the term 'nothing', that place of desacralized, decultured modernity which Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries were investigating imaginatively and which the tragedies I have examined had occupied with worlds in the grip of reification. When we look for how the cultural producers of the Age of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson imagined alternatives to reification, we could do much worse than to look at the Forest of Arden. There we will find in the first place one of those antinomies of modernized cultures so endemic and basic to our thinking that it has largely been transparent to commentators on this play, or seen in terms of the sentimental 'wisdom' and 'sanity' for which this play has been repetitively celebrated in an older criticism. When we find such evocations, as Gayatri Spivak has said of a different set of texts, we know that ideology is at work—although the play does not stop at this ideological level. But one of the moves of the play's logical unfolding which has endeared it to many in our own times is its generation of those structurally indispensable antinomies of modern systems of meaning and experience, the public and the private.6 As the young Marx indicated long ago, one of the consequences of the replacement of a feudal by a market society was the separation of the state from civil society proper, and the restructuring of civil society into an atomized realm of competing interests. In this arrangement the state expressed the 'universal' or communitarian aspects of the social order, while civil society tended to fragmentation. Society became bifurcated, into a public state and a private civil society, with only the political classes directly involved in the communitarian project of the state.7

When the state becomes desacralized and revealed as a realm of reified power at work instead of a divinely chartered authority for a unified community, and when civil society is revealed as itself informed by the logic and dynamics of the capitalist market-place, with its ruthless class divisions and inequalities, it becomes increasingly difficult for these two realms to function as legitimated arenas for cultural meaning; that is, as Habermas has argued, they are merely 'systems' incapable of functioning as the social structures of traditional pre-capitalist societies had done to re-enforce the cultures of the life-world and provide meaning to life.

The historical response to this situation has been manifold. Habermas famously traced the Enlightenment construction within civil society of a compensatory 'public sphere', which reintroduced an element of the political (this time latently democratic) within the space which had previously been evacuated of the political under the reifications of Absolutism. But Habermas's narrative does not exhaust the social reorganizations which followed from the early modern separation of the public and the private. We should note such disparate social attributes of modernity as the rise of companionate marriage and the transformation of the nuclear family from an economic to a 'meaning-giving' function in modern capitalist society, and the creation or refunctioning of a broad range of institutions—religions, the educational structures, voluntary associations, and the larger, more diffuse institutions of entertainment, art, and culture—in response to a general crisis of meaning observable in Western culture as one of the clearest indications of long-period modernity. In ideological terms, the categories of the various modern humanisms arose to provide normative concepts to substitute for those of evacuated public and religious spheres.

In the early modern period, of course, all those developments were either in birth or still to come. But communal alternatives to reified societies seemed to exist both in the highly hierarchical but mythically re-enforced and legitimated structures of a feudalism whose forms and some of whose realities persisted into the early modern—and, as a new generation of historical...

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The Textuality of the Green World

. . . French post-structuralism . . . modelled itself on language as a self-constituting system in-forming human consciousness, but in some sense itself an alien entity at the heart of a (hence paradoxically divided) selfhood. Whereas Lukács had posited a non-reified society as the historical telos to which post-capitalist society would give birth, we have seen how Althusser, within a milieu greatly influenced by French structuralism, felt that social structures would always contain an unavoidable residuum of reification—just as human thought will always be limited by the enabling structures of language—or as power is an inescapable enabling condition for all possible societies for Foucault. And Adorno,...

(The entire section is 1598 words.)

Desire in Utopia

In the plays examined earlier, the dynamics of instrumentalized or reified power worked to deprive experience of the customary social bonds which libido could permeate to create the pleasures of community—or more chillingly, as we saw in the tragedies, desire was refunctioned into structures of actedout sado-masochism and domination-submission homologous to reified power itself. In Shakespeare, then, the emergence of desire as one of the chief problematics of utopia forms an intertextual dialectic of the Utopian with reification. But desire has its own vectors, independent of that dialectic as well: and discourses of love and desire were of course central to court and related upper-class society. What gets explored...

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Utopian Consequences

The Utopian impulses of As You Like It are not of course confined to this play alone within Shakespeare's works; they are a component of all the green-world comedies (parallels with Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream come immediately to mind); they often, as we saw with Othello and Lear, come briefly into view in the tragedies; and they constitute an in-forming dynamic within all the late tragicomedies.

Shakespeare's category of the Utopian possesses that rare quality of self-relexivity, of an understanding of some of its own limits and weaknesses, that makes it particularly congenial in our own post-illusion, Postmodernist era. It also represents,...

(The entire section is 3175 words.)