The Political Conscious of Shakespeare's As You Like It - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Political Conscious of Shakespeare's As You Like It

Andrew Barnaby, University of Vermont

the purpose of playing . . . [is] to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Hamlet (III.ii.20-4)

When in As You Like It the courtier-turned-forester Jacques declares his desire to take up the vocation of the licensed fool, he is immediately forced to confront the chief dilemma of the would-be satirist: the possibility that his intentions will be ignored and his words misconstrued as referring not to general moral concerns—the vices of humankind, for example—but rather to specific realities, persons, events (II.vii. 12-87).l Given that Jacques has just demonstrated a laughable inability to grasp the barbs of a true practitioner of the satiric craft (Touchstone), we must be wary of taking him as a reflexive figure of Shakespeare's own vocation. But the lines undoubtedly show Shakespeare's discomfort with the recent censoring of satiric material (including a well-publicized burning of books in June of 1599),2 and his own earlier experience with Richard II, as well as Ben Jonson's recent jailing for the "seditious and slanderous" content of the Isle of Dogs, had certainly made him familiar with the danger posed by those readers who misread the typical as the straight-forwardly topical. Despite his simplemindedness, then, Shakespeare's Jacques does in some way reflect a working playwright's continual anxiety that his works might be misconstrued as deriving meaning not from his intentions but from ideas and events beyond the signifying scope of his labors.

The modern equivalent of this reader-writer conflict resides not in the competing interpretations of author and court censor but in those of author and scholarcritic. But the necessity of facing up to such interpretative discrepancies has for the most part been obscured by the reigning critical methodology in Renaissance studies, New Historicism, and in particular by its inability to formulate a convincing explanatory model for the processes of acquisition by which texts come both to represent and to participate in the larger discursive systems that determine them. Although it would be counterproductive to dismiss the very impressive critical achievements of New Historicism, we might yet need to consider what we are to make of writing itself as a purposeful and perspectivally limited activity: what of writers as the agents of meaning within their own textual compositions? what do we do when what we can reconstruct of authorial intention runs counter to "cultural" evidence? and, more broadly, how precisely can any literary work be understood to signify historical reality?

In taking up these issues, Annabel Patterson has recently argued that it has become necessary to "reinstate certain categories of thought that some have declared obsolete: above all the conception of authorship, which itself depends on our predicating a continuous, if not a consistent self, of self-determination and, in literary terms, of intention." And she adds specifically of poststructuralist criticism of Shakespeare that the "dismissal of Shakespeare as anybody, an actual playwright who wrote . . . out of his own experience of social relations" has shown itself to be both incoherent methodologically and reductive at the level of historical understanding.3 Such out-of-hand dismissal precludes the possibility of understanding how the early modern period actively conceptualized and debated its cultural forms or how an individual writer may have sought to engage in those debates.

The remainder of this essay will focus on how As You Like It (and so Shakespeare himself) does consciously engage in debate concerning the crises points of late-Elizabethan culture: the transformation of older patterns of communal organization under the pressures of new forms of social mobility, an emergent market economy, and the paradoxically concomitant stratification of class relations; the more specific problems of conflict over land-use rights, the enclosure of common land and its attendant violence, poverty and vagrancy.4 In considering how modern historical understanding might itself seek to articulate this engagement, moreover, I shall be arguing that the play's meditation on the unsettled condition of contemporary social relations is precisely, and nothing more than, an interpretative response to the perceived nature of those conditions.

To recognize that what we have in Shakespeare's play can never be anything but a rather one-sided dialogue with social conditions then current is not to deny that the play is, in crucial ways, at once topical and discursively organized. But it is to acknowledge that such topicality and discursivity are necessarily transformed by the historical condition of writing itself. What we are left with, then, is not a symbolic re-encoding of the entire sweep of current circumstances (as if the play could encompass the full historical truth of even one element of Elizabethan culture in its own tremendous complexity). Shakespeare does indeed address the peculiar historical circumstances of late-Elizabethan culture, and that engagement is evidenced in the formal elements of his play (most particularly in its pastoral form, an issue that will be examined in greater detail in subsequent sections). But if As You Like It is historically relevant it is so primarily because it can be read as a rhetorical (and so intentional) act in which one writer's sense of things as part of history becomes available to his readers in the purposeful design of the play. It is to an understanding both of that design and of the limitations of current critical practice that the following discussion is directed.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The play begins with Orlando's complaining of his mistreatment at the hands of his older brother, Oliver, who has refused to fulfill the charge of their father, Sir Rowland de Boys: it was Sir Rowland's wish that his youngest son receive both a thousand crowns and sufficient breeding to make a gentleman of himself, despite being excluded from the much greater wealth of the estate because of the law of primogeniture. But Oliver has treated Orlando as a servant instead, and, in likening himself to the prodigal son (I.i.37-9), Orlando seeks both to remind Oliver that, unlike his gospel counterpart, he has yet to receive his promised inheritance and to register, for the audience as well as for Oliver, the discrepancy between his noble birth and his current circumstances.

In the course of rebuking Oliver for being so remiss in his fraternal duties, Orlando violently, if briefly, seizes his brother. In his finely nuanced reading of the play, Louis Montrose has argued that, in its explosive suddenness and aggressiveness, Orlando's action captures the essential tension caused by the culturally charged nature of the sibling conflict over primogeniture in Renaissance England, where younger sons of the gentry were excluded from the greater wealth of family estates in increasing numbers.5 Moreover, the symbolic associations of the violence complicate the political inflections of the scene. For, in context, the violence does not just move from younger brother to older brother but also from servant to master and from landless to landowner, and these associations extend the cultural scope of the already politicized conflict. As Montrose suggests, in the broader discursive contextu-alization of the scene, Orlando's alienation from his status as landed gentleman serves "to intensify the differences between the eldest son and his siblings, and to identify the sibling conflict with the major division in the Elizabethan social fabric: that between the landed and the unlanded, the gentle and the base."6

Richard Wilson has recently elaborated on this argument by suggesting that the play's central conflicts reenact the particular tensions unleashed in Elizabethan society by the subsistence crisis of the 1590s. According to Wilson, in its "discursive rehearsal" of the social hostilities generated out of the combination of enclosure and famine (especially severe in the years just prior to the play's composition and in Shakespeare's native Midlands), the play becomes complexly enmeshed in the "bitter contradictions of English agricultural revolution," a struggle played out in the various conflicting relations between an enervated aristocracy, a rising gentry, and a newly dispossessed laboring class and effected primarily by the emergence of a new market economy.7

As compelling and historically informed as Wilson's reading is, however, it is yet undermined by its vagueness concerning how the play actually represents these issues. That Wilson wants and needs to posit the dialogic encounter of text and context as the site of the play's (and his argument's) meaning is evidenced by his own critical rhetoric. As we have just noted, he refers to the play as a "discursive rehearsal" of a multifaceted sociocultural history; elsewhere he writes that "the play is powerfully inflected by narratives of popular resistance"; that "social conflict [over famine and enclosure] sears the text"; that Duke Senior's situation in the forest of Arden "chimes with actual projects" associated with the capitalist development of the woodlands; that the play "engages in the discursive revaluation of woodland" that emerged as part of the rise of a market economy in late-Renaissance England.8 The problem with this type of phrasing is that it never renders intelligible the processes by which text and context come into contact. We are dealing, in short, with the theoretical problem of how precisely a literary work may be said to allude to, reflect, meditate on, or even produce the historical forces that form its enabling conditions.

To put the issue another way, Wilson's reading is stranded by its inability to assess what we might call the play's signifying capacity. While I am not disputing that the particulars of enclosure and famine (and more generally the social transformation of late-Elizabethan society) constitute the proper historical backdrop of the play, Wilson consistently scants the historical conditions of writing and...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The three plays that Shakespeare wrote in 1599—Julius Caesar, Henry V, and As You Like It—are all variously concerned with aristocratic identity, an issue cited, probed, redefined in late-Elizabethan culture in "a vast outpouring of courtesy books, poetry, essays, and even epics," all directed toward "the fashioning .. . of the gentleman or the nobleman."20Julius Caesar looks at the issue as a crisis of aristocratic self-definition in the face of Tudor efforts at political and cultural centralization; the play examines this crisis and moralizes it in terms of a questioning of the continued possibility of aristocratic excellence (defined primarily in terms of humanist notions of...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

In discussing George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie in the context of Elizabethan pastoral discourse, Montrose cites Puttenham's claim that pastoral was developed among ancient poets "not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort."36 Puttenham's related concerns with safety and the necessity of dissimulation in a dangerous social environment, the poet's self-awareness as a cultural commentator, and the struggle to make homely fiction serve the higher ends of...

(The entire section is 2186 words.)