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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

Hugh Grady, Beaver College

Power and the Green World

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13,032 words.)