I haven’t been writing about As You Like It—the rehearsal process was not a good experience for me—but I did want to pass along something that happened yesterday. You see, I brought my Perfect Non-Reader and a friend of hers along to the matinee. This is the PN-R’s third Shakespeare comedy, which isn’t too bad for an eleven-year-old. The first was Midsummer and the second was Twelfth Night, and then this one the third. I think this was probably her friend’s first Shakespeare. I can’t be sure, of course, but I think so.
Anyway, they both seemed to enjoy it, but were vague on specifics: they didn’t say they liked any particular aspect of it particularly. This may have been an attempt at tact (an unwillingness to tell me that their favorite bits were not those with me in them) or more likely one instance of the more general tween uncommunicativeness. At any rate, on the drive home, they talked about other things. And I realized, afterward, that I didn’t talk to my PN-R’s friend about Love and Shakespeare.
I gave my daughter the talk after Twelfth Night, because she said that the fellow playing Orsino had done a great job of playing somebody who was in love—meaning with Olivia, at the beginning, with the sighing and the poetry and the leaping of all civil bounds. And I said: Orsino sure thinks he’s in love. He thinks that’s how you act when you’re in love. But he’s wrong. And Shakespeare is making fun of Orsino for thinking that. So if somebody comes all sheep’s-eyed to you, with the poetry and the harassment (says I to my ten-year-old daughter), don’t you believe in that love for a minute. That’s not real love, that’s Orsino’s love for Olivia. And even Orsino understands, in the end, that it’s Cesario that he really loves.
In AYLI, Phoebe falls in love with the young man Ganymede, bad poetry and all. We laugh at her along with Shakespeare because we know what she doesn’t: Ganymede doesn’t exist. There is no such person. Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise. When the disguise is lifted at the end of the play, Phoebe is shocked and appalled, and we laugh at her all over again. She fell in love with her own imagination. But she isn’t the only one.
Sylvius, another buffoon, claims that no man has ever loved the way that he loves Phoebe—he’s so blinded with his love for her that he can’t see her at all. His Phoebe, the object of his affection, doesn’t exist any more than Ganymede does. And I think it’s clear—well, I think it’s clear—that Shakespeare punishes him for his idiocy by marrying him to the real Phoebe, who will make his life a misery. All the more a misery for the remembered dream of bliss with the imaginary Phoebe he so desperately loved with that false passion. As she is haunted by Ganymede, who never existed at all.
But what about Orlando? He is as big a goon as Sylvius, yes? With carving into the treebark love songs about the fair, the chaste and unexpressive She. Here’s the whole heart of the play, as far as I’m concerned. He falls in Orsino-love with his imagined Rosalind on one meeting with the real one. He can’t speak to her. He writes bad poetry. He swears by her white hand. He’s got it bad, and that ain’t good. But—and here’s the trick of it—he meets and spends time with Ganymede and falls in love with him. Not the Orsino-love, the pining and the poetry and the puppy eyes. No, he just likes to spend time with Ganymede, talk to him (her), do things together. He falls in love with Ganymede, but stays in love with Rosalind, and he wins! Because Ganymede is Rosalind. Orlando may be a role model for entering into a romantic relationship, but it’s totally inadvertent. He falls in love with a Rosalind of his own imagination, and it’s just his luck that he also falls in love with the real Rosalind—who doesn’t exist either, really.
Anyway, the thing I ought to have told my daughter’s friend is that Shakespeare is making fun of people who fall in love with an imaginary ideal, by having it explicit that the object of the love doesn’t even exist. And it’s easy to fall in love with an imaginary ideal. And maybe when someone falls in love with you, it won’t be with you at all—not the you that exists but the Ganymede-you—and that’s not so easy. But if you’re lucky, maybe you get some Forest of Arden time to figure it all out.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,