The Pagan Quality of Shakespeare’s Nature-Comedies
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Article ID: 13718
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: April 18th. 2010
Times Viewed: 2,119
Can one think of a better dramatic representation of the Earth-oriented mind-set than William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c.1600) ? Cause I can’t.
As You Like It is kind of the ultimate paean to the return-to-Nature lifestyle. It espouses the same sort of attitude found at Pagan meet-ups such as Starwood or Pagan Spirit Gathering or Rites of Spring, where large groups of Pagans come together to flop around in fields and meadows and woods, besides streams and lakes and rivers, in sight of mountains, perhaps, or deserts, depending upon where the meet-up is located. Shakespeare’s show is uniquely Pagan in its basic message of: kick off your shoes, feel the earth beneath your feet, check out trees for a while. What could be better than this?
The Romantic Pastoral Comedy is a genre of Elizabethan drama equal to the History Play or the Revenge Tragedy (or the Magic-User Play, if you consider that virtually every significant play-writer of the period contributed either a “Witch” or a “Wizard” play) . Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd is both a Pastoral Comedy and a Witch Play that features the practice of Witchcraft. Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Faithfull Shepherdess is another notable Pastoral Comedy that imagines a forest-community dwelling in peaceable society overseen by the Forest-God Pan. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents a nighttime version of the “playing in Nature” quality of As You Like It.
The basic storyline to AYLI concerns a Duke who has been usurped by a traitorous brother (to judge from various examples in Shakespeare, treacherous brothers were a frequent source of distress to medieval Dukes) , from whom he has fled to live in banishment in the Forest of Arden. Various other characters follow him, including his daughter Rosalind (who disguises herself as a boy to live in the forest) , her friend Celia and their Fool or Clown Touchstone. The corruption of the “civilized” court is pulled into sharp perspective as the simple virtues and homespun kindliness of the woods-dwellers whom they encounter become apparent. (This is a theme found in American cinema from the Screwball comedies of the 30s to today- notably a recent film with Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant- whereby jaded city-folk are charmed and shamed into appreciation of the hospitable goodness of “simple” rural folk) .
When we first meet the Duke, he is little perturbed by his usurpation, luxuriating as he is in the restorative balm of Nature. “Now my co-mates and brothers in exile- hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court? Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head; and this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing.” (II.i.1-17)
Here in a woodlands' nut-shell is Shakespeare’s Point- whereas the “painted pomp” of the court concealed scheming and “envious” back-stabbing, life in the pleasant woods is up-front, charming, and tranquil. Even the “adversities” which the Duke has suffered prove like a toad- “ugly and venomous”- in that they reveal a marvelous jewel (Elizabethans had a superstition that toads held magical jewels in their foreheads) . And now “this our life”- which has become “exempt from public haunt”- has not only become agreeable leisurely- it has become stimulating and instructive as well, as trees yield wisdom in “tree-tongues, ” storylines are found in the “books” of brooks, philosophies are discovered in the “sermons” of stones. Indeed- there is “good in everything.”
This is the same feeling of deep satisfaction that comes over me like a blanket of happiness the moment at a Nature-gathering when I have my tent set up and my stuff organized into my tent and I begin to contemplate the pleasure of a week’s long stay under a tent of trees with the sure-and-firm-set earth beneath me and perhaps a gentle stream nearby. I suspect many other Pagans feel the same- cause I see them camped out around me. “Hey- what’s up? go I. “Think we’ll see any rain this week?” “Shh! Don’t say the ‘R-word, ’ ” go they.
The Pagan life- how delightful.
One can literally dip through AYLI’s text picking out “pro-Nature” sentiments. One of my favorites is the kind-of Pagan invitation of the hot youth Orlando to the “thrice-crowned” moon to look with favor upon his romantic quest (he was smitten by a glimpse of Rosalind and is now desperately trying to locate her again by pinning love-poems to the trees) : “Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love; and thou, thrice-crowned queen of night, survey with thy chaste eye from thy pale sphere above, thy huntress’ name that my full life doth sway.” (III.ii.1-4)
The contentment and plain-spun philosophy of country life are best expressed by the shepherd Corin. “Sir, I am a true laborer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” (III.ii.77-81)
As gentle satisfaction flows from woodlands-life, and as (to the Elizabethans) music flows from gentle satisfaction, a number of song-interludes punctuate AYLI’s performance. One urges its listeners with repetitive urgency to “come hither” themselves, to know of the healing quality of natural living.
Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i’th’ sun,
Seeking the food he eats
And pleased with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither!
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather! (II.v.40-7)
(I think that in the dialects of the times they must have pronounced “weather” to rhyme with “hither”: “come hither- rough wither!”)
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Nature is no idealized or romanticized one. Mention is constantly made throughout the play of the harsher or more demanding challenges of living amongst the elements (as the Elizabethans did to a degree that we find hard to fathom) . In his first speech, in which the Duke introduces the idyll of Life-as-one-with-Arden Forest, he recalls the “icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind.” (II.i.7) This starts a recurring theme whereby the characters remind one another of the brutality of an English winter. Indeed (the play seems to say) memory of the terribleness of winter makes it all the vital to enjoy with unsullied pleasure the delightfulness of summer- a summer best spent in the surroundings of Nature.
However, Shakespeare imagines even the most miserable aspects of Nature as preferable to the baser instincts and impulses of humans. The song “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” postulates that even the “chiding winter wind” is more pleasant to bear than cruelty or meanness. For those who enjoy Elizabethan music (as many Pagans do) , the song is a plaintive and lovely Renaissance melody.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind-
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! Sing heigh-ho! Unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho the holly!
This life is most jolly! (II.vii.174-183)
Location: New York City, New York
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