One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2014 was to read and see six Shakespeare plays. I kept the resolution, and decided to repeat it in 2015. So far, I’m a bit behind schedule, but I recently saw my first play this year, As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.
It might be a bias in the plays I’m choosing (I’m focusing mainly on comedies), but I’m developing a theory that there’s one major theme which runs through all of Shakespeare’s work. Yes, he deals with all of the big dramas of human experience at one point or another: love and friendship, war and death, money and power, ambition and jealousy. But there’s one particular obsession which is always present, whatever else is going on: what I’m coming to think of as the Grand Theme.
The Grand Theme has three strands, which might at first seem like distinct topics, but are actually just different aspects of the same idea:
- The theatre itself, playacting and pretending
- Clowning and foolery
The first strand, madness, is about losing one’s identity, and one’s grasp on the distinction between reality and fiction. The second strand, pretending and playacting, is about deliberately taking on a different identity, and intentionally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction. One character’s pretending can cause a feeling of madness in another, or circumstances can conspire to make a character think they’re going mad, while others assume they’re pretending. In Hamlet, the most Shakespearean of Shakespeare’s plays, a character pretends to be mad so convincingly that it’s ambiguous whether it is in fact real madness.
The Fool stands at the intersection of theatre and madness. The term itself is an ambiguity, referring to two different types of people, straddling the Grand Theme. There is the natural fool, the country bumpkin who’s not quite all there (like the Young Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale), but often regarded as being able to see through to another reality, having been touched by god. Then there is the licensed fool: an actor, playing a madman, not just for the finite duration of a single play, but for every minute of his life. He is committed to the pursuit of unreality with a devotion matched only by the truly mad.
Clowns and fools appear frequently in Shakespeare’s plays because they were a standard feature of Renaissance theatre. Descended from medieval court jesters, they were still popular in Tudor times, although threatened by rising Puritanism, and doomed to extinction within a few decades. But Shakespeare doesn’t just include them because they’re expected, and that’s how it’s always been done: he uses them to develop his Grand Theme and explore it further at every opportunity. “Liminality” is a pretentious word you see in a lot of critical writing, but all it really means is that Shakespeare loves pushing the boundaries between reality and fiction. Fools are one of his favourite ways of doing it.
As You Like It is a great example. It’s a comedy about love, but more about how love is a form of madness. “Love-shaked” Orlando is so delirious that he runs about the forest, pinning poetry on trees. Rosalind allows him to woo her, but only when she’s in a schizophrenic state of multiple identities which threatens to engulf her. Shakespeare’s characters also comment on the mad passion that is Oliver and Celia’s love-at-first-sight infatuation, and on the folly of Touchstone the clown’s betrothal to Audrey.
It’s clearly a play about playing and pretending too. The most obvious example is Rosalind, pretending to the Ganymede, and then pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind, in order to get Orlando to woo her. Celia, Rosalind’s noble cousin, pretends to be Aliena, Ganymede’s poor sister. Earlier, Orlando wrestled in disguise at Duke Frederick’s court, and everyone at the court, including his opponent, pretended not to see through the disguise. Meanwhile, Duke Senior and his loyal Lords are in exile in Arden, pretending to be foresters.
As You Like It doesn’t have just one fool, but two. There’s Touchstone, the traditional clown at Frederick’s court. But there’s also Jaques. He’s not a professional fool, but one of Senior’s Lords. But his melancholy, satirical attitude and willingness to poke fun at all and sundry, including his Duke, place him in a very similar role. Indeed, after his first encounter with Touchstone, Jaques shows a rare enthusiasm for the “motley fool”, and declares his ambition to become one himself. And it’s Jaques who delivers Shakespeare’s greatest speech about the relationship between theatre and reality:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts”
I’ll be continuing to watch for the strands of the Grand Theme in the remaining five plays I (may get around to) see this year.