Tuesday, December 20, 2005

As I Like It

Opinion about William Shakespeare’s “As you Like It”, has often been polemic, what with some critics labeling it a ‘sentimental pastoral’, while others like G. B. Shaw contending that it is more ‘lucrative’ than ‘sentimental’. Shakespeare, Shaw tells us, ‘was forced to write popular plays to save his theatre from ruin’, and that ‘he did it (i.e. wrote these popular plays) mutinously, calling the plays “As You Like It”, and “Much Ado About Nothing”’.

William Empson’s critique is a departure from extreme polemics. He identifies as a pastoral any work that contrasts simple and complicated life, to the advantage of the former. In Empson’s view, this mode of life serves as an oblique way to criticise the class structure of society. Shakespeare’s “pastoral” adheres to this definition, though not in its entirety.

Shakespeare’s attitude to either the country or the city is not unproblematic. He cannot be accused of conventional “pastoral” oversimplification. His ambiguous outlook is presented through antagonistic juxtaposition of characters – Jaques Vs. Duke Senior, Jaques Vs. Touchstone, Audrey Vs. Phebe are but some examples of the same.

Classical poets have idealised pastoral life as possessing features of the mythical ‘Golden Age’, and ‘country life’ symbolizes an innocent alternative to ambition, disturbance and war. Here, the court, as Duke Sr. tells us, is nothing but “painted pomp” – it is “envious”, and full of sycophantic “flattery”. To cut a long story short, the country is the city’s antithesis.

If the court is corrupt, the Forest of Arden should have been Elysium. But as we step into the forest with Rosalind and Orlando, we are greeted with the negative – their precise tautology confirms Arden as a “desert place”. Also, the wind is cold, and the weather such that protection becomes preferable. If Andrew Marvell in his “The Garden” painted a picture of plenitude with lines like, “The Nectaren, and curious Peach / Into my hands themselves do reach”, Shakespeare shows us that labour is a sine qua non.

Unlike Ben Jonson, Shakespeare does not declare that “the painted partrich lyes in every field/ And, for thy messe, is willing to be kill’d”. Exploitation is acknowledged through Jaques accusing the Duke of being a greater usurper than the brother who has banished him. Humans are essentially “tyrants” and “usurpers” whether they live in the country or the city, seems to be the message that Jaques wants to convey.

Nevertheless, his moralizing is lopsided. He considers usury, exploitation and neglect of the “bankrupt” not just human, but also “natural”. The deer episode exemplifies this. In a way, he contradicts his own invective against the Duke by providing him a reason for usury – nature is no better than man, so why not exploit it? – capitalist exploitation is absolved. He considers the “careless herd” callous without realising that if they neglect the wounded deer, it is only because the herd cannot help him. Ironically though being a man, and hence being capable of aiding the deer, Jaques isn’t proactive. Pontifical verse is more than enough to quell the qualms of his conscience.

Deviating from the quintessentially romanticized picture of love and friendship that pastoral eclogues portray, “As You Like It”, does not provide a motive (it is either love/lust at first sight) for love. As one critic puts it, ‘Love is all romance and poetry in Orlando and Rosalind Love is pastoral convention carried to ridicule in Silvius and Phebe. Love is a parody in Touchstone and Audrey. Love is prose, matter-of-fact in Oliver and Celia. “As You Like It”, also questions the nature of “true love”. Rosalind and Touchstone are instrumental here.

Rosalind in her “hose and doublet” catechizes Orlando as regards love and informs him that though “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love”. Touchstone parodies Orlando’s callow love-eclogues, and his love for Audrey is blatantly lecherous and debauched. To speak in capitalist terms, love comes across as a ‘mutual contract’ – an ‘investment’ with its own liabilities. Rosalind while educating Phebe crudely observes that “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets”.

What Helen Gardner calls the ‘Mozartian’ nature of the play also adds to their ideological refrain with its “Most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly”. This wonderfully witty play with its bold and outspoken heroine and core of optimism and romance pokes gentle fun at the game of love while praising its virtues and celebrating its triumphs.

In conjunction with love, we see Shakespeare ostensibly questioning what it means to be masculine or feminine. Orlando to Rosalind, to use a cliché, is like the candle held to the sun. Rosalind’s scintillating wit has endeared her to many feminists. Consequently, they have been able to excuse Shakespeare for his rather tawdry representations – namely, Phebe and Audrey – one a coquette, and the other a fatuous country lassie, who not unlike Mr. Morel in “Sons and Lovers”, can make no sense of Touchstone’s poetry and incisive wit. (Weird, isn’t it, that some feminists should find this double indictment of gender and class innocuous?)

Shaw locates the reason for Rosalind’s enduring popularity not in her feminine traits, but in her masculinity. He points particularly to her male attire during most of the play, and to the aggressive manner in which she makes love. Shaw calls her an “incomplete human being”, but contemporary critical verbiage would probably term her behaviour androgynous.

Shakespeare’s vocabulary throughout the play makes it quite clear that Rosalind’s comportment is unlike that of the “natural” Elizabethan female – she is masculine. And if she is successful as a character, it is masculinity that must be lauded. Shakespeare’s transvestite intellectual thus does nothing to blur the gender divide as proposed by a certain faction, but only compounds the binary with obscure misogyny. Once again, to borrow from commerce, femininity is ‘unprofitable’ !!(Nevertheless, one can excuse Shakespeare, because he was not free from discourse – patriarchal or otherwise).

Shakespeare subverts the tradition of the pastoral ‘moral eclogue’ through Corin and Touchstone. Corin’s bucolic pro-pastoral sermon that applauds the ‘dignity of labour’ is negated by Touchstone’s mercantile repartee – he points out that Corin earns his living through the “copulation of cattle”.

In the Touchstone-Corin eclogue, the tension between literal and figurative language is palpable. No wonder then that C. L. Barker feels “As You Like It” is a ‘language play’ – a play wherein there is an almost Metaphysical alliance seriousness and levity. Through adroit verbal callisthenics, Shakespeare exposes how ‘Ways of Seeing’ are negotiated by one’s perspective. Though one can’t agree completely with Touchstone, one sees that Corin is no religious figure – he is not the figure of Christ as the God Shepherd. Rather, Corin is a country capitalist.

Thus we see that Arden is no pastoral idyll. Economy is not elided - the fact that economy directs sociology is acknowledged. Nevertheless, Shakespeare does not produce a counter-pastoral. The Country-City binary is not dismantled. Though Shakespeare exposes pastoral exaggeration, he still maintains the binary. The country is not an Elysium, but nevertheless, it is ‘simple’.

All the original country characters are ‘simple’ people who delight in ‘simple’ things. Hegemony is seen at play when Corin calls himself “a true labourer” who earns what he eats. Even Adam, though city bred, is a ‘loyal’ proletarian. Orlando laments that there aren’t more like Adam in whom is seen the “constant service of the antique world”. Incongruously enough, the proletariat is never shown at its labours. So though, there is no ‘magical extraction’ of the curse of labour’ (Raymond Williams) by the simple process of the extraction of the existence of labourers, there is an elision – there are labourers, but there is no actual labour !!

Thus, we see that though Shakespeare does not fall prey to what Raymond Williams calls the myth of the conventional ‘Golden Age’, he successfully creates a new ‘Golden Age’ that is based on hierarchy. The Lord’s in his manor, and all’s well with the world !!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Mumbai Local

The LCD told me that the next Churchgate Slow would make me wait for six tedious minutes. I grimaced.

Why hadn't I done my usual 20 metre sprint across the Santacruz bridge down to platform number 2 ? Why had I let the earlier local grate out without me?


Time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions.

On the platform the hoi polloi come and go,
Talking of Cutting Chai & not Michaelangelo.


Hallelujah. The train cometh.

Sleek. Very sleek. Futuristic.

This was my first encounter with the new coaches introduced by the Western Railway. All steel, its insides gleamed in the evening sun. The first class compartment had plush peach seats, more easily accessible handholds, and all the fans actually rotated.

Some juvenile graffiti decorated the walls, but it was welcome for a change. "Smita - a crudely drawn heart - Anil", made me feel a wee bit at home in these alien surroundings.

Plugging the ears with never severed electronic umbilical cords dangling from omnipresent FM Tuners/I Pods/ MP3 players/Cell phones. Reading. Applying make up. Brushing hair. Nose digging. Etcetera & etc.

To cut a long story short, all the normal "Mumbai Local" functions had ceased. We were actually looking around, and at each other.

I am told that the "Second Class" ladies generally share a great rapport, and over time form their own micro communities which discuss everything from nits to nervous disorders.

Being a part of the elite "First Class", I had barely exchanged a word with my co-passengers. 'Mind your own business' seemed to be the creed, and so I was in for a surprise. Sheepish, almost apologetic smiles were exchanged.

"This is my second time".

"This is my first".

"Cool na ?"...

...was interrupted with the unusually clear and surprisingly not nasal,

"Attention please. The next station is Khar Road. Agla station Khar Road hai. Dhanyavaad".

Deja vu! Deja vu!

The Kolkata Metro anyone? The only difference being that they didn't announce the exit direction. (By the by, why do they always have female announcers? I wouldn't mind a Bacchanesque baritone).

More smiles, and some gawking at the LCD which many (yours truly included) had not noticed initially ensued.

Smiles. Grins. Giggles. Chuckles. Chat.

Such a Long Journey ??

No. Non. Nein. Nahi.