Tuesday, 21 February 2012

As You Like It (1978)

By William Shakespeare (1599)
BBC TV, 17 December 1978

The BBC Shakespeare series (1978-85) was an ambitious project to film the Bard’s entire canon for television. In a sense, Helen Mirren was in at the start. The idea was born when director Cedric Messina was on location at Glamis Castle, filming The Little Minister (1975), in which she played the free-spirited ‘gypsy’ heroine. It struck Messina that this would be the ideal location for an al fresco As You Like It which he was planning for the BBC’s ‘Play of the Month’ strand. What began as a proposal for a single play later became the entire corpus. True to the original concept, As You Like It was indeed filmed at Glamis, although as the series evolved the majority of the Shakespeare recordings were studio-based. Mirren appeared in three of the productions: besides Rosalind in As You Like It, she played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1981) and Imogen in Cymbeline (1983).

The productions were distinctly conservative. Such a huge undertaking required American co-finance, and Time-Life, the backers, insisted on ‘period’ styling – either Elizabethan/Jacobean or something evocative of the period when the play was set (medieval, Dark Age, Roman, etc). These and other restrictions probably frightened off more adventurous directors from the project. But the series yielded solid workmanlike productions, still valued as teaching aids and still enjoyable in themselves, with casts featuring just about every reliable British Shakespearean of the day.

As You Like It was played pretty straight. The partnering of Angharad Rees’s winsome Celia with Helen Mirren’s plucky Rosalind made for very watchable television. Some of the male leads seemed rather anaemic by comparison. As for Hymen’s appearance at the end, a part that is always difficult to bring off on stage (since it appears so superfluous) was further undermined by the god’s hairy chest. Do gods have body hair? Probably not a question the author intends us to ask ourselves as the play canters towards its dénouement. The character of Jacques, by contrast, is far from superfluous. That melancholy satirist who stands apart from the action and refuses to be part of any happy endings is perhaps the most interesting figure in the drama. Debussy thought so when he sketched an opera based on the play. In the BBC production, Richard Pasco nicely caught the world-weariness of the disaffected Elizabethan courtier, reminding us how many such men must have hung on the whim of the ageing Queen.

The first As You Like It I can remember seeing was in the gardens of Worcester College, Oxford, in summer 1977, an early production (if memory serves) by one Richard Curtis, then an undergraduate at Christ Church. Touchstone was played by grad student Rowan Atkinson. Needless to say, the later Mr Bean stole every scene he was in, permanently skewing my view of the play to this day. James Bowlam, in the BBC version, barely shrugging off his ‘Likely Lad’ persona, came a very poor second. But, of course, it’s not Touchstone’s play, it’s Rosalind’s. She has about a quarter of all the lines. As critic James Shapiro remarks, Shakespeare must have had extraordinary confidence in some boy actor’s abilities: ‘Not even Cleopatra would speak as much. This was unprecedented and may not have pleased his experienced fellow sharers, used to playing the leading roles themselves’.

Rosalind spends more than half the play in doublet and hose. Why did Shakespeare make so much use of cross-dressing heroines? There are historical explanations, certainly. Transvestism had long been a standard element of comedy, but Shakespeare uses the device far more than his contemporaries, and not generally for comic effect. His audience must have got a particular frisson from watching boys playing girls playing boys. Those who see the Bard as a man for all times, as a universal genius existing outside time, would argue that his purpose is to send his female characters on adventures that a woman couldn’t possibly have within the domestic confines of Elizabethan England. By roaming in space, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, they roam also in time, and explode into our own era. In the words of Jane Lapotaire, herself a memorable Rosalind:
They move entirely out of their own environment. But the crucial thing for me is that Rosalind never becomes a boy at all, her psychology is totally feminine, her attitudes are feminine – she is a fully rounded and understanding woman. (Quoted in Cook, p20).
Exiled to the Forest of Arden, it’s Rosalind who takes control, even of her father. The happy outcome for all is put into her capable hands, albeit by the exercise of ‘magic’ learned from someone ‘profound in his art and yet not damnable’ (V.ii). While the drippy hero Orlando moons about, pinning his execrable sonnets onto trees, Rosalind’s own temperament frees her from the restrictions of romantic love-cults. After recounting the fates of Troilus and Leander, she comments: ‘But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love’ (IV.i). Using the game-playing opportunities which the Forest opens up, she explores alternate versions of herself:
Rosalind, playing the boy Ganymede, invents another woman: the imagined Rosalind of a brash youth, a girl whose waywardness will cure Orlando of his love. (Dusinberre, p11).
Others see even more complicated reflections or refractions of gender taking place here. They point to the play’s highly unusual Epilogue, in which ‘Rosalind’ steps out of character and addresses the audience as the boy or man that ‘he’ actually was:
If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
Lisa Jardine comments of the Epilogue:
Wherever Shakespeare’s female characters in the comedies draw attention to their own androgyny, I suggest that the resulting eroticism is to be associated with their maleness rather than with their femaleness.
While Mirren adopted a more strident tone for her travesty role as ‘Ganymede’, she still meant us to see that she remains a girl underneath. At several points she winced as Orlando or Silvius, supposing her a him, blokeishly slapped her on the back. For the Epilogue, still in her wedding dress, she broke from the hymeneal round dance to come forward and speak the lines straight to camera. No androgyny there, take it from me.

Judith Cook, Women in Shakespeare (1980)
Juliet Dusinberre, ‘Introduction’ to As You Like It (Arden Shakespeare, Third Series, 2006)
Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983)
James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)
Martin Wiggins, The Shakespeare Collection (BBC DVD): Viewing Notes


  1. Well I've enjoyed what you've written and thank you

  2. My favorite Shakespeare line is from this play. I don't know what poetical means. Unadulterated honesty!