Re-reading Shakespeare: As You Like It

(1) Several years ago I heard about a production of Shakespeare using the original pronunciation, or what’s known in the trade as OP. Apparently even audiences familiar with the material only understood about a 1/3 of the lines.

This was a valuable experiment then, just in terms of alerting us to something that’s easy to forget. Since then OP has become a movement, and I was able to watch some of an OP production of As You Like It online. It’s worth giving a listen to (the video quality is terrible), though if you’re like me you won’t last long. It’s very hard for a modern ear to follow.

I thought of OP while re-reading As You Like It because of the number of times the notes were telling me how certain words had to be pronounced. I remembered that the name Jaques was supposed to rhyme with “jakes” because that’s the name the Elizabethans had for a privy so it’s meant as a joke. But I’ve always wondered if Rosalind should be pronounced the way we normally do or so as to rhyme with “kind” and “find” as Touchstone does in his poetic improvisation. And I didn’t know, or had completely forgotten (it comes to the same thing), that back in Shakespeare’s day “Goths” rhymed with “goats” and “hour” with “whore.”

This reminded me of something I read a while back about how if we had a recording of Keats reading his own poetry we likely wouldn’t be able to make out much of what he was saying because his Cockney accent would be unrecognizable even in London today. Similarly, we think of Shakespeare’s lines being delivered in some version of the beautiful voice, but it probably wasn’t like that at all.

(2) The seven ages of man seem very much like the seven ages of Jaques’s life, because he doesn’t invest them with a lot of joy does he? The infant isn’t cooing but “mewling and puking,” the schoolboy is whining instead of having fun with his classmates, the lover seems out of luck writing his woeful ballads to a woman who probably doesn’t even know he exists, the soldier is on his way to getting killed “seeking the bubble reputation” in the cannon’s mouth. The justice at least seems comfortable, though he’s a bore and a phoney. Then the pantaloon has one tottering foot in the grave, and “second childishness and mere oblivion” is the horror waiting for all of us at the end of the road. Who would sign up for such a curriculum vitae?

(3) I always thought the line had it that “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” but I guess it’s really “faining” (or longing). There was a pun there with the subsequent use of “feign” that got lost with a later emendation.

(4) How strange that Rosalind asks Orlando “what is’t o’clock?” and he replies “You should ask me what time o’ day. There’s no clock in the forest” when earlier Touchstone had drawn “a dial from his poke” to tell Jaques that it’s ten o’clock. I wonder if that was consciously done.

(5) A man of the theatre, Shakespeare could see how divine monarchs weren’t so much born but made and then sold to the public. His plays are full of observations on how rulers are popularly perceived and how their image must be managed. Which is all pretty striking in that he wouldn’t have known anything even remotely like today’s democratic process. There’s Henry IV coaching Hal on how to appear before the masses and how he stage managed his reputation by stealing “all courtesy from heaven” and keeping his “person fresh and new.” Or Claudius, who would do with away with Hamlet but for “the great love the general gender bear him.” You wouldn’t think to find reflections like these in As You Like It, but the fact that you do says something about how much Shakespeare thought about such things. Oliver has to connive at his brother’s murder because Orlando is “so much in the heart of the world.” And Duke Frederick has to lecture Celia on how Rosalind is beating her at the public image game:

She is too subtle for thee, and her smoothness,
Her very silence and her patience
Speak to the people, and they pity her.
Thou art a fool. She robs thee of thy name,
And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous
When she is gone.

Of course in the twenty-first century we’re very familiar with the idea of political theatre, but I find it amazing that Shakespeare was so attuned to it in an age where it wasn’t anything like the industry it is today, and where I wouldn’t have thought it made a whole lot of difference. Hal, Hamlet, and Oliver aren’t running for office. There were plenty of monarchs in the early modern age who weren’t charismatic, or were even downright monstrous or moronic, but it’s not like they could be voted out by the “general gender.” The worst they had to face was a rebellion of their nobles. This is one of those ways Shakespeare is so far ahead of the curve he really does feel like our contemporary.


8 thoughts on “Re-reading Shakespeare: As You Like It

  1. Based on this, I don’t see why Shakespeare even bothers getting out of bed in the morning. He’s way out of date. Why can’t he write words that mean something?

    Who is offering you recordings of Keats? I’d be very wary of anyone selling bootlegs of Ode to a Grecian Urn.

    There’s a song out right now that rhymes ‘kiss’ with ‘I’ll probably send you some pics’ which makes it sound like ‘ I’ll probably send you some piss’

    Just sayin’!


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