Something Nasty in the Forest of Arden

As a philosophy undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, I had relatively little instruction from members of the English department. But I was taught Shakespeare by Norman Maclean, whom I had no idea would write "A River Runs Through It." Indeed, I had no idea he wrote fiction. But I should have guessed, for Norman (as I was allowed to call him when I later became a graduate student) made us use our imaginations when we read Shakespeare. 

He used the simplest tactic to get us to understand the plays. Before we read a word, he made us envision the architecture of the theatre - the Globe, I believe -  noting the levels, and the opportunities for entrances and exits. As we read the plays we were to imagine where each line was delivered, how the actor got onto the stage to say his lines, and how he got off. It was as simple as that. I can't say that every aspect of every play instantly came into focus or lost its mystery, but with the understanding of the mere mechanics of the play, interactions between characters became clear, and very often the meaning of lines was enriched, because one realised that a trope depended on the speaker's (and hearer's) surroundings.
The "Long Ensemble" is a brave project of the Royal Shakespeare Company that is to run from now for two and one-half years until 2011, in which 44 actors of several ages and ethnic backgrounds "will stage at least fourteen productions of classical and contemporary work," says the programme for the  new "As You Like It," currently playing at Stratford-upon-Avon. Directed by the RSC's artistic director, Michael Boyd, the piece is performed on the thrust stage of  the temporary Courtyard Theatre, with a minimal, one-wall set designed by Tom Piper, whose costumes range from elaborately authentic Elizabethan court dresses for Rosalind and Celia, to bafflingly 1960s/70s hippie-Indian kurtah and beads for Jaques. I know this mixture of echt Elizabeth I and ersatz Elizabeth II is fashionable; what I don't understand is how and when a designer thinks it's appropriate to change from trad to pick n'mix. It wasn't annoying, just puzzling.
There are some splendid performances, including Katy Stephens' Rosalind. A churlish critic has said hers isn't a Rosalind you can love. Maybe so, but when she smiles, she radiates a feeling, sexy and warm, that I've only seen in one other actress, Patricia Neal. Jaques is strongly acted by Forbes Masson, though he makes the character's cynicism more forceful than his depression; and I loved Richard Katz's hammy Touchstone. But the performance of the evening was Jonjo O'Neill's charming, athletic Orlando. Though physically slight in appearance, he must have a back of steel, as he literally carried other actors off the stage.
From Mr Boyd's staging of the play I learned something I didn't when I read it with Norman Maclean: the significance of the rustics in the play, and of Corin, in particular. Corin is taken from Shakespeare's main source for the play, Thomas Lodge's romance, Rosalind, where he's called Coridon, the stock-name for the shepherd in pastoral tales, and a name with strong homoerotic associations (as used by André Gide, for one) because of his love for a shepherd boy. Shakespeare's Corin in the Forest of Arden has nothing gay about him in either sense of the word - he's got genuine grievances that make Jaques's melancholy look trivial.
When Touchstone asks Corin whether he likes "this shepherd's life": he doesn't grizzle about his lot, but replies: "Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness... and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck." But the terrible truth is that they weren't his ewes or his lambs. It was 1599. Another man owned the flock, the grazing wasn't Corin's, the common land was fast disappearing and the only thing that kept him from vagabondage was his paltry wages.  Far from being a self-sufficient peasant, he was already a wage-slave, and could well have ended up on the lump in a town somewhere. 
Stratford-u-Avon had increased from under 1500, when Shakespeare was born, to more than 2500 inhabitants in 1599, a quarter of them refugees from more rural parts of the Cotswolds, driven to the town by the enclosures and a series of poor harvests.  We'd driven to the theatre from our own house on the edge of the Cotswolds, through a breathtakingly beautiful spring landscape.  On our way we could have seen the wool mills and blanket factories of Witney, now converted into gated luxury flats. Witney blankets were once the best in the world; no one makes them now, but no one in England makes anything much now - artists always excepted. We did pass the cottages in front of Blenheim Palace. When we first came here these housed some of the Duke of Marlborough's staff. Now I'm pretty sure they're second homes for Londoners, bankers and others whose situation is as precarious as Corin's.
So there is something dark and ugly in the Forest of Arden now; but isn't it riveting to realise it's been there for at least 400 years?

May 4, 2009 1:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on May 4, 2009 1:00 AM.

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