By Heather Helinsky, dramaturg
In 1599, the year historians believe that As You Like It was written, William Shakespeare was already a busy, successful poet of the theatre. By then, he had possibly seventeen or nineteen plays already rotating in the repertory of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was the same summer that the Globe Theatre was under construction. England was at war on two fronts with both an Irish rebellion and the Spanish Armada. However, in spite of all this, sometimes family takes priority.
By the summer or early fall of 1599, William needed to leave his busy cosmopolitan life in London behind him and go home. His wife’s mother was dying. Shakespeare’s parents, both of whom were still alive, were in their seventies and in need of care. Shakespeare’s daughters, Susanna and Judith, were entering their teenage years; sixteen and fourteen respectively. Shakespeare’s only living sister, Joan, was getting married. A few months after Joan’s wedding, she gave birth to a son, who she named after his godfather: William. Birth and death: the infant “mewling and puking in the nurses arms” and “the last scene of all that ends this strange eventful history”…but in the middle of all of that, a wedding. The lovers. Shakespeare’s sister in love! And his two young daughters transforming into adulthood, faster than Shakespeare probably preferred.
A seventeenth century biographer, John Aubrey, was told by Shakespeare’s neighbors that Shakespeare “was wont to go to Warwickshire once a year.” Based on maps of the time, the road home was a little less than 100 miles; a three days journey on horseback if the roads were dry and the weather was fair. Often, the roads were not well-maintained and English weather not always sunny. One doesn’t have to imagine much to understand Shakespeare’s emotion of leaving his active theatre company behind to return to his family’s country life, as Sonnet 50 records.
“How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
“Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!”
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on….
…For that same groan doth put this in my mind:
My grief lies onward and my joy behind.”
What could have been on Shakespeare’s mind in between London and home in Stratford-upon-Avon, near the Forest of Arden? Did he rush home? Did he stop at the taverns along the way? Did he run into soldiers being mustered to go to war? As he passed the farmers and shepherds working in the fields, did it stir up childhood memories?
Shakespeare’s family was a long line of farmers, and his childhood would have been spent in the surrounding woods and fields, and in tiny towns with traditional seasonal festivals and folk customs. But Shakespeare was now a man of the world, a man of London, and a man of some wealth. He recently bought his family a new house in Stratford that cost one hundred and twenty pounds. He played one role in town as the harried and successful playwright, another role in the countryside as the eldest brother responsible for providing for his family.
But what was his state as he traveled in-between?
There’s the romantic and pastoral idea of a country life, but was that what Shakespeare saw as he traveled between London and Warwickshire? Perhaps, if it was a festival season, farmers would be out celebrating the harvest with the traditional pagan celebration, “Harvest Home.” Records of the time tell a different story. Stratford was struggling. The fires of 1594 and 1595 destroyed 200 houses in Stratford. The great Forest of Arden had been cut down from its original size over the years; cleared for pastures, cornfields, and iron mines. Those who worked the fields often were homeless and seasonally unemployed. Those who were wealthy could hoard grain in the barns and then profit off the poor farmers as they suffered from bad harvests.
Pastoral literature is escapist and Elizabethans hungered for it. The country provides the setting for pure romantic love. Shepherds spend their days in the fields writing poetry to a beautiful shepherdess. In pastoral literature, shepherds are free of the complexity and corruption of court life. Poets of Elizabethan England, many of whom came from wealthier backgrounds than Shakespeare and educated at Oxford, romanticized the pastoral life as easy, lazy, and idyllic. Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Greene are a few of many writers of the time that made the pastoral fashionable. In 1588, the courtier and poet Thomas Lodge, on a tedious sea voyage to the Canaries, wrote a pastoral romance called Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy that once published, became an instant best-seller in 1590, and frequently reprinted.
However, Shakespeare did not take the easy road and turn As You Like It into a light romantic comedy. While the play certainly delivers Shakespeare’s usual wit and romance, As You Like It experiments with mixing light and dark. This rendering of both sides of the forest is what drew director Matt Pfeiffer to investigate the play this summer at PSF. “I first saw As You Like It at PSF in 1996, when I was nineteen years old, starring Ian Merrill Peakes as Orlando. I’ve been fortunate to work on Shakespeare’s plays most of my adult life. This is now my 19th season at PSF. Now as an adult, I realize that there was a darkness to the play as these characters grapple with loss and their search to find a place in the world. Rosalind suffers the loss of her father’s presence and power at court, Orlando suffers from his older brother. All this makes the backdrop of romance more palpable. Now I suddenly find myself hearing this play in a new way.”
While the plot of As You Like It has similarities to Lodge’s novel, two characters are Shakespeare’s original invention: Jaques and Touchstone. Both inject satire into the gentle form of pastoral romance. There’s a hard edge to their humor not found in traditional pastoral. Pfeiffer decided to cast Ian Merrill Peakes, whom he originally saw at PSF as Orlando, as the dour Jaques, who delivers the famous speech of “The Seven Ages of Man.”
Pfeiffer has also cast some familiar collaborators from prior PSF productions. Marnie Schulenburg and Zack Robidas, who have played romantic leads in Pfeiffer’s productions of Henry V and The Two Gentleman of Verona, will return to play Rosalind and Orlando, respectively. Dan Hodge, who appeared in clownish roles in PSF’s The Taming of the Shrew and Pfeiffer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia, will play Touchstone. These returning company members work well together with Pfeiffer’s ideas about how to embrace Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st century audience. “We’ve basically spent one hundred years conceptualizing Shakespeare’s plays and it was necessary and inspiring work. But I’m more deeply interested in being in conversation with the history of these plays and how Shakespeare’s company would have worked on them.”
Pfeiffer will also bring on another familiar collaborator, sound designer Alex Bechtel, into his production. In the past, Pfeiffer has interwoven spirited live music, something that has become a trademark of his aesthetics. However, with As You Like It, Pfeiffer may change up his approach. As You Like It begins in the restrictive and dangerous world of the court. Esau Pritchett makes his PSF debut as Duke Frederick who has overthrown his brother Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father. “The court is an oppressive environment, and once the characters escape from the court to the forest, they can shed these restrictions.” It’s still important for Pfeiffer to hold on to his musical aesthetics, to allow Shakespeare’s poetry to breathe.
What Pfeiffer finds emotionally true about the story is that when we experience loss, like Rosalind and Orlando, we retreat into ourselves. Pfeiffer finds a powerful metaphor in Rosalind needing to escape into the clothes of a man to discover her true inner self.
Dressed as a man, Rosalind discovers an inner confidence to woo her love Orlando. Dressed as a woman, Rosalind finds herself in dire straits and is trapped from doing anything about it as far as her gender will allow. She’s without father, lover, or money, so by changing her outward appearance, she can take actions to save herself.
Yet, Rosalind constantly transforms between her masculine persona of “Ganymede” and her female emotions. Part of the joyous comedy of the play is watching her transformation.
The audience experiences the irony of knowing Rosalind is both in control and not in control of her behavior. She performs in one moment, yet under the spell of love in the next. She appears to act like many of Shakespeares’s strong-willed women, yet is also incredibly vulnerable and conflicted. As an audience, we witness the power of transformation: how Rosalind transforms herself and at the same time the Forest of Arden transforms her.
Shakespeare also magically transforms the Forest of Arden to suit his own purposes. Sometimes it is brutal winter, other times, gentle spring when Shakespeare needs to introduce a pair of lovers. Even the trees are from different environments: sometimes it’s an old oak, other times it’s a palm tree—and these trees are covered in poetry. There are both deer and lions in this forest. Pastures for sheep and deserts for snakes. There’s so much in this forest, it’s as if the Forest of Arden is a theatre itself, keeping the stagehands busy shifting scenery.
Perhaps this play is more like the road between London and Shakespeare’s hometown. Shakespeare is in the middle of his career, the middle of his life, dealing with aging parents and growing teenage daughters. As a Londoner, he’s shed his youthful country persona and applied for a family coat of arms, to continue his career as a gentleman. Perhaps that’s why he needs the satire of Jaques and the clownish behavior of Touchstone to take the audience through the seven stages of life that we all march through: the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the pantalone, and the old man. It’s not just these stages of life that Shakespeare dramatizes, but the stages in-between each. Rosalind may try to school Orlando in what it means to be a lover, but what are the bumps and obstacles and underbrush in the way to get from one state to the other?
On this journey, Shakespeare takes us to one of the spaces of his English childhood: the magical forest and hard country life. Yet, he does not present it with any kind of romantic or nostalgic lens like the rest of his contemporaries: the forest can be brutal, the road can be long, and the wildlife different from civilization. Those who do well at court may struggle in the politics of the forest. Yet, the mixture of civilization and wildness provides an opportunity for imagination, creativity, and witty humor: here in the forest, with a hodgepodge of country and city folk, Shakespeare’s poetry soars over the trees.
And for director Matt Pfeiffer, who has changed much over the past nineteen years working at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, As You Like It is an opportunity to explore all of life’s transitions, from his youthful understanding of Shakespeare’s plays to his current musical aesthetic choices. As he returns from a busy season directing in center city Philadelphia, escaping for the summer to the pastoral beauty of Center Valley, what new discoveries will be found in Shakespeare’s poetry this time? “It feels like a great time,” says Pfeiffer, “to offer an audience a chance to grapple with time, age, and ultimately the ways in which we love; from frivolity, to raw desire, to life-altering love—it’s all in there.”