Monday, December 5, 2016

O, Orlando! in As You Like It

O, Orlando!
As You Like It

     Orlando. One of those foolish young men Shakespeare is so good at portraying. But what is this? Do I actually like this one? I was so concentrated on Celia last time that Orlando slipped by me. Now I see that he’s not the same as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing who rejects Hero at the slightest hint (lie) that she is unfaithful, or Proteus from The Two Gentlemen of Verona who without a thought rejects his true love Julia for Silvia, or Orsino in Twelfth Night who threatens to kill Viola, or any number of other fickle, shallow, nasty young romantic heroes (or whatever).
     Orlando is…well, let’s take a look.
     He opens the play by lamenting to his old servant Adam that his older brother Oliver – who had been charged by their father with seeing to Orlando’s education – treats him worse than their animals and has allowed no education at all:

…there begins my sadness…This is it, Adam, that grieves me. And the spirit of my father, which I think is within me, begins to mutiny against this servitude. I will no longer endure it, though yet I know no wise remedy how to avoid it.’ Almost immediately Oliver appears. Orlando confronts him and answers Oliver’s violence with some of his own, declaring, ‘I am no villain…you shall hear me. My father charged you in his will to give me a good education: you have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities…give me the poor allotter my father left me by testament – with that I will go buy my fortunes’ (Act 1.1).

     What we see then from the beginning is a mild younger brother who wants a good education, who is chafing under the older brother’s unfair refusal to allow him his rights and who now rebels, shows an independent spirit willing to get on with a life of his own.
     A good start.
     In Act 1.2, when he is about to confront the mighty wrestler Charles, in what could be interpreted as a death wish, contrary to his interest in getting on with his life, Celia and Rosalind beg him to desist. In a very moving little speech Orlando expresses an appealing and profound sense of melancholy:

…if I be foiled, there is but one shamed that was never gracious, if killed, but one dead that is willing to be so. I shall do my friends no wrong, for I have none to lament me, the world no injury, for in it I have nothing. Only in the world I fill up a place, which may be better supplied when I have made it empty’ (Act 1.2).

     Had I been Rosalind I might have fallen in love with him myself. Why he falls immediately in love with her is harder to explain. So far we haven’t seen much of her.
     Nevertheless, he falls in a big way and manages to defeat Charles against all odds. He must thereafter flee to the forest with old Adam.
     Even before we see the extent of his silly infatuation with Rosalind we see his devotion to Adam. When their flight threatens to defeat the exhaustion and famished old man Orlando carries him to shelter and rushes off to find food. He confronts the Duke and his followers with clumsy and clearly not very frightening threats of violence. When he discovers that the group in Arden are not only not aggressive but kind and hospitable he reverts into his polite, gentlemanly self, fetches Adam and all is well.
     Only then does he start his frivolous poem-writing and tree adornment. Everyone mocks the poems and, yes, oh they are bad but they’re sweet.
     He is much cleverer in his encounter with the rude and melancholy Jaques. When they agree that they would both have preferred not to meet the other, Orlando subtly utters one of Shakespeare’s best insults: ‘I do desire we may be better strangers.’ I love him for this line alone! He also slyly turns the tables on Jaques’ declaration that he had been ‘seeking a fool when I found you.’ Orlando’s reply: ‘He is drowned in the brook. Look but in, and you shall see him’ (Act 3.2). Score another for Orlando!
     What follows are the series of exchanges between Rosalind and Orlando in which she as Ganymede talks him into the ridiculous game of him pretending to woo her/him in order to fall out of love with Rosalind. Since he doesn’t want to fall out of love with Rosalind it’s puzzling that he goes along with it. I’ve always assumed that he suspects from the start that it’s Rosalind but I won’t look closely at that, or their exchanges and daft lines in these scenes. Frankly I find Rosalind slightly annoying and don’t think she deserves her high-ranking position on the list of Shakespeare’s women. Orlando I find much more interesting. He challenges her, he neglects to follow the exact times she imposes upon him, he calmly repeats after each of her mocking denials of his love, that he does indeed love Rosalind, he shows none of the hysterical silliness of which Rosalind full of but remains steadfast and polite throughout.
     In the meantime he is good enough to rescue his nasty brother from the lion, being injured himself in the process. They become friends and in spite of his sadness at not winning Rosalind’s love (or so he believes) he is generous in arranging the marriage between Oliver and Celia.
     Well, as we know, the lover and his lass are united in the end, along with the three other couples. I think it should have been Orlando and Celia but Rosalind was right in one respect: love is merely a madness and what does it matter? It’s a wonderful play, filled with too many brilliant lines to count, presented so quickly in such lively exchanges that one cannot help but smile from start to finish, even at the darker melancholy side. It all feels good.
     And if for once I think the young man – the polite, gentlemanly, kind, clever Orlando with a thirst for education and justice – deserves someone better than the woman he ends up with, well, he seems happy. They probably have a better chance at a good marriage than most of Shakespeare’s couples. I wish them well.

Films seen this time:
  • The Globe production, 2009. Director: Thea Sharrock. Rosalind: Naomi Frederick. Orlando: Jack Laskey. Celia: Laura Rogers. Jaques: Tim McMullan.
    • It’s lively and enjoyable but with mixed casting. Orland and Celia are good. I didn’t like the interpretations of Rosalind, Touchstone or Audrey, and Jaques was a bit blasé, full of himself, snide rather than melancholy.
  • The BBC production, 1978. Director: Basil Coleman. Rosalind: Helen Mirren. Orlando: Brian Sterner. Celia: Angharad Rees. Jaques: Richard Pasco.
    • Helen Mirren and Richard Pasco are very good.
  • The 1936 version with Olivier:
  • The Branagh version, 2006:
    • I gave this film a very high rating last time. This time I was less enthralled (sorry, Sir Ken!). The two brothers were good as was Jaques but I find it harder and harder to accept Rosalind and this interpretation now felt shallow and giggly. Celia too. I really like this play and hope to see a stronger production of it one day! 

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