Saturday, November 28, 2009

All the World's a Stage

Last night in my dream I strode along Lambton Quay with purpose and with confidence. Now it is day-light and I move at snail-pace around the house.

As a fourth former I had to memorise these lines from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Life on my childhood farms was cyclical. So it was easy to see human life in a similar if different pattern - we are born, we develop, we age, we die. Now as I hover between Shakespeare’s sixth and seventh stages that particular cycle rings true. The seasons repeat themselves though I admit each spring is different from the previous springs as are all the seasons. That natural cycle does not end. (Ignore the long-term prospects for the moment). But the human cycle does end. Our lifespan has closure. For the individual. Not the species. That goes on. I had a great-niece, Esme Isabel James, born in London two days ago.

Anyway, Shakespeare’s sevenfold division has lingered in my consciousness for decades. The appeal is partly the small vibrant verbal vignettes of each stage albeit with the difficulty of language from an earlier century. I especially like the school boy sketch and also the lover making his protestations to his beloved’s eyebrow; he dare not meet full gaze.

In the play the speech is a device to enable Orlando the hero to have enough time to go and pick up Adam, the faithful retainer who helped him run away from the tyrant ruler, and carry the old man to the camp. One legend has it that in the original production Shakespeare himself played Adam. The soliloquy is made by Jacques, a pessimistic courtier who is out of touch with those around him, a figure of fun, indeed, almost in need of pity.

A few blogs ago I wrote of Troillus and Cressida and my regret at never having seen a live production. Byatt’s novel, The Children’s Book which I am reading at present describes two weekend household productions, one of Midsummer Night’s Dream and the other The Winter’s Tale. My heart hurls to see them again.

I was lamenting the prospect of not seeing live Shakespeare when, (rather belately when think about it). I had a brainwave, why not get out DVDs of live productions. So I requested As You Like It with Helen Mirren as Rosalind. The pastoral scenes in the Forest of Ardern are some of the loveliest Shakespeare ever penned and it was a joy to see them well presented. It has always been to me the definitive romantic comedy.

After the power structures of the usurper’s court it is a relief to be in the greenwood where romantic dreams are fulfilled and life is presented as simple. It’s all make-believe but wonderful theatre to experience. The illusion that is the stage is rarely better fulfilled. And Jacques’ speech contains an irony. It’s a speech delivered from a stage.

The play abounds in irony and wit as well as romance. There are elaborate gender reversals. Rosalind acts the part of a boy, Ganymede. In Shakespeare’s times this would have been a boy actor who played the woman’s part. Orlando roams the forest hanging love-poems to Rosalind from the trees. Touchstone the jester who has run away with Rosalind and her cousin Cecilia clowns upon the lines. Ganymede offers to pose as Rosalind for Orlando to practice wooing upon.

And so the play chuckles it way to its anticipated happy ending, melancholy Jacques and ribald, jolly Touchstone ride shotgun to the lover’s courtship. The audience believes Rosalind and Orlando will live happily ever after. It is equally sure that Touchstone’s marriage to Audrey the goat-herd girl will not last for it is built only on amorous desire. But their wooing enables belly-laughs along the way.

I have never heard of Angharad Rees who played the part of Cecilia. She was good. I feel all the better for having watched the play two nights running. There are still good things out there in the world, despite the morose Jacques that inhabit the media and strut upon the stage.

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