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The Romantic Comedies

Prospero's island

The human soul which feels itself as a wheel in the cosmic machine, moving dully in the ordered routine of daily life, longs at times for a different, freer activity, and revolts against the grim necessities of reality. The romantic imagination. then feasts upon wider vistas of more ideal existence. This pitifully human hunger finds fit pasture in certain plays of Shakespeare, and it is the complete satisfaction of this need that makes As You Like It, together with the Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the most charming of Shakespeare's comedies. In each of them, the action is taken away out of the ordinary, work-a-day world, and is transplanted into some new ideal world of poetry and of the imagination. Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife," far from the prosaic struggle for existence and power, all the noblest qualities of mankind have room to develope. In the ideal world which these comedies portray, friendship, love, simplicity and kindness grow abundantly and flourish like wild flowers in a virgin forest. The Tempest represents Prospero's enchanted home in the South Seas, a sunlit isle surrounded by coral reefs, continually beat upon by the long roll of thunderous breakers, like the divine Orplid of Weyla's song. This island is situated somewhere between Tunis and Naples, not far from the "still-vexed Bermoothes." Scientific geography has nothing to say to it. It is a desert island, inaccessible, for no human eye has ever looked upon it. Berries and roots grow upon it; there are yellow sands, fresh springs, and brinepits which the hideous Caliban shows to his master Prospero. It is strangely inhabited by men and monsters, fairies and adders, and its trees, oaks, pines and cedars show it to be of no known climate. It is the enchanted land of romance.

A Midsummer Night's Dream represents a wood near Athens. It is a dark wood, full of fairy wizardry, haunted by strange beings, lit up only by the twilight of the full moon. It is the ideal country of your Symbolists, of your dreamy Romanticks, Lamartine, of Keats or Shelley. In this country did "la belle dame sans merci" rove at night; in this country did Alfred de Musset meet in the gloaming his spectral Muse:

Poète, prends ton luth: La nuit sur la pelouse

Balance le zéphir dans son voile odorant. . . ..
Parlons-nous de bonheur, de gloire et de folie
Et que ce soit un rêve et le premier venu.

Inventons quelque part des lieux où l'on oublie !

Is not this dream Shakespeare's dream upon one midsummer's night, and is not this place where the sad realities of life are gloriously forgotten the leafy n oonlit wood near Athens ?

As You Like It represents also a wood, the Forest of Arden. We cannot place it on the map of France, for we find that a character in the play, leaving Bordeaux on his way to Lyons and Italy, loses his way in the Forest. Victor Hugo says with some point that "ce n'est pas la forêt de la Meuse, mais de la Muse:” Wherever it may be, it is no thick impenetrable wood, dark and full of shadows, lit only by the pale sheen of the moon, like "the wood near Athens." The forest of Arden is open and spacious, with meadows here and there, and flocks of sheep at pasture. It is not inhabited by fairies or Pucks, dream-people of the night, but by a happy pastoral folk of shepherds and shepherdesses, and by a contented band of exiles, living the simple life of the patriarchs of olden time, or rather the life of Robin Hood and his merry men. All that they eat they hunt themselves, and their appetite is none the less therefore. Here there is no pale silver moon, but the broad, bright sunshine, in which Touchstone sits and basks himself, pierces the tall trees and lights up the green meadows.

"Under the greenwood tree

The wood near Athens

The Forest of Arden


Who loves to lie with me,
And tune his merry note

Unto the sweet-bird's throat,

Come hither, come hither, come hither:

Here shall he see

No enemy

But winter and rough weather.

Who doth ambition shun

And loves to live i̇' the sun,

Seeking the food he eats,

And pleased with what he gets,

Come hither, come hither, come hither :

Here shall he see

No enemy

But winter and rough weather.

An attentive examination of the play makes us wonder how so strong and distinct a woodland impression is made upon us, how the scene is so clearly visible to the mental eye when we read it, "leafy solitudes sweet with the song of birds." Walter Raleigh reports that there is not a single mention of any bird, insect or flower in the play, nor even are the words flower and leaf ever used. The imagination of the reader is powerfully induced by the magic of Shakespeare's poetry, so that, in accordance with his instinct for the fitness of things, one significant suggestion evokes a thousand images which complete the picture, and there is no need for an enumeration of all the"properties" of the Forest of Arden Such enumeration as is to be drawn from the words of the play is indeed disconcerting, and we choose to believe rather in the oak and the hawthorn than in the olive and palm-tree, and in the deer and sheep rather than the lioness and "the green and gilded snake." There is no word spoken of the meadows, of the green lush grass. This omission is a fair example of Shakespeare's tact in the maintaining of the dramatic illusion.

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Remembering the bare boards of the Elizabethan theatre, we perceive at once the ridiculous effect that would be produced by such words as "Here let us sit upon the soft green grass. The irony of the direct contrast between the ideal soft grass and the real hard wood would have been too much for Shakespeare's keen audience, in spite of their generous faith. The best of imaginations would have failed to amend it; the illusion would have been destroyed and the magic vision dissipated. As it is, we are caught up at once and held in the grip of the illusion throughout the play, thanks to a pictorial touch or two, here an oak with its antique root peeping out upon the brook brawling along the wood, there a sheep-cote and osiers beside a murmuring stream; and thanks to the infinitely delicate suggestion of atmosphere which, even if we were not told of Touchstone lying down to bask i̇' the sun, would make us see the bright sunshine reflected in the serene gaiety which lights up the hearts of the exiles.

As for the season of the year, we cannot be sure. This ideal forest of Arden is no mere summer residence in which our heroes and heroines pass only the warm months. They are prepared for hard, wintry weather. The Duke accepts cheerfully" the penalty of Adam, the season's difference" and smiles at the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter's wind. '

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Amiens sings jovially of the winter, and of the time when the holly alone is green :

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Autumn in

Pastoral amenities

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky;
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot :

Though thou the waters warp,

Thy sting is not so sharp

As friends remembered not.

Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly,

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly :

Then heigh ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.

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The season is perhaps antumn; such is my impression at any rate. The air is cold at mid-day when the Duke is dining. "Here thou liest in the bleak air," says Orlando to his old servant Adam, "come, I will bear thee to a shelter. "Whatever the season, as Raleigh puts it delightfully," it is nothing to the outlaws that their forest is poorly furnished with stage-properties; they fleet the time carelessly in a paradise of gaiety and indolence, and there is summer in their hearts."

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Surely this forest of Arden is the ideal country of La Grande Mademoiselle, the royal shepherdess! Are not all those conditions of perfect life fulfilled, which she laid down, yearning for the pastoral romance of the country? These exiles lead, as she wished to do, a happy life" in retreat and solitude. Celia and Rosalind do indeed "keep sheep for their pleasure." With what joy would poor Mademoiselle have played her part with them, attended by some pastoral Lauzun! Orlando writes verses to Rosalind, nay, reams of verses, as is prescribed, hanging them upon the patient trees. Shepherds and shepherdesses, exiled Duke and his lords, wandering lovers, all are at bottom" des gens aimables et parfaits, délicats et simples," as Mademoiselle wished them. Love, pure and honest love, is the main interest of Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Silvius and Phoebe, and even the clown Touchstone has his poor humour to take Audrey. But alas for Mademoiselle! They one and all have recourse to that" vulgar remedy of marriage':

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