This play has left me with more questions than pleasant emotions or kindly insights. Yes, one must credit Shakespeare with an entertaining “romantic comedy” but also chide him, just a bit, for leaving much to the audience member’s disquiet. Rarely have I felt such a lack of resolution in such a neatly resolved story.
I quickly lauded Shakespeare’s literary construction around the concepts of Nature and Fortune and their relationship to each other. The play begins with a stage set with separation – particularly of Oliver and Orlando and of the Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. Fortune has divided each character respectfully in regards to the kingdom and fathers’ will. Fortune, it would seem, guides the lives of these men while their nature simply reacts to their fortunes. Rosalind also finds herself in a similar plight – kept under the heel of her usurping Uncle but with the unwavering companionship of Celia, her cousin.
Along with this separation of characters and of Nature from Fortune, Shakespeare symbolically pits Nature against Fortune via a symbolic wrestling match between Charles and Orlando. Yet with repetitive terms, such as “overthrowing”, we can anticipate a reversal of circumstances. As the Duke Senior experiences banishment into the Forest of Arden, with Orlando and Rosalind to follow, we must notice how these characters, quite literally, leave their fortunes for Nature. In leaving their misfortunes behind for sanctuary in the forest, we may interpret that they begin to guide their lives according to Nature rather than Fortune.
In Acts III and IV, sandwiched within the play, Shakespeare begins the folly and entertainment of love, between Silvius and Phebe, Touchstone and Audrey and Orlando and Rosalind. Phebe, who does not dote on Silvius, Touchstone, who behaves as a chauvinist man intent on Audrey’s abuse, and Orlando who relents to the curing of love by a disguised Rosalind. Honestly, I found it all very silly. I cannot think of a better word. In nature, unburdened by concern for fortune with its impressing greed and fear – left simply with the quality of their characters – these people stumble about like fools with “fools” to teach them and mock them. Luckily, Shakespeare presents such characters as Duke Senior and Corin to keep the patron informed of the new environment mastered by human nature rather than circumstance. The usurped Duke wisely expounds on sweet uses of adversity in developing a person’s nature and Corin explains to Touchstone of the simple exposure of man’s nature as a laborer. In this new setting, Nature and Fortune begin to reconcile not as two things outside of a person but rather the same thing embodied within a person which develops a perspective on circumstances endured in the outside world. Worldly things do not determine the nature of someone’s fortunes but rather their nature and perspective define those fortunes.
However, as the play resolves, the questions begin bubbling like excited water. Honestly, I found the resolution extremely romantic – in the anti-Hemingway sense. Of course, Rosalind works for the coupling of the eight men and women using her best Shakespearean craft. But why the abrupt changes in the usurping Duke and Oliver, Orlando’s brother? Shakespeare offers reasons but they seem completely unsatisfactory and out of character from what we know of them early in the play. Also, did Orlando know of Rosalind’s deceit and play along? If so, why? Then, with the usurping Duke’s conversion and the return of court fortunes to their “rightful” owners, one’s suspension of disbelief snaps irreparably and the patron grimaces at the sudden and perfect arrangement of restored fortunes just when they anticipated a re-imagining of true fortunes to differ from their definition early in the play.
While all of this seems excessively romantic and too perfect, one must remember Jaques and Touchstone. Jaques grows to appreciate the foolery of Touchstone and Touchstone may be the only one of the group who remains true to himself, though not a very respectable self, in nature and away from court. I think Jaques admires this and, in his melancholy, becomes the fool only in as much as he differs in countenance and philosophy from the others. As in all Shakespeare plays, the fool professes wisdom which often flies in the face of accepted truths and reasoning in popularly constructed social circumstances. Within this definition, both Touchstone and Jaques fit the bill. While Fortune and Nature seem to reconcile in the end, perhaps this enlightenment does not settle on Jaques who must journey on.
But what are we to make of Jaques? Why did Shakespeare include him if our good money went to watch a silly play so we could feel good at romantic nonsense? Why does he offer little as to a back story on Jaques? Who is he? What were his circumstances? Why so melancholy? Why is he not of the disposition to appreciate a happy ending as the others?
Like Jaques, I feel awkward and ultimately skeptical about the play’s resolution – as if things unsaid haunt the good fortunes of things said and done. Perhaps Shakespeare couldn’t stand to leave anything real out of his play.