Introduction & As You Like It
I’m going to talk about Shakespeare and enchantment. In particular, I want to talk about how enchantment comes through several of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ll begin with my favorite comedy, As You Like It. I also talk about Much Ado about Nothing some.
Now, as much as I am convinced by Frances Yates’s long-standing thesis about the spread of hermeticism into drama (and everywhere else in the Renaissance), including Shakespeare, I’m going to say less about Shakespeare’s world, let alone Shakespeare, than about what’s happening onstage itself. England was crawling with wizards in Shakespeare’s and Elizabeth’s time, and magic was caught up with Catholicism, local traditions with spirits of place and herblore—very much grounded in an enchanted engagement with the world—local adaptations and mutations of continental magic—faeries everywhere—saints and well saints, Arthuriana, dragons, and Welsh wizards and more.
It’s easy for modern audiences to view the plays’ incorporation of magical elements as symbolic, a theatrical affect. I ask students to at least conceptually bracket that explicit magic or explicit magical references occurring onstage as coming out of a world that humans accepted as being haunted. And while we can consider and think with the events onstage from a political lens, a cultural materialist lens, we do a disservice to the dead when we classify their world and their engagement with that world as “superstition,” as “archaic,” or as being only a product of whatever anachronistic socioeconomic lens we want to force upon them.
Literary and Shakespeare scholars have long recognized that magic and the stage go hand-in-hand, but most have tried to use Magic as a cipher for Catholicism in a iconoclastic Protestant culture, even one that had been staunchly Catholic a generation prior. Such an approach usually reduces all magic and enchantment on the stage to being a commentary on crypto-Catholicism. And this scholarship is usually quite dreary and tedious and likes to quibble over Protestant and Catholic minutiae on any number of contested theological topics.
I can remember one of my mentors asking me about an interpretation I had of something going on in Hamlet (I’m pretty sure it was Hamlet—I did a lot with Hamlet): “Okay, but can you stage that?” Accordingly, it seems that some quibbling point about Catholic versus Protestant belief becomes rather less significant if there’s no reasonably compelling way to stage such a reading. What is pretty damn dramatic and compelling, though, is enchantment.
Indeed, in a culture where Marsilio Ficino had shown how to bring planetary influences into your life through highly theatrical and performative means—music, color, props, costuming, shapes, symbols, narratives, and so on—the theater was absolutely a place where enchantment can occur, both to those on the stage and to the audience engrossed in it. I mean, this is still the case today, more so with modern entrainment technologies with music and light and more.
Even discounting the Ficinoan perspective, I had already approached the plays by considering what the audience leaves the play with once it’s over. Stephen Greenblatt is (in)famous for his subversion and containment paradigm for approaching Renaissance drama from a scholarly perspective: the theater lets subversion erupt and safely vent, but it is ultimately contained by plot, by place (the theater), and by time (the duration of the performance). A common complaint against Greenblatt is that it’s amazing anything ever changed with all the containment of subversion that occurred.
With that in mind, I have found it fruitful to ask, what does the audience leave a Shakespeare play with? Or, how has the audience changed? What has been added to the audience, or reinforced?
Let me offer an example. Much Ado about Nothing is most memorable for the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick, and Beatrice stands out in the play. Or, she can. The history of performance of Much Ado shows how much the potential for subversion in Beatrice was tamped down in different ways in different periods. In the 1700s, productions portrayed her as a no-holds-barred shrew cliche, making her as much as possible a literal “harpy,” “infernal Ate,” and “Lady Tongue.” In the 1800s, she’s portrayed more as someone with her heart over her head. Other tonal choices contribute to audience reception: 1800s productions tended to cut most of the play’s bawdy and cuckoldry humor, which itself is a patriarchal gesture—making the play less troubling (and confrontational) to middle class audiences and avoiding the play seeming unbecoming of actresses in the nineteenth century. The 1800s also tended to sentimentalize and sanitize Shakespeare, and we had Benedicks who gave brusque farewells in the Elizabethan version start offering cloying and sweet farewells in the Victorian era.
The Victorians also couldn’t handle the tragedy in King Lear, so they turned it into a romantic comedy for decades.
So, I like to imagine a Shakespearean era Much Ado and Beatrice where she can resist getting married, can spar verbally with Benedick onstage as the equals the play text presents them as. Beatrice may emerge from the class of Shrews, but the play makes it clear she is not merely that. She is heroic. She is sympathetic. And although the subversion she represents is nominally contained by the end of the play—she is married to Benedick and silenced with a kiss—she escapes the performance’s confines of time and place.
She finds a home in the imaginations of the audience. I have to wonder how many women watched Much Ado, saw Beatrice giving as well as she took, venting her frustration about how she must have Benedick to exercise a kind of prosthetic male agency because she can’t do so herself:
Is he not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands; and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour, —O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.
She cannot defend her slandered cousin Hero, and she expresses this primal desire to be a man to avenge herself on the former fiancé of Hero. That fiancé, Claudio, has, at that point in the play, ended her cousin’s life, and Beatrice wishes to “eat his heart in the market-place.”
Sit with that for a moment. Imagine seeing a wrathful but deeply frustrated Beatrice deliver that line.
I wonder how many women watching the play nodded at such a thought. And I wonder how many women reflected on Beatrice well after the play was over. I wonder how many women imagined what it’d be like to be more like Beatrice, and I wonder how many men wanted to find a woman like Beatrice.
So, I would argue, the play enchants its audience. In this instance, it enchants that audience with a vision of heroic, if quite frustrated, womanhood quite unlike what official culture promoted. Shakespeare by no means is the sole vector for spreading Beatrice-ness into the culture, though. The fact that the Homily on the State of Matrimony felt the need to warn husbands and wives away from many problematic (from our perspectives and otherwise) behaviors suggests that those behaviors were quite common. But, on the stage, Beatrice becomes a form, an idea, maybe even a spirit, that can be impressed into the memories of audiences, and it becomes telling then that later eras sought to blunt such enchantments—or inverted them.
As You Like It
Jacques and Staging the World
Jacques (pronounced in proper English fashion like jay-kweez) gets that speech that everyone knows the first line to and which everyone references without its fuller context:
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.
And then the whining school-boy, 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 slipper’d 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.
The speech sounds all “Yay! Theater!” (well, “Yay! Theatre!”) at first, but it quickly moves into depressing territory. That’s something that most folks and references to this speech leave off. In the play, male lead Orlando has just accosted Duke Senior’s court during their pastoral exile in the Forest of Arden. Orlando is mostly on his own, hungry and desperate, having been cast out by his older brother (primogeniture will ruin a family). However, Duke Senior offers Orlando the full hospitality he can offer in his own exile—his younger brother usurped his throne and forced him to flee into the Forest, too—and the offer disarms Orlando who departs to return with his aged family servant Adam:
Then but forbear your food a little while,
Whiles, like a doe, I go to find my fawn
And give it food. There is an old poor man,
Who after me hath many a weary step
Limp’d in pure love: till he be first sufficed,
Oppress’d with two weak evils, age and hunger,
I will not touch a bit.
Go find him out,
And we will nothing waste till you return.
I thank ye; and be blest for your good comfort! (Exit)
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
The Duke makes the theatrical (well, metatheatrical) analogy first, and Jacques seizes on the Duke’s words to engage in his far longer interruption. Jacques is the play’s Melancholy character: he’s pretty much in love with being melancholic. He seeks every opportunity to wax melancholic, and I think it’s interesting to consider how this scene can reasonably be staged.
A desperate young man comes in demanding food for himself and his aged friend—indeed, he threatens violence. Instead, the aged, exiled Duke offers him company, comfort, and hospitality, despite their mutual exile. He observes that others are suffering in the great dramas of our lives. And then, Jacques steps forward, and he waxes melancholically—at length. He keeps talking. Where would the characters onstage—the Duke, Jacques, and the Duke’s other men—focus their attention? Well, Jacques seems likely. Where is the audience’s attention directed? They are probably focused on the character who is speaking and drawing attention to himself.
Melancholy is contagious. Seriously. I mean it from a pathological perspective in the period (and even today). From a Ficino perspective, Jacques is guiding the men onstage and the audience to dwell on this Saturnine, melancholic perspective on life—and on life as a desperate drama, and he does so while hijacking the Duke’s earlier metaphor.
Jacques is casting an enchantment of melancholy on the characters and on the spectators.
I can imagine the audience beginning to succumb to this dismal, nihilistic view of the human condition—”mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything…” Draw out these words. Utter them with Saturnine deliberateness.
Re-enter ORLANDO, with ADAM
After an uncertain pause—I think there’s something to recommend a couple of beats after sans everything—Orlando returns with Adam, likely helping him onto stage. Jacques’s “mere oblivion” and its spell is broken as a young person helps an older person onto the stage, and the Duke directs food be brought for Adam, and I can imagine the characters onstage, themselves just now spellbound by Jacques, now moving in a flurry of activity as humans help humans.
The action onstage counterspells Jacques’s enchantment, and I think the play offers a far richer enchantment in its place.
“Rosalind’s a Genderqueer Wizard, Orlando”
The real heart of the play, though, is Rosalind. I have to admit that I adore Rosalind. She’s my favorite Shakespearean heroine. She is a talkative heroine—she continues—and the play is, yes, a rather talky play. Some folks complain about this, but whatever.
Now, in Shakespeare’s time, Rosalind and all the other women onstage would have been played by young boys whose voices hadn’t started to change yet. Why? The culture viewed women publicizing themselves by being out in public—let alone public-izing themselves onstage—as tantamount to prostitution. The theaters wanted to avoid excluding all of the plots that need female characters, which is most of them, so they adapted by casting young boys as women.
Many of my students feel a bit scandalized by such a notion, and they often find it funny. We’re used to men-playing-women as cheap comedy. However, I note to them that these boys have to be good enough at passing and at performing early modern womanhood in order for the plays to at all work. The audience cannot see Young Harry in drag onstage: they have to see Juliet, Desdemona, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth. The pathos of Romeo & Juliet cannot work if the audience is sniggering at little Timmy in pantomime.
It’s frankly a testament to those young actors’ actual craft.
From another perspective, the audience at the time was familiar with and accepted the conventions of the theater. Just like we accept that, in most cases, the movie soundtrack isn’t playing within the context of the movie—for example, Harry Potter doesn’t hear his theme music playing—and just as we can ignore that we’re watching actors playing roles and can just immerse ourselves in the characters’ lives instead—so too did early modern audiences get used to ignoring that it was a boy onstage: it’s Rosalind.
Except when the plays call attention to it. Indeed, they play with it and the implications of the practice. When Rosalind and Orlando are flirting, yes, it can be homoerotic. Was the practice kind of silly? Yeah, and the plays often lampshade it. Rosalind must flee to the Forest of Arden to avoid her tyrannical uncle’s wrath, and her cousin (said uncle’s daughter) decides to accompany her. They worry about being two unescorted women in the countryside—they’re cognizant of early modern European rape culture—and while Celia recommends that they dirty themselves to look too poor to bother, Rosalind is more canny and decides she’ll disguise herself as a young man because they need one:
Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand; and—in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will—
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.
Rosalind emphasizes the idea Judith Butler got at in the ’80s: gender is performative, as the theatrical convention itself demonstrates. Rosalind feels she can pull off performing certain kinds of masculinity. She’s not aiming to pass as a man’s man, but as a swaggerer—she plans to perform “swag”—like a young “mannish coward” whose “swashing and martial outside” is an overdone (“outface[d]”) “semblance.” She names this persona Ganymede, which is suggestive on its own.
So, thus far, we have a Young Boy Actor playing Rosalind playing Ganymede.
Rosalind-as-Ganymede discovers what Beatrice wanted: male agency. Pants are cool. She can buy and own property. She’s treated like a man. Rosalind discovers and enjoys the enchantment that is male entitlement.
She eventually discovers Orlando is in the Forest of Arden, as well. Now, she has feelings for Orlando, and he has feelings for her. However, Orlando’s desires are for an entirely different Rosalind than the reality we’ve seen. In his only instance of good poetry (the result of Shakespeare), Orlando announces his plan to litter the Forest with his (horrible trash fire) Petrarchan nonsense about his imagined Rosalind:
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste and unexpressive she.
Orlando views Rosalind—who he met once—as some kind of idealized Petrarchan beloved, and Petrarchan beloveds are set on figurative pedestals, utterly perfect, and, as Orlando describes here, unexpressive. Silent.
This is not Rosalind, nor the Rosalind the audience has been following thus far.
The sonnet tradition informs the ways Orlando thinks about love and Rosalind, but that sonnet tradition was typically an aristocratic male pastime, a way to demonstrate a nobleman’s or courtier’s learning, wit, and skill with language within the tight constraints of the sonnet form. These sonnets were usually intended to show off to the authors’ male associates. The female object of affection in these poems is an ornament, an occasion and object upon which the male poet showcases his verbal abilities.
That said, sonnets made their way to the broader culture, and many young men who didn’t know better decided that was how they were supposed to model their own feelings and approaches to love. You write bad love poetry to/for your beloved that idealizes and idolizes her:
From the east to western Ind,
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no fair be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.
Orlando is rubbish at poetry.
Desiring Orlando herself, Rosalind takes it upon herself to “educate” Orlando. She has no desire to become the imagined Rosalind that Orlando strews about the Forest: she doesn’t want to be unexpressive. So, She-as-Ganymede convinces Orlando that Ganymede can help cure Orlando’s lovesickness, and will do so while pretending to be Rosalind with Orlando.
That is, we have a Young Boy Actor playing Rosalind playing Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind.
Now, in the period, many authorities considered lovesickness to be an actual pathology: that is, it was an actual sickness. Physicians like Jacques Ferrand addressed the pathology and treatment plans for lovesickness (also known as erotic melancholy and erotomania). Keep what I was saying about Jacques and the enchantment of melancholy in mind. In a way, Orlando has been enchanted: his first encounter with Rosalind enchants/“infects” him with erotic melancholy, but he has also been enchanted by the ideas of love that the Petrarchan tradition disseminates. The Petrarchan tradition, meanwhile, emerges out of the older and quite mythically-inclined Ovidian tradition, and scholars have long noted how Ovidian models of desire predicate themselves on how strong desires and passions transform people. In the Metamorphoses, Cupid infects Apollo with lust for Daphne, and that lust transforms the normally Apollonian Apollo into a literally rapacious god whose all-consuming focus is raping Daphne. Meanwhile, strongly desiring to escape rape, Daphne transforms into the bay laurel.
Several things interest me at this point in the play. Firstly, Rosalind adopts yet another nominally masculine role, that of physician, in treating Orlando. Secondly, her treatment plan aligns pretty damn well with what Ferrand recommends for treating and preventing erotic melancholy. Thirdly, these strategies have a hermetic, Ficino-esque, performative quality to them—again, a kind of enchantment, and as Al Cummins has often noted, early modern medicine often runs parallel with magical practices. To be a physician was also often to be a magician.
Now, ultimately, it is Orlando’s bleeding injury from a lioness that seems to set him straight—I would note that Ferrand says that, aside from marriage, a good course of bleeding will definitely take care of erotomania—and the time comes for marriages. It’s a Renaissance romantic comedy, after all.
Some folks like to argue that Orlando and others have seen through Rosalind’s disguise and roleplaying, but I can’t buy such arguments. Firstly, Orlando and his reconciled brother—often described as two of the characters who somehow see through Rosalind’s disguises—have never been particularly clever anywhere else in the play. Secondly, the purported ambiguous lines probably play better for gentle if ironic laughs. Thirdly, such perspectives shortchange Rosalind who has otherwise dominated the play’s action and its romantic, comic heart.
Also, as an almost what-the-fuck rebuttal to such attempted diminishings of Rosalind, she shows she’s actually a wizard. She promises Orlando that she can get Rosalind into the Forest the next day to marry him:
Why then, to-morrow I cannot serve your turn for Rosalind [by pretending to be her]?
I can live no longer by thinking.
I will weary you then no longer with idle talking. Know of me then, for now I speak to some purpose, that I know you are a gentleman of good conceit: I speak not this that you should bear a good opinion of my knowledge, insomuch I say I know you are; neither do I labour for a greater esteem than may in some little measure draw a belief from you, to do yourself good and not to grace me. Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things: I have, since I was three year old, conversed with a magician, most profound in his art and yet not damnable. If you do love Rosalind so near the heart as your gesture cries it out, when your brother marries Aliena, shall you marry her: I know into what straits of fortune she is driven; and it is not impossible to me, if it appear not inconvenient to you, to set her before your eyes tomorrow human as she is and without any danger.
Speakest thou in sober meanings?
By my life, I do; which I tender dearly, though I say I am a magician. Therefore, put you in your best array: bid your friends; for if you will be married to-morrow, you shall, and to Rosalind, if you will.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Rosalind-as-Ganymede tells Orlando that she’s a wizard, trained from a young age by a magician—but “not [a] damnable” one—and she can get Rosalind here. Now, on the surface, it seems a weird admission to make, and it seems even a needless boast. Could she not just reveal herself as Rosalind? Could she not approach her father Duke Senior, reveal herself, and still marry Orlando?
Even more so, Rosalind games the entire situation to her advantage, arranging oaths of marriage amid the chaotic social networks formed in the Forest. Finally, she departs as Ganymede to retrieve Rosalind. I can imagine new audiences expecting simply a costume change, but no, Rosalind returns with her sister Celia for the marriages, escorted by the god of marriage, Hymen.
I would observe that the other Shakespearean character who conjures gods onto stage for wedding-related festivities is Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s best-known magician character. Some would argue that Hymen serves as a literal deus ex machina to solve the plot—and indeed, Hymen seems exasperated—
Peace, ho! I bar confusion:
‘Tis I must make conclusion
Of these most strange events:
Yet, Hymen’s not really needed. Shakespeare’s primary source for the play is Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde, a popular book and story in the period. I note that Lodge’s version includes reference to a magician, but only as someone to conjure Rosalynde from wherever she may be, and no such magic actually occurs:
In Lodge’s version, Rosalynde ultimately withdraws as Ganymede to return as Rosalynde:
Shakespeare could have kept to the source well enough, but he decided to own the wizard angle, make Rosalind an actual wizard, and in ways that strike me as deeply resonant with the later The Tempest. That’s not counting the persistent concern with enchantment already present in the play—from Jacques (Shakespeare’s invention) and his spell of melancholy to Rosalind’s physic for Orlando. At that point, I find myself wanting to revisit the play again to see Rosalind as a wizard throughout.
And so I come to considering how the play changes the audience. Rosalind is married, but she will continue to be Rosalind, having reformed Orlando of his earlier, immature, and rather dangerous-to-Rosalind views of love. Do the women leave the theater thinking about what it would be like to be like Rosalind? Does the audience expand their ideas of what love, marriage, and even enchantment can entail?
I feel maybe part of the answer comes later. I would feel remiss if I didn’t consider Rosalind’s legacy through Orlando—or, I would say, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. We know that Woolf modeled Orlando as a story through the inspiration of Vita Sackville-West, and enchantment figures heavily in Woolf’s novel, perhaps most pointedly as Orlando approaches the novel’s present day over her long history—including her memories of Shakespeare’s Othello. But, Orlando is very much a story of Rosalind out in the world and moving through history, an idea of a woman looking for new persons to inhabit.
Featured Image: Rosalind, by Robert Walker Macbeth (1888)
 Exceptions exist, but they exist amongst the highest social classes. Elizabeth’s rather theatrical coronation procession entails her publicizing herself before the City of London, and aristocratic masques—especially in James VI/I’s time—typically drew in attending nobles of both genders to play (typically) allegorical roles.
 Marjorie Garber has a 1986 essay that gets at Rosalind’s remediation of Orlando from a pedagogical perspective, in that Rosalind tries to educate Orlando on how to be a better lover: see “The Education of Orlando.”
 I assume his name would be pronounced like actual Jacques, rather than the play’s two Jacques characters’ names.
 Similarly, in 1 Henry IV, Owen Glendower (Shakespeare’s version of the historical Owain Glyndŵr) as a magician “stages” an enchanting scene for his son-in-law and other guests. That scene strikes me as significant as a motif match for Shakespeare’s wizards.