Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It
Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

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Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

2.2 Passage 2: Court and country manners

The next activity gives you the opportunity to get to grips with the details of a different type of writing by Shakespeare: fast-moving comic dialogue.

Activity 2

Read the passage below, from Act 3, Scene 2 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . It is a short piece of dialogue between Corin, an old shepherd living in the Forest of Arden, and Touchstone, a court jester who has, like Orlando, fled Duke Frederick’s court for the country. Touchstone has travelled, however, not with Orlando, but with Rosalind, the play’s heroine, and her friend Celia. Celia is the daughter of the wicked Duke Frederick; Rosalind is the daughter of the good old Duke Senior. In this passage, Corin and Touchstone discuss the country life, a way of living new to Touchstone. As you read, think about the following question:

What contrasts can you find in this dialogue? Make a note of some particularly important contrasts.

When you have finished, click ‘Reveal discussion’.

The numbered footnotes in the extract below can be accessed by clicking here: Passage 2 footnotes. If you would like to view text and footnotes together, you can do so on the Internet Shakespeare Editions website (lines 1212–1282, with notes indicated by the green underlining).

Enter Corin and Clown [Touchstone].

CORIN

And how like you this shepherd’s life, Master Touchstone?

TOUCHSTONE

Truly, shepherd, in respect of17 itself, it is a good life; but in respect that18 it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught19. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare20 life, look you21, it fits my humour22well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach. Hast23 any philosophy in thee, shepherd?

CORIN

No more but that I know the more one sickens the worse at ease he is; and that he that wants24 money, means, and content is without three good friends; that the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep, and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun; that he that hath learned no wit25 by nature nor art26 may complain of good breeding27, or comes of a very dull28 kindred29.

TOUCHSTONE

Such a one is a natural30 philosopher. Wast ever in court31, shepherd?

CORIN

No, truly.

TOUCHSTONE

Then thou art damned.

CORIN

Nay, I hope32.

TOUCHSTONE

Truly, thou art damned, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side33.

CORIN

For not being at court? Your reason.

TOUCHSTONE

Why, if thou never wast at court, thou never saw’st good manners; if thou never saw’st good manners, then thy manners must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation. Thou art in a parlous34 state, shepherd.

CORIN

Not a whit35, Touchstone. Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court. You told me you salute not at the court but you kiss your hands36; that courtesy would be uncleanly if courtiers were shepherds.

TOUCHSTONE

Instance37, briefly; come, instance.

CORIN

Why, we are still38 handling our ewes, and their fells39, you know, are greasy.

TOUCHSTONE

Why, do not your courtier’s40 hands sweat? And is not the grease of a mutton41 as wholesome as the sweat of a man?42 Shallow, shallow. A better instance, I say. Come.

CORIN

Besides, our hands are hard.

TOUCHSTONE

Your lips will feel them the sooner. Shallow again. A more sounder instance. Come.

CORIN

And they are often tarred over with the surgery43 of our sheep; and would you have us kiss tar? The courtier’s hands are perfumed with civet44.

TOUCHSTONE

Most shallow man! Thou worm’s meat in respect of45 a good piece of flesh46 indeed! Learn of the wise, and perpend47 : civet is of a baser birth48 than tar, the very uncleanly flux49 of a cat. Mend the instance50, shepherd.

CORIN

You have too courtly a wit for me. I’ll rest51.

TOUCHSTONE

Wilt thou rest52 damned? God help thee, shallow man! God make incision in thee!53 Thou art raw54.

CORIN

Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that55 I eat, get that56 I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm57, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.

TOUCHSTONE

That is another simple sin in you, to bring the ewes and the rams together and to offer58 to get your living by the copulation of cattle59; to be bawd60 to a bellwether61 and to betray a she-lamb of a

twelvemonth to a crooked-pated62 old cuckoldly63 ram, out of all reasonable match64. If thou beest not damned for this, the devil himself will have no shepherds; I cannot see else65 how thou shouldst ‘scape66.

 

Discussion

The major contrast here, running through the whole passage, is the contrast between court and country. In essence, in fact, all Corin and Touchstone do is to compare living in the country with living at court; this is the first of many conversations in the second half of the play that have no real bearing on its outcome. There is also a comical contrast between the over-elaborate logical framework of Touchstone’s arguments – think of all those balanced phrases – and the nonsensicalness of his conclusions. There’s a strong distinction, too, of course, between the courtly wit of the professional jester Touchstone (or ‘Clowne’, as the first ever edition of the play, the First Folio of 1623, calls him) and the ‘natural’ philosophy of the shepherd Corin. In performance, this scene is often very funny because of the rapid interchange between the nonsensical contrasts that Touchstone makes (e.g. ‘In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life’) and Corin’s very basic common sense (‘the property of rain is to wet’). The apparently serious exchange about whether Corin is damned makes fun of Elizabethan educational practice, as Touchstone comically riffs on the syllogism, the standard method of argumentation used in classical logic: because Corin hasn’t been at court, he has never seen good manners, so it follows that ‘thy manners must be wicked, and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation’. This sounds plausible enough, yet as Corin puts it in a balanced sentence of his own, ‘those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court’. Though Touchstone wins the ensuing verbal joust, his showy arguments don’t convince. Indeed, Touchstone often cuts a ‘mockable’ figure in the theatre through accent, costume and affectation, as productions present him as the proverbial fish out of water in Corin’s milieu of greasy ewes.

At the same time, there is a slightly unsettling contrast between Touchstone’s role in the argument – as the defender of a luxurious, idle court lifestyle – and his ludicrous pose as a religious firebrand (‘Then thou art damned’). This religious pose, meanwhile contrasts with the rather ridiculous terms in which it is expressed (‘thou art damned, like an ill-roasted egg’). Religious difference was at the heart of political conflict. Shakespeare was writing a few decades after the Reformation had split Europe into Catholic and Protestant states, sowing the seeds of more than a century of war and violence. To hear such divisive questions as the best way to salvation raised in such a light-hearted way as Touchstone does must have felt liberating. ‘Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd’, Touchstone teases, but the audience seldom feels that the peril (‘parlous’ is an old form of ‘perilous’) is real.

This sense of potentially risky topics being raised but bracketed off, being, in effect, in suspension, owes something to one of the most important genres (or types of literature) in the play: the fashionable mode of pastoral. ‘Pastoral’ in Shakespeare’s time was a type of writing that usually involved shepherds speaking in verse dialogue on a range of topics, including the simple virtues of country life and the trials of young love. It was a genre which enjoyed huge popularity in the ancient Greek and Roman classical period (which inaugurated many of its characteristic gestures and settings) and in the Renaissance Europe of Shakespeare’s day. A handy definition of pastoral is ‘a fictionalized imitation of rural life, usually the life of an imaginary Golden Age, in which the loves of shepherds and shepherdesses play a prominent part’ (Congleton and Brogan, 1993, p. 885). Such a definition, in fact, describes much of the setting and action of As You Like It. Yet there is more to Renaissance pastoral than this. As the critic Helen Cooper points out, its power has to do with the contrast – the ‘metaphorical or ironic relationship’ – between the real world and the fictional shepherd world created by the poet: the pastoral world is made to reflect ironically and metaphorically ‘the real world’ (Cooper, 1977, p. 2).

As Michael Hattaway puts it, the pastoral mode of the forest in the play is ‘a condition – or a state of mind – rather than a place’ (Shakespeare, 2009, p. 4).

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