- Possibly written: Sometime around 1599 or 1600, possibly Shakespeare’s 20th play, so later than the first two we covered.
- What’s it about? Rosalind is reluctantly living under her uncle Frederick, who overthrew her father, but when he gets pissed at her she runs off to the forest of Arden, followed by Orlando, who loves her and is in trouble because he won a wrestling match vs. Frederick’s favorite wrestler. Rosalind dresses up as a man, Orlando doesn’t recognize her but flirts with her/him anyway, and eventually Rosalind’s father is restored, and everything turns out okay.
- Most famous dialogue: The “All the world’s a stage” speech.
- Sources: Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, first published in 1590. Lodge’s story is based on “The Tale of Gamelyn”.
- Interesting fact about the play: Maybe we’re in England, maybe in France (They both have forests of Arden). There are wild lions about. Shakespeare set very few non-histories in England, for some reason, causing some to foolishly speculate that the plays were written by a non-Englishman.
- Best insult: Too many good ones to limit myself to just one:
- A world too wide for his shrunk shank
- Truly, thou art damned like an ill roasted egg all on one side
- God help thee, shallow man, god make an incision in thee, thou are raw.
- To cast away honesty upon a foul slut [like you] were to put good meat into an unclean dish.
- For I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets
- Best word: The word “physic” gets used a lot, as in “I will physic your rankness”. Context clues weren’t helping me there.
- Best production of this play I’ve seen: Last year the Chicago Shakespeare Theater did a wonderful production that worked in lots of songs by the Beatles. I liked it so much I went twice, once with my wife and then again with my daughter.
- Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Helen Mirren as Rosalind. David “Darth Vader” Prowse as Frederick’s preferred wrestler!
- Mirren is delightful and does a great job with the language, but makes no real attempt to impersonate a man. Couldn’t she have drawn on a pencil mustache or something? And tried a deeper voice? Of course, if she had, all involved would have had to admit that this is a really gay play, filled with scene after scene of a guy getting really sexy with someone he thinks is another guy. By having her just half-heartedly put on pants, everything feels far more heterosexual. As for Prowse, it’s nice to finally hear his voice and fun to see him in a different role. Brian Stirner as Orlando is a little moody, but ultimately fun to watch, and surprisingly convincing in his throws against the much larger Prowse.
- We finally go outside, for by far the best production yet. The opening scenes are shot on the grounds of Glamis Castle in Scotland and the forests scenes are shot in actual forests. It all looks gorgeous and feels airy and real. This is what this series should have been: Shooting the plays in actual real-life settings. Instead, most productions were only a little less stagebound than they would have been in the theater. I’ll also give props to the combat, which feels very real and harrowing. The costumes are a little tacky, though.
The plotting of this play is very clunky. Shakespeare is so devoted to his formula for comedies that he has to betray the work he’s done on characterization. Putting Orlando’s brother and Rosalind’s friend together at the last moment just so that everyone can be paired up on stage is totally unjustified and unnecessary. The ludicrous deus ex machina where Frederick has an offstage religious conversion and abdicates is totally unconvincing.
And yet, the play is delightful. Almost every scene is fun. The language is zesty, as shown by the cascade of insults above. The sprightly verbal sparring of the various pairs of lovers prefigures 20th century screwball comedy. The best scenes are those in which the characters just conjecture with each other about the meaning of life and love.
After starting things off with a rousing onstage David-vs-Goliath wrestling match, we get a play chock full of songs, and so many internal rhymes, even when they’re not singing, that it feels like a Moliere play. It’s just a lot of fun. The play sings, literally and figuratively.
If you can master tone, the audience is remarkably willing to ignore all other writing fundamentals. The characters are having fun, the cast is having fun playing them, and the audience is having fun watching them. Who cares how clunky it is?