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A Major Third
on 21 August 2008
We might expect an academic who has made her name as a feminist critic to find something interesting to say about 'As You Like It'. Juliet Dusinberre doesn't disappoint. Although its aspects of performance history can be a little wearisome, her Introduction is richly rewarding. Not surprisingly, she makes much of the play's cross-dressing and role-playing (boy playing woman playing man etc.). She finds questions of gender much more ambiguous and complex than they first appear and presents an account of a play in which liberating modes of behaviour can be adopted as easily as costumes can be donned. It is a play which 'redefines gender'.
Equally subversive, she thinks, are the play's allusions to Robin Hood. Duke Senior's comradely courtiers are partners rather than subjects, and his court more communal than hierarchic. Together with the animal welfare concerns expressed in the play, the Duke's vegetarian tendencies (which echo the real-life courtier John Harington's) and Orlando's 'challenge to primogeniture' (it is he, after all, who inherits a dukedom), the 'alternative', revolutionary elements of AYL are neatly drawn attention to.
There are some inspired insights. Touchstone's 'dreadful joke', as Dusinberre calls it (about pancakes in 1.2), makes sense if the court performance at Richmond Palace took place on the Shrove Tuesday of 1599, as she thinks highly likely. She further suggests that some of the play's exotic features (like the lion in 3.2.) were matched by the elaborate wood carvings in Richmond's outer court, while Rosalind's reference to Troilus not dying for love might have been accompanied by a gesture to the tapestry depicting Troy hanging in Richmond's Great Hall where plays were performed. In essence, therefore, she sees the palace as the 'perfect ambience' for the play, with its sense of rural retreat and with deer roaming outside its west wall.
But Dusinberre is careful to present the Forest of Arden as more than just a fairy-tale rural retreat. It is a place that represents the challenge of the unfamiliar and of harsh political exile. It is also a place which reflects the real, contemporary world of displacement brought about by land enclosure and political instability (in the year of Essex's fateful Irish campaign).
The Introduction is also radical and illuminating in its discussion of Elizabethan play reading. Dusinberre argues that AYL is particularly rewarding as a text to be read at leisure and that its wordplay is often better appreciated on the page than on the stage. She argues that puns such as Touchstone's 'faining/feigning' 'could only be appreciated by readers'. Dusinberre examines a recent school of thought (led by Lukas Erne) inclining to the view that not only did the printed word add an extra witty dimension, but that Shakespeare actively took readers into account when writing plays.
The comprehensively researched Commentary is equally impressive. It bears testimony to the rich heritage of Shakespearean scholarship which has unearthed a staggering amount of detail about the halcyon period of English drama, 1590-1610. This edition will probably allow for as full an appreciation of the play as is currently possible.