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Through comedy and tragedy Shakespeare reveals the vast expanses and profound depths of the character of life. For him they are not separate worlds of drama and romance, but poles of a continuum. The distinction between tragedy and comedy is called in question when we turn to Shakespeare. Though the characters differ in stature and power, and the events vary in weight and significance, the movements of life in all Shakespeare's plays are governed by the same universal principles which move events in our own lives. Through myriad images Shakespeare portrays not only the character of man and society but the character of life itself.
The difference between comedy and tragedy, success and failure, good fortune and catastrophe often seems to turn on a seemingly chance event. In All's Well that Ends Well, Helene's pilgrimage to win back Bertram succeeds on the basis of her chance meeting with the mother of a virgin whom Bertram is courting. Time is another crucial determinant. Often a split second or brief interval is the difference between life and death. In this small but all important gap of time, the character of life is revealed most clearly. In As You Like It, Orlando came in time to save Oliver from the serpent that was winding around his neck. Out of context, these events would appear as a very thin and frail fabric upon which to build great comedy and tragedy were it not for the fact that they are true to a deeper level of causality in life. Suzanne Langer has called comedy 'an image of life triumphing over chance.' It may be otherwise stated that in comedy the seemingly chance events of life move in favor of a positive resolution, whereas in tragedy they seem to conspire toward disaster. Helene Gardner observes that 'comedy is full of purposes mistook, not "falling on the inventor's head" but luckily misfiring altogether. In comedy, as often happens in life, people are mercifully saved from being as wicked as they meant to be.' 5
Time as well as chance events are expressive of another set of determinants, another level of causality in the wider plane of life. The critical gap between human action and its results depends on the response of the environing life and expresses the character of life in the given circumstances.
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A striking example of the relationship between comedy and tragedy is the similarity of plot in King Lear and As You Like It. Lear's two elder daughters deprive him of all his kingly trappings and cast him out onto the stormy heath where the banished Kent comes in disguise to serve him. Edmund plots to capture his brother Edgar's title with the result that Edgar too is forced to run away to the heath for safety. Lear, Kent, Edgar, Gloucester and The Fool roam in the wilderness and face the harsh conditions of physical nature. In As You Like It, Frederick usurps his older brother's title and exiles him to the forest. Oliver deprives his younger brother Orlando of his rightful share of the inheritance and later plots his murder, forcing Orlando to flee to the forest with his servant Adam where they join Senior with his lords, Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone living in nature.
The similarity is not confined merely to plot. The same themes and sometimes nearly the same words occur in both plays. For example, Lear's response to the stormy elements compares and contrasts with Senior's opening lines.
Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow...
Spit, fire; spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
a poor, infirm, weak and despis'd old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. (Lear III, ii, 1, 14-24)
Senior: Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The season's difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery; there are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am'. (AYLI, II, i, 3-11)
The theme of ingratitude so powerfully expressed by Lear in
Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend. (Lear I, iv, 259)
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to 't? (Lear III, iv, 14-16)
is echoed in the song sung at Senior's camp in the forest.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude; (AYLI, II, vii, 174-6)
Jacque and Lear use the same image of life as a stage.
Jacque: All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players; (AYLI, II, vii, 139-40)
Lear: When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools. (Lear, IV, vi, 183-4)
Helene Gardner observes 'At times Arden seems a place where the same better lessons can be learnt as Lear has learned in his place of exile, the blasted heath.'6 But despite their close similarities, the lessons of the heath and the forest are really quite different. The outcome of each story depends on the character of the individuals involved, the consciousness of the society in which they live, and the response of life to that character and consciousness. The complex relationship between the two plays suggests that Shakespeare was not merely dealing with imaginary themes and impossible happenings, but rather trying to give expressions to circumstances and experiences very real to his vision of life.
The general atmosphere in As You Like It is one of harmony, morality, goodness and loyalty. Duke Senior is a gentle, mild, good man exiled to the forest by his ambitious younger brother Frederick. Senior responds to the situation with calm, philosophic stoicism rather than hatred or despair. He is accompanied in exile by four other lords who voluntarily renounce their property and follow Senior to the forest out of loyalty to their Duke. The following lines precede the passage quoted earlier.
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court? (AYLI, II, i, 1-4)
And thus our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it. (AYLI, II, i, 15-18)
Senior's goodness is not supported by strength. He loses the throne to a stronger man who desires it more than he and who lacks the culture of restraint. Senior rather enjoys the quiet life of the forest away from the intrigues of the court. The loyalty of the four lords as well as Senior's own temperament reflect the cultural attainments of a society which remains unruffled even at loss of power and worldly possessions.
Orlando's rebellion against his older brother Oliver is a further indication of the atmosphere and an expression of a fundamental law of life. There is no event in life which occurs in isolation or is self-contained. Each act has its result and leads to further acts. When a group of similar or related acts occur in close sequence we speak of a movement in life. A movement may continue and perpetuate itself by repetition in time or extension to other areas or other persons. The latter appears to us as a subplot such as we see here in the confrontation of Orlando and Oliver and in the Gloucester subplot of King Lear. Or it may extend itself in one direction and reverse itself in another. Each man responds according to his character and circumstances. In any case, the movement of life continues.
Hazlitt, William. "As You Like It." Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1996.
Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
Jameson, Anna. Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women. 1889. Facsim. rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1967.
Lamb, Charles and Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. New York: Weathervane Books, 1975. 53-79.
McFarland, Thomas. Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
Marsden, Jean. I. The Re-Imagined Text: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Theory. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1995.
Morris, William. News from Nowhere. Ed. James Redmond. Boston: Routledge, 1988.