The Reader Magazine: Reading As You Like It by William Shakespeare
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Act 2, Scene 1. A French Duke has been usurped and banished from his court by his brother and has taken refuge in the nearby Forest of Arden. There, accompanied by a band of faithful followers, he lives like ‘the old Robin Hood of England’.
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?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ 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: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
One early evening, these lines were read by a large and lively group who meet – currently online – to share Shakespeare plays. As the session began, there was a feeling of camaraderie that crisscrossed between the windows on the screen, and a couple of members took on the role of reading aloud with great relish.
In the discussion that followed, one woman wondered what it must feel like for the Duke and his party to enter the new environment of the woods, for them a kind of discovery. Thinking of the line which ‘Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks’, she said: ‘It must be lovely just to hear the trees and the brooks. If you’ve been somewhere where you hear a lot of chatter and you get away from it, it’s a relief, isn’t it?’ Putting together those piercing descriptions of the cold - ‘the icy fang’, ‘churlish chiding’ and the wind that ‘bites and blows’ - another woman said that though the Duke may not like it, ‘it does make him feel alive’, much as the cold itself feels like a living thing in these lines. Another person added that ‘it’s not comfortable, not pleasant, but at least it’s honest’, pointing to how nature refuses to play the courtly game of flattery. The woman who had spoken of feeling alive then took this further, making the comment that ‘you can trust what you feel’ - “counsellors/That feelingly persuade me…”
Someone mentioned that ‘the penalty of Adam’ was probably referring to the Biblical Adam, the first man, and another person remarked, ‘It’s like the Duke separated himself off till now,’ but now our man of the court is suddenly in a position where ‘he’s got to face “what I am” having been stripped of everything else’.
The group expressed the feeling several times that this could have been quite a radical statement to make if the play would actually be performed at the royal court in Shakespeare’s time.
This extract is the inspiration for a new digital literature and heritage trail experience at The Reader’s headquarters in Calderstones Park, which will launch this summer. The experience will be based around a map that guides visitors to the park on a journey of discovery and reflection, where they’ll uncover stories about the park, the Mansion which houses The Reader’s offices and the International Centre for Shared Reading, and the Neolithic Calder Stones which give the park its name. At each point of interest on the digital trail there will be readings from literature, helping visitors understand what our Reading Revolution is all about.