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Shakespeare Matters: “As You Like It”

Shakespeare’s gem, “As You Like It,” is still going strong after nearly four centuries. The play hits all cylinders: strong characters, plot and themes, great comedy, and language that’s a treat for the ears, especially if one reads the play before seeing it.

First published in 1623, the play was already at least 270 years old when the acclaimed Helena Modjeska starred as Rosalind in an 1893 production.

Helen Modjeska as Rosalind in 1893.

I caught a performance of “As You Like It” last week at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Normal, Illinois. (The festival runs through August 11.) Gracyn Mix and Amanda Catania are superb in the roles of Rosalind and Celia, the two young women who dress up as men and flee a cruel duke by escaping to the Forest of Arden. Dylan Paul as Rosalind’s lover, Orlando, is also excellent. He and Mix have great chemistry on stage and, with Catania, carry the play.

Now, here are five quick reasons to see “As You Like It.”

It’s funny. Reading the play, I laughed out loud at the jokes and puns, often thanks to the “clown” Touchstone who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into the forest. This play is full of satire and parodies that are best understood by reading the text. Believe me, Shakespeare is much more satisfying when the audience gets the jokes and knows when to laugh!

It’s serious. One of many things Shakespeare does wonderfully well is presenting themes with contrasting plot elements that move the story forward. In expressing the play’s “love conquers all” theme, Shakespeare will use a tense, serious scene – when the life of Rosalind or Orlando is threatened, for instance – and then follow it with a comedic scene, all the while maintaining a steady pace and flow.

It’s fascinating. Watching Shakespeare is like watching people that lived four centuries ago, resurrected before your eyes. This is how our ancestors thought, spoke and behaved. In some ways they are quite different from us − for example, they believed that “falling in love” resulted from beams shooting from lovers’ eyes and entangling with each other − and in other ways they are exactly the same. In this sense, Shakespeare provides a very interesting (and entertaining) history lesson – not just about language and culture, but about our very consciousness, showing us where we came from.

It’s music to the ears. There’s a lot of music and poetry in “As You Like It,” and wonderful speeches such as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue given by the melancholy Jacques. The bonus is that Shakespeare also delivers parodies of songs and poems, almost as if he were making fun of himself.

It’s relevant. “As You Like It” still connects with audiences with a message of hope about the magical power of love, which can transform even the cruelest of people. It’s a feel good play – there are no deaths, except for deer and a lioness that live in the forest. Shakespeare extends compassion even for the poor animals, sounding like an early animal rights activist.

Maybe that’s part of the staying power of Shakespeare. He’s so ahead of his time he’s never outdated.

Elephants: Wanted Dead…or Alive?

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of the assassins says he’ll use flattery to lure the Roman dictator to the Capitol, comparing it to how elephants are “betrayed” with “holes,” i.e., trapped with hidden pitfalls. The comparison sounds archaic, but may soon sound a lot more so: without serious intervention, some warn that the African elephant, whose ancestors have roamed the earth for 50 million years, will fall into the final hole of extinction within 20 years.

That’s right, viewers of Julius Caesar may one day ask, “what’s an elephant?” During our own lifetimes, the majestic African elephant, a highly intelligent animal that appears to have a form of language, is becoming extinct.

African elephants: headed towards extinction in 20 years.

You may think it takes magic to make elephants suddenly disappear, but it doesn’t. It’s happening right before our eyes and we know why. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there were as few as 472,000 African elephants in 2007, down from 1.3 million in 1979. That’s an average loss of over 25,000 elephants per year.

It’s no mystery how this is happening: massive numbers of elephants are being slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade.

In May, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Senator John Kerry, held hearings on the “Global Implications of Poaching in Africa.” Representatives from Save the Elephants and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species described how an armed militia, backed by organized crime, recently massacred as many as 400 elephants in the Cameroon for their ivory.

“How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction,” said Kerry.

The situation of the Asian elephant, the other species of the world’s largest land mammal, is equally dire. Today’s wild population of Asian elephants is dwindling fast and is now estimated at less than 33,000. Sadly, the plunging number may leave programs such as Elephant Trails at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. as one of the last chances for the species’ survival.

In contrast to their African cousins, the main challenge for Asian elephants is habitat loss: the forests where wild Asian elephants live are being cut down to grow cash crops, such as palm.

Asian elephants: less than 33,000 in the wild.

To his credit, Senator Kerry is taking the problem seriously. He’s introduced Senate Bill 2318  to expand the State Department’s “Rewards Program” to include transnational organized crime and reduce trafficking of all kinds. At the May hearing, he sounded open to the idea of expanding the Rewards Program to include compensating countries that destroy stockpiles of ivory, as Gabon recently has done.

What can you do? Please take a few minutes and send an email to Senator Kerry, expressing thanks for his concern about the elephants’ plight, and the hope that Senate Bill 2318 is expanded to include rewards for destroying ivory.

It’s a small contribution you can make to help keep this magnificent species alive.