Now, to continue our discussion of Comedy, a few notes on Paloma – my student who was preparing auditions for college programs - and her discoveries while researching Phoebe, the shepherdess from As You Like It. Shakespeare’s dramas are difficult enough, but his comedies –and the comic moments in his tragedies – often defy the ingenuity of even the most accomplished actors and directors, because humor partly depends for its ability to amuse on the mores of the times in which it is conceived. For example, after very few years, even jokes about G.W. Bush have dwindled to a trickle….
What is a shepherdess exactly? They’re more exalted than shepherds, that’s for sure; even in the time of Marie Antoinette, shepherdesses were mythical, poetical beings. How many of us have heard of a shepherdess shepherding all by herself? In literature and painting she is usually romantically linked to a shepherd, never alone with the sheep. Okay, shepherdesses do exist, I just googled it. But the leading contenders are fictitious, appearing only as artistic inspiration. Before going into any more generalizations about these bucolic females, let us take a look at the specifics of Shakespeare’s Phoebe.
After Paloma and I wrestled with the language of her speech (Act 3, lines 109-135) and figured out what Phoebe is actually saying about Rosalind – with whom she has fallen in love, Rosalind having disguised herself as a man named Ganymede. Of course, in Shakespeare’s day Rosalind is actually played by a man, who is supposed to be a woman dressed as a man. But for the purposes of this particular writing, I’m going to leave that to another discussion of ‘pants parts’ in Shakespeare.
Phoebe’s problem is the insults that her beloved Rosalind has been hurling at her, for ignoring and belittling Silvius, the shepherd who, in turn, is in love with Phoebe and follows her around like a puppy. Paloma was exhibiting the same determination and ability for hard work that she had put into Juliet, but initially the result was ponderous and not very funny. Phoebe was turning into a schizophrenic, a girl who both hates and loves a man who has insulted her, switching back and forth on practically every line she utters. At least the objective was clear: conning Silvius into doing her dirty work for her – in other words getting him to go after his rival and bring him back to Phoebe! Cruelty and humor make difficult bedfellows! Phoebe’s monologue begins thus:
Think not I love him though I ask for him.
Tis but a peevish boy, yet he talks well.
But what care I for words? Yet words do well
When he who speaks them pleases those that hear.
So many contradictions! And she goes on and on in this vein. Of course, she is expressing herself in the same manner as all comic characters when they talk about love; feeling and reason crashing into one another. On the one hand, being overwhelmed and possessed by the tsunami of desire, while grasping the fact that one is being treated shabbily by the love object. A modern example would be a very funny scene in Theresa Rebeck’s ‘Loose Knit:’
Margie: Well, I do think it’s nice to have beautiful things. In your life. I wish I had beautiful things in my life. I wish I had your car in my life… And I find you fascinating, but I also want to tell you to fuck off. Do you know what I mean? I don’t really want to tell you to fuck off, really what I want to do is have sex in the back seat of that amazing car, but frankly, I don’t know…
Although there is a four-hundred year gap between these passages, the inconsistencies in both Margie’s and Phoebe’s points of view create comedy. Here’s another way of putting it: the underlying truth about desire and the confusion it creates remains consistent throughout time. Please stay with me, I know how confusing this is – I’m figuring out how to write about it as I go along… The question we have to ask ourselves is this: why isn’t this working out? Why can’t the character figure out what’s going on? Remember that the character is written by a playwright, who is concerned with specific issues.
Let us first concern ourselves with Rebeck’s character, Margie, since the contemporary language is more accessible. Margie likes the car belonging to the man she’s addressing. In spite of disliking him, she wants to have sex with him in his car – so she must feel herself lacking in status and material things. The rhythm and content of the lines make them funny, so if the actress personalizes the car as something she, herself, deeply craves the monologue will work.
We need to apply the same principle to Phoebe, although the application is more complicated, partly because of the language and also because it’s Shakespeare, and he’s, well… very, very deep. The key to this, I think, is why Phoebe is obsessed with Rosalind, when she already has Silvius, a much more suitable suitor, already in the bag. Her complaints about Rosalind /Ganymede point to a desire to better herself and her life. She doesn’t like being confined to her ’shepherdess existence.’ Although Rosalind is disguised in ‘poor and mean attire,’ she speaks as one who is educated. Phoebe, later in her monologue to Silvius, both attacks and praises Rosalind’s arrogance:
I have more cause to hate him than to love him,
For what had he to do to chide at me?
He said my eyes were black and my hair black,
And now I am remembered scorned at me.
Then she proceeds to write a letter to Rosalind – a bit of poetic license on Shakespeare’s part since it would seem unlikely in those days that a shepherdess would been able to read and write. She fights back; she doesn’t give up. In the end, Rosalind makes fun of the badly written prose, heaping further humiliation on poor Phoebe, but then, because it’s a comedy, Ganymede turns back into Rosalind and Phoebe ends up accepting her lot with Silvius. Underlying the favorable disentangling of this knotty situation is something sad. Phoebe could never have Rosalind, whether man or woman, because of the class difference –
Rosalind’s scornful attitude toward Phoebe is based on the latter’s cruelty toward Silvius. Phoebe is as irritated with Silvius’ attentions as Rosalind is with Phoebe’s. But Phoebe utterly depends on Silvius – rather like a sibling, when parental support is lacking. This is the question the actress playing Phoebe must ask herself: what do I want in my life that I can never have…