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Similarities in Shakespeare's work

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2760 words Published: 9th Mar 2017

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Write an essay which profitably compares and/or contrasts ONE of the following (a-d) with a scene or dramatic sequence (a ‘sequence’ means that it must consist of a consecutive series of events from within a scene or across scenes) that you select from a different semester 2 play. You should make an argument in your essay by paying attention to the dramatic contexts of the passages you are considering.

Despite being from two different genres, ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Henry IV, Part 1’, a comedy and a history play respectively, have a number of unexpected similarities. The selected passage in ‘As You Like it’ is situated between Act III, Scene I, l.1 and Act III, Scene II, l. 268 and uses a battle of wit to debate the superiority of court life verses country life. The chosen passage also highlights the intellect of female characters such as Rosalind who cleverly manipulates situations with her use of language and disguise. Similarly in ‘Henry IV, Part I’, in Act II, Scene V, Hal and Falstaff’s ‘play-within-a-play’ joking condemns tavern life and glorifies the king and palace, thus again debating the superiority of life inside the royal court verses the life of those on the outskirts of society. Moreover, the play’s lack of women is a stark contrast with the strong female lead portrayed in ‘As You Like It’. We also see that Hal shares Rosalind’s ability to manipulate others through language as he performs the character of both himself and his father and later implies that he has been ­­­deceiving Falstaff with his friendship. These similarities, therefore, raise a number of questions as to the perception of female intellect in Shakespeare’s works and the use of comedic characters within the two plays.

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The most noticeable similarity between the two passages is Shakespeare’s use of comedic characters and battles of wit. In ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare uses the characters of Touchstone and Corin as both a comic back-and-forth as well as to highlight the relevant issue of court life verses country life. The exchange is light-hearted, however, Touchstone is markedly more aggressive with his opinions, resulting in Corin eventually giving in: “You have too courtly a wit for me: I’ll rest” (3.2.60), emphasising that despite the fact Corin makes relevant points, he is no match for Touchstone’s intelligence and quick wit. However, this scene also shows Touchstone to be hypocritical as he chides Corin for never having been to court, claiming that “if thou never wast at court, thou never sawest good manners […] then thy manners must be wicked” (3.2.35-37). The audience, however, sees the exact opposite traits in these two characters; whilst Corin respectfully refers to Touchstone as “Master Touchstone” (3.2.12), Touchstone belittles Corin and refers to him as “shepherd” (3.2.13). Touchstone’s lack of respect towards Corin likens him to his comic counterpart, Falstaff, in ‘Henry IV’: despite the fact Falstaff is a common “Ruffian” (2.5.414) and is even referred to by Hal as a “whoremaster” (2.5.428), Touchstone’s behaviour towards Corin is that which one might expect from Falstaff rather than a court “fool” (3.2.87). We can also liken the exchange between Corin and Touchstone to that of Hal and Falstaff, who also engage in battles of wit and though their ‘play-within-a-play’, in which Hal portrays both himself and his father King Henry IV. Their performance is also reminiscent of Corin and Touchstone’s debate on court life verses country life as Falstaff mocks the king by using a “dagger” (2.5.345) as a “sceptre” (2.5.345) and a “cushion” (2.5.345) as a “crown” (2.5.345), before jokingly condemning “how [Hal] art accompanied” (2.5.365), before Hal insults said company; “That villainous, abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff” (2.5.421).

Despite them both being comic and somewhat disrespectful characters, Touchstone and Falstaff differ greatly. While Touchstone is a man of the court and looks down on those who are not: “Truly, thou art damned like an ill-roasted egg” (3.2.32), Falstaff, on the other hand is exactly the type of character Touchstone assumes all those outside of the court to be like. Despite his poor manners towards Corin, Touchstone is essentially an honourable character, as proven by his accompanying Celia and Rosalind in to the “Forest of Ardenne”. This depicts Touchstone as a loyal character, which contrasts radically with the cowardice of Falstaff in the final scene of the play in which he fakes his own death. This raises questions as to the type of comedic characters they are: while Touchstone is a court “fool” or jester, Falstaff is simply a crude but witty character whom audiences both laugh at and with, displaying his eccentric and loud characteristics through crude puns; Touchstone, as a court jester, is educated and his humour is more conservative. This difference in character would have made Falstaff a much more enjoyable character for the audience, who would be able to understand his jokes and find his tavern life somewhat relatable. The fact that both Corin and Falstaff are common and relatable characters made their comparisons to and debates about court and country life with Touchstone and Hal very relevant to a contemporary audience. Touchstone, however, is a reminder of a typical court life which would have been out of the ‘groundlings’ reach and possibly even understanding. A further difference between these two passages is that unlike Touchstone and Corin, Hal and Falstaff are perfectly matched in terms of wit, which arguably creates a more comic scene than the comedy play itself. Whilst Hal and Falstaff are able to seamlessly interact and perform their witty and amusing play, even effortlessly switching roles halfway though, Corin is unable to keep up with Touchstone’s quick mind and sharp tongue, despite having numerous good points to make.

It initially appears as though Hal has no counterpart in ‘As You Like It’ as the lead male character in ‘As You Like It’, Orlando, is far from the cunning, decisive and brave one Hal proves himself to be and is instead a clichéd Petrarchan lover. Hal has far more in common with the play’s protagonist, Rosalind. Rosalind’s ability to use language in a persuasive and effective manner gives her a control over her own identity and course of life that is commonly only found in Shakespearean men. Both Hal and Rosalind share the ability to shift between different personas in order to attain or achieve what they want as well as to deceive whomever they want. Hal is able to seamlessly shift from portraying himself, to portraying his father; at the same time as deceiving all those around him into thinking he is an unruly prince in order to emerge a hero at the end of the play. He even fools his ‘close friend’ Falstaff while they are acting out the scene between Hal and his father: Falstaff begs ‘the King’ (Hal) “Banish not him thy Harry’s company, Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.436-438), to which ‘the King’ (Hal) responds with a foreshadowing of later events: “I do; I will” (2.5.439). Throughout the ‘play-within-a-play” in Act II, Scene V, Hal is able to speak his true feelings under the guise of playing the King, even calling his ‘friend’ “that villainous, abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff; that’s old white-bearded Satan” (2.5.421-422). Similarly, Rosalind is able to encourage Orlando and learn his true feelings for her though her male guise in ‘As You Like It.’

One can argue that as a woman, Rosalind’s intelligence and ability to control and manipulate other characters is far more impressive than a male character performing the same feat. However, it is important to analyse the gravity of both situations; Hal’s manipulation is for a far greater cause than Rosalind’s pursuit of love. In Act II, Scene V, prior to Hal and Falstaff’s performance, Hal is informed of the rebellion against his father. The audience has already learned from Act I, Scene II that Hal has “smother[ed] up his beauty from the world” (1.2.177) in order to show himself as a valiant and redeemed prince “when men think least [he] will” (1.2.195). The information about the rebellion makes this hidden identity even more crucial as it ultimately knocks Hotspur off-guard in battle, allowing Hal’s victory. The staging of this scene is crucial as it can be left to the director or actor to decide how much Falstaff knows and how serious Hal is. In the 2010 Globe production of the play, it appears as though Falstaff is blissfully unaware of the real intent behind Hal’s words and the sudden change in tone when Hal says “I do; I will” is chilling. In other productions, however, one might portray Falstaff as well aware that when Hal becomes king, Falstaff will no longer be appropriate company for him and therefore Falstaff uses his role playing of King Henry as an opportunity to stress his ‘good character’ and thus urge Hal not to break ties: “there is virtue in that Falstaff” (2.5.391).

Rosalind’s impressive portrayal of a man and wit equal to that of Prince Hal is simply one of the many gender roles explored by ‘As You Like It’. One of the most interesting aspects of ‘As You Like It’, as a whole, is the issue of gender and Act III, Scene II is perhaps key in highlighting this. The very nature of Rosalind’s wooing Orlando whilst dressed as a man challenges the conventions of traditional relationships as does her pursuit of him rather than the other way around. The nature of cross-dressing within this play becomes very intricate and confusing, especially if one considers the fact that as at the time it was first written, there would have been a boy actor playing a woman (Rosalind), who is dressed as a man (Ganymede) pretending to be a woman (Rosalind) as the ‘real’ Rosalind attempts to court Orlando. ‘Cheek by Jowl’s 1991 production of ‘As You Like It’ chose to use the traditional casting of a male actor (Adrian Lester) playing Rosalind in order to portray the full extent of gender confusion within the play. The play raises questions as to Rosalind’s ‘true’ identity: is she breaking free from the constraints of being a woman when she escapes from court and becomes a man? Is her true identity that of a masculine character? It seems strange that Rosalind would choose to adopt the persona of a man: we know from Celia’s transformation in to Aliena that Rosalind could also have chosen a female persona. However, we later see that this male persona becomes very useful and allows Rosalind to have a position of control and the audience must therefore question whether Rosalind is in fact simply very intelligent in realising that she would be able to achieve far more while portraying a man.

Questions are also raised as to whether fellow characters are aware of the unconvincing disguises donned by Celia and, in particular, Rosalind in the same way the audience are or whether, for the purpose of the play, they genuinely cannot see beyond the disguise. If this is so then the play has more implicit homoerotic connotations of Orlando falling for someone whom he genuinely believes to be another man. However, if the characters simply go along with Rosalind and Celia’s disguises, it would suggest that Orlando knows all along that he is courting Rosalind and not Ganymede. Despite the obvious relationship issues related to cross dressing, one must address the ease of which Rosalind goes about daily life when dressed as Ganymede, compared to Celia, dressed as Aliena. Rosalind appears to make a fairly convincing man and as a result obtains freedom and control; she is able to advise Orlando under the guise of being a man and is able to initiate courtship between herself and Orlando. Aliena’s position, however, remains very much the same as her disguise is the same gender. While our heroine proves herself to be a convincing man, and emphasises her ability to be masculine through her cross-dressing, she is still biologically female and therefore sometimes physically and emotionally weak, for example in Act IV, Scene III; Rosalind faints when Oliver shows her a napkin “dyed in [Orlando’s] blood” (4.3.154) and is subsequently scolded: “Be of good cheer, youth. You a man? You lack a man’s heart” (4.3.163-164), to which Rosalind replies “I should have been a woman by right” (4.3173-174). This conversation implies that while women might be equally as intelligent and quick-witted as their male companions, they ultimately retain their feminine qualities that prevent them from reacting to situations a masculine way. ‘As You Like It’ even presents the idea of men losing their masculinity and control, as shown by Duke Frederick’s treatment of Oliver in Act III, Scene I. Duke Frederick uses his excessive power to repress any masculinity Oliver has left, by demanding the return of Orlando on pain of banishment: “Find out thy brother […] bring him, dead or living, within this twelvemonth, or turn thou no more to seek a living in our territory” (3.1.5-7). This scene is portrayed particularly accurately in the 2010 Globe production in which Oliver is dragged on stage, bloodied and defenceless. This emphasises that while women have the ability to draw upon masculine qualities, male characters have the capacity to be emasculated.

‘Henry IV, Part I’, features only three women in the entire play, all of whom are minor characters and therefore offers a much narrower outlook on such issues as gender, focusing almost solely on the importance of masculinity. Act II, Scene V features only one of these women, Mistress Quickly, who is the hostess at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. As she is the hostess of the tavern, Mistress Quickly associates with miscreants on a daily basis and it is clear that she is not overly intelligent as later in the play in Act III, Scene III, she constantly gets lost in conversation: “Say, what thing, what thing?” (3.3.105) Moreover, during Mistress Quickly’s input in to Falstaff and Hal’s play in Act II, Scene V, it is implied that the Queen, Hal’s mother, is overly emotional and hardly ever present: “For God’s sake, lords, convey my tristful Queen, For tears do stop the floodgates of her eyes” (2.5.359-360). The representation of both women in this scene is negative and it is clear through King Henry IV’s claim in Act I, Scene I that he envies “that lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blest a son” (1.1.78-79) that masculinity is important enough for the king to wish Hotspur was his son rather than Hal.

Ultimately, there are a number of similarities that draw these two plays together, such as the comedic characters of Touchstone and Falstaff, with Falstaff’s scenes making Henry IV somewhat of a comedy rather than a history play. Moreover, the talented use of language and manipulation by Hal and Rosalind and their play’s comparably intricate plots of deception unite the two plays as ones of great intellect and humour. However, there are differences that undeniably distinguish these two plays. One cannot ignore the fact that Hal is being compared to a woman who is equally intelligent and impressive at deception, which arguably makes her character more impressive. However, her frivolous cause of finding love, compared to Hal’s noble intentions of catching Hotspur and others off-guard in order to prove himself a valiant prince in battle, reminds the audience that ‘As You Like It’ is a comedy and therefore the message is arguably subdued. However, I feel that it must be acknowledged and remembered that ‘Henry IV, Part I’ is an extremely male oriented play with only one woman appearing in the chosen passage and only three appearing in the play as a whole, resulting in a lack of message at all.


Primary Sources:

Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus., (2008) The Norton Shakespeare 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton)

Secondary Sources:

Gorman, S. E., (2006) The Theatricality of Transformation: cross-dressing and gender/sexuality spectra on the Elizabethan stage (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University)

Globe Theatre Production (2010) As You Like It

Cheek by Jowl (1991) As You Like It


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