It didn’t save his life — as in all those (probably apocryphal) stories about a Bible in a breast pocket blocking a bullet — but it did help him keep his sanity in a world gone mad.
In my childhood, that same volume sat between bookends on top of a bookcase in our living room. I discovered it when I was about eleven.
I’d long since grown bored with Nancy Drew and had been finding most of my reading matter on my parents’ bookshelves (all of Dorothy Parker and a copious amount of Agatha Christie) along with books from the adult section of the bookmobile. (Back in those days, my children, the YA section consisted of Sue Barton, Student Nurse, and others of its ilk. I’d exhausted any literary value from those books by the time I was ten.)
The first play I read was As You Like It.
I not only read it, I memorized some of the speeches from it for school: “All the World’s a Stage” and the Duke’s speech at the beginning of Act II, Scene I. I was possibly the only person in my high school who memorized both Dorothy Parker and Shakespeare.
After As You Like It, I ventured into some of the other plays, so you can imagine my disgust when I discovered that my ninth grade English textbook included the Charles and Mary Lamb bowdlerized version of A Comedy of Errors instead of the play. Some idiot had decreed that fourteen was too young for the real thing.
I survived both that and a dreadful professor in my Shakespeare class in college to become a real fan, though not in any way a scholar. I not only continued to read the plays, but went out of my way to see good productions of them. They are, after all, written to be performed, and seeing a great actor in some of those roles made the plays come alive.
I’ve seen James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, and Patrick Stewart all play Othello. I’ve watched Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Henry V over and over. I’ve lost count of all the versions I’ve seen of Midsummer Night’s Dream, starting with a high school production of the play within a play. For years I had season tickets to the Washington Shakespeare Theatre and saw productions good (the Henry IV plays) and bad (ridiculous platform shoes on the French courtiers in a production of Henry V).
But the best production of a Shakespeare play that I’ve ever seen was of As You Like It at the Folger Theatre. It was done by a small cast of local professional actors on the Folger’s tiny stage and most of the actors played many parts. One, in fact, played four roles, and in the final scene — which featured all of those minor parts — they had to pull people out of the audience to stand around the stage to represent those people.
The only reason I didn’t roll in the aisles was that the aisles were too small. I’m sure Shakespeare would have loved it, too.
So, now that I’ve established my Shakespeare fan-girl credentials, I bet some people are thinking, “If you like As You Like It so damn much, how did you have the temerity to borrow it for Ardent Forest?”
I have a simple defense: Shakespeare did it.
According to my copy of the complete works (not my father’s, alas; my nephew has that), As You Like It is based on Thomas Lodge’s novel Rosalynde, which is itself based on the more ancient Tale of Gamelyn. Gamelyn, by the way, also includes elements of Robin Hood. I borrowed those, too.
Shakespeare borrowed a lot of his plots. The Comedy of Errors is based on Plautus’s Menaechmi, which, if I remember my college classics classes correctly, was itself based on a Greek play by Menander that does not survive.
I found the core plot of As You Like It translated well into a post-apocalyptic near future in which Texas and the rest of the United States are reduced to city states not unlike those implied by the play. Also, even though I love the play, there are parts of the story I thought should be told differently. So I did. Brazen of me, I’m sure, but, of course, Shakespeare changed the stories he borrowed, too.
There’s no copyright on Shakespeare’s work and many others have borrowed it. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is based on King Lear. She introduces elements that would never have been discussed or considered in Elizabethan times. Akira Kurosawa based his movie Throne of Blood on Macbeth and also used Lear as the basis for Ran. Kurosawa rejected the idea that a king would divide his kingdom among daughters and changed it to sons, which is probably sacrilege as well.
For me, those changes and my own provide commentary on Shakespeare’s work. One of the things fiction can do is add to the discussion of a work by altering it in ways that reflect both changing times and changing interpretations.
Which makes this sound too academic. Truth is, I borrowed As You Like It because I loved it and wanted to play with it. I can’t think of a better excuse.