Stealing From the Greats

As You Like It from the First FolioWhen my father was in North Africa during World War II, he asked his mother to send him the complete works of Shakespeare. He carried the volume she sent him throughout the war.

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 Ardent Forestyou 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.



Stealing From the Greats — 9 Comments

  1. Not to mention Alan Gordon’s Fool’s Guild murder mysteries. Start with Thirteenth Night and move on to His Antic Disposition.

    In the latter, right at the end, we’re told that one of his characters has gone to England, fallen in love with a shepherdess, and hung up his cap and bells. OK – now we know what play we’re in. And since this series takes place at the end of the 12th Century – beginning of the 13th, we have a very good idea how and why Rosalind fell afoul of the Powers That Be. Consider, not who was King of England at the time, but who was Queen! )I can’t wait for Gordon to write that story, too.)

    So, write on! You have the right!

  2. Did you ever see the production of HENRY V that they did for free in the summer? I went to the one where one of the soldiers fell off the stage in the battle scene. The famous cry, “Is there a doctor in the house?” was heard.

  3. Shakespeare geeks ftw! My brother and I used to act out the plays when we were just old enough to read–five or six–and in my teens and college years I used to go to the Theatre at Monmouth in Maine every summer and attend every play if I could. Even bad high-school teachers couldn’t ruin the plays for me, because I saw them alive in the theatre.

    The best production I ever saw was there (and I’ve seen Jacobi do Hamlet at the Old Vic). King Lear. So overwhelming and so stunning that people stumbled out of the performance and stood in the dark, staring. I can still feel the energy of that night in that exquisite little jewel box of a theatre–built to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan operettas when those were still a Hot New Thing.

    Shakespeare for me is best taken live. I’ve never seen a film version that affected me the way the live productions have.