Hooray! We finally returned to the land of Shakespeare! And what a fine, strange, land it is! As You Like It is definitely one of Shakespeare’s sillier comedies, which I attribute to the fact that he was doing his level best to turn it into an opera or a musical – never your most sensible of genres. Think Twelfth Night on crack. With even more songs.
So you have Rosalind – played by a boy – dressing as a boy with the suggestive name of Ganymede – and playing the part of a girl – of Rosalind, in fact – in order to ‘cure’ her suitor of his infatuation with – Rosalind.
If this makes no sense whatsoever, then you are on the right track. No explanation is given for the fact that it never occurs to Orlando that the man who he describes to his brother as being “fair and of a female favour”, and who, on first sight, he thought “was a brother to [Rosalind]”, might actually be Rosalind.
We could only surmise that Rosalind loves Orlando for his looks – it certainly isn’t for his brains. Or his eyesight. Or his poetry – since Shakespeare has an absolutely marvellous time writing endless doggerel for Orlando to pin to trees or carve into their bark (Rosalind also doesn’t love him for his environmental awareness).
Meanwhile, we have the banished Duke living like Robin Hood and his Merrie Men in the forest of Arden, we have a matched set of envious brothers who conspire fratricide, we have love at first sight in the most unlikely circumstances, and the inevitability of random female characters falling passionately in love for the girl-dressed-as-a-boy (sorry, that should be the boy playing a girl dressed as a boy pretending to be a girl), we have weird off-stage conversions to religion, and snakes awakening lions the better to let our hero prove himself truly heroic, and at every opportunity, someone bursts into song.
(Mostly, that someone is me, because it was just easier that way – but we did in fact have four separate singers and pianist involved in this play. Because when one runs away from court to live like Robin Hood and his Merrie Men in the forest of Arden, the first thing one packs is one’s piano…)
After a while, one starts to sympathise with Jaques and his cynical view of the whole situation.
Also, it must be said that for a play with this much gender-bending going on, it is incredibly gender-essentialist and sexist. “I am a woman – when I think I must speak.” “You, a man? You lack a man’s heart” – and then, of course, there is Rosalind’s entire bit about how she will behave when married:
No, no, Orlando: men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen; more clamorous than a parrot against rain; more new-fangled than an ape; more giddy in my desires than a monkey: I will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and that when thou are inclined to sleep.
But will my Rosalind do so?
By my life, she will do as I do.
O, but she is wise.
Or else she could not have the wit to do this: the wiser, the waywarder: make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and it will out at the keyhole; stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney.
Incidentally, by far the majority of really painfully sexist remarks come from Rosalind while she is dressed as a man. I’m sure there is an essay in that…
I must say, it was very cathartic to get to tell Rosalind, as Celia that she had ‘simply misused our sex’.
Oh, you want to know about the food? Well, there was quite a lot of it, as it happens.
I divided the ends of the table into castle and forest, with appropriate food at each end. For the castle, I got out my bundt pan, and made a castle-shaped gingerbread cake to the Gramercy Tavern recipe (I’m rather proud of the fact that I got it out of the tin without losing any turrets).
I also made the Elizabethan Garden cake from my Shakespeare Cookbook, to represent the garden in front of the Duke’s palace where Celia and Rosalind walk at the start of the play. With capers, because “We that are true lovers run into strange capers”.
For the forest of Arden, I also made two centerpieces. The first, of course, was the Arden Forest Salad, which I am still incredibly happy about.
The second really had to involve venison. I mean, even without the Robin Hood connection, venison is a big feature of Arden Forest – they hunt venison, Jaques weeps over the deer, the deer, apparently weeps too:
And did you leave [Jaques] in this contemplation?
We did, my lord, weeping and commenting
Upon the sobbing deer.
And then, inevitably, talk of deer leads to talk of horns (this is Shakespeare, after all, and if there is an opportunity to make a dirty joke, you can be sure he will make it), and songs about cuckoldry.
In short, venison was necessary. But getting venison into my feast nearly made me weep, too, because venison was not to be had at any market or shop in my vicinity. In the end, I settled on kangaroo, or hopping venison, on the grounds that it is a game meat, and that the first European settlers in Australia initially mistook kangaroo for deer. Then there was more weeping, as I attempted to make said hopping venison into a pie – an old-fashioned, jellied pie with a hot water crust and a cranberry topping.
I shall spare you an account of my travails with this pie. Suffice it to say, the pie did actually manage to make it to the table, which at one point looked pretty unlikely, and, to my amazement, it was actually pretty well-received – by everyone except me and one of my guests, who was over-jellied in her youth.
The cranberry topping for my pie of course contributed to another theme for this feast – that of things not being what they seem. At a glance, the pie looked like a sweet pie. I decided to extend this metaphor by making fruit and nut sweetmeats that looked like meatballs – with a strawberry dipping sauce on the side.
To balance this, I then made meat balls that looked like fruit and contained hidden grapes (“The heathen philosopher, when he had a desire to eat a grape, would open his lips when he put it into his mouth; meaning thereby that grapes were made to eat and lips to open.”. Also “Truly, the tree yields bad fruit,”, though the meatballs were not bad at all…).
I decided we needed a bit more food than that (of course I did), so I then turned to the text, in search of potential puns, or even mentions of food. This turned out to be fairly useful. For one thing, there is a Fool. And fool is not a difficult dessert to make. I chose rhubarb for my fruit, and put it into teeny tiny containers (because I was, at least on some level, aware that I might possibly be on the verge of overcatering)
Then, of course, the Fool tells Rosalind and Celia about “a certain knight that swore by his honour they were good pancakes”, which clearly indicated that stuffed pancakes were on the menu.
Oliver naturally called for olives – which I bought but forgot to put on the table, alas! – and Rosalind – “my sweet Rose, my dear Rose” called inevitably for rose and raspberry cupcakes. Did I remember to photograph them? Alas, no. This is probably because I was under the delusion that I could somehow ice 18 cupcakes as roses in ten minutes with buttercream that was too cold to pipe… and wound up just serving the cakes late and un-iced (but still glorious).
Winter and frost were mentioned fairly frequently and mostly in song, which I took as a fine excuse to break out my snowflake-shaped cookie cutters and have at it with lavender shortbread. This was a really excellent move, and I only wish I’d made more (I did make about 50 biscuits. It wasn’t enough. I’ve run out of leftovers after a mere week.).
Chocolate bark (for Orlando to mar with writing love songs in them) was also a necessity – I had dried apricots, dried cranberries, mixed nuts, crystallised ginger and glacé mandarins, all of which seemed like excellent bark ingredients and went deliciously with my dark chocolate.
We had dips (and of course the strawberry dipping sauce for my not!meatballs, to represent ‘saucy lacqueys’, ‘honey a sauce to sugar’ and saucing people with bitter words, and then we had bread to go with the dips, and also for all the talk of breeding and how Rosalind and Celia were bred together from the cradle (while Orlando was bred worse than horses).
And then I made some completely gratuitous beetroot and apple tarts from my Shakespeare Cookbook, just because I felt like it and I liked the colour.
There was definitely enough food. And it really is a fun play, for all its insanity (and what is with Shakespeare’s habit of having the most dramatic scenes take place off-stage, to be described later? Though I have my suspicions that Shakespeare had the same actor playing both the good and the bad Dukes, which was why we couldn’t have the bad Duke’s repentance happening on-stage in the final scene, and had to make do with a messenger instead…).