As You Like It is my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies. I love Rosalind with a passion that borders on the girlcrush, and there are no actual points in the plot that make we want to spork myself. (Or get a time machine and go back and spork Will. Which is an occasional response.) I used to love Much Ado About Nothing almost as much, but Hero, OMG the stupid, and also, I have seen/read/studied it one too many times. And thirdly, I think Keanu may have been my breaking point. Whoa.
Anyway, a fun game to play with As You Like It, and one I've used in both "This Tragic Glass" (read it while the archive lasts!) and The Stratford Man and The Dead Shepherd/The Journeyman Devil/Whatever the hell Marketing decides the second book is called, assuming somebody buys either one, is to read it as a defense of Christopher Marlowe.
There's a couple of contemporary takes of Marlowe. There's the one that has gotten more attention, generally--Baines' and Greene's and Kyd's foulmouthed, arrogant, atheistical bastard (however, we note that whatever Kyd said about Marlowe on the record, he said under torture)--and there's no doubt that that aspect of the man has to be accounted for in any fictional representation. After all, where's the fun if you reform him utterly?
But then there's the other Kit Marlowe. Marston's "Kind Kit Marlowe," (note, however, that we haven't any evidence that Marlowe and Marston ever met, and Marston was more Jonson's age than Marlowe's--but Marston knew people who ran in the same circles Marlowe did. And while there's a modern tendency to think of these men working in isolation, in grand creative frenzies, the truth could not be more different. They worked in the same bars, the same wooden Os, the same patron's parlors. They shared the same rented rooms and slept in the same narrow beds. Their foul papers got shuffled together haphazardly, and they scribbled on the same collaborative manuscripts, four, five, six, seven hands on the same pages. They stole each other's wives and sisters and girlfriends (And boyfriends. Or they were each other's boyfriends. And sometimes, we have suggestive evidence, the boyfriends stole the girlfriends.)
They lived in each other's pockets, quite literally--which is why if reading Elizabethan theatrical history seems a little bit like revisiting high school, or like Con Drama that never ends... well, picture WorldCon all year long. A WorldCon that never ends! Except there are only about 200 people in attendance. And there was gossip. Sometimes I think there was nothing but gossip. So Marston would have heard things.) the Marlowe of whom Tom Nashe said "I count him among the friends who used me as a friend." The guy Tricky Tom Watson killed a man in defense of, and of whom the Queen's Privy Council said, he gave good service. What of him?
(This dichotomy in perspective is by no means limited to Marlowe, by the way. You can find a similar divided view of Shakespeare with a pretty surface reading. So who was he? The guy who cheated on his taxes and his wife, who lent money and had a restraining order pressed against him (as did Marlowe, by the way)--or the one who exhorted his fellow poets publicly to get the hell over themselves, and quit proving they were fools by airing the dirty linen on the high road (see below)?
Oddly enough, everybody seems to have liked John Fletcher. Possibly because he was an amiable hack, and no real competition, or possibly because people actually just liked him. Tom Nashe, other than that Unpleasant Harvey Incident, didn't get off too badly either. And really, who wouldn't want Gabriel Harvey mad at them? I count it a mark of good character. (Tom's best line in The Book Currently Known As The Dead Shepherd: "A minor victory. It's not hard to be funnier than Gabriel Harvey." You may all cheer Tom now.)
(By the way, you can read bits of the work of most of these guys here.))
Well, why not both? Real people are often contradictory, and I have friends I'll swear the best folk on earth, who have enemies who would say the opposite. (Heck, there are those who count me either friend or enemy, and I suspect the opinions of both are justified.)
So, on to As You Like It. Significant that around the time this play was written, near as we can figure, not only were the various Wars of the Poets (Nashe/Harvey, Dekker/Jonson, Jonson/Everybody) underway, but also the Archbishop Whitgift was on one of his periodic spates of Burning Things. Things burned included a bunch of Nashe's and Harvey's work (in part due to the nastiness of the flamewar between him and Harvey), and Marlowe's Ovid. (For its pagan feeelthiness.)
And these various things get mentioned in As You Like It, which is rather a topical play. And here's something I noticed, when I was working on the first draft of The Stratford Man, and rereading my way through the Elizabethans. If you take As You Like It, and everywhere it says "Shepherd," substitute "Christopher Marlowe," it makes rather a lot of sense. (And of course the Marlovians tend to argue that As You Like It is Marlowe claiming authorship of the Shakespeare canon, but sure, whatever, see above, living in each other's pockets, playmending, collaboration. If Shakespeare wasn't doing his own work, it would have been hard to hide from the four or five other contributors to some of the plays he worked on. Nevermind the reality of theatrical life, revision, discussion, amendment on the fly, pink sheets, blue sheets, green sheets, yellow sheets (not that they had those terms, but they certainly had the process), the problems of dealing with Mr. Tilney (the state censor) if you were a poet living in disguise in Verona and sending playscripts home) and so on.
This is obviously a theory developed by academics, and not anybody who's ever been to a Hollywood script meeting.
Which isn't a stretch--Shakespeare sets it up in the famous scene where he quotes Marlowe directly. "Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, "Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?" "
It's one of Marlowe's most famous lines (from Hero and Leander) and it's the only place in Shakespeare's work where he quotes another poet and attributes it. Given Marlowe's first-person pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love," (and let us not forget that Tamburlaine was a shepherd too) there's really no doubt who the "dead shepherd" is meant to be.
Also consider, well, basically everything that comes out of Touchstone's mouth (Touchstone, of course, being so named, shows the truth of things):
Touchstone: When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.
Audrey: I do not know what ‘poetical’ is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?
Touchstone: No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.-
--Act III, scene iii
The great reckoning in the little room can be read as Marlowe's murder--killed in a little room, according to the coroner's report, over "the reckoning" (the bill) (Thus the title of Nicholl's eponymous book on Marlowe). Shakespeare's comment there can be read as "If Marlowe's poetry is destroyed, it strikes him more dead than his murder did."
It was also put about at the time by Puritans in general that Marlowe was killed in a fight over a "lewd love," for which read as you please. ;-) There was rather a lot of revisionism and rumormongering going around, and posthumous blackening of Marlowe's name as a synonym for vice, some of which wasn't unravelled until this century, and some of which remains to be un-knit and reconsidered. New primary sources keep turning up. It's fantastically exciting stuff.
ORLANDO: Then in mine own person I die.
ROSALIND: No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is
almost six thousand years old, and in all this time
there was not any man died in his own person,
videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains
dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he
could to die before, and he is one of the patterns
of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair
year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been
for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went
but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being
taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish
chroniclers of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.'
But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
--Act IV, Scene i
Leander here is as likely Marlowe as not, given, again, the period tendency to conflate authors with their works. (Interestingly, I rather think Rosalind/Ganymede is a Tuckerization of Marlowe, as well, but that's more a hunch on my part) and if you squint at it (and not too hard) you can read the metaphor as "Marlowe wasn't killed over a love affair; that's a lie."
(Will gets in a few good shots at the so-called and abovementioned warring poets here as well--
O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book; as you have books for good manners: I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheque Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as, 'If you said so, then I said so;' and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peacemaker; much virtue in If.
--Act V, scene iii
--pretty obviously, to me, a comment on Dekker and Jonson and the rest, who were presently engaged in slagging each other most magnificently around, during the time when this was written.
Jonson gets in a few vicious digs at Shakespeare, too, but it's nothing like what he does to Dekker.)
Anyway, there's more, but in the interests of brevity, let's leave it at that. So my contemplation (it's nothing so firm as a contention, or even a postulate) is that a significant percentage of As You Like It constitutes Shakespeare's defense of the work and character of a dead colleague and/or friend. And moreover, that that defense would have been more or less transparent to his contemporaries.
Won't you all be glad when I'm done revising this book and you can get back to not reading daily maunderings about the pantyraids of the Elizabethan club scene?