Every year, when a new crop of romantic comedies, horror movies, thrillers and
westerns hits the multiplex, audiences wonder when Hollywood will come up with
an original story. But if this copycat creativity seems like a recent development,
rest assured: Hollywood has nothing on William Shakespeare.
Over a 20-year career in London popular theatre, Shakespeare rarely if ever
invented an original plot. He copied from ancient writers, contemporary historians
and novelists and even his rival playwrights. Above all, he jumped on the bandwagon
of the hot genre of the moment: the revenge tragedy with Titus Andronicus and Hamlet,
the historical epic with Richard II and Henry V
and the Italian romance with The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth
Night. His enduring fame comes not from his originality, but from his
endlessly creative reinvention of familiar genres.
As You Like It is no exception. Shakespeare based the play on Thomas
Lodge’s 1590 novel Rosalynde, which came out of the Elizabethan craze
for a genre called “pastoral” (after the Latin word for “shepherd”). As London
and the royal court boomed, English poets reignited a classical form that sang
the praises of the simple country life. Love-sick shepherds play music and
while away the time, in contrast to the hectic labor of the city. In a typical
pastoral moment, Shakespeare’s banished Duke Senior asks his fellow exiles,
“Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court?”
But behind this idealized vision, the conventions of the pastoral genre also
allowed writers to mask a more subversive message. Building on Lodge’s
story of a young woman who dresses as a boy and finds her love in the forest,
Shakespeare suggests that love, politics and hypocrisy may not be so different
in the simple country than they are in the chaotic city. He added two new characters,
the sharp-tongued fool Touchstone and the cynical drop-out Jaques, to undercut
any romanticized notions the others might have about life among the shepherds.
And even as Hollywood movies return again and again to the same genres, the
best writers and directors find new ways to explore old forms. Revisionist
westerns like High Noon, The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven, for
example, used familiar conventions to reexamine the questions of bravery and
violence central to America’s idea of itself. Director Maria Aitken melds these
worlds of Shakespeare and Hollywood, setting her production of As You Like
It across some of America’s most famous myth-making and myth-defying films.
Shakespeare’s unexpected twist on the well-known pastoral genre is right at
home in Hollywood.