199. (William Shakespeare)

As You Like It perplexes for many reasons, not least of which is a disproportionate structure, whose warps and excrescences are exemplified by the sudden interruption of Touchstone into the final scene:


Faith, we met, and found the quarrel was upon the
seventh cause.


How seventh cause? Good my lord, like this fellow.


I like him very well.


God ‘ild you, sir; I desire you of the like. I
press in here, sir, amongst the rest of the country
copulatives, to swear and to forswear: according as
marriage binds and blood breaks: a poor virgin,
sir, an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own; a poor
humour of mine, sir, to take that that no man else
will: rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a
poor house; as your pearl in your foul oyster.


By my faith, he is very swift and sententious.


According to the fool’s bolt, sir, and such dulcet diseases.


But, for the seventh cause; how did you find the
quarrel on the seventh cause?


Upon a lie seven times removed:–bear your body more
seeming, Audrey:–as thus, sir. I did dislike the
cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word,
if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the
mind it was: this is called the Retort Courteous.
If I sent him word again ‘it was not well cut,’ he
would send me word, he cut it to please himself:
this is called the Quip Modest. If again ‘it was
not well cut,’ he disabled my judgment: this is
called the Reply Churlish. If again ‘it was not
well cut,’ he would answer, I spake not true: this
is called the Reproof Valiant. If again ‘it was not
well cut,’ he would say I lied: this is called the
Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie
Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.


And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?


I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial,
nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we
measured swords and parted.


Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?


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.

It is difficult not to see so extended an interruption as central to the play, but I had always thought of it as a strange revenge of courtly values, parodic but also serious in so far the Duke is about to regain his place.

But it is not courtly values, but civility itself that is relevant here. Touchstone’s folly is the folly of civic life, but also a folly that depends upon aping and aiming at pretensions to civility. He, along with Jacques, is one of two extremes of self-exile to which civility gives rise: the fool and the melancholic. The latter, Jacques, is highly conscious of “self” whereas the fool is not; but he, the melancholic, is also happier to assume an air of civility in rejecting the civic space; the fool, on the other hand, lacks self-consciousness, but possesses so heightened a self-awareness that his civility is ironic.

Though “civility” appears only twice in the play, the play’s pastoral machinery is working upon that Renaissance concern; I do not think I could have seen what it was about, without reading what was about it in John Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance:

Whereas the Greeks and Romans had dubbed barbarians those who lived (like Tacitus’ Britons) outside their politico-cultural worlds, the tendency grew in the sixteenth century to distinguish between those in a single country who did, or did not, subscribe to the norms of civility…But neither the widening interest in classical criteria, nor the extent to which they were picked up as relevant to current changes within society, suffices to explain the widespread acceptance of the idea of civility by around 1600 without a further look into the influence of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ strand in European self-awareness…there was a commoner tendency to identify civility with city-based values: sound education, polite manners, the discriminating use of money and social standing which enabled its owner to play a part in public affairs. On the whole, the test of civility was most generously applied to non-Europeans; more grudgingly to the European fringes; least inclusive when considering those whose growing numbers posed a threat to the civility of the privileged, the urban poor, the ‘clownes’ of the countryside. In whatever context it was used, the key element within the notion of civility was the imposition of rational principles of nurture on an originally untamed nature…

As You Like It is rich with ironies about civil life and civility, as no other Shakespeare play is; it might be thought of as a play about the wilds of civility and also the civility of the wilds.

The civil order reasserts and restores itself in exile from power; in the wilds, away from the civic center, civility recovers itself; the freedom to play can restore civic freedoms; civility is itself natural, of the wild, finding itself most itself there; folly is a refuge of civil order in the wilds; civil order is the refuge of folly beyond the civic domain; the civic domain is coextensive with the presence of a fool and the melancholic, both forms of the critic-as-artist, the one feeding his ludic, chaotic energies from its life, and the other depending on civility as a means and measure of detachment and rejection.


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