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William Shakespeare and the pursuit of human happiness

1 October 2012

4:51 PM

1 October 2012

4:51 PM

‘Under the greenwood tree’ from As You Like It

AMIENS: Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lies with me,
And turn his merry note
Uno the sweet bird’s throat,

Come hither, come hither, come hither.
Here shall he see
No enemy,
But winter and rough weather.

Who doth ambition shun,
And loves to live i’th’ sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets

ALL: Come hither, come hither, come hither.
Here shall he see
No enemy,
But winter and rough weather.

In As You Like It, a French duke has been usurped by his brother. He lives now in exile with his followers in the Forest of Arden (or Ardennes). There, as rumour in the new duke’s court has it, ‘they live like the old Robin Hood of England … and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.’  Amiens is one of the old duke’s men and his song draws on old poetic traditions contrasting the corruption of life at court with the innocence of life in the country.

This is an idea which defines pastoral poetry. Over the past two thousand years writers from Virgil to Rousseau and beyond have been drawn to the idea that modern life (i.e. the way of life the writer is used to) is oppressive because it forces people to obey the conventions which keep complex societies functioning. The pastoral urge is fed by a conviction that our only natural needs are those required for modest bodily comfort.  Living in society, however, we are conscious of a far wider range of needs. iPhones, for example.  These artificial desires pit us against each other as we compete for the relatively small number of iPhones to go round.

For Amiens, life at court was defined by ‘ambition’ and constant struggle for prestige. In the forest, where all there is to seek is ‘the food he eats’ his only enemies are ‘winter and rough weather’. If we only concerned ourselves with our natural desires, then we’d be free to enjoy a life of leisure, recreation, and companionship. We could spend our days singing along with the birds in the sort of harmonious community which the participation of ‘All’ in the second chorus represents.

Pastoral’s appeal is still strong today. Iain Sinclair recently wrote in the London Review of Books about the impact of the Olympics on East London of the Olympics. He focusses on the disruption of those forced to give way to what he calls ‘the unblemished myth of urban regeneration’. For him neglected corners of London (like the collapsing house in Hackney where the Owl Man lived with his birds of prey) are a ‘crack between worlds’.  Ignored by all forms of authority, they are spaces like Shakespeare’s Arden where the free-spirited live in their ‘English Arcadia’.

Sinclair writes as a spokesman for the dispossessed. His heart is with those who campaigned against basketball courts on Leyton Marsh and described them as ‘METROPOLITAN PUBLIC LAND STOLEN FROM THE PEOPLE OF LONDON BY THE O[lympic] D[elivery] A[uthority].’ The problem is that only a few people can live between the cracks, and eventually the majority of people who don’t will decide they want to do something different with the place (like hold the Olympics). One of the most important facts about contemporary life is that nowhere is free from society. There are no Arcadias beyond by the authorities in Britain, just places they’re ignoring for the time being.

For most of us, the Olympic Park itself was a sort of Arcadia – a place of heroes and strange creatures (take a bow Wenlock and Mandeville) where the normal rules didn’t apply (don’t even think of using anything but Visa). But for those forced out, the Olympics were one of those artificial desires which poison human life.

One of Amien’s companions is well aware of the fact that nowhere is free from human folly, not even the forest. A melancholy lord called Jaques finishes Amien’s song with another verse:

JAQUES: If it do come to pass
That any man turn ass,
Leaving his wealth and ease,
A stubborn will to please,
Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame,
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he,
And if he will come to me.
AMIENS: What’s that ‘ducdame’?
JAQUES: ‘Tis a Greek invocation, to call fools into a circle.

Jaques doesn’t believe in Arcadia. For him, we’re all fools and human weakness, not society, is to blame for our problems. This was the crux of a 16th century debate about human happiness we still haven’t resolved: are people good and happy until society corrupts them, or inherently weak and in need of the control society provides?

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