On Being Remarkable

I had called it “Kitsap Little Theater.” Our first production was a one-act play called The Day After Forever, and as the 17-year-old director and producer, I took the whole thing very seriously.

It wasn’t my first theatrical endeavor. In the fifth grade, I got involved with a group of kids who had been rehearsing a student-penned play during recesses. When I gave them my "new and improved" version of their script, unsolicited mind you, I was instantly named the play's new director. That might have had something to do with the subsequent departure of the original play's authors/directors, but such a correlation has yet to be proven. Anyway, I was thrust into directorship at a tender age. How very Charlie Brown.

The play made a favorable impression on school-assembly audiences. Ever the marketer/opportunist, I immediately attempted to launch a sequel. However, my follow-up piece, which had something to do with mice and Christmas, never made it on the boards. My later PTA-sponsored attempt at the Broadway musical The Pajama Game didn't make it on the boards either, the big failure of my adolescent life. Of course, in retrospect I know dealing with my own adolescent turmoil along with a cast comprised solely of adolescents, might would have been too much for anyone, but because of that failure, I approached my later theatrical endeavors as a young man with something to prove.

Originally I had intended my fledgling Kitsap Little Theater to produce the play Arsenic and Old Lace, but only three people auditioned. I told the auditionees I was the production's stage manager. These were experienced community theater folk, and I was afraid they might balk at a teenage producer/director. I don’t know how I expected to make the “real” director materialize, especially since I had already given her a name and identity, but since we never made it into rehearsals I was spared the trouble.

Instead of facing defeat, I rounded up a few very loyal friends from my Pajama Game debacle and settled on producing one of those more "intimate" small cast shows. One of the community theater women from the previous audition actually stuck around and played a role. I don’t know if she believed my story about the “real” director, whom I claimed had quit the whole affair because of a low turnout at auditions, or if she actually stayed around because she wanted to support my effort. Looking back, I suspect the latter.

Actually, a second community theater woman initially stuck around too, for a few rehearsals anyway, before coming up with some excuse to bow out. Because of that, along with my "show must go on" attitude, The Day After Forever presented my first experience playing a role in drag. That is another story entirely and not one I like to talk about, but I was able to make lemonade out of those lemons a few years later when I got to play the cross-dressing Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I’m not sure why I decided to use the words “little theater” in the name of the group other than because there were a few theater groups I had read about and admired with similar names. But to me at the time, it was always about the dream of a theater group, a little theater, and never about the fact most of us in the group were . . . little.

Looking back now, I realize I missed the real marketing opportunity. The very thing I worked so hard to downplay was also the very thing that made the entire theatrical venture so remarkable. How many teenagers would post audition notices and hold auditions, find a place to rehearse, gather a cast, rent an auditorium and advertise the production with zero budget (not counting those old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies)? If I had known how remarkable a thing that really was and understood the true implications behind the name Kitsap Little Theater, perhaps more than a half dozen people would have witnessed our two or three performances.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary. (Social Aims, 1876)
Sometimes the things which make us truly remarkable may be obvious to everyone but ourselves.

When Six Blind Men Read Your Novel

An old tale from India tells of six blind men who viewed an elephant. One of the blind men concludes that the elephant is like a wall. Another believes the elephant is like a snake. The others perceive it as a spear, a tree, a fan or a rope. Each blind man forms his own idea of what the elephant is like, depending upon where he touches it.

One the most famous versions of this story is the poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887). His poem concludes:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
Not to say readers are blind, but when we read, our perceptions can be like those of the blind men. When we write, we may hope we are leading our readers down a particular path, but their individual ideas, temperaments, and other preconceived ideas scatter readers onto different roads.

As an example, look at six schools of thought about literary criticism and how each of them might view a particular elephant. Our elephant in this example will be F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The elephant remains the same, but the interpretations differ with each view.

A Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism believes we are each born with a clean slate, and soon that slate is cluttered with images. Even before we have words to label them, we begin working to sort this clutter and make sense of the world around us. If a thing is suitable we keep it or forget it, but if a thing causes us pain, shame, or any number of negative responses, instead of forgetting it we repress it into our subconscious where it festers and poisons our waking thoughts and actions. As Nick, our narrator in The Great Gatsby, says to close the novel, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Much of our conscious present is made of dealing with the suppressed and unconscious images of our past. In life this battle with the past can feel like we’re paddling upstream, and in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby each character fights the current in his or her own unique manner. Jay Gatsby, subject of the book’s title, was “borne back ceaselessly into the past” by fighting the repression associated with that past. Having been raised in a lower class family, he spent his adulthood attempting to establish himself among the “upper” classes. However, his true desires may not have been purely social or economic.

In our pre-verbal period of infancy we experience a life of fantasy, an illusion, but it is shattered when we find things around us have an order and we begin to realize our place within that order. We learn our mother is separate from us and does not feel what we feel. We cannot control her with our minds and she does not feel pain when we inflict it upon ourselves. Further, we find she does not belong to us but in fact belongs to our father. We may spend the rest of our lives trying to replace the hole this leaves in our gut. Gatsby believed he could fill the void by aspiring to win the love of Daisy. She was of another world than ours, yet something which seemed to remind us of the illusions of our infancy. A relationship with Daisy could restore that feeling of complete intimacy we once thought we shared with our mothers. But just as our idea of that relationship with our mother was a fallacy, so is the idea we can be “one” with the woman we believe will replace her.

Daisy herself dealt with her own issues regarding the replacement of that illusory world with a concrete, verbal reality. But in her disappointment she adopted the protective shield of distance from others; she became unwilling to experience intimacy in her current life as a reaction to the painful loss of a perceived intimacy from her infant hood. Instead of allowing herself to draw close to Gatsby, she felt, possibly on a subconscious level, that he wanted too much of her. She perceived his desire for intimacy, and although his desire may have been rooted in the same place as her own needs and desires, her reaction was exactly the opposite.

In Nick's closing lines, Fitzgerald summarizes a theme we revisited often within the novel. We press on, and we may feel as though we are swimming upstream. We never get what we want, even if we don’t truly know what it is we desire. We dip the oars into the water hoping they will drive us into the future, but the very act of dipping in means we dredge up the past. However, if like Gatsby we try to reach for the green light across the bay, we are still forced to face the darkness inside us, even if that darkness is beyond our reach as well.

A Marxist Critique

When we feel we have nothing out of the ordinary, when everything we have is viewed in our society as a commodity, we raise the bar of our expectations and want something more. But even then, it isn’t enough to merely have it. We want to have it and rub it in the face of those around us at the same time. We buy our furs, our fancy cars, and our large houses telling ourselves it is because we need them, they are a commodity, but in reality it is all for show. Fitzgerald approached this idea of conspicuous consumption in his novel The Great Gatsby; it wasn’t enough to live in the richest part of the richest city in the richest country of the entire world, but his characters had to “look” the part as well.

But anytime the bar is raised and our expectations progress, any attempt to lower the bar, or even leave it the same, is generally viewed as regression. These are not our innate feelings, but they are what we learn. We learn if we are better dressed, drive better cars, and live in better houses, we are better too. The problem is, who has decided what is “better”? An author who wishes to criticize capitalism merely needs to paint a capitalistic society in this light. Something deeper flows within our veins than the norms our culture has placed upon us, and it can be stirred if we see blatant greed and self-centered behavior in others.

In spite of what our culture has taught us about our rights to consume, we also believe there are limits, even if it takes some time to recall that belief. So when we see the characters in Gatsby with their conspicuous consumption we know they are wrong in being that way. Unfortunately, it probably takes an example this extreme to make the point. If we were to face a more subtle example, possibly the greed of people in the middle or lower socioeconomic classes, it might go unnoticed. Because of the way we have been trained, we often view the efforts of our middle and lower classes to “better” themselves as noble. We say they are hardworking and God fearing individuals if they aspire toward wealth and rampant consumerism. If a novel were to suggest these hardworking souls were less than ideal, it would probably be rejected, possibly dismissed as communist propaganda.

That said, Fitzgerald set up the perfect setting and story to convey the conspicuous consumption of our modern era. Perhaps it is clouded in our judgment because we would rather call it a love story. The case against capitalism might have been more powerful if it had been set among those of our middle and lower classes. It might have been a more probing treatment. But at the same time, it might have hit a little too close to home for the majority of his readers, and Fitzgerald did the best he could to paint a picture of our society’s excesses. But in keeping the issue at arms length, he may have kept its understanding at a similar distance.

Reader Response Criticism

Although the Jazz Age in America came on the scene with a bit of a strut in its stride, taking bold steps forward into a whole new era, the same bold steps brought an air of uncertainty; new territory, previously uncharted, could bring its own dangers. Fitzgerald echoed that underlying fear, either consciously or unconsciously, creating an air of indeterminacy which left the potential result open for interpretation.

Just as indeterminacy leaves gaps in the text, or possibly the discovery of these gaps is what fosters the uncertain feelings, the era of Fitzgerald’s novel was a time where gaps were par for the course. Where were relationships headed, and what would happen to our old family values? What would happen when the idle poor became the idle rich and fortunes could be made with a few telephone calls? The very foundation of American society seemed up for debate. In a time where the buzz word meant freedom, where would the journey take us and what would we leave behind?

The Great Gatsby promises a story of riches and intrigue. Who is this Jay Gatsby and where did he come from? Soon we begin to expect a love story. Will Daisy fling off the oppressive life she has chosen and return to the arms of her one true love? These are stories we are comfortable with, stories that lead us where we expect to be lead. But soon an uneasiness begins to shadow the rest of the story. We begin to wonder who is good and who isn’t. If their story is to be so simple, why are these characters so complex? Are things going to turn out the way we expect in the end.

One image of indeterminacy, or where things are left open to our interpretation, is the dusty part of town called home by Tom Buchanan mistress, Myrtle. The place is covered in gray dust, and underneath that dust is a complex triangle between Myrtle, her husband George, and Tom. We wonder what the dust means. Is it some oppressive layer Myrtle will fling off in the raptures of her affair with Tom? Or is it the dust that settles on something that’s already dead, like the layer of gray dust in an old abandoned house or ghost town? Does the layer of dust foreshadow its throwing off, or does it foreshadow the approaching death and the abandonment of dreams to follow?

Early in the novel, Jay Gatsby holds one of his large parties with what seems like hundreds of guests, largely uninvited. It is a banquet, much like we often call life a banquet. But nobody really seems to know what it’s all about or why they are there, or even who the host really might be. Many at the party drink too much, laugh too loud, and care about the entire thing a bit too little. When the party disbands one of the drivers lose a wheel and a big fuss is created until the entire incident is laughed off as some form of a joke. When we see where Fitzgerald ultimately leads his characters by the end of the story, it’s easy to wonder if this party scene isn’t a parallel to the world and life. Is the whole thing a big party where we take things for granted and ultimately laugh the whole thing off as a joke? Are we uninvited guests at a party where nobody really knows the host? Is Gatsby God?

Indeterminacy isn’t the “what” of the story’s events, it may not even be the “why”. When thinking of indeterminacy in the context of Reader Response Criticism, it could be thought of as one of the many possible meanings of the text. But when introduced into a novel as full of contradictions and unanswered questions as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, indeterminacy becomes the element which makes this story echo real life. We are left to wonder not only what the text could have meant, but what life itself is all about.

A Feminist Critique

Even if they disagree about other issues, all feminists believe patriarchal ideology works to keep men and women confined to traditional gender roles so male dominance may be maintained. Utilizing the precepts of Feminist criticism, it could be argued The Great Gatsby promotes a thinly veiled patriarchal agenda. Through Fitzgerald’s treatment of the three main women, as well as masking the possible homosexuality of a central character, the novel seems to promote only the traditional gender roles, swaying uncomfortably from any possible variance. This hidden agenda may be uncovered using common tools of Feminist criticism, primarily through the use of psychoanalytic theory, but with elements of Marxist theory and deconstructionism as well.

Psychologically, Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle are obviously quite different from each other. In fact, it could be said they are like three corners of a triangle, supporting each others’ role in the story but entirely separate at the same time. Daisy is portrayed as a classic beauty who uses an innate sex appeal to gather some amount of control over her surroundings. As an athlete Jordan might carry the greatest potential to stray from a typical gender role. She could easily have been characterized as a lesbian because of her detachment from men, her self-centered lifestyle, and her unexplained connection to Daisy. Myrtle seems to be a more earthy woman, possibly possessing a raw sexual energy, but Fitzgerald stops short of portraying her as an independent, sexual being, empowered to pursue her own sexual experiences. In many respects these characters could have been deeper had Fitzgerald felt free to expound upon these possibilities. It seems the story would only have been enriched if he had explored these women deeper. However, the fact that Fitzgerald was not willing to fill out these women to their potential could indicate a desire, either of his own or one he felt society had placed upon him, to keep them within the expected stereotypes of their gender.

A similar opportunity showed itself within the characterization of Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick. Nick’s reluctance to enter into a relationship with Jordan was not sufficiently justified by the ol’ “girl back home” routine. No attempt at all was made to explain why Nick found himself at the bedside of an effeminate man, who was in his underwear. Nor did Fitzgerald explore Nick’s admiration for Gatsby on what seemed to be a more physical basis than of friendship. Nick made frequent schoolgirl-like references to Gatsby, but there didn’t seem to be much reason for a friendship. Gatsby’s motivation was clearly to make contact with Daisy, but why did Nick want to be close to Gatsby? These issues could have easily led to some discussion or admittance that Nick might have been gay or at least questioning his gender role. But the author’s unwillingness to breach these subjects seems to indicate he had made himself subject to the established patriarchy. By not saying anything against it, Fitzgerald inadvertently spoke in favor of the established order.

From a purely economic standpoint, the patriarchal agenda is evident in how all three of the major female characters are dependent to varied degrees upon the men in their lives. Even Jordan has some need for a man. Daisy and Myrtle are more obviously and traditionally dependent. The patriarchal agenda is also supported in the way men do “business” and women sit around and gossip. Even Nick, who in some ways is portrayed in a traditionally feminine role because of his financial dependence upon his family, is given a nice "man's" job in the stock market to remove any anti-patriarchal doubts. Simultaneously, a deconstructionistic dichotomy exists within the novel; the characters live in the decadent and supposedly "free" Jazz age, but at the same time seem unwilling or unable to free themselves from the patriarchal elements of society.

Overall, a Feminist criticism of this novel allows the reader to understand how subtle and pervasive the patriarchal influences are within our society. Through the questions Feminists ask of the text we are able to see a possibility for deeper characterization and a more enriched human experience without the shackles of patriarchal tyranny.

A New Criticism View

In another age, traveling medicine shows would tout their amazing stars as “The Great” or “The Invincible”. We learned to expect feats of magic and miracle from these men, even if beneath it all we knew they were charlatans. Fitzgerald used this bit of the pop psyche in the title of The Great Gatsby, and as we might expect he delivered a character strikingly similar to these miracle men of old. However, many people believed in these charlatans, even if they wouldn't say so in public. Their tricks tapped into our desire for magic and wonder; they were men of fantasy and intrigue. In naming his novel, Fitzgerald stirred the complex reaction America had to all the Great and Invincible of our history, tapping into a rich spring of paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension.

Fitzgerald drove the reader into his novel with the question of Gatsby’s greatness. We wondered who this man might be. We come with a prejudice from the title, then Fitzgerald further guides us to accept Gatsby’s greatness by showing us his wealth. He has such wealth we are willing to accept the man must be great as well. But an ambiguity exists at the same time; nobody knows where this man came from, where his wealth originated, or indeed what makes him so great. But we believe it just the same. Here we have a man who has wealth and seems willing to share it. He seems well mannered and genteel, yet he reaches down from his pedestal and befriends our narrator, Nick. It seems somewhat a paradox, but real life is full of such opposites that the story only seems more real because of it. Because the paradox seems so real we believe the story, and because we believe the story we commit even deeper to believing the story’s title; the man must indeed be great.

But Fitzgerald also introduces a tension, possibly springing from the sense of ambiguity. As a reader we want to know where Gatsby came from, why he is wealthy, but we are afraid we won’t like the answer. Fitzgerald strings us along then plants little seeds of doubt, and we begin to worry. What if Gatsby is a bootlegger or a gambler, would we be able to reconcile the belief we have already adopted that he is indeed great? We need him to be great, because we already believe he is. Eventually, however, we come to realize Gatsby was not born to greatness nor did he really aspire toward it. Even his schooling is questionable. He does not have any of the sure signs of greatness we have come to expect, yet we realize there is still something great about him. It might simply be that we want to justify the decision we’ve already made about him. We need him to be great because we’ve already made up our minds that he is, but this brings a certain irony into play because we have committed to his greatness even though he isn't great by the definition we originally would have given the word.

Again, it is like the charlatan who made us believe in snake oil. When the snake oil doesn’t cure baldness or make your hiccups go away, we tell ourselves “The Great and Powerful” charlatan was a great entertainer. He is still great, just not in the way we originally expected him to be. Fitzgerald first made us believe Gatsby was great, then left us to justify the reasoning in spite of the evidence. But that is just like real life.

The Theory of Myths

Northrop Frye’s “theory of myths” refers to a system of patterns which mankind has used to realize the narratives of his stories and literature. Frye asserts human beings realize basic narrative in two fundamental ways; representations of the real world and representations of an ideal or fantasy world. Frye calls the two fundamental narratives the “mythos of summer” and the “mythos of winter”. Summer is a time of heroes and adventure, and winter is a time where life’s complexities are faced. But in spite of the convenience a system could afford our attempts to categorize the written works of mankind, real life isn't always so easily defined. It would follow naturally then, literature which reflects life in its fullness might not fit neatly within Frye’s two basic theoretical categories. Great literature echoes real life in its tendency to defy simplified explanation. So because Frye realized life’s tendency to travel between times of summer and winter, he also introduced two times of transition: “the mythos of autumn” and “the mythos of spring”.

The Great Gatsby is one example of a piece of literature which spans Frye’s primary narrative patterns, leading us from the romance and fantasy of summer to the reality and complexity of winter. Gatsby opens with all the optimism and boldness of its Age. We meet a young man named Nick who faces a life full of prospects, and we join him on his journey to the East Egg, a less fashionable part of New York’s fashionable Long Island. Nick has an interesting new neighbor, a man by the name of Gatsby, who is bathed in wealth and intrigue. Here we have all the makings of what Frye would call a romance. Gatsby holds extravagant parties where all the beautiful people attend; everything reeks of the romance of Camelot and King Arthur’s court. It is Frye’s summer, a world of adventure with beautiful women, idyll days, and romantic evenings.

But Gatsby doesn’t remain in summer forever. Although the novel opens with all the optimism of its age, before the final page it transitions into a novel of irony and complexity. Because this is the final message of Gatsby, it could be argued the mythos of winter overshadows that of summer in this story. We close the book with only a feint memory of Nick and Gatsby’s days of summer, and from our new and jaded viewpoint we regard those times as days of innocence and possibly naivety. We have seen how the flaws of man can lead us to the feeling we are swimming upstream, and Fitzgerald’s final lines bring this point home: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Frye called the narrative pattern which transitions from summer to winter “the mythos of autumn”. This is a structure which moves us from a time of innocence to experience. We move from the ideal world to the real world. Likewise, Frye calls the movement from real to ideal, or experience to innocence, "the mythos of spring". He recognized conflict is the basis of romance, where superheroes face obstacles, but observed catastrophe is the basis of tragedy. While The Great Gatsby seems at first blush to be a story where a superhero faces the simple obstacles between him and his love, in the end and the catastrophe which develops along the way we realize the story of Gatsby is one of tragedy. Gatsby’s quest has ended in death, and Nick has taken a step down the road of experience.

Again, much like real life, it would be an oversimplification to label the time period covered in this novel as the time when our narrator Nick lost his naive and innocent view of the world. It would also be too easy to call it the story of the great Jay Gatsby’s fall from greatness. Life is not so simple. It is full of ambiguity, and transitions don’t always move neatly in one direction or another. For the purpose of a tidy story we might limit a piece to one period, one myth, or one time of transition. But real life isn’t so tidy, and part of the greatness of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is how it reminds us of the ebb and flow of such things in life.


In John Gardner's immortal The Art of Fiction, he talks about leading readers through a fictional dream. It is our job to facilitate the fictional dream and avoid doing anything to interrupt it. We weave a dream and hope our readers find themselves lost in it. But it is interesting to note we cannot control that fictional dream; readers will have dreams of their own.

Satire in the English Renaissance Pastoral

Pastoral literature from the English Renaissance may remind today's reader more of fairy tales and fables than pieces of great literature. Examples from this period could be relegated to the world of kitsch alongside porcelain shepherd and shepherdess salt and pepper shakers or the mediocre oil paintings of impossibly idealized bucolic country sides, second cousins to oil-on-velvet paintings of sad clowns and Elvis Presley. At first glance, the pastoral's ruffle-clad shepherdesses and pan-flute-playing shepherds generally fail to garner much literary respect or stir much interest; however, "first glance" may not be a worthy inspection of this particular genre. These seemingly quaint fables may not be what they first seem; the very fact that pastorals occupied some of the greatest poetic minds of the English Renaissance could imply the form at one time spoke to something deeper and more substantial than a pan flute, courtly shepherd, or velvet Elvis ever could.

The English Renaissance pastoral might be better understood within the context of rich literary traditions that preceded it since, in the real world, a literary genre never springs forth fully developed like Venus in the half shell. The development of a literary genre requires the complex process of evolution, with each step in that evolution entirely dependent upon what has come before. To remove a genre such as English Renaissance Pastoral from its place within the context of history compromises our ability to understand that genre and its manifestation at any particular stage of its development.

Current literary scholarship routinely attaches the English Renaissance pastoral to its ancient roots, a rebirth of the genre brought about by the influential Renaissance humanism movement. One central feature of the Renaissance humanism movement was a commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was summarized in the Renaissance humanists' motto "ad fontes," which means "to the sources." Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations and sought to both imitate and reincarnate the ideals of ancient literature. With this commitment, Renaissance Pastoral emerged as a direct descendant of works by the Greek writer Theocritus, who may have, in turn, drawn on authentic folk traditions of Sicilian shepherds.

Theocritus' bucolic poetry represented the life of Sicilian shepherds living in an idealized natural setting reminiscent of the Golden age of Greek mythology, the highest in the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden ages.  Theocritus' shepherds lived in a time of peace and stability.  He wrote in the Doric dialect but in dactylic hexameter, which had previously been associated with the Greek's most prestigious poetic form, epic poetry.  This melding of simplicity and sophistication would later play a major role in the history of pastoral verse in the hands of Renaissance writers.  The devices of these early pastorals were later adopted by the Roman poet Virgil, who adapted the genre into Latin with his Eclogues.

Virgil wrote about a more idyllic vision of rural life than Theocritus had done and was the first to set his poems in Arcadia.  Arcadia, although an actual location, became highly idealized within the realms of literature and developed into the most popular location for ancient pastorals.  Virgil presented a rural life more idyllic than what Theocritus had given; a distinction which gave the pastoral a foothold in the world of fantasy and opened the door to the use of allegory.  He implemented the practice of exploiting the pastoral form to make clandestine insinuations about contemporary problems. Virgil's Eclogues contained a blend of visionary politics and eroticism, and his work was met with popular success in the Roman theatre, catapulting Virgil into fame and establishing him as a celebrity and a legend among his contemporaries.

In its simplest form, a pastoral represents a shepherd's life in a conventionalized manner.  However, the Renaissance pastoral model was more involved than that.  Its features included:
  1. A fantastical world where the constraints of geography, nature, gender and time may become irrelevant and subverted.
  2. Exiles from urban life who are outsiders from the Pastoral situation form the focus of the Pastoral Romance. Shepherds are not the primary focus.
  3. When the exiles arrive in the countryside, they converse with the shepherds.
  4. The urban characters often disguise themselves as country folk or shepherds.
  5. Advantages and disadvantages of court and country are discussed; differences between the natural and the artificial are fundamental to the genre.
  6. Pastoral Romances include songs, masques and disguises.
  7. The Pastoral Romance celebrates rural simplicity, but in a highly stylized and artificial manner.
  8. Discussion and examination between the concepts of nature and nurture are present throughout the Pastoral genre.
  9. Pastoral figures are used to examine the evils of greed, cruelty, deceit, corruption and bribery through actions or discourse.
  10. By the culmination of the play, the exiles are reintegrated into the urban life and order has been restored.
  11. By providing an artificial realm through the imaginary forest and Shepherds, the Pastoral Romance provides its characters with an opportunity to see more clearly and therefore gives them the opportunity and freedom to change.
William Shakespeare made frequent use of the Pastoral, both through brief examples within works such as Love's Labor's Lost ("When icicles hang by the wall") and the Shearer's feast in The Winter's Tale or sustained examples like the play As You Like It.  Other plays by Shakespeare contain individual pastoral scenes, such as the bandits in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The Pastoral influence is also found within A Midsummer's Nights Dream and The Tempest.

Shakespeare drew from classic pastoral literature for the subject matter in As You Like It, specifically Lodge's pastoral romance, Rosalynde.  Lodge's 1590 novel had adapted "The Tale of Gamelyn," a narrative poem from the 14th Century.  Shakespeare's version gave characters greater depth than Lodge; he introduced humor into the story, and created new characters such as Jacques, Touchstone, William and Audrey.

The play's Phebe and Silvius appeared in Lodge's novel, but are stock pastoral figures as well.  Within the classical pastoral, conventional shepherds and shepherdesses had occurred in pairs with names like Phoebe and Silvius or the alternate Phoebus and Silvia.  In these traditional roles, the shepherd is lovelorn while the shepherdess is disdainful.  The lovelorn shepherd laments the loss or disdain of his lady, either in solo lyric or eclogue (a dialogue between shepherds about the simple life).  In As You Like It, Silvius complains to Corin about his love's rejection and the lovelorn Orlando hangs lyrics about his own love from all the tree branches.  Again true to the classic pastoral form, Phebe supplies the customary elegy for a dead shepherd by quoting Marlowe:
Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
"Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?"
As may be expected, Shakespeare was not content to merely use the Pastoral in his works but his contribution further developed the genre.  As You Like It utilizes many of the thematic and dramatic requirements of the Pastoral:
  1. Corruption of family and court forces several characters into exile and the Forest of Arden, thereby creating a platform where questions of nature, nurture and nobility may be raised.
  2. Cross-gender disguise is employed and allows Rosalind to freely discuss love and relationships with Orlando.
  3. As You Like It contains more songs than any of Shakespeare's other plays.
  4. The play features a wedding masque with the god of marriage, Hymen. Supernatural elements were important to the Pastoral genre.
  5. Social (and gender) order is restored at the end. Duke Senior resumes his place at Court and the brothers Orlando and Oliver reunite. Rosalind casts off her male alter-ego (Ganymede) as well as the freedom of speech which accompanied that role.
For all its merit as an example of the Pastoral genre, the interpretation of As You Like It is not without problems.  While some scholars have rated the play among Shakespeare's best, others do not see it as an equal within the Shakespearean canon.  Critic such as Samuel Johnson and George Bernard Shaw did not believe As You Like It was a good example of Shakespeare's high artistry. Several scenes in As You Like It are essentially skits made up of songs and joking banter.  Accenting the "You" in the title, Shaw theorized the play may have been written as a mere crowd pleaser, but one which did not particularly please Shaw.  Even Leo Tolstoy remarked about the characters' immorality and took issue with Touchstone's constant clowning.  On the other hand, American literary critic Harold Bloom believed Rosalind was one of Shakespeare's greatest and most fully realized female characters.

As You Like It, although neglected in performance for more than a century after Shakespeare's death in 1616, has been a popular play on the stage ever since.  It was revived in England for the first time in 1723 in an adaptation called Love in a Forest.  This version of the play interpolated passages from other Shakespearean dramas and comedies, notably A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Shakespeare's original was restored to the theater seventeen years later.  In the 19th century As You Like It was staged by a number of eminent English actor-managers including Charles Kean and William Charles Macready.  In late nineteenth century America, especially, the play became a favorite with audiences.  Rosalind found noteworthy interpreters in Helena Modjeska, Mary Anderson, Ada Rehan, and Julia Marlowe.

But perhaps Shaw's observation about the play's title does provide insight and Shakespeare's play is a commentary on the theatrical tastes of Elizabethan England.  For all its Pastoral elements As You Like It does not strictly adhere to conventions of the genre, but in fact appears to satirize them.  The Forest of Arden is a place where Dukes have been usurped, brothers are deadly enemies, starvation, lions and deadly snakes lurk.  For all the idyllic Pastoral qualities, Arden marries fantasy with a harsh reality.  As a departure from the pastoral form, in As You Like It Shakespeare tempers the idyll of the sweetly picturesque pastoral scene with the adversity of the malcontented Jacques, as well as the unlikely pairing of Touchstone and Audrey, ensuring neither court life nor pastoral idyll is presented as either too sweet or too adverse.  The play provides opportunities for its main characters to discuss love, aging, the natural world, and death from their particular points of view.  It presents us with the worldviews of a chronically melancholy pessimist preoccupied with the negative aspects of life (Jacques), and Rosalind, who recognizes life's difficulties but holds fast to a positive attitude that is kind, playful, and above all, wise.  Whatever Shakespeare's intent may have been for As You Like It, its composition does mark a turning point in his output as a playwright since; Shakespeare abandoned comedy soon after its completion and turned to the composition of his major tragedies.

So although current scholarship routinely attaches Renaissance Pastoral Literature to its ancient roots, and these connections are certainly valid, they stop short of realizing the influence of literature between the classical period and the European Renaissance. While it is evident Virgil introduced political allegory into his tales, this might not directly explain all the the techniques employed by Renaissance writers. To understand the English Renaissance pastoral it seems important to attach this genre to the body of literature immediately preceding it. Without this important link in the genre's evolution, we are apt to overlook its most important influences, and our interpretation of works within this genre will not reflect their possible deeper meanings and purposes.

Before the pastoral gained widespread popularity, satire had already been established as a staple of Medieval English Literature. If we give Renaissance Pastoral its proper place in the history and evolution of literature, the genre may seem less an enigma, relegated to that world of kitsch, and more a continuation of the rich satirical tradition of Medieval and Early Renaissance writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Thomas More. Ignoring the satire's popularity in Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe may cause us to forget how the stage had been set when the pastoral rose to popularity in the 16th century. When viewed as a continuation of the satirical tradition, Renaissance Pastoral may be greater appreciated, and its sense of wit, style, and daring may come into clearer focus.

Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in Chaucer's time although little has survived.  Examples of such poetry may still be seen in the bawdy lyrics of Carmina Burnana, set to music by Carl Orf in the 20th Century.  The Canterbury Tales served as Chaucer's platform to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day.

Chaucer created "The Prioress' Tale" to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day.  Chaucer lived in a time when religious stories thrived among a largely illiterate population.  These stories were Saint's tales where the villains were impossibly bad and the heroes impossibly good.  The line between "good" and "bad" people was drawn by their religious beliefs; anyone who believed in the Christian church was good, and everyone else in the world was bad.

Knowing nothing else of him, we can deduce from the rest of The Canterbury Tales that Chaucer is a talented writer, skilled in both subtlety of character and storytelling. So why would his Prioress tell a story so obviously shallow, improbable, and bigoted unless Chaucer labored behind some hidden agenda? Judging from his other stories, Chaucer doesn't seem squeamish about poking fun at hypocrisy in religion; he points to gullibility in religious devotion through "The Miller's Tale" as well as through those who purchase the Pardoner's "relics" in "The Pardoner's Tale."  Further, history tells us Chaucer was part of a group of intellectuals who opposed the prevalent anti-Semitism of his time; in reality he would have been against characterizing Jews as "Satan's Hornet Nest".

Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire in Utopia (1516). Modern readers have come to understand a "utopia" as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion.  As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled.  But in fact, the word "utopia" (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as "no place".  By calling his dreamland "Utopia" More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not and presumably cannot, exist.  He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story.

Thomas More wrote Utopia as a satire on his contemporaries' religious and political thoughts.  The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More's satiric intent.

The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in Utopia, disagreed with More's celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof.  The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer.  Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.

Because Renaissance humanist movement, which glorified the ancient civilizations, had already established an influence during his time it seems possible More could have been tipping his hat to them by setting his work in Latin and telling of an ancient idyllic civilization built on "superior" ideals. If this was More's intent, and if the tale of a perfect communal society was a reference to New World legend (although in reality Amerigo Vespucci's Incas practiced cannibalism), then this would be further proof that More viewed Utopia to be seen as a satirical work.

In Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham argues the pastoral is a literary form especially designed:
Not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort.
In The Making of a Poem, Strand and Boland note how the pastoral spoke to poets of the Renaissance period and their "deep European unease about power, urbanization, and the demands made for a new centralization," citing the pastoral as "one of the true intellectual engines of [Elizabethan] poetry".

First in Latin with the work of Petrarch, Pontano, and Mantuan, and then in Italian vernacular with the works of Boiardo, Italian poets led the way in a 14th Century revival of pastoral form.  The pastoral became fashionable throughout Renaissance Europe.  Because of the satire's popularity in England during Medieval and Early Renaissance times the pastoral's appearance there may have simply represented a new incarnation of the satire.  In 1579 Virgil's Eclogues inspired Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar (a series of twelve eclogues, one for each calendar month) and ushered the pastoral form further into fashion, but Spenser's creation was more than just a collection of colloquialisms.  A study by Robert Lane interprets The Shepheardes Calendar as criticism of the Elizabethan hierarchy and how society exploited and neglected society's underprivileged.  According to Lane, The Shepheardes Calendar undermines the courtly role assigned to Elizabethan poetry and capitalized on such pop culture mainstays as woodcuts, proverbs, fables and the calendar format to further drive its point home.

Understanding the connection between the English Renaissance pastoral and the satirical literature which preceded it, it is easier to see how William Shakespeare used the pastoral form to explore the realms of political and social commentary.  Shakespeare frequently exploited poetic form and theatrical convention to provide a vehicle for his legendary wit, so it may be safe to assume his use of the pastoral was also intended to "glaunce at greater matters".  He made frequent use of the pastoral both through brief examples within plays and as the framework for complete works, riding on the shoulders of the public's love for satire, to transport the pastoral into the world of social and political commentary.

The main plot of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is derived, somewhat more loyally than Shakespeare is usually inclined, from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto (1590). Perhaps the most apparent pastoral element of the play is how pastoral life in Bohemia offers a sharp contrast to the world of the Sicilian court. Although the idealized character Perdita may be the primary spokesperson of the pastoral world and its values, Shakespeare does not romanticize the play's pastoral world itself. As a matter of fact the typical pastoral vision is undercut by sadness and ambivalence throughout the length of the play.

Historian Eric Ives has argued the play is actually a parody of Queen Anne Boleyn's fall, the wife of Henry VIII who was beheaded in 1536 for charges of adultery.  Ives states numerous parallels exist between the two stories, including how Sir Henry Norreys, a close friend of Henry, was beheaded as a supposed lover of Anne, refusing to confess to save his life on the grounds that everyone knew of the Queen's innocence.  Following this theory about the play, Perdita could represent Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.  An understanding of the play in this light further strengthens the connection Shakespeare made between the pastoral and satire.

His poem "When icicles hang by the wall" from the play Love's Labor's Lost may at first glance appear quaint.  In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter.  They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold.  But the owl represents more than a common bird; Shakespeare's owl represents the wealthy of society who watch over the poor, oblivious of the plight and singing a "merry note".

It is no stretch to assume Shakespeare's owl played an allegorical role in this pastoral.  Shakespeare frequently used the owl for similar purposes. As Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
Hark! - Peace!
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern'st good-night. [Macbeth - II, 2]
Prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar an owl was reported:
The bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking. [Julius Caesar - I, 3]
Further, Puck says of the owl:
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud. (A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1)
Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use here may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as cataloged within the poem.  Also noteworthy is the owl's disregard for their situations throughout this poem, singing his merry song in spite of their toil. Given the possible satirical heritage of the Renaissance pastorals, the owl could easily represent the wealthy officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man's trials.

Understanding the connection between the English Renaissance pastoral and the satire, the interpretation of Shakespeare's As You Like It becomes less problematic.  In the Arden Shakespeare edition, As You Like It is represented as a multi-layered chronicle of late English Renaissance culture and of all the various social and political conflicts marking the final decade of the sixteenth century.  Dusinberre outlines how the play functions to "glaunce at greater matters".  She cites Jaques's indebtedness to the period's vogue for satire and the faction-ridden politics occasioned by the Earl of Essex's career and his rivalry with Sir Robert Cecil. In the Arden Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare's pastoral play As You Like It, editor Juliet Dusinberre comments:
Social and political realities would not have been far from the minds of its first audiences in 1599, whether at court or in the public theatre.  Beneath an impeccably sunny surface 'As You Like It' touches on troubled territories.
The work of other Renaissance writers such as poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe may also be understood when a connection is made between the English Renaissance pastoral and its satirical heritage.  Marlowe made the pastoral his own by introducing exaggerated imagery and sexuality to the form.  Shepherds in the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil had expressed love as a deep longing without sexuality, but in his pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" Marlowe's shepherd asks a woman to share an idealized romantic relationship.  However, the shepherd's proposal is actually more ridiculous than idyllic, possibly indicating Marlowe's intent to satirize the traditional pastoral form.  The shepherd offers his love:
Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold . . .
While a pretty promise, these and other claims in this poem are far from anything an actual shepherd could afford to bestow upon anyone.

The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard had previously utilized the country life as a refuge for rejected suitors, but Marlowe's shepherd is not concerned about rejection or whether his social or financial status is acceptable to the girl; his only concern is the desire for immediate pleasure:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.
Today's America lives in little or no fear for ridiculing the government or speaking out against "progress". But the pastoral provided those less fortunate a venue to play with questions "which verged on a philosophical subversion of traditional religious themes in poetry" (Strand and Boland, 208). The works of Renaissance writers like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare provide compelling evidence pastoral literature of that period was often used as a vehicle for political and social commentary, and this intent becomes more clear when the satirical elements of these works' lineage are not overlooked; following in the shadows of the popularity of such well-loved writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas More, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the pastoral would naturally have received a satirical interpretation by Renaissance readers and audiences. With this in mind, and although the references may likely be obscured with the passing of time, interpretation of the pastoral poem enters a new realm of understanding; instead of relegating these pieces to the world of kitsch and quaint, we may now be compelled to dig below the surface, blowing away the dust to uncover a treasure, and in doing so are likely to at least appreciate, if not enjoy, the wit of the pastoral form's most famous practitioners.

Works cited.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003. Print.

Moore, R..  "As You Like It: Introduction." eNotes: As You Like It. Ed. Penny Satoris. Seattle: Enotes.com Inc, October 2002. eNotes.com. 24 June 2009. Print.
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003. Print.

"Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works: Introduction." Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 89. Gale Cengage, 2005. eNotes.com. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009. Web.

Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare As You Like It. Edited by Juliet Dusinberre. London: Thomson Learning, 2006. Print.

"Shepheards Devises: Edmund Spenser's 'Shepheardes Calendar' and the Institutions of Elizabethan Society." Renaissance Society of America, 1995. The Free Library. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 . Print.

Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.

"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love: Introduction." Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 31 January 2009. Web.

"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Style)." Notes on Poetry. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers.com 01 Feb. 2009. Web.

"The Winter's Tale: Pastoral Elements." Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 30 June 2009. Web.