As They Like It: What Shakespeare Suggests about the Arab Spring

Seeing the fine new production of As You Like It at Shakespeare in the Park, and then bicycling downtown through the leafy precincts of Central Park West, through Times Square, watching the tourists from around the world and the United States chatting at the café tables and chairs in the pedestrianized zones and in general behaving with civility and grace to each other, even at midnight, it’s clear what a great thing this republic of ours is and why it is worth defending at almost any cost.

Here you have art and culture of every sort (including bad), and wealth, and the chance for almost anyone to make it, and the freedom for women to walk down the street scantily clad with nary a comment at midnight, as many women I passed were doing, and the freedom for men and women to appear openly gay, and the promise, in the stunning public art space that is Times Square, that this is indeed the center of the world.

As I was swerving to avoid the pedestrians walking in the bike lanes, and refraining from yelling at them because I too wanted to maintain the tone of civility, I was thinking about a conversation I had as I was leaving that fine production of As You Like It. A Turkish journalist friend was expressing his pessimism about the Arab Spring and his worry that if Turkey goes to war with Syria over the downing of its jet Friday, it will still not lead to democracy for Syria. Then he spoke of his sadness about the unwinding of the Egyptian revolution.

And I defended the Arab Spring and its hopes and said he must go to see the places themselves if he were to judge what is happening there. But as I biked I also felt that the very play we had seen had something to do with our argument and with what I saw as I biked—with what is called American exceptionalism. 

Daniel Sullivan’s production of Shakespeare’s pastoral musical comedy is set on the American frontier, with a wooden stockade fort standing in for the original French duchy and excellent country music—written by Steve Martin—for the poet’s lyrics. This is not so strange; America is anticipated in Shakespeare, as the film Shakespeare in Love made clear in its Virginia ending. 

You can see the future in the freedom of thought, speech and action of the women in this and other Shakespeare plays—even if they had been played by boys in the playwright’s time. And this future is Western. It would be shocking even today in most Muslim countries that two girls of noble blood would disguise themselves as young men and set out on a journey with a male servant, as Rosalind and Celia do. It is even hard to imagine the badinage between the two girls and their suitors occurring in, say, Afghanistan or Yemen, or the Gulf States. In much of the Muslim world today, there are few places except a university where a young couple who aren’t relatives would meet, much less flirt. The country dance that closes this production has origins in Elizabethan England, and there as in the American frontier, it was taken for granted that men and women would dance together. This is still not done, even in Libya and Egypt and Iraq.

The excellent music of the play ran through my mind as I thought again about East and West. This is Shakespeare’s most musical play, and the jolly confidence of Martin’s fiddle and banjo ensemble, with its echoes back to the folk music of Shakespeare’s own time, is vastly different in spirit from the wailings of the popular songs of the lands of the Arab Spring.  And we Americans take for granted another confidence, which we hardly notice, but foreigners do—the proud American body language displayed by the actors. It is so different from the unconscious slouch of Afghans and Libyans and Tunisians and Egyptians. This confidence and ease comes from centuries of life in freedom, knowing that your family’s property cannot be seized by the government without warning, and that you cannot be pulled off the street and imprisoned for an overheard comment about the government.

But is my Turkish friend right? Are the Arab lands doomed to repression and tyranny? Will today’s revolutionary youth grow up to be frustrated and despondant, repeating what Orlando says just before his lot changes radically for the better, “But, O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes!”?

I think not. In Libya last summer, a socially conservative country, I still sensed some of the radical freedom we Americans take for granted. Particularly in Benghazi, the sense of limitless possibility was everywhere. There was—I don’t want to say a classless society, but a society that everyone wanted to be classless.

I thought again about As You Like It. Here as in other Shakespeare works, the unanalyzed assumptions are in the area of class, more than gender.  Everyone in his plays, just as everyone in the novels of Jane Austen or even Anthony Trollope, written hundreds of years closer to our day, takes for granted the naturalness of a social order of nobles and gentry and commoners, where a man’s or woman’s birth is everything. Critics have pointed out that the well-born characters in Shakespeare plays speak in poetry, which is more graceful and dignified, while the low-born speak in homely prose. But this play is different: the noble Rosalind often speaks in prose.

Archaic assumptions about class are dead in the Muslim world now, perhaps, oddly, more dead than they are in the West. (This is a big topic, but the combination of colonialism and the way modernity arrived in the Middle East has a lot to do with that.) No class origin blocks a person from achievement. It may be difficult to marry above one’s origins, but politically there is little correlation between origin and power. 

The Muslim world may find the gateway to other kinds of freedom in this change, and in the knowledge, demonstrated in the Arab Spring, that power comes from the people.  There is no inherent reason the cultures of Libya and Tunisia and Syria can’t accommodate other kinds of changes that strengthen civil society and make democracy possible. Much of this is about the ability to hope and dream—to participate in the sort of thought-experiment conjured up by Shakespeare in his plays.


Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad

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