The Role of Social Class in Twelfth Night and As You Like It
That social class is one of the most important themes in Shakespeare's plays cannot be denied. Twelfth Night and As You Like It were both written at times when the British society was undergoing a profound social transformation. New classes emerged and new social divisions placed additional burden of inequality and social rivalry on individuals. However, the two plays present the vision and role of social class in two distinct forms. Where Twelfth Night is essentially about showing the social ambition of individuals and its influence on human lives, social class in As You Like It takes a broader stand. In As You Like It, social class is deeper form of the complex relationships between first and non-first born sons, when the latter are pushed beyond the boundaries of nobility and have to create their own wealth elsewhere.
Social class is one of the main themes in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In his play, Shakespeare assumes a role of a comedian who wants to expose the aspects and elements of the social rivalry that are often obscured from the public. Shakespeare uses the character of Malvolio to discuss and evaluate the role of social class in his society. Based on what Malvolio thinks and how he acts, social climbing is the main purpose of life for Shakespeare's contemporaries. Social climbing and social ambition create a controversial picture of personal and social achievement. Social status turns into the main criterion of individual success. "To be Count Malvolio!" is everything Malvolio can dream of (Twelfth Night II.5). These social ambitions are so serious that even Olivia notices the extent to which Malvolio is obsessed with climbing up the social ladder: "Oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite" (Twelfth Night I.5). To a large extent, Shakespeare uses Malvolio to mock his contemporaries' striving to achieve a better social position by all possible means. A man of a modest background, Shakespeare himself acquired his "Gentleman" status after his theater became famous. This is, probably, one of the reasons why Shakespeare is so much interested in the human ambition to achieve a better social belonging and class.
The situation in As You Like It is somewhat different. Social class continues to play one of the dominant roles, but the way social class and its implications are presented are profoundly different from those in Twelfth Night. As You Like It depicts social class in broader and deeper terms, through a complex relationship between Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, and between Oliver and Orlando. "My father charged you in his will to give me good education: you have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities. [...] allow me such exercises as may become a gentleman" (As You Like It I.1). Orlando asks Oliver to grant him the possessions and privileges that have been promised to him by his deceased father. However, Oliver refuses to comply with his father's will.
He is more concerned about his own social position and is not willing to give up his power. Once again, social class comes into play when Duke Frederick usurps the throne from his brother, Duke Senior and banishes her from remaining at court: "Thou art thy father's daughter; there's enough" (As You Like It I.3). Unlike Twelfth Night, social class in As You Like It assumes a different form of a bloody struggle for the throne. Shakespeare is no longer humorous about the social struggle at court. Rather, he is inclined to show the tragic inconsistencies of the social class ambition, as it is breaking the stability of the human bonds. "Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court?" (As You Like It II.2). These are the words told by Duke Senior as he enters the forest of Arden which is to become a place of his exile.
Both plays expose the tragedy of the social ambition and its negative effects on individuality and human relations. In both plays, social ambition and the striving to climb the social ladder by all possible means are extremely dangerous and damaging. Unfortunately, few characters are to withstand the temptation to overthrow their competitors for the sake of a better social position.
Viola, Rosalind, and Cordelia: Three Likeable Identities
Shakespeare was extremely interested in depicting strong and intelligent women. Viola, Rosalind, and Cordelia exemplify a complex combination of strength, intelligence, virtue, and mental capacity which sometimes make them superior to their male counterparts. Viola is, probably, the most virtuous and likeable character in Shakespeare's plays: a protagonist of Twelfth Night, Viola acts and thinks as if she has no serious deficiencies in her character. Her love is absolutely pure. She is stubborn in her strivings and unchangeable in her passions. She is deep in her feelings. She is committed and loyal. "She pined in thought, and with a green and yellow melancholy She sat like patience on a monument, Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?" (Twelfth Night II.4). These words, told by Viola, best reflect her individuality and inner complexity. She is an enigma. She is willing to sacrifice her identity for the sake of love, eternal and pure. However, as it often happens in Shakespeare's novels, Viola's life is not without controversy: she is destined to live her life in disguise, which eventually leads her to a serious identity crisis: "send thee a beard! - By my troth, I'll tell thee, I am almost sick for one; (aside) though I would not have it grow on my chin. Is thy lady within?" (Twelfth Night III.1). In this sense, Viola is very similar to Rosalind, who experiences similar tortures and is constantly torn between multiple identities which, nevertheless, help her to meet the goal of her life.
Rosalind and Viola think and act like twins or at worst sisters. Both virtuous and likeable, they play a game of disguise that eventually leads them to the triumph of love and commitment. Rosalind is the central character of the play and is always at the forefront of the most important events. Rosalind is so complex in her emotions and sincere in her love that she cannot but fascinate readers. "Nay, now thou goest from Fortune's office to Nature's: Fortune reigns in gifts of the world, not in the lineaments of Nature" (As You Like It I.2). Rosalind is somewhat different from Viola in the sense that the former is more critical toward herself than others. She exhibits a remarkable commitment to self-analysis. In the meantime, Viola and Rosalind both succeed in crossing the boundary of gender, to meet their goals. It comes as no surprise that Viola and Rosalind are particularly admired by female readers for being able to establish themselves as strong and intelligent women, who pursue boldness and achievement. For Rosalind and Viola, disguise is a measure of last resort and, simultaneously, the best possible way to meet their goals. Viola and Rosalind use disguise to deny the gender limitations of the society in which they live: "Too well what love women to men may owe: In faith, they are as true of heart as we. My father had a daughter loved a man, As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship" (As You Like It II.4). Both women do not merely cross the boundaries of gender but deny the relevance of gender divisions in their society. However, not all women in Shakespeare's novels are willing to disguise themselves.
Cordelia presents an entirely different image of a woman, who is not willing to sacrifice her identity and uniqueness. Like Viola and Rosalind, Cordelia is virtuous and kind. She irradiates devotion, kindness, and honesty. Actually, it is because of her honesty that Cordelia creates a serious conflict with her father, King Lear: "Then poor Cordelia! And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love's More richer than my tongue" (King Lear I.1). Cordelia is too honest to disguise herself. She is too open to deceive her father. Her honesty drives her out of the palace and throws her into the midst of loneliness and abandonment. Her father disowns her because of her sincerity and failure to be a flatterer, like her sisters. Cordelia is different from Viola and Rosalind in that the latter end up in happiness, whereas Cordelia's happiness is temporary and very short. At the end of her story, Cordelia falls a victim to the unfairness and injustice of the cruel and senseless world. Does that mean that disguise is the best way to achieve happiness? Shakespeare does not give any definite answer to this question. However, it is clear that women in Shakespeare's novels cross the boundaries of conventional wisdom and create a novel picture of female strength, stubbornness and boldness.
King Lear: Fathers and Daughters
The complexity of the relationship between fathers and daughters is the central theme of Shakespeare's King Lear. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child! Away, away!" (King Lear I.4). There is nothing more complex and controversial than a relationship between a father and a daughter; not more so than when a father has three daughters. Parents believe that they sacrifice themselves on the altar of their children's happiness. Their children, in turn, are believed to be ungrateful for everything their parents have accomplished for them. These intergenerational misunderstandings make these parent-child relationships virtually unbearable. In King Lear, the relationship between the King and his daughters is further complicated by their class belonging: Cordelia's sisters are obsessed with the idea to acquire a greater share of their father's estate. Aware of these class and social difficulties, a father as noble as King Lear cannot accept Cordelia's love and sincerity for granted: "Here I disclaim all my parental care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee, from this, for ever" (King Lear I.1). A conflict between King Lear and Cordelia is essentially the same as the conflict between the parental pride and the purity of a child which parents, given their prejudices and misbalanced expectations, cannot always accept and recognize.
King Lear makes a mistake that is common among parents: he imposes his beliefs and expectations on children who are grown up and mature. His children have uniqueness and individuality which is often perceived as a serious threat to parental relationships with children. "And your large speeches may your deeds approve, That good effects may spring from words of love" (King Lear I.1). King Lear does not want to make his children independent; nor do Goneril and Regan want independence from King Lear, given the material benefits which their flattering lies offer. King Lear's love is conditional - a common mistake made by parents in their search of peace and stability. Cordelia is not willing to accept her father's conditional love. She rebels against her father's striving to impose his expectations on her. She accepts her fate and loneliness, as she loves her father sincerely and does not want to break this intimate bond.
Cordelia's relations with her father are colored with rivalry, which is so characteristic of sisters. Goneril and Regan constantly compete to gain a greater share of their father's love and, consequentially, his estate. This is what Regan says upon being asked about her love to King Lear: "Sir, I am made of the self-same metal that my sister is, And prize me at her worth. [...] only she comes too short: that I profess Myself an enemy to all other joys, Which the most precious square of sense possesses" (King Lear I.1). Girls, like boys, want to outperform one another. Therefore, it is possible to assume that, if King Lear had three sons, the situation would be essentially the same. Like girls, boys would fight for their share of the father's love although, possibly, by other means.
King Lear passes a long and thorny way to inner peace and self-realization. Like many other parents, he is bound to fight with his parental pride, which blinds him and does not let him see the truth of his daughter's love. Cordelia's love of her father is painful and romantic and does not know the boundaries of the royal duty, which binds women and does not let them express their feelings. When the father and the daughter finally forgive one another and reunite, their feelings range from forgiveness, love, romance, passion, to a strong desire never to be separated: "We two alone will sing like birds I'the cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh" (King Lear IV.3). They lose valuable time and want to catch up with the things they failed to accomplish. They both know that life gives them the last chance to reach an agreement and compromise. Yet, time is slipping away. The relationship between King Lear and his daughters is a relationship of a conflict and duty which is further complicated by the social class considerations that leave little room for family stability and peace.