A Study of the Childish and the Childlike in Shakespeare’s
King Lear and As You Like It
INTRODUCTION The fact that they are both derived ultimately from folk-tale is not the only thing that relates As You Like It to King Lear. Adam’s sombre line, “And unregarded age in corners thrown’ … sums up the fate of Lear…. At times, Arden seems a place where the same bitter lessons can be learnt as Lear has to learn in his place of exile, the blasted heath. Corin’s natural philosophy, which includes the knowledge that ‘the property of rain is to wet,’ is something which Lear has painfully to acquire: “When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter…there I smelt ‘em out. Go to, they are not men o’ their words: they told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.” (IV.6.99-105) He is echoing Duke Senior, who smiles at the ‘icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,’ saying: “This is no flattery: these are counsellors/ That feelingly persuade me what I am.” (II.1.10-11) Amiens’ lovely melancholy song: “Blow, blow, thou winter wind, / Thou art not so unkind, / As man’s ingratitude…” (III.1.174-6) is terribly echoed in Lear’s outburst “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! / I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness; / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children.” (III.2.11-14) And Jaques’s reflection that ‘All the world’s a stage’ becomes in Lear’s mouth a cry of anguish: “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.” (IV.6.183-4)1 From what you have just heard, it would seem that the story of Lear (the king, not the drama) seems to be the backside, the shadow of the story of Adam. This proves to be the case if we examine their stories from the aspect of old age as second childhood.
If we focus on Jaques’ Seven Ages of Man speech, this special relationship between the two plays, and the two characters, is revealed. The dramatic situation is that Orlando has left the exhausted Adam behind while he goes to seek food and shelter. Orlando arrives at a banquet hosted by the exiled Duke Senior and attended by his companions. After a brief verbal give and take, the duke offers Orlando food. While Orlando goes to fetch Adam, Jaques seizes upon the opportunity to share his thoughts on the Seven Ages of Man. The ages are infancy, childhood, loverhood, soldierdom, socially comfortable middle age, ridiculous old age and “second childishness and mere oblivion-- / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” (II.7.169-170)2 Not only are the various stages presented as futile in and of themselves, but they are also pointless in a teleological sense, as the telos, or end, of all human effort is “mere oblivion.” This might also be a line out of King Lear. Helen Gardner and others have pointed out that Adam, carried by Orlando, arrives just in the nick of time to offset this gloomy prospect. Adam is “sans teeth” as we know from Oliver’s description of him in I.1. as a “toothless old dog,” and he has to be carried, but his old age has a dignity conferred upon him by the love and companionship of Orlando.
Lear and Adam are both above fourscore years old. They are two of the oldest characters in all of Shakespeare and have by all reckoning entered the age of second childhood. The ways in which Adam and Lear live this second childhood are radically different. I would like to argue that Adam appropriates the positive, childlike values, as appropriate to shaping a comedy, while Lear’s childish (concerning the negative aspects of childhood) behavior precipitates the tragedy. Lear is redeemed at the end when he recovers the proper sense of second childhood and discovers the companionship Adam enjoyed all along. CHILD, CHILDISH, CHILDLIKE Before delving more deeply into the two plays at hand, I would like to make a brief cultural aside on how the concept of childhood was defined in the Elizabethan period and on how the two most common adjectival forms, childish and childlike differ.
The word ‘child,’ in the Elizabethan period, was used both in a narrower and wider sense than the sense in which it is used today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first meaning of the word is “the unborn or newly born human being, infant.” This meaning is retained in phrases such as “with child” or “childbirth.” The next meaning listed is narrowest of all, “female infant” or “girl baby.” Shakespeare is noted to have used this meaning in A Winter’s Tale “A very pretty barne: A boy, or a Childe I wonder?” (III.3.71) According to these two definitions, childhood is associated with femininity and utter helplessness.3
If childhood, for the Elizabethans, begins before birth, where does it end? The end of childhood is not bound to a magical age, as it is in Western culture to 16, 18 or 21. Childhood ends and responsible adult life begins with marriage. According to John Stubbs in his recently published monograph on John Donne, Elizabethan young people were socially considered children until they were married. Girls could legally be married at the age of 12, boys at 14. If, however, a young man didn’t marry into his thirties, he was socially considered a child despite his physical or mental maturity.4
For boys, an important landmark on the way to adulthood was known as “breeching.” Stephen Orgel, in his article entitled “The Performance of Desire,” writes the following: “The return to childhood is represented as a retreat from…the dangers of manhood… Leontes sees himself “unbreeched,” not yet in breeches: Elizabethan children of both sexes were dressed in skirts until the age of seven or so; the “breeching” of boys was a formal move out of the common gender of childhood, which was both female in appearance and largely controlled by women, and into the world of men. This event was traditionally the occasion for a significant family ceremony.”5
Childlike and childish are two aspects of childhood. Childish, as attested by the OED, is (and was in Shakespeare’s day) usually used in a negative sense, denoting qualities such as “infantile, juvenile, puerile, silly.” Childlike, on the other hand, is used mostly in the positive sense of “belonging to or becoming a child; filial…with reference to the innocence, meekness, etc of children.”6 These are the definitions and distinctions on which I base the following argument.
ADAM The first time we meet Adam, he is conversing with Orlando in Act I Scene 1 about the latter’s rustic upbringing. Oliver rejects Adam once he finds out where his loyalties lie. “Get you with him, you old dog,” he shouts, to which Adam responds, “Is ‘old dog’ my reward? Most true, I have lost my teeth in your service.” (I.1.72-74)7 A toothless dog is an inglorious foreshadowing of Jaques’ qualification of old age as “sans teeth,” but the very knowledge that these teeth were lost in service makes of them a special kind of currency.
In Act II, Scene 3 it is Adam’s wisdom that saves Orlando from his own brother. “O unhappy youth / Come not within these doors. Within this roof / The enemy of all your graces lives.” (l.17-19) When Orlando argues that he has nowhere to go, Adam responds, “I have five hundred crowns / The thrifty hire I saved under your father, / which I did store to be my foster nurse / when service should in my old limbs lie lame / and unregarded age in corners thrown. / Take that; and He that doth the ravens feed, / Yea, providently caters for the sparrow / be comfort to my age.” There are three important things to note here. First, Adam is and was a thrifty man. His youthful virtues are amplified in old age. This is echoed somewhat later.” Though I look old, yet I am strong and lusty; / For in my youth I never did apply / Hot and rebellious liquors in my blood, / Nor did not with unbashful forehead woo / The means of weakness and debility. / Therefore my age is as a lusty winter, / Frosty but kindly.” (l.50-56) Secondly, the motif of old age as second childhood appears when Adam describes his “thrifty hire” as a “foster nurse.” And thirdly, Adam withdraws his trust from his savings. He offers his money to Orlando and places his trust in him “that doth the ravens feed.”
William Watterson in his article entitled “As You Like It as Christian Pastoral” sees in Adam a type of Prophet Elijah.8 Indeed, there are many similarities between Adam and Elijah. In 1 Kings 17:1-7, God orders the ravens to feed Elijah by the Brook of Cherith. The relevant passage reads: “Depart from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”9 They bring him bread and meat twice a day. In 1 Kings 19:4-21, Elijah journeys into the wilderness and collapses under a tree, hoping to die. The next time we meet Adam in the play, he is also exhausted beyond measure in Arden wood. God sends Elijah a young companion, the prophet Elisha, just as Orlando is there to take care of Adam.
The next time we meet Adam, he is struggling to keep up with his young master. Act I Scene 6 is a brief exchange between Adam and Orlando. “O, I die for food! Here lie I down and measure out my grave. Farewell, kind master,” Adam sighs. After Adam comes to, Orlando carries him away from “the bleak air… to some shelter.” Orlando’s motherly care for Adam is echoed in Act III, Scene 1 when, after receiving an invitation from the Duke to join their feast and fall to, Orlando withdraws: “Then but forebear your food a little while, / Whiles like a doe I go to find my fawn / And give it food. There is an old poor man, / Who after me hath many a weary step / Limp’d in pure love. Till he be first suffic’d, / Oppress’d with two weak evils, age and hunger, I will not touch a bit.” (l.129-135) Orlando, the grown, female deer must care for his little fawn, Adam, who has followed him faithfully.
Adam’s fate in the play is mystery. The last time we see him, he is safely installed at a “good man’s feast,” which is described by Watterson as a type of Holy Communion, giving Adam’s fate a sense of consummation. His final words in the play are addressed to the Duke. “I scarce can speak to thank you for myself.” (II.7.175) They show him as an infant, which etymologically means, ‘without a voice,’ ‘without the faculty of speech.’ If we follow the Elijah motif, we may well remember that according to 2 Kings 2: 9-12, the prophet is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Adam is not present when the “country copulatives” rejoice at the end. We may assume that he dies during the play, but there is a sense of consummation, even a certain assumption into heaven in his leaving.
As related to the previous scheme, Adam doffs social responsibility when he gives his money to Orlando. There is no mention of his unbreeching, we know that like a fawn, he enjoys the motherly, thus feminine care of Orlando. His toothlessness and inability to speak in the end bring him furthest back, to the state of an infant. His absence at the end of the play may correspond to Jaques’ “mere oblivion,” yet Adam, through the companionship he showed Orlando, certainly has a legacy of joy.
LEAR In his “second childishness,” Lear first falls from the lap of bounty into “houseless poverty.” In Act I, Scene 1, Lear unfolds his “darker purpose” and divests himself of social responsibility in a passage that echoes Jaques words on the reluctant schoolboy. “And ‘tis out fast intent/ To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / unburthen’d crawl toward death. (l.34-37)10 “See better, Lear!” (l.164) Kent warns him, and we discover that Lear is, at least figuratively, sans eyes. After his failure to elicit rhetorical avowals of love from Cordelia to match those of her sisters, a disappointed Lear comments, “I lov’d her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery.” (l.125-6) Adam’s foster nurse was to be his carefully saved money, Lear’s Cordelia. The “kind” nursery Lear had hoped for can be juxtaposed with Goneril’s idea of geriatric care, as expressed just a few lines later, “Idle old man / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away! Now, by my life / Old fools are babes again, and must be us’d / With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus’d.” (I.3.17-21) In this same act, the fool reprimands Lear for his irresponsible behavior, “thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for…thou gav’st them the rod and putt’st down thine own breeches.” (l.160-162) Lear, like Leontes in the Orgel quotation above, has unbreeched himself, and retreated into sexually undifferentiated early childhood, a state in which he finds himself in the ‘care’ of two powerful and cruel female figures, his own daughters. This same fool poignantly tells Lear, “Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing.” (l.180) Lear has gone from king to nothing, Jaques’ “mere oblivion,” in a single act. And within this very act, Lear repents of his “being old before he is wise.” (I.5.36) “I did her wrong,” he tells the Fool, referring to Cordelia. As Roy Battenhouse points out in his article on King Lear, after this recognition, “the bulk of the drama becomes a purging of his initial mistake.”11
In the process of purging, Lear, like a pendulum gone awry, swings to and fro between his ever more ungenerous daughters. Leading into the storm, Lear is gradually disrobed, first of his royal mantle, then his very clothing, until he is left with only a few rags or none at all clinging to him. He is naked as a newborn. John Cunningham sees in the storm scene, a type of baptism, after which Lear’s regeneration from “nothing” can begin.12 Safe in Cordelia’s tent, he is given a new “foster nurse.” The doctor sets up his diagnosis: “Our foster-nurse of nature is repose / The which he lacks.” (IV.4.13-14) Lying in Cordelia’s arms, Lear has repose. As Peter Milward suggests, the Prodigal Father has come home.13 His youngest daughter whispers a prayer over him “Th’untuned and jarring senses O wind up / Of this child-changed father!” (IV.7.) Changed both by his children and into a child, Lear has relived the story of the Prodigal Son. Roy Battenhouse calls this an awakening to spiritual Daylight.14 Lear does “see better” now, as Kent had warned he should. Had Lear been Adam, this is where his story would end, in the lap of bounty.
Lear is not Adam, however. The reason why he must continue to suffer is illuminated in Roy Battenhouse’s definition of drama: “Drama,” he writes, “represents the movement of human beings in the process of relating themselves to realities outside of themselves,” to God and his angels, to other human beings, to the natural order. “Each is to be given its proper due.” In comedy, these relations are set right in the end. In tragedy, however, there is a hamartia megale, (Greek expression meaning ‘great fault’ or ‘big mistake’) in assessing these relationships and identifying what is of value and what is not.15
Holinshed, in his 1578 Chronicles, writes the following: “When this Leir therefore was come to great years and began to wax unwieldy through age, he thought to understand the affections of his daughters towards him…”16 Lear, too, sought to discern the quality of his daughters’ relationship to him and made a grave error. He should be holding Cordelia in his arms, and not vice versa. And he does, at the end, when the two form a strange Pieta. Instead of the Virgin Mary holding her son, we have a “Father of Sorrows” with his Cordelia in his lap.
Lear’s final words, “Look on her! Look! Her lips! / Look there, look there!” (V.3.367-8) are hauntingly ambiguous. In A.C. Bradley’s traditional reading, at this time, Lear dies in an agony of ecstasy at discovering his daughter to be alive. Barbara Everett insists Lear dies in “supreme tragic horror at the corpse.” Nicholas Brooke suggests Lear retreats into madness, while John D. Rosenburg points out that Lear’s deluded hope that Cordelia lives is the final and most brutal mockery of the play. John Summers has come full circle, back to the Bradleyan interpretation that Lear rejoices that his daughter is alive, but he means alive in a way that is beyond death, alive in the world to come.17 I personally choose to believe the last interpretation, because, in this way, “the story ends as close to the gates of comedy as it is possible for a tragedy.” Indeed, we are a breath away from full restoration, but Cordelia never draws this breath. CONCLUSION To conclude, I would return briefly to Jaques’ oft anthologized Seven Ages of Man speech. Professor István Géher shared with me the insight that the seeming futility of the various stages stems largely from the way in which the seven figures are presented, alone, without companionship, without an outside point of reference such as fellow man or God. Adam and Lear are both past the age of eighty and it is safe to say that their own parents are not alive to see them through their second childhood. They must seek companionship elsewhere.
There is an old and generously wide meaning of the word ‘child’ that I have not yet mentioned, a meaning that was intact before Shakespeare’s time, as attested by the Oxford English Dictionary. This is “child of God.” In the Old Testament, the children of Israel call God Father, in the New Testament, this privilege is extended to all of mankind. In the New Testament, the words child and children are used to denote the proper relationship between man and the highest outside reality, God himself. This relationship is best summed up in 1 Corinthians 14:20, “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.” In his second childhood, Adam was a babe to evil but showed great wisdom in his thinking. Lear began as a babe in thinking and was overcome by his elder daughters, who were mature in evil, until proper relationships to God and to man were restored.
1Helen Gardner, “Let the Forest Judge,” in Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It: A Casebook, ed. John Russell Brown (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 158-160
2 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Agnes Latham (London: Methuen, 1975)
3 Oxford English Dictionary. 2006. Oxford University Press. 04 October 2006 .
5 Stephen Orgel, “The Performance of Desire,” in Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000, ed. Russ McDonald (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) p.672
6 Oxford English Dictionary. 2006. Oxford University Press. 04 October 2006 .
7 All quotations from As You Like It from William Shakespeare, As You Like It, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Agnes Latham (London: Methuen, 1975)
8 Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 120
9 All Biblical quotations from The Ignatius Holy Bible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966)
10 All quotations from King Lear from William Shakespeare, King Lear, in The Yale Shakespeare, ed. Wilbur L. Cross and Tucker Brooke (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993)
11 Roy Battenhouse, “King Lear: Comment and Bibliography,” in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 445
12 John Cunninghamn, “King Lear, the Storm, and the Liturgy,” in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 466
13 Peter Milward, “The Religious Dimension of King Lear,” in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 451
14 Roy Battenhouse, “King Lear: Comment and Bibliography,” in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 445
15 Roy Battenhouse, “On Shakespeare’s Tragedies,” in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 361
16 Tucker Brooke and William Lyon Phelps, “The Tragedy of King Lear: Introduction,” in The Yale Shakespeare, ed. Wilbur L. Cross and Tucker Brooke (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), p. 1071
17John Cunninghamn, “King Lear, the Storm, and the Liturgy,” in Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 463-464