Monday, July 17, 2006
Alchemical Transformation in "As You Like It"
From time to time, while writing, an image will emerge that possesses a magical quality. These images spring forth from the unconscious mind and contain archetypal connections that produce a response in the reader that is somehow related to our deeper non-intellectual understanding. Recently, while reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I felt that such a mythic image entered quickly, unbidden and unsuspected, to provide the ultimate solution to the comedy. Further, I believe that these images are alchemical symbols acting as short hand exemplars of transformation.
The play tells the story of two noble families. In each family a brother has betrayed and usurped his brother. As a result of the usurpation the “better” brother is forced into the forest. The forest here is the place where confusion is resolved and consequently takes on the characteristic of a psychological temenos, an enclosure that cooks the participants and transforms them.
The main two characters are Rosalind and Orlando. Rosalind is the young daughter of he banished Duke Senior and Orlando is the younger son of Sir Rowland de Boys. Orlando has been usurped by his oldest brother, Oliver, and denied any participation in his legacy. In fact, as the play opens Oliver plots to have his brother killed in a wrestling match.
Although the plot initially seems to be a revenge play, we eventually learn that it is a comedy and that it will end in marriage. In the end four couples marry and a conversion occurs to Oliver. This conversion is a magical event fraught with mythic overtones. However, it occurs offstage and seems tacked on.
Orlando finds his brother lost and asleep in the forest. A snake is about to enter Oliver’s mouth when Orlando comes to his rescue, driving the snake away; however, a female lion waits in the bushes and attacks Orlando, wounding him severely. Here is the magic-the mythic image of the snake and the female lion serve as a conduit to the mythic plane. On one hand we are to read the scene realistically but on the other we understand that the snake and the lion are familiar archetypal images, as well as alchemical symbols, which transform Oliver through their power. Note that the snake was about to enter Oliver’s sleeping mouth. The snake was about to be ingested and thereby assimilated, while the lioness, the darkened female image, was about to consume him. However, his brother saves him and is wounded by the female lion, which results in conversion and order.
Both the snake and the lioness symbolize “Mercurius or the divine mercurial water of transformation, and the prima materia.” Once again our friend Mercurius or Hermes appears to act in his role of transformation. I believe that Shakespeare used the alchemical images as short hand to show that Orlando and Oliver lost in the forest undergo a psychological sea change.