The Rape of Bertram: Helena’s Paradox

One of the interesting things about Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well is the paradoxical plight of Bertram. For all intents and purposes, he just wants to have a little fun as a young man. He is dealt a weird hand of cards, though. When the king personally commands him to marry a woman obsessed with him, we can understand his unhappiness. Anyways, he feels how he feels, and he flees. 

What else could he have done? Staying to marry the woman his mother and the king want him to would put him in the position to become resentful to them all. Running away only bought him some time to catch his breath, and he turned that time into an opportunity to seduce a virgin. The moral ambiguity of this play is so perfectly balanced it is equally easy or difficult to take either Helena’s or Bertram’s side.

Bertram is after all, the subject of a female gaze, a victim of sexually motivated exploitation. Laura Mulvey wrote about the male gaze in the context of art history and that has become a very influential way of analyzing paintings and representations of women. In this play, however, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of a woman who is actively objectifying and fantasizing about a man. She goes beyond representation or fantasy, however, and coordinates sex with the object of her desire. Ironically, Bertram has the energy of a rapist, but he is the one who ends up being sexually violated.

Bertram thinks that he is giving the business to the virgin Diana but he’s really having sex with Helena. The scene immediately following their sexual encounter shows us a disturbing portrait of a woman who has trapped her husband into impregnating her. She rapes Bertram by tricking him into having sex with her, and when it is over, she reflects on how easily he was fooled. She thinks about how hot blooded and crazed he was in the moment and how he didn’t even realize he wasn’t having sex with Diana.

Clearly, there’s something super creepy about Helena. She also spies on people throughout the play, pretending to be someone else. When she gets to Italy, Bertram is already famous for being brave during a battle and when she is hearing the story about him and how he had left France because he was forced into a marriage, she says she knows the woman. 

Helena is an undercover agent, and we see her making her moves with unrelenting will. Helena is more than a stage five clinger; she’s obsessed. She chose Bertram, researched his background, used political leverage to entrap him in marriage, stole his mother’s loyalty and tricked him into sex. If the genders were reversed, this would be the portrait of an absolute psycho. Because she is raping her husband and stopping a man from taking advantage of a virgin, the morality of her actions is ambiguous.

Helena also uses Bertram to climb the social ladder of her times. She is the daughter of a physician. He was a famous doctor but still inferior in social class. Bertram belongs to the ruling class. As a nobleman, he feels entitled to certain rights and he regards most categories of people as socially inferior. Helena’s path of upward mobility uses Bertram like a mule.

Bertram is what Al Bundy would later embody in US American television, the defeated alpha. This play shows what Al would have been like at the peak of his football career before being conquered by Peg. Because Bertram is young and physically attractive, he wants to take advantage of his time, but he is too stupid and ultimately is outwitted by the sex-hungry and power-savvy Helena.

Part of what keeps the scales balanced in this play is the general creepiness of Bertram and his partner in sexual adventuring, Parolles. Parolles has a way with words and talks women into having sex with him. He gives arguments against virginity, saying that being a virgin is an insult to a woman’s mother. Bertram and Parolles would have a podcast and would live in a content house, today. Just a couple of hounds trying to get laid, they are famous for their philandering ways.

There are two different worlds colliding in the play. There’s the happy go get lucky world of the soldier bachelors and there’s the world of family and the court. Bertram and Parolles flee the court to indulge in sexual adventures. Helena, deprived of the ability to flee, uses the political structure of the court to conquer the object of her sexual desire. Ultimately, Helena gets what she wants. She is the hero, or more successful antihero of the play. For her, the ends justify the means. Her dishonesty, her political climbing, her sexual deception, and her obsession with a handsome man somehow balance out in a world full of inequality and fuck bois.

Team Helena

In our asinine social media Internet troll phase of US American culture, 2016-20, the character Parolles would have been the hero of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Bertram would’ve been an influencer, hype beast, even though he’s almost as smart as a bag of muddy rocks. It was a bleak but necessary phase of growth, our terrible twos of a digitally connected world. We celebrated snitches, nerds, and creeps.

Not anymore. Not since Joe Rogan got his Spotify deal. 

Ultimately, Trump will have been less influential than Rogan, and that is just something you are going to have to consider if you want to be taken seriously as a thinker. Influence is influence. 

Shakespeare is the strongest brand in English Literature. He’s the Disney of the stage. Nobody even comes close. That’s one reason why studying Shakespeare makes so much sense right now. We are slowly globalizing as a culture and that means a cultural transformation that will change things in a way that feels threatening to some and promising to others. Superhero movies have dominated this period for this reason. We need a common language to speak, a mythical language.

We have evolved from a culture best defined by Disney, to one described in spirit by comic book characters. Can you see how young we are as a culture? The next logical step, as happens with any 9th grader in this country I believe, is to start reading Shakespeare. That’s the next level above comic books for us, for some reason. It’s not so much a hierarchy, however, as much as a process of maturation that entails the development of certain strengths or capabilities. 

When we are young, we require the entertaining quality of cartoons. When we get a little older, we can read books with pictures. Eventually, we can read sophisticated plays and derive value and meaning from the text. Does that mean that reading Shakespeare is better than watching Looney Tunes? Not exactly. It just indicates a more mature and sophisticated ability to consume culture. It’s still just consuming culture.

The most important part of consuming culture is the dialogue that it provokes. Reading Shakespeare can lead to more relevant and interesting conversations about things that matter to today’s context without directly discussing topical news. 

Bertram is a bro. He’s too young to be noble. He’s suffering from testosterone poisoning and that is no excuse for his rapist mentality, his narcissistic abandoning of family and country. It’s just an explanation for why he is such a kook. He probably would never become someone cool, but surely, he could not remain this stupid forever. Once he realizes that his own sexual appetite is less important than being good to the people in his life, then he might simmer down a little bit. Not in the play, though. He’s cool as a grease fire. He’s suffering from mental illness, a combination of grief for his father’s death, of a repulsion of being controlled, and of a manic desire to kill enemies in battle and to have sex with virgins as a reward. Bertram is a head case.

He’s also a loser. Despite all the actions he takes, he still ends up a victim of fate, made to do what other people tell him to do. Bertram is a submissive male. Bertram is beta. His aggression on the battlefield and in the bedroom derive from his knowledge that he has no control over his own life. Thankfully, Bertram is so stupid that he never really hurts anyone. The virgin he is trying to sleep with tricks him into having sex with his own wife. His best friend betrays him. Slowly, Bertram realizes how stupid he has been, what poor judgment he has shown.

This is a painful awakening during a comedy. 

Reading Shakespeare, listening to the characters, and thinking about how their plots relate to our lives today is a good way to engage in debate without devolving into fighting. At least, I hope it could. Who knows, though. It might end up as a shouting match between Team Helena and Team Bertram.

Bertram’s Betrayals: Rape Culture in All’s Well That Ends Well

All’s Well That Ends Well is a play of transgressions. The character Bertram takes the quickest fall from grace imaginable shortly after the passing of his father. He is the ultimate fuck boi. Bertram is a victim of circumstance, but he refuses to be limited by other people’s plans for him to the extent that he betrays his widowed mother and his king. Why does he sacrifice all his social bonds? For some action with the ladies, Bertram burns all his bridges.

Why is Bertram such an unlikable character? He loses his father and grieves and consoles his mother. That gives us an opening for empathy from the introduction, but Bertram quickly shows that he is uninterested in anything other than pursuing the freedoms of youth. He is not out of the shadow of his father’s passing when he is married to a woman he doesn’t choose and these compounding forces of unfreedom are too big of a challenge for him to face, so he flees the country with his friend, Parolles.

Running away could seem to be cowardly, but Bertram flees to Italy to fight in a war which requires physical courage. He manages to perform some important service in the battle and is enjoying a moment of fame. For Bertram, the war offered an escape and a stage for him to show his value and to attract sexual companions. While he has gained some notoriety, the woman he is interested in has no interest in him. When Helena arrives to Italy, she meets this woman, and they conspire to trick Bertram.

Bertram’s energy toward the young Italian woman Diana is nothing short of predatory. The women come together to defend Diana against Bertram’s sexual advances. The reason we dislike Bertram so much it turns out is because he has the mind of a rapist. He can be forgiven for not wanting to marry a woman he didn’t choose, but when he attempts to coerce a woman who doesn’t want him, he becomes a villain. She is a task to him, something he considers part of the business of war. Having done something heroic he feels entitled to sexual rewards.

Betram’s sexual desperation is made obvious when Diana manages to get him to give her his ring. Like a simp, he’s fooled by their trick. Helena has paid Diana’s mother to have her attempt this move, and Bertram is so driven to have sex with Diana that he falls right into their trap. Driven by libido to the point that he is willing to give up his most prized heirloom to a stranger, we see how out of control Bertram really is.

When Helena and Diana switch places, Bertram ends up inadvertently planting his seed in his lawful wife. He is tricked into becoming a father. He thinks he is fulfilling his fantasy of sexual exploits, but he is impregnating Helena. 

Difficult circumstances seem not to justify a character’s bad behavior. Helena uses all kinds of manipulative tactics to get what she wants, but we empathize with her because her goal is aligned with her people. She brings healing and peace to every situation she attends. Because of her limitations of power, she must use deceptive techniques, but her effect is for the common good. She cures the king of his disease, but to even get his attention she must be willing to wager her life. Helena risks her life to marry Bertram and Betram risks his life to find sexual freedom. 

Bertram is a narcissist known for his heroism and his dishonesty. He needs a conspirator, though. His friend Parolles is a funny caricature of bro culture. He’s all for the exploits, but when he falls victim to a prank and is kidnapped, we see just how little courage he possesses. These two together make a pair of fools who are driven by their lust and are blind to the gravity of their situation. 

Bertram the unlikable antihero is nothing more than a pawn to show the cunning and courage of Helena. Not only does she orchestrate their marriage, but she also grieves having caused him to run away. She overcomes her emotions to do the right thing for the common good and that is why she is a beloved character. Bertram is a character who desires freedom more than his responsibilities or other people’s rights. The play, All’s Well That Ends Well shows us that deception is not as important as intention through the transgressions of Helena and Bertram. They both use dishonest techniques, but Helena does so for the common good and Bertram does so for his personal gain.

Listening to Helena: Shakespeare and Writing from Memory

I’ll admit it. I’m stuck. All’s Well That Ends Well is very challenging to listen to. And that’s why I love it. So far, it is beyond my ability to fully grasp. Every play takes some time to learn, but this one is barely leaving a trace. Part of this experiment is to write from memory. Let me explain.

When you draw from memory, it is a lot different than when you draw from life or from a photograph. Drawing from memory requires a different kind of concentration and the same is true with writing. The process is much different. Your attention is fixed on one process. You don’t go back and forth, there’s no looking things up, no interrupting the flow of thought. Just like when you draw from memory and all your attention goes into the drawing, when you write from memory you understand better what you really understand.

It is one thing to be able to research and ask questions, it’s another skill set to be able to remember what you have learned and to recreate it for someone else. That is another level of mastery. Understanding a few texts well gives you the tools you need to write well from memory. Why experiment with this method of writing?

Internet culture is so fragmented and decontextualized that it is training our minds to make huge leaps quickly. Because we are overwhelmed with information about the world, there is a pressure to move with speed. We counter our fear of missing out by spreading our attention thin. If we think about culture like exercise, then every direction we push in we should also build in the opposite direction. That’s how bodies work. It’s how cultures work too. We need a dynamic balance between our opposing strengths.

So, writing from memory is a way to form a continuous uninterrupted thought about a subject without introducing a lot of other voices and opinions. They will come later, and a dialogue is the desired outcome. To really form your opinions, though, you must sit with the noise of your memory and sort out what you really think.

Writing from memory is a strange kind of listening. How do you access what you know? It requires effort. You must think about how the play opens. What is the context? Who are the characters? There is a discussion of the king’s illness. There is a conversation about the daughter of a recently deceased surgeon. This is Helena. She will eventually talk her way into many different situations. Choosing a character gives you a way to navigate your thoughts about the play. Helena is the most interesting character in the play because she motivates all the action, she makes all the successful moves. 

First, she must get past the doubt instilled in the king by his expert physicians. They believe that his malady is beyond remedy and so when Helena seeks to give him treatment, there is a reluctance to take her seriously. Helena doesn’t take no for an answer, though, and she persists in convincing the king that she can help him. Not only was her father a highly skilled doctor, but he left behind a book of notes about everything he cured. She has some research to use to her advantage and she does. What really cures the king, though, is her dogged persistence. If she were not so determined to be effective, then he would never have allowed her to attempt to cure him. 

Helena goes further than simply curing the king, she does so under the condition that he will grant her the right to marry whomever she chooses if she is successful. Helena is not from a noble family. She is poor. Still, she manages to assert her will and to use the king’s power to marry the man she wants. 

She also wins over her husband Bertram’s mother. When Bertram abandons his new wife–whom he married against his will–to fight in a war in Italy, his own mother writes him out of existence and replaces him with Helena. Helena pursues what she wants and speaks her value into existence. Because Helena wants to marry Bertram, she cures the king. Because Bertram leaves her, she first gets his mother to take her side and then she plots to get him back from Italy.

One of the themes I’ve noticed in Shakespeare’s Comedies so far is the interplay between love and war as psychological forces. In the comedies, there are some dark and violent moments. The power of love is shown to be more powerful, however and ultimately wins the day. The will to love is the dominant force in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Helena is the voice that brings it into being.

Creativity, Danger, and Internet Culture

I keep finding myself surprised by the appearance of things in Shakespeare’s plays that have a ton of relevance to contemporary culture. For example, in All’s Well that Ends Well there is a scene where they prank a soldier. Prank culture has a big place on the Internet, too. Nelk Boys, the Logan Bros, Chad and JT: these are the children of Jackass, the offspring of Punk’d, but they have a four hundred- and twenty-year-old ancestor in Shakespeare’s play.

One of the great things about studying Shakespeare is the mental effort it takes to figure out what is happening as you are led through multiple plots that interweave and are only known through dialogue. We must decipher the stories and their relevance through what characters say to each other. In the case of All’s Well, we hear the soldiers plot out the prank ahead of time. They want to test their friend’s loyalty, so they plan to have him ambushed and held hostage so that he thinks he has been captured by the enemy, but it will be his fellow soldiers in disguise. 

Helena also pulls a kind of trick on Bertram. She switches places with the woman he is trying to have sex with, and she gets him to impregnate her. This is a prank with much more serious consequences, and it is the moral question of the play. Through this dynamic, Shakespeare creates an opportunity to ask a lot of interesting questions. There are debates to be had about the morality of the character’s actions.

One of the problems in our culture today is the changing line between culture and life. Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed in a theater. Nobody gets pregnant or is held hostage. One of the great things about self-made celebrities on the Internet is that they have a ton of creative freedom, because they did it their way. The downside to that freedom is a lack of support or connection to a sustainable business model. Once a movement starts making a lot of money and the players involved depend upon that income it becomes hard to make certain changes. There is a momentum to success that is hard to control.

There is also an escalation of the stakes. People study what performs well on YouTube, for example, and then you get someone like Mr. Beast who constantly feeds the algorithm exactly the kind of stuff it wants. Mr. Beast is performing stunts, not pranks, and this is a more sustainable model. Mr. Beast has an interesting combination of fantasy and reality at work in his videos and he does outlandish and absurdly expensive things, but they also take a lot of discipline and endurance.

Partly, this desire for reality that is shown in pranks and stunts is due to the ungrounded aspect of Internet culture. Because it is a potentially global stage, the internet attracts evermore extreme types of content where the stakes are real. We see people hanging with one hand from the edge of skyscrapers, walking a slack line across an impossibly huge canyon, snowboarding down basically vertical mountains of snow, and so many other death-defying acts.  The fear of death is universally compelling. 

So is sex appeal. If sex sells, it’s because people demand it. The attention economy is flooded with prurient content. The sexual trick in All’s Well works because Bertram is so damned horny. Helena knows it will work, too. She instructs the woman he is trying to screw how to get him to give her his ring, and he does it the dummy. 

Helena manipulates Bertram into marrying her and getting her pregnant through political power and sexual deception. Bertram is a character who represents something you see a lot of today. He is a guy who desires freedom because his life is ironically very unfree. Bertram’s retreat into bro culture shows just how defeated he is. 

It is super interesting to witness and participate in the cultural revolution we are experiencing. I believe that this is an early renaissance of internet culture and some of the characters we are watching are going to innovate and produce work that will be worth of studying far into the future.

My hope is that we will course correct away from higher and higher stakes and veer away from the potential for devastating consequences and instead we will raise the bar by focusing on developing talent and style. Instead of being impressed by someone who is so willing to risk their life, we could be celebrating things that are extremely hard to do, but that are good for life. Mr. Beast learned by studying the YouTube algorithm and now younger YouTubers are learning by watching him, so who oversees this thing? Creative control is the scary thing. Going to the edge of a building is obvious, compelling, and ultimately stupid. Going beyond the known and accepted ideas is scarier and has more potential to break new ground.

We have so many insanely terrifying and challenging problems we could work on tackling. Mr. Beast has a philanthropic component to his content that has the greatest hope to lead this pack of wild creators towards something more sustainable. By using the media to do philanthropic things in the world, he sets a precedent for achieving success by helping other people. The easy and obvious thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to risk our lives, but the harder and ultimately more rewarding thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to commit to challenging ourselves creatively instead of with danger.

Responsibility of Speech

One of the most important debates taking place in our culture today is about the 1st amendment. The so-called Freedom of Speech is being reconfigured and reconsidered in a digital context. What exactly does our constitution protect? When does speech become criminal? The power of speech creates its limits. A responsible use of speech is the only way to protect and preserve the first amendment rights pertaining to speech, but what exactly does that mean?

Comedians have been caught up in the center of this debate and for good reason. They work at the extreme edge of the acceptable. Comedians like Andrew Schulz with the Flagrant Podcast are self-consciously pushing back against Woke Culture’s tendency to censor honest opinion. Luis J. Gomez, Big Jay Oakerson, and Dave Smith all push way past the accepted norms for speech and they live or die based upon their ability to use offensive speech responsibly. Is this simply a niche in comedy or is this the battlegrounds of our free speech debate?

If we think about the Freedom of Speech along the lines of our consideration of the Right to Bear Arms, then the idea of the responsibility of speech becomes clearer. The right to own a handgun doesn’t give you the right to rob a liquor store. It gives you the power to, but not the right. You have the right to bear the arms but using them in a violent way requires very specific conditions. The same is true with speech. For example, if someone were to use their words to get someone else to do something illegal, then they are also breaking the law and are subject to the penalties. Charles Manson didn’t use his hands to murder; he used his words.

The classic example is that you can’t yell “bomb” in a crowded airport. Other examples include sexual harassment, terroristic threats, or hate crimes. Racially motivated harassment is not protected speech. Inciting violence of any kind is not protected speech. Yes, you can buy and own a .45 revolver but if you shoot your neighbor’s dog, you are going to jail. There are so many examples of speech that are not allowed, it is curious what exactly the first amendment protects. Or what is it supposed to protect? It is the entire basis for dissent. It is supposed to protect a responsible critique of the government, but not a call to arms to show up and murder the congress.

The context of comedy is supposed to provide an outlet for the responsible expression of unacceptable ideas and beliefs. Just like when we watch a play or a movie and we suspend our disbelief and go along with the make believe of the show for the sake of entertainment, when we consume comedic content, we do so with the understanding that it is not to be taken seriously. Back to the analogy with guns, comedians are performing trick shots at a shooting range. If the comic respects the context of comedy, they remain responsible with their speech.

Probably the riskiest thing that comics do is roast people. Think of a circus act where an archer shoots an apple off the top of someone’s head, or they throw knives at someone standing against a wooden wall getting as close to flesh as possible. This is also target practice. The intention is not to hurt the person, but to come as close as possible. Because the chance of hurting the person is so high, the tension it creates is also elevated and when the person leaves the scene unscathed the sigh of relief is that much more fulfilling. This kind of act takes us on a thrill ride of almost experiencing something violent happen, but because that was never the intention, and the weapons are used with such precision and skill there is not a drop of blood shed.

This type of act also requires active participation between both the knife thrower and the person standing against the wall. If that person moves unexpectedly, the act could end disastrously. Good performers will play with this by pretending as though the person is uncomfortable standing there and they will move around, but in a choreographed way. Both actors must be perfectly attuned. This happens all the time in comedy when people successfully roast each other, and it is funny.

I agree with comics who are fighting to protect the freedom of speech within the context of comedy. This also means having a conversation about how the whole thing works. You know, like letting people know that they shouldn’t try this knife throwing act at home. Unskillful comics can hurt people inadvertently. You see it all the time on Twitter. Without the context of an agreement that we are trying to entertain the public a joke can easily become an attack. We need to be smart enough to protect the sphere of comedy as a place where target practice is happening. It is a danger zone, and you should proceed accordingly.

Words are powerful in a different way than weapons. Language can influence people to do all kinds of different things, including to act violently. Comedy is a risky business. Andrew Schulz compared it to bullfighting. It requires skill and steadiness of nerves to be able to perform comedic material. It is a highwire act, a slackline adventure in speech, and we don’t want to witness a tragedy go down. We go to comedy for many reasons, but is it to witness people being hurt? 

Responsible speech is the way to increase our ability to explore risky subjects. Through the discipline of our considerations, we will build a trust that will allow people to relax and to trust both our intention and our skillfulness to follow through. I don’t have the answers, but I am pursuing the questions about free speech and its limits and how to responsibly engage in this debate. 

All’s Well that Sends Well

If you are looking for stories from Literature with strong women characters, Shakespeare’s Comedies are driven by them. The heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well is named Helena and she is the opposite of Helen of Troy, the face that sent a thousand ships sailing. Helena does not get kidnapped; she isn’t a passive character at all. To the contrary, she is the one who sends the plot into motion and drives it to the outcome.

In today’s context, Helena would be considered a #bossbitch, a common way to refer to alpha females. I would say she’s a strong woman, a strong character, generally. The comedian who immediately comes to mind is Kerryn Feehan. She could bring this role to life and there’s no question that Luis J. Gomez could destroy the part of Bertram. I’m trying not to force the casting of any of these plays. I know that when I study them all enough, the right people will click into place in my mind. People think that they know Shakespeare, but I’m not so sure they do. I keep learning wild new things every play I study. This one has some out-there ideas.

The thing about Shakespeare is that most people read a few plays at most. They are always selected from the same list of greatest hits. A lot of the more obscure plays, like All’s Well, are full of interesting details. For example, the heroine in this play uses sexual deceit to rape her husband to get pregnant by him. If that sounds weird, it is. Her hubby, Bertram, is an infamous fuck-boi who abandons his newly married wife to go to war in Italy so he can sleep around with other women. She infiltrates his plan, uses a woman to seduce him into a sexual encounter and then switches places with her to be impregnated. Now, this is an aggressive strategy, but it works.

She also trapped him into marriage in the first place, which is why he is so eager to leave. How? She cured the king of his hemorrhoids. He had an anal fissure and she pushed that prolapse back in place. She probably pegged the king if we’re being honest. The result? She gets to marry whomever she wants, and she chooses Bertram.

Luis J. Gomez would be so funny as Bertram because he embodies the “real ass dude” side of comedy. Gomez understands implicitly how this kind of comedy works. His instinct for absurd self-assertion would energize the role with the kind of tension necessary to empathize with the character. That’s Gomez’s great gift: getting you to like him despite his tendency to offend because he’s unafraid to be vulnerable. He’s a punk rock entrepreneur and comic, a free speech advocate, and someone who finds humor in the least acceptable places.

That’s the trick of playing Bertram. You must get the audience to like him despite the shady things he does. Why is Helena willing to go to such extreme lengths to have him for herself? There must be something magnetizing about the actor who plays Bertram and Luis’s attitude would translate well. I don’t know Luis J. Gomez, but I’m a fan of his comedy and I think that his matter-of-fact straightforward I-am-who-I-am energy would absolutely send this role into the ether.

Kerryn Feehan started an Only Fans account and named her podcast Only Feehans. Not only is that funny, but it’s also smart and that’s why she would make such a good Helena. Instead of worrying about what people might think, she chose a path to self-empowerment and that is exactly what Helena does in the play. She uses sex and manipulates men to get what she wants, and we love her for it. 

This play has been the hardest to listen to, by far, mainly because the plot is so confusing, and it is hard to keep track of the language. I know that by the end of the week after listening to it at least seven times I will know it well. Studying Shakespeare enriches how you see the world around you because the plays are such fun and artful illustrations of how social dynamics work. They remind you that you are part of this bigger picture, and if you can learn how the chess board works, then you can make moves to your advantage. They can teach you how to send well. 

As You Neg It: Shakespeare and the Psychology of Attraction

In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, we see a pattern of interaction that illustrates something common in our culture, today. The practice of disingenuously criticizing someone to achieve a psychological effect, or negging, is shown through Rosalind’s interactions with Orlando and with Phoebe. She uses false criticism to create a power dynamic with both characters.

With Orlando, she is costumed as a man, and she guides the conversation and uses it to test him. She questions him, negating his declarations of love as nonsense. Orlando, in turn, asks her if she is from the forest, and she says yes. When he suggests that her pattern of speech is too educated to belong to these parts, she explains that she was educated by an uncle who also happened to be an expert in courtly love. Her lies become part of the game. She positions herself as an expert, even though she is pretending to be foreign to the court and questions his authenticity, turning the conversation back to interrogating him. 

Through her questioning his integrity, she manipulates him into working to prove himself. He responds by giving her more of what she wants: evidence of his feelings for Rosalind. A master of manipulation, Rosalind leads Orlando around like a lion on a leash lashing him with her tongue. It is an erotic exchange, as well. Rosalind’s negging includes assuring him that she would likely sleep with 20 or so men like him if they were married. She tortures him with the idea of her infidelity to test his true feelings.

The layers of deception and identity in Rosalind demonstrate how gender in Shakespeare is a performance of power. He uses cultural norms and customs to present an image of gender that the public reads and believes to be true within the context of the play. Many characters in Shakespeare’s comedies use costume to change genders and, in this case, Rosalind is disguised as a rural dude named Ganymede who is then pretending to be Rosalind to Orlando for him to practice expressing his love. She is pretending to be a man who is pretending to be her, a kind of double negative.

Ironically, this gives her the opportunity to be herself without any exposure. She is a spy watching her future husband react to her ideas. By negging him, by questioning his character and his devotion to love, she also eggs him on. She puts fuel on the fire. She gets to see what he is made of and how he feels about her.

Rosalind, while in disguise as Ganymede, also has a strange encounter with a young woman in the forest. Phoebe is actively rejecting the courtship of a suitor named Sylvius. With not much else to do in the woods, Rosalind is there for the sport of it. She is there to be entertained by their unhappy love connection and to play a trickster kind of role in their affairs. She interrupts their conversation and starts to criticize Phoebe suggesting that she should take the offer Sylvius is making because she is not beautiful enough to do better.

Phoebe’s response is to fall in love with Ganymede. Rosalind explains the psychology behind this reversal. Sylvius was being overly complimentary. He was making Phoebe think that she was better than she is. He was falsely flattering her, and it had the effect of making her think too highly of herself and that she was better than him. Because Sylvius has been worshipping her, she sees him as subordinate.  When Rosalind as Ganymede dresses her down, she feels more attracted to “him,” because his judgmental speech suggests that he is better than her. She is attracted to being negged because it makes her think she is with someone superior. 

We see this kind of cynical darkly humorous stance often on Twitter or generally online. We are pretending to laugh so we aren’t seen crying. We perform wokeness so nobody questions our complicity. We neg our crush so they will give us some attention. We know it works, but does it work to our advantage? What is that pattern keeping us from doing or knowing? 

Romantic love is a drug and a form of madness in Shakespeare. We see characters behaving in uncharacteristic fashion, lying, and deceiving people around them to pursue the feeling of being in love. This is much different than the effect of negging. Rosalind loves Orlando both for how she feels around him and for how she feels about him. She judges him to be worthy of her love and negging him is simply testing him and having fun with him until she can reveal herself to him and claim her place as his love.

Poor Phoebe is repelled by Sylvius who is in love with her, but she becomes attracted to Ganymede for negatively criticizing her. Shakespeare gives us a comparative study of different kinds of attraction to think about the differences between love, attraction, negation and power.

7 Days a Play: As You Like It and Learning

My only rule for writing these daily blogs is that I don’t do any research at the time of writing. I want to write strictly from what I have retained from listening to the plays and the lectures. This means that I’m going to get some things wrong in the earliest blogs. During the first two or three blogs I may still be trying to sort out the characters. For example, I made the mistake of thinking that Rosalind’s father was recently deceased, but he was just kicked out of the court, banished to the countryside. 

I’m listening to the play each day and then writing a new blog each morning and I plan to do this for seven days for each play. So, as I listen to the play on day three, I might catch something that I had wrong about a character or the plot in an earlier draft. I will likely go back later and edit those posts to accurately reflect the plays’ content, but I think it is interesting to show the process of getting there, too. This is one of the great tricks of literature or any difficult writing. You must make your way through a process of misunderstanding it and by continuing to study and think about the subject you form a clearer and more accurate depiction of the text.

There is a value in leaving a paper trail that shows your growth. Earlier cringy versions of your attempts to express ideas only make the eventual success that much more impactful. There is an innocence expressed in bad writing. Take Orlando in the forest of Arden pining away after his love for Rosalind. Shakespeare uses the scene to make fun of bad poetry, but he is also highlighting his own skill and showing the audience through caricature something about the nature of a certain kind of poetic inspiration. 

Orlando’s buffoonery is also his authenticity. His passion for Rosalind is literally littering the forest with failed attempts to get it right.  Mad with love, he wills himself through the process any artist must undergo. He must learn his craft. His bad writing is only matched by his bad reading as Rosalind convinces him that she is someone else, a man even. He is so consumed with his feelings of unrequited love that he fails to recognize she is right there behind that fake beard talking to him about said love.

In As You Like It, Orlando is transformed from a valiant fighter to an unskilled lover and it is highly entertaining to Rosalind and the audience to watch him stumble with his attempts to understand his feelings. Through staging the scene, she gives the audience view to her own pleasure. Rosalind is a masterful writer. She understands skillful deception and uses it to create a context for comedy. Orlando’s uncontrollable enthusiasm makes him vulnerable to being deceived. Rosalind is a benevolent opportunist, taking full advantage of his impaired state to make fun of him.

The transformation of Orlando shows how important context is. He asserts himself in the court, first through a legal appeal to his inheritance and then through a physical wrestling match. He is actively fighting against the limitations imposed upon him. What he doesn’t expect, though, is to fall in love with an admirer. She got into his consciousness and absolutely destroyed his mind.

He begins a second childhood in the forest stumbling through understanding his feelings hampered by a difficulty with words. Orlando abandons his desire to pursue his rightful portion of family power and instead focuses all his attention on understanding his feelings of love for Rosalind. As a bad writer, a naïve poet, Orlando’s portrait of transformation through romantic attraction shows us how dynamic Shakespeare found humans to be. 

There is also in this interaction a portrait of the positive influence of affinity. As You Like It could refer to the process of growth that occurs as a natural consequence of rooting for something. Being a fan of something or someone is the force that leads to a greater understanding of it. As you like it, you grow to know it and eventually to interact with style, flow, and grace. It shows the strength of the desire to live, the will to love.

Hot Girl Summer in As You Like It

As You Like It is an interesting title for a play. It is a phrase that pleases the ear and the mind. It could refer to a beautifully cooked meal, a well-made bed, anything that is prepared and presented with care and understanding of your specific preferences. It suggests something tailored to your desire. It is a phrase that evokes the spirit of service.

In the play, Rosalind and Celia take advantage of the freedom that comes along with banishment to create some very enjoyable experiences for themselves. One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare’s comedies is the mixed tone he creates by having very serious situations within a comedic plot. In the first scene where we meet Rosalind, she is grieving the loss of her father who has been banished from the court by her uncle. 

The plot is initiated by Celia’s desire to help Rosalind to cope with her trauma. They decide that the best way to get time to move quickly and to increase their joy is with a little romance. So, they set out to find some fun with the opposite sex. Rosalind is a smart, confident, and horny heroine. She’s Shakespeare’s Cardi B.

One prominent segment of Internet comedy involves pranks. The Nelk Boys, Chad and JT go deep, and so many others create parodic situations that involve real people unaware that they are participating in a skit. Rosalind orchestrates just this kind of a situation with Orlando. Disguised as a man, she finds him lovesick in the forest and convinces him that the only way to prove his love or to cure himself of this lovesickness is by pretending to court him as though he were Rosalind (he really is). She sets him up for a series of pranks.

If there’s any doubt as to who is referred to in the title, then one answer is given when we witness Rosalind orchestrating a series of marriages at the end of the play. She manipulates the situation like a practiced matchmaker and gets a series of couples to commit to marriage. Rosalind is a mass marrier. She is a master marketer. 

Rosalind is a character who gives us an example of what kind of control you can have even when you have very little political clout. She has enough money to buy a property in the woods, but she also has the drive and the confidence to make the moves. She has to set up in this new context and begin to manipulate the players in a game she is creating. 

Chelsea Handler could play a powerful Rosalind. Her confidence, her sexual charisma, and her enjoyment of herself all would be natural strengths aligned to the actions of the character. There is something so satisfying about seeing Rosalind absolutely toy with the object of her affections. There is something seductively cruel and superior about Chelsea Handler’s confidence. I think that Whitney Cummings could embody Rosalind, too.

Studying Shakespeare’s comedies gives us a glimpse at the roots of our culture. Through his influence on the English language, Shakespeare continues to pressure our understanding of the world around us and inside of us. The comedies portray a world that is governed by a desire to be happy, by a drive for health and resolution. As You Like It portrays a female duo doing the most to make the most of their summer. Let’s let Rosalind take the reins for a bit and enjoy what we can of this upcoming season.