Sweet are the uses of adversity

Duke S.  Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,        15
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
  Ami.        Happy is your Grace,
That can translate the stubbornness of fortune
Into so quiet and so sweet a style.
  Duke S.  Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me, the poor dappled fools,        25
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with forked heads
Have their round haunches gor’d.

This bit of dialogue from Shakespeare's As You Like It is, I think, one instance of Old Will's clever ways of telling the truth without seeming to do so.

The Duke has suffered a calamitous turn of events--political banishment by his younger brother. He is in the forest of Arden with his court-in-exile when he makes this speech, which is so often are used to comfort people in distress. 
  • In essence, the Duke is saying that good can come from bad, and what's looks like an ugly toad can unepectedly wear a jeweled crown.

  • Moreover, he's saying that the voices of the banished will still be heard in nature, even if they are in exile.
Good enough--every cloud has a silver lining, right? The truth will come out, yes? And for the modern playgoer or casual reader, this is what it says.

However, look more carefully at the images and the subsequent dialogue. The toad is not just ugly, but venemous. Isn't this a bit over-the-top? Is this, perhaps, a caricature of his political enemies? Can we detect some bitterness in the Duke's tone?

And look at the response of Ami (Amien). Do we take it at surface value, that Ami is speaking in admiration of the Duke's noble words? Or is there a note of obsequious flattery, telling the Duke what he thinks the Duke wants to hear while reserving his own true opinion?

Most tellingly, what does the Duke then say? He suggest they kill a deer (a violent act, even if necessay), then makes speech that compares killing deer to killing burghers (legitimate governors of a city) in their very own jurisdiction.

This kind of witty dialogue is the reason why Shakespeare is still read and revered in many corners, though his plays are more than four centuries old, written in an obscure and archaic language, and full of allusions that may completely bypass modern readers (to the KJ Bible, for example).

Why? Because apparently emotions such as bitterness and self-pity are still very much understood by humans. Sarcasm cuts across time and place, and the utility of flattery knows no bounds.

My strong impression is that none of these undercurrents were too subtle for Shakespeare's original audiences. They knew enough of politics and venality to catch the implications in what the Duke and his courtiers were saying.

But, at the same time, I think that Shakespeare and his characters were completely sincere in their words. It is true that good can come from bad, and that truth will eventually prevail.

So Shakespeare's authentic genius was to say what was true and enduring in the context of a comic play that appealed to the average person. You could say he took morality out of the cloisters of the Church and put it into the mind of all England. And he did this with such great skill and artistry that we still read it today.

Hats off, Will!


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