William Shakespeare apostrophizes Nature and evokes the “winter wind”, “the bitter sky” and “the warping waters” to comment on the tragic brutality of human life itself, in this extract from his romantic comedy, As you Like It. Following the usurpation of his kingdom by his brother, Frederick, and his banishment, The Duke starts living in the Forest of Arden with his band of faithful followers. Amiens sings this song in response to the Duke’s complaint that the wind is too cold in its severity, and the song sets up the physical comforts available at the courtly life in contrast to the harshness of life in the wilderness, in the rugged bower of Nature.
The winter wind, inauspicious and “unkind” brings in the sour note of man’s ingratitude to his own brother. Filial ties among siblings are dispensable for the wealth of the embodied kingdom, as has been evinced in the play. There is a cunning manipulation in the contrivances of man, whose malice takes one unbeknownst, when one is without readiness. Nature, on the other hand, is no match for the violence of inter-human relationships, where no such attempts are made to conceal the barbary.
It is this dysmorphia in the public life, as it were, which brings Amiens to the ironical observation recurring in the refrain, twice: “This life is most jolly.” Man is exposed to the bare shards of a tattered, unaccomodated existence without the companionship of his friends, without the love and instruction of his fellow brethren. But, at least there is ruggedness in that simple austerity, the singer points out to the dejected Duke, and a semblance of something “real”, unbegotten by the caprices of art or artifice.
The consolation, however, rings out a tragicomic note, which is characteristic of most of Shakespeare’s plays, and which is wrung with the contradictions and incoherencies of a life (“modernist” in the real sense of the term) that constantly eludes all sense and comprehension. The in-contingency of human interactions makes it impossible for the self-preserving man, and especially the man of state, to put much premium on the feigned words of friendship, or professed love.
But, rather than resign to the stark truth, the jester espouses an approach where the disorder is inverted on its head to yield an almost “absurdist” validation of what appears to be not such a “jolly” life after all. A private mode of retreat into a communal arcadia of sorts is championed here, one where the spoken word of faithful followers and well-wishers more than compensates for the uncultivated auguries of nature. The Forest of Arden becomes the overarching setting, the shield, rather, for ensconcing the macro-cosmic world of human solidarities and codependences.
Men who received the favors of The Duke in amplitude, seldom reciprocated any help to the now-banished king. “Usurpation” is one of the themes running succinctly through the play, and the displacement fosters a sense of emptiness, of isolation that keeps gnawing at the erstwhile ruler. The rigid winter sky bites upon the Duke’s exposed skin to remind him of the terrestrial hazards he was secured from till recently.
The evocation of the “bitter sky” instances the use of a transferred epithet, where the bitterness with which the speaker perceives the materialistic world and its subjugation of human loyalties, is transferred to the vast, and seemingly disinterested expanse of the sky. Yet, the truth persists that the chilly bite of the winter sky is not so erosive, not so proximal as to hurt the Duke, as did his kin with their connivances.
It is not just any other man or woman, but his own blood-brother who tricked him into losing his kingdom, and subjected him to this exile. The emotional grievance of the subject weighs too heavily on his mind to let the bite of the winter sky affect him howsoever. Yet again, it is the body ( in context, the Duke’s body was a site of reverence and power, though now, it has been humbled down to its very earthly origins) that is the site of such contestation of binaries and conundrums—of the material and the intangible, of the self and the world, of the trusted and the untrustworthy.
The warping waters are the last appendage in the aforementioned extract. Water, is, and has always been symbolized in the popular imagination as a harbinger of life. It is impossible to sustain life without water which stands for growth and regeneration. The “sting” of the sylvan waters is sharp, but not sharp enough to simulate the pain caused by the remembrance of an erstwhile friend. A friend in absentia, the blood that betrays are all tropes and motives
Shakespeare deploys whilst structuring the similes that constitute the quotation. Such motives not only evoke the comfort (material), seclusion (courtly life) of the administrative life, but also set up that coveted life in contradistinction to the unadorned life in the middle of Arden, thereby further engendering the notion of the “arcadia” as a private imaginary, a mode of retreat into the auspices and bounties of a glorious past.
Nature, in spite of its unforgiving climes and its meandering topography, seems to be the apt space for envisioning that kind of an Arcadia. But, it is crucial to observe that the Arcadia still nestles within it, the prickles of unfulfilled desire. The banished would like to return to the life of glory and riches, and turn the tide in his own favour. But his subjective desires are caught up twirling in the flux of history. Nature repeats and mirrors the indifference of history, whilst it is up to the individual to forge his own mettle and set about his own destiny.
Hence, the tragicomic inversion of the sourness of distrust and betrayal and cunning into a self-affirming validation of what the individual should do with his/her life, and how should he be disposed towards his band of friends and followers. Man should be the master of his circumstances, the trainer of the “wild”, the “natural” and not a victim to the auguries of Fate.