Holding court at the end of the play, Touchstone has a riff on the virtues of "if." He remembers when seven justices could not settle a quarrel but when one of the parties thought of an If, they had a way through. If you said so, then I said so. But only If. And so they "shook hands and swore brothers." "Your If is the only peacemaker," the clown concludes, "much virtue in If." Working on this scene a week ago I felt sure I'd stumbled upon the secret to the play. If! Of course! it's the magic word in the play. I was wrong, of course.
I rushed home after rehearsal and went online to the Shakespeare Concordance. It's a great place to get lost in. I found that "if" is used 3,679 times in Shakespeare--it's one of his favorite words--and 94 times is As You Like It. That's a lot, and a lot more than in Macbeth, which has only a measly 38 "ifs". But in the "if" division, As You Like It only wins a tie for third with Measure for Measure, and is well behind Othello, which wins with 113. So much for my eureka moment.
Still, if you are on the if trail, you can't help noticing that we get a fistful of ifs in the lines which immediately follow Touchstone's speech. The god Hymen appears, with the brides, and this revelation is met with a hail of ifs:
DUKE: If there be truth in sight, you are my daughter.
ORLANDO: If there be truth in sight you are my Rosalind
PHOEBE: If sight and shape be true, why then my love, adieu.
ROSALIND: [to the Duke] I'll have no father if you be not he. [to Orlando] I'll have no husband, if you be not he. [to Pheobe] Nor ne'er wed woman, if you be not he.
These lines are all spoken without any reference to Touchstone's If speech, and I'd be willing to bet audiences wouldn't even make the connection. But if happens anyway. Much virtue in If--your if is the only peacemaker. It's fair to say that the grammatic construction "If . . . then" underlies much of the play's structure. IF a girl was banished from the court, and IF she dressed as a boy, and IF she met her boyfriend in the woods, THEN . . .
"If . . then" may be the basic fairy tale logic; any child understands. But I don't mean to pursue these ifs too curiously. Once you get started, you keep finding them everywhere. You'll even start seeing them in two of the plays key words: life and wife. This is the sort of thing that could make you mad. These ifs, which Marjorie Garber calls "imponderable," could drive you to live in "a nook, merely monastic." I'm going back to rehearsal. To hell with if.