As You Like It is famous for its songs, and the most famous song of them all is "It was a Lover and his lass." This great diitty hit the top of the charts when its setting by the composer Thomas Morely was published in his First Book of Ayres in 1600--it may have been the music used in the play's first performance. The song has its own little scene, and the scene exists just for the song. Touchstone and Audrey enter talking about their imminent marriage, and they are met by two kids we've never seen before, soon identified as two of the Duke's pages. Touchstone asks them for a song, which the pages then promptly sing. The pages were obviously two ringers from one of the boy schools; they were very good singers. But when they are finished, Touchstone tells them they were out of tune and their song was a waste of time. He ushers Audrey offstage, living the discomfited and miffed kids to follow after. There you have it. This little scene has been giving us fits.
Why? Because your singing pages are not so easy to find these days. Our Shakespeare performance schedule is long and demanding. It includes a half dozen school matinees, three trips out of town, and lots of very long nights here at home (the pages scene comes towards the very end of the play). After much searching, we finally did find two singing pages, both young girls, two weeks ago, both great kids. But our happiness was short lived. One of the girls was accompanied by her father to rehearsals. He was obviously a loving and devoted father---and she was his little girl. In fact, at our first full rehearsal with the pages she was wearing a shirt which said, "Daddy's Little Girl." The rehearsal went just fine, and I could see this girl begin to come out of her shyness and enter into the fullness of Shakespeare's forest. But after rehearsal I was told by our stange manager that this page would no longer be in the show--Daddy was taking his little girl home. Why? Because in a previous scene, Touchstone the clown (who never lets a chance for bawdry pass him by), was using a familiar obscene gesture involving his middle finger. He could never let his daughter be associated with an activity of this kind.
I was disappointed to see her go, especially just after her eyes were opening to the wonders of Shakespeare's play. i liked her very much. But this unfortunate result again demonstrates the full range of Shakespeare's theatre, which celebrates both the sacred and the profane---indeed rarely one without the other. It's actually a much wider range than much of contemporary society tolerates. We immediately asked the parent of our other page if she was offended by the bawdry in our performance. "Not at all, " she said; "it's Shakespeare." And so it is.
I was tempted to drop the pages and the song altogether. The play is full enough already, and the pages were proving to be an enormous hassle. But seeing them play out the rehearsal (before daddy took his girl home) changed my mind. I kept the pages in as wedding attendants in the last scene, mostly so they could join in singing the wedding hymn that crowns the play. In this last scene Shakespeare does something typically preposterous. Rosalind has told everyone she is a magician who can work miracles, and solve all the love problems of the desperate lovers howling like Irish wolves at the end of the play. We are in on her joke of course, since the only trick she has to perform is to produce herself as a girl again, and Orlando's bride. This she does in the play's last scene. But Rosalind and Celia are brought to the altar by a new character callled Hymen. And he's no mere character. He's a god, the god of marriage. He shows up without fanfare, and arrives to the surprise of no one. At the end of the play he evidently joins in the festivities. No one speaks to him directly. He's just there to preside over the occasion. Who exactly is this god? Is he the real thing, or is he one of the forest's character's Rosalind has suited up for the occasion (Corin say, or Adam, or even Charles the wrestler). Since Hymen sings, the logical choice is Amiens, who has sung all the play's many other songs. But the stage directions mention him entering earlier with the Duke, so he's already onstage when Hymen enters. This could be a textual error--or perhaps it is not. Who can say? In our production, Hymen actually is a God, who comes on in a white suit looking like a divine Colonel Saunders, minus the beard and chicken. He's familiar and and divine at the same time, just as marriage itself should be.
But back to the kids. I moved them to stand next to Hymen as his flower attendants in the center of the stage before Hymen begins his song. And it was then the penny dropped. The pages HAVE to be in the show. Because they make complete sense of the hymn being sung, whose lyrics say, in part, "Tis Hymen peoples every town/High wedlock then be honored." With the pages onstage we get it. Marriage is about kids. Marriage is blessed because it's about life going forward. It's why we're all here. This final transformation of love from the climax of romantic ardor into a sacred symbol of ongoing life suddenly became truly magical onstage--and completely natural. Like Rosalind, like Hymen, like life itself.
So now we have four pages--now we can mix and match and make sure they can cover for all the others. The pages, I've learned, are essential. They also get to sing the play's most famous song, about a lover and a lass and springtime, the time sweet lovers love. It's springtime, the only pretty ringtime. You remember, from your favorite pop song when it happened to you. It's a hey and a ho and a hey nonino. It's ding a ding ding.