Each year I forget that working on a Shakespeare play is unlike working on any other. I've divided the script into 29 different "scenes" for rehearsal purposes. But what I relearn every summer is that each Shakespeare scene is a complete play, which means you could rehearse it forever—or at last as long as a play. Take, for example, the first scene between Touchstone, the clown, and his girlfriend.
- Touchstone invites new girlfriend onstage. Her name is Audrey. Rhymes with bawdry. She's a goat girl. When the scene begins the court clown is offering to round up her goats, which shows you how much in love—or in heat—he truly is. In our production, They'll have a little picnic. Audrey will make ketchup and potato chip sandwiches.
- The clown asks his girl if he's now her number one. He wants to know if his "simple feature" satisfies her. [What is this feature? His face? Or some other part? In Arden, there's a dick joke in every bush, hanging from every tree].
- Audrey replies: "Your features? Lord warrant us! What features?" She's not been captivated by his good looks. Audrey is not one who finds love at first sight, as all the other lovers in the play do. Touchstone is going to have to work to get his girl.
- Touchstone says, "I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths." And here we can feel Shakespeare and his fool going into hyperspace, leaving his audience, especially a modern audience, almost as far behind as his goatherd girlfriend. An educated Elizabethan might have remembered that the Roman poet Ovid had been banished to Bulgarian Black Sea on account of writing dirty poems, but I'll bet fewer than a dozen people who see our show are going to get the allusion, or the pun on goats and goths (pronounced the same in London, 1600), or the allusion in "capricious" from the Latin caper/capri—meaning, of course, "goat/goats" and suggesting both the poet's and the clown's lusty or "goatish" dispositions.
- Meeting the blank uncomprending or perhaps disinterested look of his girlfriend, Touchstone then turns directly to the audience to comment on her inability to appreciate his wit, saying this "strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." A wonderful line. And as usual with Touchstone, he says more than you're likely to keep up with. First, there's the famous topical reference to the death of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary rival who haunts this play like Nadal has haunted Federer. Marlowe was notoriously killed in a pub over a quarrel over the bill—the reckoning. But the reference is also to the new fangled water closet, a little room filled with a "great reckoning" (odors strong enough to finish you off). Finally, and here the clown reaches past his time, the phrase now also savors of a comedian bombing in a club—just as Touchstone is bombing here with Audrey. We could go on...
- All this is but prelude to the next section of the scene where Touchstone launches into an extended riff on loving and lying and making poetry, activities inseparable from each other. Touchstone is wishing his girlfriend was more "poetrical" not just because she might better appreciate him, but because if she were "poetical" she'd probably be lying, especially when she said she was "honest."
- All of Touchstone's wit and seductive brilliance gets him exactly nowhere with Audrey, and so he ends up announcing that he will marry her—to her great delight. He tells her he's got a priest on his way here right now to perform the ceremony.
- And so on cue, enter Sir Oliver Martext, who makes his only appearance in the play, with a total of three lines. He is a "hedge priest"—the name for a poor, uneducated, unreliable parish parson. A hack. He seems to have been introduced strictly for slapstick comic business. In most productions he's either drunk or blind or hopelessly nerdy or at least all three.
- When the priest says he can't marry the couple without someone to give away the bride, he creates an excuse for the entrance of another character, the melancholic Jaques, who has been observing the scene all this time. He comes forward to say he'll give the woman away, so the marriage can go forward—but he urges Touchstone to get married by a proper priest so they won't be joined together like slapped pieces of cheap paneling.
- This in turn prompts Touchstone to confess he was rather hoping for a dubious wedding since it would later give him justification for leaving his wife.
- The scene then ends with a music hall turn as Touchstone launches into a song and dance number which mocks the priest and takes him and his girlfriend offstage and out of marital range, leaving the bewildered hedge priest alone—but determined not to be mocked from his calling.
There you have it. Comedy high and low. The low comedy is about as low as it can go, pure vaudeville, and much of the wit is so witty it flies right past us. Both are filthy. And yet it is a marvellous scene. It's an indelible portrait of improbable and yet perfect erotic pairings. The scene is always unpredictable. It gives its actors and directors plenty of room for comic invention. Welcome to Touchstone's picnic. We'll be serving Audrey's great ketchup sandwiches at intermission for ridiculously high prices. Yum!