Shakespeare’s Sweet Uses of Adversity

Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
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 everything. 
Duke Senior   As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1

AsyoulikeIn Shakespeare’s satirical pastoral comedy, As You Like It, Duke Senior’s villainous younger brother has deposed and exiled him. After retreating to the Forest of Arden, Duke Senior doesn’t lament his fall from grace, but praises it.

Adversity was not unfamiliar territory for Shakespeare. In an earlier play, Henry VI Part 3), the King delivers this line, “Let us embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.”

These wise man that Shakespeare’s muse Henry refers to are likely to include Aristotle, “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” and the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, “That the good things, which belong to prosperity, are to be wished; but the good things, that belong to adversity, are to be admired.”

Adversity was a constant in Elizabethan and Jacobean England  — ravished by plague, religious reformation, war with the Spanish, and poverty.  Shakespeare was also acquainted with the night.  His only son Hamnet died at the age of eleven in 1596, approximately four years before he wrote As You Like It.  In 1577, Shakespeare’s father John, after 20 years of financial success and high office, had his own monetary and civic fall from grace.

Because As You Like It, is a comedy, it naturally doesn’t dwell in the gravitas of Hamlet or MacBeth, but it’s purpose is clear. Like Eden, the refuge of the Arden (Which was also Shakespeare’s mother’s maiden name) provides an opportunity to turn adversity upside down.  It is a theme continually revisited by such historical figures as Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill with his masterful quote, “Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.”

Still it is the the genius of Shakespeare to weave the elegant into the prosaic.

Sweet are the uses of language.