If one embarks on a quixotic quest for Shakespearean know-how, one must prepare for strange fall-out. And with this ‘if’ I draw you into my realm of possibilities. Who knows what will happen *if* you continue to read…
The word ‘if’, of course, introduces possibilities. The first definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives for ‘if’ is “Introducing a clause of condition or supposition (the protasis of a conditional sentence)”. It then goes on to explain the various conditional clauses an ‘if’ can introduce: past, present, present perfect, pluperfect, future, present subjunctive, past subjunctive, etc. The point is that ‘if’ signals very clearly a break from reality—it is a bridge into possibility, and the unknown. So far, so good. But, the significance of ‘if’ does not end here.
Depending on the construction of the sentence containing the ‘if’, it can affect the reading of the clause that comes after. The first subsection of the conditional ‘if’ that the OED delves into is what I might term the “value-neutral if”, that the OED describes as “The indicative after if implies that the speaker expresses no adverse opinion as to the truth of the statement in the clause; it is consistent with his acceptance of it”. An example of this ‘if’ in as you like it occurs in Act One, Scene One when Charles says, “If he come to-morrow, I’ll give him his payment” (1.1.150). Charles in this scene has no qualms about beating Orlando up if they wrestle, but he is not sure that the wrestling will occur.
The second use the OED gives for the conditional ‘if’ is the “doubtful if”, or an ‘if’ where “The subjunctive after if implies that the speaker guards himself from endorsing the truth or realization of the statement; it is consistent with his doubt of it”. Jacques employs this if skillfully when he “thanks” the singer Amiens by saying “Well then, if ever I thank any man, I’ll thank you / but that they call a compliment is like the encounter/ of two dog apes” (2.5.20-2). The implication is that Jacques will not thank any man, and therefore will not thank Amiens.
The third if is the “idealistic if”, “expressing a mere hypothesis which is admittedly not true or realized, and stating what would be the logical or natural consequence of its truth or realization”. Celia employs this use of the ‘if’ when she discusses how she would be more devoted to Rosalind that Rosalind is to her, if their situations were reversed:
If my uncle, thy banished father,
had banished thy uncle, the duke my father, so thou
hadst been still with me, I could have taught my
love to take thy father for mine (1.2.8-12)
Celia’s logical explanation of what the situation would be like in an alternate world where her father was banished may well be accurate, but it is not a situation that will ever occur. It is purely hypothetical, and as such in the play it does little to comfort Rosalind.
Thus far we have seen three examples of different “ifs” in As You Like It, and it is with this number that my quixotic quest comes into play. Searching through an electronic copy of the play, I noticed that ‘if’ occurred 138 times. This meant very little to me, so I decided to see how many times ‘if’ occurred in other plays. I found some numbers. Twelfth Night famously begins “If music be the food of love, play on” (1.1.1), and contains 104 ‘if’s. A Midsummer Night’s Dream famously ends “If we shadows have offended/Think but this, and all is mended” but contains only 65 ‘if’s. Othello, a play about the possibility of infidelity has the most ‘if’s: 140. Macbeth, a play about guilt, has the least ‘if’s: 45. At this point I was assuming that the number of ‘ifs’ had something to do with the mood of the play: do plays full of longing and wishing (and therefore conditional clauses) contain more ‘if’s? Hamlet has 116, King Lear has 112 and Merchant of Venice has 120. Going through and tabulating all my results shows that the average number of times ‘if’ occurs in a play is 96. However, this does not necessarily mean anything. I then went through, found the word-count for all of the plays, and divided the number of ‘if’s per play by the word count to see which play had the highest ‘if’ to text ratio. As You Like It was that play. The full results of my informal ‘if’ survey are included below.
However, having many ‘if’s does not mean that a play is using them all in the same way—some ‘if’s point out how far removed ideas are from reality, some ‘if’s connect possibilities closer to reality, and some ‘if’s serve only to acknowledge that something could get in the way of the future we foresee, and reality.
At this point we know three things: As You Like It uses the word ‘if’; it uses it at a higher rate than Shakespeare’s other plays; and ‘if’ can signify many different kinds of contingent possibility. What does this mean for our understanding of the play?
Like many Shakespeare plays, As You Like It riffs on societal norms. The play transports ideas of gender and class hierarchies from a courtly setting to a forest that quickly begins to mirror the courtly setting. The is not reality—we are in an ‘if’ from the beginning: what if the ruler were supplanted by his younger brother? What if the court were moved to the forest? What if women dressed as men? What if..?
The play then goes through these scenarios, and more ‘if’s arise. By the end of the play we are so firmly located within the conditional that Rosalind as Ganymede promises to help three people ‘if’ she can; by marrying Phebe, marrying Phebe to Silvius, and marrying Orlando to Rosalind (5.2.105-16). At this point the play somehow manages to de-escalate the rising tides of conditionality and delivers a happy ending—marriage! Everything returns to normal. However, even this scenario is redolent of the conditional ‘if’, more specifically the “doubtful if”. Everything will work out well *if* the god of marriage comes down to the forest to fix things.
Perhaps, ultimately the play represents a very direct take on Touchstone’s quip “Your If is the / only peacemaker; much virtue in If” (5.4.100-1) Though Touchstone is discussing how quarrels between gentlemen may be solved by a mutual agreement of misunderstanding, this statement could be taken to refer to the whole play. Through the play Shakespeare gives voice to actual tensions underlying the Early Modern, and allows them expression in a wishful realm that is clearly demarcated as fantasy. Just as an ‘if’ separates the following clause from reality, while also connecting the two, the stage allows for subversive elements of real life to be discussed and dealt with in a way that connects to reality but is not the same as it. Playing out gender and class tensions on stage allows them to be discussed without bringing them fully into the political sphere. As You Like It in both theme, and language explores the limits and possibilities of these themes and languages.