The Steiny Road Poet has experienced an epiphany about Gertrude Stein’s interest in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. While it is no secret that Stein quoted almost a full page of this play as epigraph to her unabashed lesbian novel Q.E.D., the close connection of Tender Buttons, a work most readers say is Stein’s hardest to access, to As You Like It is a revelation.
On the surface, story and structure of As You Like It was undoubtedly appealing to Gertrude Stein. This circa 1599 comedy focuses on Rosalind, a young woman who simultaneously is beloved too well by her girl cousin Celia and hated by her uncle, father of Celia and the enemy of Rosalind’s father. To escape his certain death sentence, Rosalind is persuaded by Celia to run away into the Arden Forest to look for Rosalind’s father. Rosalind puts on male clothing. Both girls change their names. Just prior to the banishment, Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando and he with her. In Arden Forest, the girls find Orlando’s love poems about Rosalind tacked to the trees. Pretty soon, a young shepherdess has fallen in love with the disguised Rosalind, and Rosalind as Ganymede has engaged Orlando and persuaded him that he should pretend Ganymede is Rosalind to perfect his ability to express his love for her. The two gender confusing scenarios ultimately are resolved. And, most importantly, Shakespeare gives Rosalind, with her epilogue, the last words of the play. For Shakespeare, this emphasis on women was revolutionary. But also keep in mind that all the parts in Shakespeare’s time were played by men or boys who sometimes had to masquerade as women or girls.
Is As You Like It the only source of Stein’s inspiration for Tender Buttons? No, a vigilant reader, for example, can see hints of other Shakespeare plays, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Most Stein scholars believe that Stein does not make literary allusions in her work. What Stein does is in keeping with her “system to pointing” that she establishes in “A carafe, that is a blind glass.”, the opening subpoem of Tender Buttons. Think of Stein’s system to pointing as a landscape seeded with objects that suggest inspirational sources.
The As You Like It influences on Tender Buttons that Steiny sees deal with sexuality, identity, naming, social justice, word play, use of particular words, and strategies for approaching such off-limits subjects as religion. In Stein’s lecture “Poetry and Grammar” (published in Lectures in America by Gertrude Stein, Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. pp. 236), she directly attributes Shakespeare’s influence on Tender Buttons relative to her struggle with nouns and naming things:
“I had always been very impressed from the time that I was very young by having had it told me and then afterwards feeling it myself that Shakespeare in the forest of Arden had created a forest without mentioning the things that make a forest. You feel it all but he does not name names.
“Now that was thing I too felt in me the need of making it be a thing that could be named without using its name.”
While it is not entirely understandable why Stein says Shakespeare has created a forest without mentioning the things that make a forest, it is clear that Stein is referring to As You Like It by naming the forest of Arden, which Shakespeare uses only in this particular play. Possibly Stein means the forest of Arden is a metaphor for escaping the society of the time and, in that kind of forest, things could not be named without dire consequence.
Steiny will highlight words that are important to the text and literary strategy of Tender Buttons as well as gloss certain aspects of Shakespeare’s story as it pertains to Stein’s text and personal biography. This look at the text of As You Like It as a seed text for Tender Buttons is not comprehensive, but should serve as a platform for better understanding Stein’s strategies in Tender Buttons.
Karren Alenier thanks her thought partner Peter Treanor
for participating in and encouraging this project.