Literary Works and Authors

Comments on Zoltán Kövecses, “Metaphor Universals in Literature”

Kathleen Hart, Vassar College

Metaphor Universals in Literature” succinctly synthesizes important conceptual metaphor scholarship (to which Kövecses has made substantial contributions) that offers valuable tools for analyzing metaphor in poetry and other literary forms. In what follows, I propose a theoretical justification for Kövecses’s decision to focus on poetry: more than other genres, poetry approximates the experience of ritual. I then explore the implications of this theory for the content Kövecses proposes for the schematicity levels of the skyscraper metaphor in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper.”

Kövecses’ “schematicity hierarchy” can serve to illuminate the interpretive choices available to readers (including literary translators) by bringing to conscious awareness the different levels of abstraction associated with a metaphorical expression. Readers generally access the compound conceptual metaphor “Life is a journey” to interpret Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” But since a journey, like a walk in the woods, can be voluntarily undertaken, and to a known destination (for which the complex metaphor “A purposeful life is a journey” is more apt), the “Life is a journey” metaphor can lead readers to overlook the poem’s emphasis on what is involuntary and unknown. Applying Kövecses’ method, one can articulate an even more schematic (less specific) metaphorical level above “Life is a journey” that removes volition from the proposition: “A life from beginning to end is movement from a start point to an end-point” (the event-structure metaphor “Change of state is change of location” would not be specific enough). Now it becomes clear that life is from the outset a “journey” we are involuntarily thrust upon, under conditions not of our choosing, even if we exercise some choice with respect to paths taken. Likewise, identifying “path” (the route along which something travels) as a less specific source term than “road” (a wide, specially prepared surface) throws into relief the poem’s allusion to civilization as another factor narrowing our life choices:

Image schema: A life from beginning to end is movement from a starting point to an end-point.

Domain: Life is a journey

Frame: Making a life choice is embarking on one path instead of another

Mental spaces: I made a significant life choice (“that has made all the difference”) when I took the road less travelled by

Establishing such distinctions to create what Kövecses calls a “multi-level view” better enables readers to identify both choice and lack of choice as thematic preoccupations of the poem.

Probing relationships between different levels of abstraction can also call attention to the specific sensory-motor or perceptual representations activated by the source domain at the “mental spaces” level, enhancing our appreciation of the esthetic as well as symbolic value of a poet’s linguistic choices. The question of value, however, raises a theoretical consideration beyond the practical ones Kövecses cites for focusing primarily on poetry. If poetic choices have both esthetic and symbolic value, then we may need to take a text’s generic status into account when attempting to articulate its levels of metaphor. In the case of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper,” for instance, the traditionally ritualistic character and functions of pro-labor poetry, with its emphasis on the neglected humanity of low-wage workers, participate in Sandburg’s questioning of the “Society is a building” metaphor.

As Kövecses observes, the “typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts.” This raises the question as to why poetry treats such topics, or why we read poems metaphorically for those topics in the first place. Never does Frost’s poem explicitly map the metaphor “Life is a journey,” though literary works often do offer explicit metaphorical mappings (e.g. “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players”). It’s the text’s recognizable status as a poem that invites us to give abstract meaning to a walk in the woods. If we were to take the news report of a fatal accident that occurred when a driver swerved into an oncoming car to avoid hitting an animal, and rearrange the same “ordinary” language on a page to resemble poetry, then it would automatically have metaphorical import. Now the driver becomes every human being who has tried to avoid a wrong path in life, only to embark on a worse one. Higher-level construal involves a certain discounting of the precise details that separate us. Not all of us drive cars or walk in a yellow wood, but we all share human vulnerability; we’re all on this journey together.

The very use of the adjective “higher” to refer to abstract processing is relevant to at least one significant theoretical rationale for focusing on poetry to explore metaphor: poetry comes closer than other genres to approximating the ritual affiliative symbolic practices of our pre-industrial ancestors. In ritual, humans experience a dissolution of boundaries between the self and other. Group ritual allowed members of a village or tribe to undergo self-transcendent experiences that had an “‘All for one, one for all’ subjective quality” (Yaden, et. Al, 153). Our capacity for self-transcendent experience likely conferred evolutionary advantages by promoting pro-social behavior. Experiencing the group as a single entity, one could forget the individual concerns of “the small self” and feel implicated in a “higher” purpose, with the word “higher” expressing the possibly embodied metaphor “Good is up.” One could then more easily reconceptualize “getting killed in battle” as “making a noble sacrifice” (see Dissanayake).

Poetry harkens back to ritual, as Ellen Dissanayake argues, in that it typically relies on “paralinguistic aesthetic devices” (56), including rhythm, repetitions, silences, and ways of bringing out words’ acoustic qualities; such devices are also characteristic of “motherese”: the style of speech adults universally use when bonding with infants. The poetic extension, elaboration, and questioning of metaphor is “covered by aesthetic devices” (67) that produce “bodily-emotional affective effects” (74). “Both baby talk and ritual ceremony structure (or pattern) and produce changes in feelings” (71), which influence our ways of thinking about something.

Ritual often takes place when something important is at stake. If we read “Skyscraper” as a ritualistic act that can change our ways of thinking about something, then the metaphorical expression involving a skyscraper at the beginning of the poem potentially means something different by the end of the poem. Citing cultural context – around the time the poem was written in1916, skyscrapers began to proliferate in major American cities — Kövecses asserts that the skyscraper can be construed as a metaphor whose four levels of schematicity he identifies as follows:

Image schema: Complex abstract systems are complex physical structures.

Domain: Society is a building.

Frame: The construction of a society is the building of a building.

Mental spaces: Building a new American society is building a skyscraper.

Never does the poem offer the explicit metaphorical mapping “Society is a building.” The poem’s own metaphorical expressions, on the other hand, point to a tension between the skyscraper as an awe-inspiring symbol of collective achievement, and the skyscraper as a money-making machine commissioned and controlled by “the master-men who rule the building.” Understood in historical context, that tension corresponds to two competing future visions of “the new American society”: it could potentially honor every “soul,” or be completely dominated by unregulated industrial capitalism.

At stake was the future of American workers. Would they ever enjoy an eight-hour workday, decent wages, compensation for job-related injury? Would child labor be outlawed? Or would workers continue to be the victims of employers’ unchecked power, while labor union organizers got beaten by the police, framed by the courts and executed? Would the rights to freedom of speech and assembly continue to be violated in the name of public safety? Sandburg cared deeply about those questions. And nowhere in the United States was the battle for labor fought more furiously than in the city of Chicago, where Sandburg had gone to write for a pro-labor newspaper amidst ongoing strikes.

Challenges to unregulated capitalism were associated in the public mind with anarchist violence, though violence often began when the police, at the behest of big business, fired into crowds of peaceful strikers. This may be why Sandburg’s publisher pressured him to soften the more radical tone of The Chicago Poems. “Skyscraper” leaves open the question of what more specific target domain, other than “new American society,” corresponds to the specificity of the source domain “skyscraper” at the level of mental spaces. That more specific target domain, I suggest, involves the “complex abstract system” of industrial capitalism.

The poem’s very first metaphorical expression hints at something ominous: “BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” The skyscraper is a huge inanimate object that has a “soul,” as if endowed with intelligence and agency: a thing is a being. Subsequent lines depict people being “poured” into the skyscraper, or identified as “broom” and “mop”: human beings are things. The personification of the skyscraper-as-instrument thus corresponds to the instrumentalization of the people who work in or on it, like the construction worker who becomes part of the building when he falls from a girder and breaks his neck.

As a product of unregulated industrial capitalism, the skyscraper was not a mere physical structure; it was an instrument for generating capital (Parker). Construction workers had no more say in its architectural design than in their own wages or working conditions; workers were treated as mindless and dispensable objects to be purchased cheap with the building materials: “Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted.” The rise of unregulated industrial capitalism is the degradation of work, defined as “the separation of conception from execution” (Braverman 78).

Any working definition of a “society” includes “people.” It is the dehumanization of workers that the poet strives to oppose, by insisting that every person, regardless of social status, has “a soul.” Though reduced to machine-like status on the job, human beings deserve consideration with respect to wages, physical safety and daily hours. Offering a corrective to the representation of low-wage workers as mere things, the poet points out that “men and women, boys and girls,” are the ones “that give the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories.” The skyscraper minus human beings, on the other hand, is just a pile of concrete: “Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building . . . ?”

Society, then, is not a building (which is not to contradict Kövecses: to question a metaphor is to develop it). At the same time, however, humans are capable of feeling connected to a group as if it were a single entity; a building is a single entity. The poem’s final line echoes the first, while taking on a potentially new meaning: “By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and stars and has a soul.” By the end of this poem that has repeatedly invoked every person’s “soul,” the skyscraper’s “soul” now potentially designates a society by and for “souls” who are united as a single entity, to uphold a lofty group purpose. Experienced as an oppressive force that pits “the master-men” against powerless workers reduced to things, society can be conceptualized as a soul-destroying skyscraper. Experienced as a single entity that makes us feel “we are all in it together,” with worker’s hours reduced and income increased, a society can be conceptualized as an awe-inspiring symbol of collaborative endeavor: a skyscraper.

Vision I.

Image schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency

Domain: Societies are buildings

Frame: The perpetuation of unregulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people by reducing them to things

Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on unregulated capitalism is the erection of a soul-destroying skyscraper that looms over the dehumanized masses.

Vision II.

Image Schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency

Domain: Societies are buildings

Frame: The establishment of regulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people while preserving (relatively speaking) their “souls”

Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on regulated capitalism is the erection of an awe-inspiring soul-preserving skyscraper pointing to the stars.

Reading and writing pro-labor poetry was a ritualistic bonding practice of early twentieth-century Americans who fought for more regulatory policies and protections. Good or bad, their poetry and songs sustained them through terror and crushing defeat. Poetry helped them feel morally elevated above the proponents of unregulated capitalism who sought to keep them down.

To Carl Sandburg, poetry was a way of calling upon the soul’s power to transcend the “small self” and celebrate “people,” not profits, as the very highest purpose of humanity. Accordingly, “Skyscraper” uses the verticality metaphor in two ways: through the conceptual metaphor “Power is up” and the conceptual metaphor “Good (virtue) is up.” There are men in the skyscraper who aspire to a “million-dollar business,” to “live a lobster’s ease of life.” The “People are animals” metaphor – not just any animal here, but a lobster, quite low on the Great Chain of Being — indicates that only a low life aspires to “stacks of money” while disregarding the “souls” on whom fortune is made. Virtue, in the form of poetic contemplation and higher-level construal, belongs to the low-level watchman who gazes over the city from the building’s highest floor.

Kövecses’ term “conceptualizer” is appropriate, since the reader, and not just the poet, actively constructs metaphorical meaning; the reader’s background, and not just the writer’s, can account for the metaphors identified and articulated at different levels. My own background informs my reading: my great-grandfather, George Carey, was a Wobbly who met his Belarusian anarchist wife Ykaterina (“Kate”) at a rally for the labor activist Joe Hill (see Kornbluh and Gross 156-157). I have inherited their pro-worker pamphlets full of poetry.

Early twentieth-century America was at a crossroads. After laissez-faire economics failed to prevent the Great Depression, President Roosevelt took the view that “we” were all in this together, and had new regulatory policies and reforms adopted such as the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. By 1960 President Johnson called Sandburg “more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”

Unlike a building, a society is ever at a crossroads, consisting of people who make crucial decisions. Sandburg’s skyscraper could indeed be a metaphor for a “new American society” committed to civil liberties and protection for workers. Without the guarantee of those rights and protections, however, the skyscraper would revert to the status of an inhumanly immense instrument of oppression. Which road gets taken is what makes the difference.

Works Cited

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Dissanayake, Ellen. “Prelinguistic and Preliterate Substrates of Poetic Narrative.” Poetics Today 32.1 (2011): 55-79.

Kornbluh, Joyce L. and Daniel Gross. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011.

Parker, Martin. “Vertical Capitalism: Skyscrapers and Organization.” Culture and Organization 21.3 (2015):  217-234.

Yaden, David Bryce, Jonathan Haidt, Ralph W. Hood, Jr, David R. Vago, and Andrew B. Newberg. “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” Review of General Psychology 21.2 (2017): 143-160.




Obstruction in Romantic Love Narratives as Postcolonial Universal: The Case of Thomas Mofolo’s CHAKA

F. Fiona Moolla, University of the Western Cape (Republic of South Africa)

Love stories would appear to be one of the most universal genres of literary tale-telling. In fact, Patrick Hogan wrily observes that attention to literary representations of romantic love might have obviated “extended” ethnological debates on the cross-cultural and transhistorical prevalence of love (98). Hogan suggests further that the sub-genre of romantic tragi-comedy is a universal narrative structure since “it appears that every tradition tells tales of conflict in two areas – love and political power” (23), and may be found in the drama “from Greece, Rome India, China, and Japan, and in stories from other regions as well” (23). This essay will consider one such tale of conflict between love and political power in Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, an “epic” novel about the formation of the Zulu nation in southern Africa, arguably one of the earliest African political expressions of modern state formation.

The focus on Chaka occurs in the context of a broader survey of African cultural expressions of romantic love[1]. Africa possesses a vast range of cultures, languages and traditions, but, for the purposes of this essay, only sub-Saharan cultures have been considered through their symbolic representation in oral narratives. The study thus has excluded the oral and written traditions of Arabophone North Africa, as well as that of Ethiopia. The impediment this survey faces at the outset is that published sources of sub-Saharan oral culture, given the multiple mediations of their production involving transcription in artificial settings and translation into European languages, become artefacts, in part, of the modernity which seeks to preserve them. The second obstruction faced by this study is the newly-confirmed recognition that hardly any sub-Saharan oral traditions about love have been recorded and archived. Where love is referred to at all in the folk tales of various cultural groups, it often occurs in an interspecies context signaling cosmogonic myths of primal origin times where the lines between human and animal were still fluid. Yet oral love narratives would appear to have abounded and continue to flourish in contemporary popular forms and media. The now-canonical Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, whose work is dominated by considerations of love in transforming contexts, in the introduction to African Love Stories, suggests that: “… Africa, like all the other regions of this earth, has been and is, full of great love stories” (viii). She speculates that, by contrast, in twentieth-century African literature, the love theme has not been foregrounded since this literature was preoccupied by other social and political questions which appeared more pressing. This does not, however, explain why love stories were not recorded by early anthropologists whose archives for the most part include proverbs, folk tales and epics. Given the dearth of love narratives in folk tales, this study turns its attention to African epics.

The African epic, in the context of the study of world epics, for a long time was a neglected form (Kesteloot 203). Depending on how one defines the epic, the list of African epics may be quite long, running into hundreds, or could be reduced to a limited number divided into “feudal” and “clan” epics (Kesteloot 205), or divided linguistically into epics of Mande-speaking and Bantu-speaking groups (Biebuyck 6). With the increased prominence of African epics in the frame of world literature, probably the most well-known of these, for varying reasons, are the Sunjata epic of west Africa, the Mwindo epic of central Africa, and the Chaka epic of southern Africa. While love may be a prominent theme in many epics, as the example of the romantic interludes in Homer’s Odyssey underscores, love is not foregrounded in the well-known African epics, except for a single complex and interesting case occurring in one of the narratives of the legend of Chaka, king of the Zulu nation.

The context of the emergence of the Chaka epic is not unlike the emergence of text forms of the oral expression of many other world cultures. The historical Chaka, born in 1795, founder of the Zulu kingdom which swallowed up the territories of many surrounding groups, became the stuff of legend, perpetuated especially in izibongo or Zulu praise poetry. The oral tradition which developed around the historical Chaka, augmented by research of other sources, shaped the first script narrative of Chaka’s life and achievements in Thomas Mofolo’s fictionalized biography, Chaka. Chaka which straddles the line between life narrative and novel was written in Mofolo’s first language, Sesotho, in the first decade of the twentieth century, but published only in 1931. This prose narrative was followed by Mazisi Kunene’s 1979 Zulu verse narrative, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic, which, no doubt, was influenced by Mofolo’s novel, but which adheres to the historical record more faithfully than Mofolo’s text. This study considers, specifically, the tragic love story that Mofolo invents in the heroic tale about the founder of the Zulu nation in relation to the concept of obstruction, the sine qua non of the romantic plot. Denis de Rougemont, author of Love in the Western World, a seminal study of romance, identifies the intensification of obstruction as unique to European romance. This essay looks at obstruction in the broader context of the idea of the “postcolonial universal”, deeply explored by Senegalese philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne. This idea occurs, however, in the analyses of many comparativists, including Lalita Pandit’s study of Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, whose “nonimperialist, abstractly utopian idea of universalism … based on the principle of empathy” might be seen similarly to test notions non-hierarchically, assuming a background of commonality which makes lateral testing culturally comprehensible. This essay turns now to obstruction in the romance presented in Mofolo’s Chaka, testing it against De Rougemont’s assertion of the dynamism created by the centrality of obstruction in European romance, imparting a dynamism to the culture of European modernity.

Love in the Western World, De Rougemont’s landmark 1940 study of eros in Europe and, by extension, Europe’s settler colonies around the globe, proposes that obstruction to romantic union is the paradoxical desire of true lovers. The desire for that which thwarts satisfaction in love, so perpetuating desire, generates a drive, which De Rougemont describes as the “demon” (37) of love. The demon of love for De Rougemont is expressed also in the boundary-breaking restlessness of the novel, for many, the cultural form par excellence of European modernity. Shifting to an economic paradigm, the restless dynamism found in love and in the novel, has been regarded also as the unique momentum which drives capitalism (Berman). Obstruction which keeps desire in play thus is presented by De Rougemont as a continental and civilizational particular which through imperialism, colonization and in its current manifestation, globalization, has spread to the rest of the world. The question asked in the context of African orature and literature is whether obstruction in the love narrative is an absolute universal? If it is not absolute, then is it a statistical universal? Or is obstruction not universal at all; in other words, is it wholly particular to the socio-cultural development only of Europe? De Rougemont makes the claim about obstruction based on an interpretation of the archetypal medieval European myth of romantic love, namely, the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The pattern of mediation and remediation of the Chaka legend and Tristan and Isolde  is similar: stories of the historical lives become the material of folklore through fluid oral circulation, which then get fixed in the text narratives of individual authors, which then, in turn, spark a plethora of intertexts. Béroul’s and Bédier’s medieval Tristan is the inspiration of Wagner’s operatic Tristan and many other literary and cultural forms, as Mofolo’s and Kunene’s Chaka is the inspiration for Léopold Senghor’s lyrico-dramatic text, “Chaka”, and the inspiration in the production of many other artists, writers and intellectuals (Gérard).

This study focuses on the love stories in the Chaka narratives. The one love story, which is common across historical and literary narratives, is the story of Shaka’s parents, Nandi, his mother, and Senzangakhona, his father. Both Mofolo’s and Kunene’s texts present Chaka’s parents as being smitten by each other at their first meeting. In both cases, however, the focus falls not so much on the love affair and obstacles that may have existed in the lovers’ path to union. Rather, narrative concentration falls on the couple’s premarital intimacy which results in Nandi’s pregnancy. The issue at stake here is Chaka’s legitimacy, for which various opinions exist on the social acceptance of premarital sexual relationships in the culture at the time, and whether the rules for royalty were different from the rules for commoners. This love story will not be considered here since attention in both “founding” text narratives, namely that of Mofolo and Kunene, falls on the question of Chaka’s legitimacy, rather than the intimate relationship of Nandi and Senzangakhona.

Instead, this essay will consider the second love story, which occurs only in Mofolo’s “factional” representation of Chaka’s life. Mofolo’s novel is remarkable for its complete invention of Chaka’s love affair with the fictionally created heroine, Noliwa. Chaka is born to Nandi, whom Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, marries, but, nonetheless, is spurned by Senzangakhona’s other wives, forcing Nandi to flee to live with relations. But even in her new home, in Mofolo’s representation of history, malicious rumors about Chaka’s illegitimacy pursue him, making him a despised pariah in the community where he is raised. His strength and bravery, however, result in the admiration of the young women of the village, make him the enemy of the young men whose cowardliness he indirectly shows up. His predestination for greatness is foreshadowed by his encounter with a diviner, Isanusi, another of Mofolo’s fictional creations outside of the historical record. Isanusi allows Chaka to see his persecution as part of a test for the acquisition of hitherto unknown power, giving him the strength to resist his abuse by the village. Because of subsequent threats to Chaka’s life, he is forced to flee, this time to the realm of a neighbouring potentate, Dingiswayo, who immediately is impressed by Chaka’s martial prowess. Mofolo invents a sister for Dingiswayo, namely, Noliwa, who is the one true love of Chaka’s life, aside from whom he generally is dismissive of women.

Noliwa is the favorite sister of Dingiswayo, the king who has taken Chaka under his wing, recognizing his exceptional military prowess. Noliwa is infatuated with Chaka and is disappointed that he never joins the lovers’ games which allow young people to declare their affection. Noliwa employs the “fool” Ndlebe also known as “Mr Ears” (71), one of Chaka’s allies, who deploys the techniques of surveillance suited to an oral community to spy for Chaka. Ndlebe gets Noliwa to declare her love for Chaka, whereupon he gets Chaka to declare his love for Noliwa, unarticulated by Chaka since he assumed that Dingiswayo would never allow him to marry his sister because Chaka is an outsider.  As the “goddess” and “god” of the group who stand out for their nobility, their physical perfection as woman and man, and their embodiment of the gender ideals of the community of feminine grace and masculine valor, Noliwa and Chaka are made for each other and appear to be destined for each other. Ndlebe expresses their mutual enamorment by saying to Chaka that Noliwa loves Chaka “with a love that surpasses your love for her” (74 emphasis in original). Noliwa makes the depths of her feelings known to her brother, Dingiswayo, by hinting that her passion for Chaka is inevitable and inalterable, like death: “I die utterly! I am unable to give you any idea, to find words to make you understand, the manner of my death!” (73). Dingiswayo’s approval of the union is implied, and the couple exchange necklaces, making their affection public, after which they are formally betrothed. Upon the death of Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, Chaka, by far exceeding the legitimate princes in bravery, is installed on the throne. He also avenges the death of Dingiswayo by a pretender to Dingiswayo’s throne, and rises to the ultimate seat of power of Dingiswayo’s territory also, with the promise that he would marry Noliwa. Isanusi, the diviner, visits Chaka to test his commitment to acquiring power and renown without precedent:


Isanusi: “I understand that you are betrothed to Noliwa. Tell me, do you want to marry her?”

“I love her with all my heart, and I will marry her. But also I am bound to marry her, even if I did not wish to, because I have promised Dingiswayo’s armies that I would.”

“But if they had not bound you with that promise, what were you going to do?”

“I would still have wished to marry her because I love her, and, after all, they spoke to me in that manner after I had already become betrothed to her.”

“If I were you, I would not marry. Marriage splits kingdoms apart, because it always leads to quarrels in one’s house . . . .

Isanusi spoke these words like one who was merely jesting, yet they became a seed which began to grow in Chaka’s heart, especially since he had never really been very fond of women. (98-99)


Isanusi inflames Chaka’s ambition further by suggesting that he could have power greater than the power he had, which already was greater than the greatest kingdom known among their people. To obtain such power would require “medicine” for which Chaka would have to make a sacrifice:


. . . if you want such a kingship, every time you go to meet the enemy, your warriors must eat food mixed with medicines containing the blood of someone you love most dearly, one who is constantly in your thoughts, who is in your heart day and night, whom you love more than all the people in this entire world. It is by means of the blood of such a person that you can obtain the kind of kingship I have just described: I know no other way beside that one. (100-101)


Since Noliwa is his soulmate and the one closest to his heart, Chaka agrees to sacrifice her: “To tell you the truth, in this world there isn’t anything I love other than kingship, war and commanding armies. Therefore I will give you [Isanusi] Noliwa in order to remove any stumbling block from the path leading to my kingship. I have considered this matter and concluded: the medicines will be mixed with Noliwa’s blood” (102).

Paradoxically, the love story is the invented centerpiece around which Mofolo constructs Chaka’s actualization, but it is the crucial heart of the narrative which must be abjured as romance gives way to the epic. While the Tristan myth holds fast to the conventions of romance, Chaka embeds in the narrative (ultimately obstructed) romance as testament to the ruthless ambition of its finally, morally ambivalent epic hero. De Rougemont suggests that European culture, and its imperial-colonial offshoots, are distinct for inventing “passionate love” through the emergence of courtly love in the twelfth century. The heart of passionate love is obstruction, typified in the archetypal myth of Tristan, who invents obstacles where none exist. Obstruction gives love its existential drive.

The love story dimension of Chaka presents a romance with numerous obstructions, leading to the ultimate obstruction in death. Before it becomes patently clear that Chaka is going to sacrifice Noliwa, Chaka has intimate relations with Noliwa, resulting in her pregnancy. (The novel leaves Chaka’s knowledge of the pregnancy in productive indeterminacy.) But true union, as in the Tristan myth, is represented by marriage. What are the obstacles to the love between Chaka and Noliwa? First, it is Noliwa’s uncertainty whether Chaka is attracted to her, and then Chaka’s uncertainty whether Ndlebe’s intimations of Noliwa’s attraction are true. Thereafter, Dingiswayo’s potential rejection of the liaison, since Chaka is an outsider, is presented as an obstruction – but one which again is quite easily overcome. Significant obstacles which delay the union then come into play. Chaka’s father dies leaving him to negotiate the intricacies of succession. Dingiswayo is assassinated, requiring Chaka to avenge his death and ascend to his throne. These obstacles, which delay the union of the lovers ironically also kindle Chaka’s parallel love for power, manifesting in the ultimate obstruction, namely, Chaka’s overarching ambition. Chaka’s ambition leads to his sacrifice of Noliwa. Death of Isolde in the Tristan myth and death of Noliwa in Chaka is the obstruction which apotheosizes love as passion, thriving as it does on barriers, rather than apotheosizing the lovers themselves. However, while it is love of love which is the catalyst of love as passion in the European myth, it is the love of power which generates love as passion in the southern African heroic romance. Thus in both the European and the African narratives we see the emergence of love as passion.

The centrality of love as passion in Mofolo’s novel is underscored by Chaka’s emotions when he kills Noliwa and Noliwa’s response when she recognizes she is being sacrificed to consolidate the power of her lover. Before the killing, the narrative dwells on Noliwa’s infatuation with Chaka, heightened by her pregnancy, and Chaka’s love for her:


Chaka, too, loved Noliwa very much. If Chaka ever loved a woman with true love, we believe that Nandi (sic) was the woman upon whom that love was lavished. All beautiful and worthy things which a true wife might do for her husband, and which Chaka ever experienced, he received from Noliwa. And even as he betrayed her like that and planned her murder, his conscience ate him up and gave him no rest; it told him he had strayed from the straight path of human compassion. Yet, because of his desire for kingship, he suppressed it and pushed ahead, and walked about carrying death on his shoulders. (121)


The significance of love as passion in Mofolo’s narrative is made manifest again when it presents the diviner, Isanusi, giving Chaka one last chance to opt out of the course that will strip him of satisfaction in love and make him suffer emotionally, even as he climbs the ladder of power. Isanusi asks explicitly: “What do you choose for yourself, Noliwa or the kingship? to which Chaka again confirms, “The kingship!” (123). The significance of passionate love is foregrounded also by the fact that it is Chaka himself who kills Noliwa, rather than any of his henchmen, whose obedience to their leader is absolute. Chaka is struck again by Noliwa’s ethereal beauty when the time comes for the murder, and he is struck above all by her eyes: “They were eyes which revealed a message which said: ‘I am yours with all my being, Chaka; I am yours in life and in death” (125-126). Chaka kills Noliwa surreptitiously, using a thatching needle pierced into her underarm, to disguise her murder as illness. Noliwa, however, dies knowing that it is Chaka who has killed her, and, nevertheless, with her dying breath refers to Chaka as her “beloved” (26). Noliwa’s death thus preserves love as passion in the epic narrative about the founding of the Zulu nation.

The status of Mofolo’s Chaka as, in many respects, a liminal text makes its offsetting of passionate love problematic as an assertion of the universality of the principle of obstruction as central to love as passion. For De Rougemont, the contention that passionate love is an invention of European culture, of course, is a claim for much more than merely the “technology” of the romance narrative. It is an assertion of the fundamental dynamism of European culture, which, by implication, is absent in other world cultures. (Even though De Rougemont acknowledges the influence of Andalusian court poetry and sufi mysticism on European medieval culture, nonetheless, the breakthroughs of courtly love are deemed the origins of European exceptionalism in the sphere of the personal relationship which, more than any other personal relationship, embodies European socio-cultural transformations. It is hard to hold Mofolo’s Chaka up as a challenge to De Rougemont since Mofolo as a Christian mission-school-educated writer may have invented and incorporated the Chaka-Noliwa love story as a consequence of cultural influence, or an orientation to European culture acquired at the Morija mission. However, it is salutary to recall that Mofolo was writing about a Zulu legend in Sesotho for a Sesotho audience in the first decade of the twentieth century. His novel would have had to have been persuasive to his Sesotho audience, an audience less culturally influenced by mission Christianity and European culture than he had been. The conclusion one might draw from this is that it is precisely the existence of some form of universal which makes this form of intercultural communication possible.

Diagne extends the idea further: Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Diagne suggests that “[t]he postcolonial universal, the non imperial universal is … lateral” (16). The lateral universal is “no longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self” (16). What we see in Mofolo’s African articulation of love as passion, where obstruction is central, may thus more productively be viewed as a lateral universal testing the concept of love as passion across languages, cultures and the epistemologies they intimate.


Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. African Love Stories: An Anthology. Ayebia, 2006.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Verso, 1983.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. (1940) Translated by Montgomery Belgion. Princeton UP, 1983.

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. “On the Postcolonial and the Universal?” Collège international de Philosophie, vol. 2, no. 78, pp.7-18. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Gerard, Albert. “Rereading ‘Chaka’. English in Africa, vol. 13, no. 1, 1986, pp. 1-12. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Kunene, Mazisi. Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. Translated by Mazisi Kunene. Heinemann, 1979.

Mofolo, Thomas. Chaka. (1931) Translated by Daniel P. Kunene. Heinemann, 1981.

Moolla, F. Fiona. “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s Early Anglophone-Igbo Novels.” Routledge Handbook of African Literature, edited by Carli Coetzee and Moradewun Adejunmobi, Routledge, 2019, pp. 290-304.

—. “In the Heart of the Country: The Auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Social Dynamics, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 150-163.

—. “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels.” Journal of the African Literature Association, vol. 10., no. 1, 2016, pp. 118-130.

—. “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World.” ARIEL – A Review of International English Literature, vol. 48, no. 1, 2017, pp. 71-96.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism and Culture. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. State U of New York P, 1995, pp. 207-233.



[1] Until recently, the cultural, literary and philosophical significance of romantic love has not been a focus of attention of African scholarship. It has, however, been my interest for a number of years where I have considered African oratures, popular cultures, and literatures across the genres of poetry, novel and drama. Some areas of concentration include a focus on love in representations of monogamous and polygynous marriage, the role of love under oppressive regimes, and romance as national allegory. These studies have been published as journal articles and book chapters, such as: “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World”, “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s early Anglophone-Igbo Novels”, “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels”, and “In the heart of the country: the auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Lynda Spencer and Martina Vitackova have directed their attention to African popular romance, in particular, and are currently co-editing a special African popular romance issue of the Journal of Popular Romance.

Particular Works and Literary Universals: As You Like It

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut 

Particular literary works figure in the study of literary universals principally as data from which researchers may abstract cross-cultural principles. However, the isolation of literary universals may also have consequences for our understanding of individual works. Consider story genre. I have argued that a limited number of such genres recur across a range of unrelated traditions (on the nature of these genres, see “Story”; on the cross-cultural evidence for the genres, see my The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology[1]). These are not the only possible genres. However, their cross-cultural recurrence suggests their cognitive and affective salience and even predominance. For this reason, the cross-cultural genres are often more valuable in categorizing literary works or parts of works than are the historical categories to which works were assigned by their contemporaries. (In a similar way, our diagnostic categories are typically more valuable in categorizing illnesses than are the diagnostic categories to which a person’s illness was assigned by his or her contemporaries.) For example, in How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I have contended that the cross-cultural genres do a better job of organizing Shakespeare’s plays than the traditional, fourfold scheme of comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances.[2]

In the present essay, I set out to consider a single work—Shakespeare’s As You Like It—in relation to cross-cultural story genres. Though his plays are generally open to categorization in one or another dominant genre, it is well known that Shakespeare mixed genres.[3] In the following pages, I will consider the ways in which different story trajectories in the play may be usefully analyzed as instances of different, cross-cultural genres. This analysis allows us, in turn, to isolate some of the play’s stylistic techniques and thematic concerns more clearly and to explore them more fully.[4]

More exactly, one useful method of exploring Shakespeare’s play begins by isolating the various story sequences–the story of Orlando and Oliver, that of Touchstone and Audry, and so on—then identifies their genres and determines how Shakespeare particularized those genres. Such an analysis suggests conclusions about Shakespeare’s story style and about the thematic resonances of the work, both ethico-political and psychological. However, before treating As You Like It, I should outline the main features of the relevant story genres and some of the key principles used by authors in developing particular literary works.

Cross-Cultural Story Genres, Motifs, and Development Principles

It is important to make three general points about literary universals. First, like linguistic universals, literary universals may be absolute (recurring in all traditions), near absolute, statistical (recurring in a significantly greater percentage of traditions than would be expected by chance), or typological/implicational (recurring in traditions of a specified type). Second, “unrelated” means that the traditions have distinct origins and have not influenced one another extensively. Thus, English and Twentieth-Century Chinese literatures are related; evidence for cross-cultural patterns would have to draw on Chinese and European works prior to the period of modern, European colonialism. Third, universals are not exhaustive. One can tell stories about anything. Stories are not confined to the cross-cultural genres. On the other hand, as already noted, the cross-cultural genres tend to be particularly salient and prominent; traditions appear more likely to differ in recurring patterns of particularization than in the main genres themselves.

The mention of particularization leads us to development principles. In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I have argued that the creation of particular stories may be understood in part as the application of development principlesto cross-cultural genre prototypes. These development principles comprise principles governing specification (where abstract elements in the prototype, such as “lovers,” are given particular features), completion (the filling in of ellipses), extension (the combination of different prototypes or motifs), and alteration (deviation from a prototype). Development principles may bear on the story itself (as just indicated) or on aspects of discourse, thus the narrational point of view, the emplotted order of information (e.g., strictly chronological or partially chronological with flashbacks), and so on.

 In analyzing As You Like It, I will be concerned with three cross-cultural story genres (romantic, heroic-usurpation, and familial) and one cross-cultural motif (remorse and conversion). In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that cross-cultural genres prototypically involve one or two protagonists pursuing some goal. The goal is defined by an emotion system or some integration of emotion systems. The cross-cultural elaboration of the story trajectory functions to intensify the outcome emotion. In the full, comic form of each genre, this leads to the apparent loss of the goal in the middle of the story.

The romantic genre develops out of the integration of attachment and sexual desire (as well as the reward system) in romantic love. The romantic story prototype forms around two people falling in love, but finding their union prevented by society (commonly intensified by making the blocking figures loved ones, such as parents). This social interference commonly involves a rival and thus a love triangle, and the apparently permanent separation of the lovers (often through rumors of death). However, in the full, comic version, the lovers are ultimately united and social rifts overcome.

The heroic genre is based on the emotions of pride, shame (thus a violation  of pride), and anger (due to shame), bearing on characters and on groups. In its prototypical form, this genre has an individual part and a collective part. The collective part involves a threat to the hero’s in-group (commonly the nation) from some enemy out-group. The individual part prototypically treats the usurpation of a leader’s rightful position, a usurpation often emotionally intensified by making the usurper an attachment object, such as a sibling. In the comic version, the story is commonly resolved through combat in which the usurper is defeated (often killed) and the legitimate authority reinstated.

The familial genre is based on attachment feelings. It concerns the separation and reunion of family members. The separation may be intentional on the part of the parents or children, and the reasons for the separation vary. The reunion is often less joyous than one might anticipate, given that the parents’ age may imply that this reunion will soon be cut short by their death. It may also involve feelings of guilt and remorse for the initial separation.

Finally, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguish story genres from story motifs. Story genres are derived from emotion-defined goal pursuit, as just explained. Motifs, in contrast, are types of event sequence that may be incorporated into various genres as they are not linked intrinsically with any genre-defining goal.[5] Like genres, some particular motifs are cross-cultural, while others are not. For example, the quest is often cited as a cross-cultural literary structure.[6] In my account, a quest does not define a genre, but a cross-cultural motif that may be incorporated into any genre. For example, the usurped hero or the struggling lover or the abandoned child—that is, types of character from the universal genres (heroic, romantic, and familial, respectively)–may undertake a quest in the service of regaining his or her kingdom, being joined in marriage with his or her beloved, or being reunited with his or her family. (A motif may, of course, be elaborated into a full story. But that is only because anything may be elaborated into a full story. That does not make everything into a cross-cultural genre.) In As You Like It, the motif I have in mind is, roughly, that of remorse leading to self-reformation or “conversion” in a broad sense. This motif often appears at the conclusion of heroic works in what I have called the “epilogue of suffering” (see chapter four of The Mind); it leads to the hero’s abandonment of the very goals he or she had striven for (and even achieved) in the rest of the story.

The Stories of As You Like It

The first scene of the play introduces us to the story of Orlando and Oliver, a reduced or deflated version of the heroic usurpation story. It is “reduced” in the sense that it concerns family relations rather than a nation. However, it involves the same denial of social position and even a murder (or assassination) plot. This scaling down of the heroic usurpation is facilitated by the fact that the national usurpation story is often intensified by being familial in the sense of involving betrayal of the hero by a family member. For simplicity (and as a sort of homage to Russian formalist practices), I will refer to the narrative trajectories through abbreviations. This first heroic usurpation story is HU1 (“heroic usurpation 1”).

One stylistic feature of Shakespeare’s writing is his tendency to develop parallel story sequences. Sometimes he invents them; sometimes he draws them from his sources (which he presumably found appealing in part due to the parallel stories). He frequently treats these parallel stories in contiguous scenes. In keeping with this, I.ii introduces the backstory to a more standard heroic usurpation story (HU2), also one involving brothers, that of Dukes Frederick and Senior. In addition, it introduces our first family separation story (FS1), that of Rosalind and Duke Senior, which results from HU2. This scene continues HU1 as well, by thwarting Oliver’s plot to have Orlando killed. The combat between Oliver and the wrestler is drawn from the source, with the important difference that the latter is (presumably) not killed.[7] This allows the possibility that no irreversible damage is done by the main characters in the course of the play (a point that bears on Shakespeare’s development of heroic stories, as we will see). This wrestling match is not only part of HU1, but also part of the first romantic story of the play (R1)—that of Rosalind and Orlando. In the love story, it represents the common device of a contest in which the lover impresses the beloved with his manly skills. Shakespeare not only parallels, but also frequently integrates his separate story sequences, as in this crossing of HU1 with R1. We find another case of this sort when Duke Frederick suggests that Orlando’s father sided with Duke Senior in Duke Frederick’s usurpation. This intertwining of HU1 and HU2 will be extended later in the play.

The third scene allows Rosalind and Celia to elaborate on Rosalind’s feelings for Orlando (thus R1). It also introduces the exile of Rosalind. This initially raises the possibility of Rosalind and Celia being separated. But Celia protests that “thou and I am one” and thus should not be “sund’red” (I.iii.95, 96). They therefore determine to go together into exile. Though little developed in what follows, this does introduce a second familial separation sequence (FS2), that between Celia and Duke Frederick.

Having introduced the exile of Rosalind and Celia, Shakespeare turns in II.i to the prior exiles of HU2—Duke Senior and his companions. An interesting element of this scene involves Jaques’s (reported) objection to hunting and his “weeping” over a deer that they have killed (II.i.65). Jaques “swears” that the hunters “do more usurp” than Duke Frederick (II.i.27). Here, Shakespeare draws on the model of the heroic prototype to consider hunting and tacitly analogizes Jaques’s grief (see II.i.26) to the remorse felt by the heroes in the heroic epilogue. This is then the first suggestion of the conversion motif, CM1. The motif will recur in the stories of Oliver and Frederick. It is an instance of Shakespeare’s multiplication of parallel story sequences and is not found in the source. As we will see, unlike the conversions of Oliver and Frederick, that of Jaques appears to concern promiscuity or hedonism, rather than usurpation; however, in this scene, Shakespeare connects Jaques’s conversion with usurpation in a way that appears very much like remorse.

The second scene of act two fundamentally serves to inform us that Rosalind and Celia have followed through on their plans to leave. It thereby establishes the separation of Duke Frederick and Celia, FS2. In his usual, tidy manner, Shakespeare moves in II.iii to the exile of Orlando, when faced with another assassination plot from his usurping brother. Finally, in II.iv, we see Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone in the forest, simply shifting the narrational point of view regarding HU2, FS1, and FS2.

II.v serves to develop Jaques’s melancholy, which is consistent with his motivic role relating to remorse and conversion. and II.vii principally elaborate on the condition of the exiles of HU2. II.vii further integrates the story sequences of HU1 and HU2 by having the exiles—Orlando, Duke Senior, and so on—meet. This scene also includes some slight hints of Jaques’s backstory, that he lived riotously before he became somber and reflective (see II.vii.62-69). This too points toward a (subdued) motif of remorse and conversion (CM1), already hinted at in the report of Jaques’s grief over the deer (II.i.65).

The third act begins with a further integration of the two usurpation sequences, HU1 and HU2, as Frederick threatens Oliver with dispossession if he does not capture or kill Orlando. In terms of emplotment, this revives the suspense of HU1 as it poses a new threat to Orlando, whom we might otherwise have assumed to be out of danger. The second scene involves many elements, principally developing character, provoking mirth, and serving other purposes. For our interests, the second scene most importantly sets up the relation between Oliver and Ganymede. This sequence draws on a motif found in some romantic stories (such as Shakespeare’s own Cymbeline), where one of the lovers determines to test the sincerity and durability of the other’s affection, though it recasts that motif as a sort of open joke.[8] At times, however, the joke seems to shift into a nearly real seduction of the lover being tested.[9] 

By the beginning of the fourth act, the relation between Orlando and Rosalind—in the guise of Ganymede–almost appears to constitute another story of romantic love (R2).  Of course, this is not a different love story for Rosalind, who is continuously enamored of Orlando. The question concerns just what Orlando’s feelings might be for the person he identifies as Ganymede, not Rosalind. This is particularly significant as the relation between these two is developed somewhat differently in the source. At least in my reading, Lodge’s Orlando (there called “Rosader”) is more clearly playacting. Indeed, after their first recitation of poetry in the assumed roles, Rosader asserts the falsity of their pretense. Shakespeare makes their connection—a matter of wooing “every day” in her “cote” (III.ii.417)–more evidently romantic and thus ambiguous on Orlando’s side. For example, Orlando’s phrase, “fair youth” (III.ii.377) suggests an appreciation of Ganymede’s physical beauty, in contrast with Rosader’s “gentle swain” (Lodge). Orlando speaks directly to Rosalind/Ganymede of kissing her/him rather than merely talking (IV.i.68), whereas Rosader’s only reference to kissing occurs in a poem and refers (somewhat confusingly) to “Love” kissing “roses” (Lodge). In connection with this, there seems to be some bawdy ambiguity in Orlando’s plea to “have me” (IV.i.111) following Ganymede’s “more coming-on disposition” (IV.i.106-107), and his subsequent urging of Celia/Aliena, “Pray thee marry us” (IV.i.120). In contrast, when Lodge’s Aliena suggests a mock marriage, Rosader agrees and “laugh[s]”; moreover, the entire business is characterized as a “jesting match,” again stressing the distance between the people (Rosader and Ganymede) and the roles they are playing (Rosader and Rosalynde).

Punctuating the development of R2 (Orlando and Ganymede), Shakespeare indulges his penchant for parallel story sequences. One of these is drawn from the source. In III.v, we find the love triangle of Silvius, Phebe, and Ganymede (R3). Before this, in III.iii, we find the romantic story of Touchstone and Audry (R4), added by Shakespeare. This is a very minimal story in that the obstacles to their union seem to be largely a matter of getting the marriage ceremony set up. Though parallel with the story of Orlando and Rosalind (R1), both these stories are deromanticized. Phebe seems to have no interest in Silvius whatsoever. In the end, she marries him because she lost a bet. As to Touchstone and Audry, the former makes a mockery of the entire process from start to finish. This is not to say that their marriage is doomed. Touchstone is certainly sharp-tongued, but he seems fundamentally benevolent. Mockery is his profession; as he himself says, “we that have good wits have much to answer for. We must be flouting; we cannot hold” (V.i.11-12). The audience should probably not take that mockery too seriously with respect to his marriage. Nonetheless, we might infer from these cases that the romanticization of love may be mistaken—even in the case of Rosalind and Orlando (as well as Celia and Oliver, to which we will turn shortly). The idea is consistent with some suggestions of the larger organization in story trajectories, as we will see.That deromanticization may be suggested also by the odd scene, IV.ii, in which Jaques makes jokes about cuckoldry and horns—a tiresomely repetitive form of humor that Shakespeare incomprehensibly found irresistible.

The third scene of the fourth act resolves HU1. This occurs when Oliver’s life is endangered. Orlando is tempted by “revenge” (IV.iii.129), thus the violent response to usurpation, the usual development of the heroic plot. But he foregoes this response, saving his brother’s life. This leads to Oliver’s “conversion” (IV.iii.137). Thus, we have a second instance of the conversion motif (CM2), in this case operating not as an epilogue for the heroic story, but as the resolution to that story itself, a resolution that substitutes for the violence and destruction that would have given rise to the epilogue’s remorse. In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I argued that Shakespeare’s use of the heroic structure may allow a genuinely comic conclusion insofar as no irreversible loss—most obviously, death–has occurred. His ideal outcome appears to be a matter of forgiveness and reconciliation, not violent retribution.  (As Oliver puts it, “kindness” is “ever nobler than revenge” [IV.iii.129].) In this case, the main events and possible motives or outcomes (e.g., Rosader/Orlando taking “revenge”) are largely found in the source for the play. Moreover, in Lodge, Oliver (there called “Saladyne”) does experience remorse and a sort of conversion (cf. his resolution to do “penance” and be a pilgrim to “the Holy Land” [Lodge]). This does not make the point any less Shakespearean, since there must be aspects of a source work that drew Shakespeare to it initially. Moreover, in Shakespeare’s play, the motif recurs not only in HU1, but more importantly in HU2, the other heroic usurpation sequence, as we will see. Here, as elsewhere, the enhanced story symmetry or multiplication of story parallels is characteristic of Shakespeare, no less than the thematic preference.

This scene also introduces us to yet another love story (R5). This one is between Oliver and Celia. Moreover, in the typical, Shakespearean fashion, it is integrated with HU1, as it is allowed by the resolution of the brother conflict in that story.

The first scene of the final act develops the Touchstone-Audry love story (R4) by introducing and summarily dismissing a rival. The second scene elaborates on the Oliver-Celia romance (R5). That scene ends with a sort of cliffhanger bearing on the possible marriages in the stories R1 (Rosalind-Orlando), R3 (Phebe-Silvius), and R5 (Celia-Oliver). The following scene simply extends this cliffhanger to R4 (Touchstone-Audry).

The final scene resolves most of the story sequences in short order. Rosalind reveals her identity, which leads to her official reunion with her father and the resolution of the Silvius-Ganymede competition. This, in turn, enables the marriage of Silvius and Phebe, who are wed at the same time as Orlando and Rosalind, Touchstone and Audry, and Celia and Oliver. This resolves FS1, R3, R1, R4, and R5 simultaneously, leaving only HU2 (Duke Senior’s usurpation), FS2 (the separation of Celia and her father), and perhaps R2 (the [imaginary?] relation between Orlando and Ganymede).

Before going on to these, I should remark briefly on one peculiar aspect of the resolutions we have already treated. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosalind encounters her father well before she reveals herself to him (see III.iv.32-36). It is not at all clear why she did not reveal herself to her father when they first met.[10] The male disguise was supposedly for her and Celia’s protection (I.ii.106-120), though they did have a male companion in the form of Touchstone. But this is clearly unnecessary when her father and his retinue are present. The most obvious explanation has to do with her testing of Orlando. There may, however, be other possibilities, suggested by unresolved parts of the work. (We will return to this point.)

The Frederick-Senior usurpation story (HU2) is resolved in a striking departure from the source text. Specifically, Lodge presents us with a typical heroic resolution in which combat leads to the death of the usurper. But, in Shakespeare, the usurper is “converted” (V.iv.161) to a religious life. He abandons the world and returns the kingdom to the legitimate leader, Duke Senior. This is a third instance of the motif of conversion (CM3). Like the story of Oliver, it recalls the heroic epilogue, but in fact replaces the heroic ending, and thus avoids the violence that entails a remorseful epilogue. Moreover, in keeping with CM1, Jaques leaves the rejoicing society to join the converted Duke Frederick. Thus, two of the three “converts” (Frederick and Jaques) retreat from the world into spiritual pursuits. Indeed, the third convert, Oliver, though now married, has also determined to abandon wealth and worldly things to live a pastoral life with Celia (V.ii.12), aptly-named for Heaven.[11] These points are consistent with the generally critical attitude Shakespeare took toward heroic violence.[12] They suggest a thematic repudiation of revenge (by the usurped heroes) and an advocacy of moral self-examination (by the usurping villains). In terms of emotion, love, compassion, and remorse seem to be prized in these stories (HU1 and HU2), not the usual heroic sentiments of anger and pride. Indeed, in both cases, the resolution is more familial than heroic, as the alienated brothers are directly or indirectly reconciled.[13]

On the other hand, Duke Frederick does not rejoin the group and this reminds us that the second family separation story (FS2)—that of Celia and her father—remains unresolved. This may be merely an oversight on Shakespeare’s part. But I will conclude by considering another possibility which connects this unresolved separation with other peculiarities of these stories—the apparent romance of Orlando and Ganymede (R2), the delay of Rosalind in revealing her identity, and the emotionally unsatisfactory quality of the Silvius-Phebe resolution.

Specifically, Celia chooses to be separated from her father in order not to be “sund’red” from her “sweet girl,” Rosalind (I.iii.96), as “thou and I am one” (I.iii.95).[14] Removed from the identity and situation of the speakers, such an appeal would most obviously be taken to express romantic love. Hyperbole of this sort may of course found in friendship. In consequence, I do not wish to make too much of it on its own. But, in relation to the other unexplained or unresolved story sequence in the play—the hint of homoerotic feelings on the part of Orlando for Ganymede–it would appear reasonable to think of it as involving at least a suggestion of romance.[15] In this case, Rosalind would be the forbidden beloved; the separation of Rosalind and Celia would represent the separation of the lovers, and so on. Construed in this way, the exile of Celia is not most importantly part of a familial story, but of a semi-concealed romantic story (R6)—indeed, a romantic story that is relatively prototypical. Of course, in romantic works, parents and children are often reconciled eventually. The possibility of such a reconciliation remains open in this case, particularly given that both Celia and her father appear to be remaining in the forest. However, such a reunion is not so important to the romantic story as it would be to a family separation story; thus, its explicit articulation is less necessary.

As to the Silvius/Phebe/Ganymede story (R3), I suspect that most recipients of the play—audience members or readers–would agree that it is emotionally unresolved (even though we are given a narrative conclusion). There is, indeed, something almost distressing about Silvius and Phebe marrying for no apparent reason other than Phebe losing a wager. The future is hardly promising for either the husband or the wife, given this start to their union. One way of reading their wedding is not as a comic resolution of a Silvius/Phebe love story (where Ganymede is the rival), but as the tragic conclusion of a Phebe/Ganymede love story (where Silvius is the rival), thus R7. Moreover, it does not take a great deal of hermeneutic subtlety to see homoerotic elements here. Phebe’s radical change from a votary of Diana to one of Venus may have to do with the appeal of Ganymede’s presumably feminine features.[16]

Understood thus, the overall pattern of story resolution and non-resolution in the play might be taken to suggest something along the following lines. Orlando and Celia have both heterosexual and same-sex romantic feelings, represented in the hazy, uncertain R2 and R6. The heterosexual feelings (R1 and R5) are clear and explicit. The same-sex feelings, however, are unclear—suggested, but obscurely. It is precisely these implicit, indirectly acknowledged feelings that are sustained, in their ambiguous state, by the preservation of Rosalind’s disguise, itself made possible by her unexplained delay in revealing her identity to her father. It is also precisely these same-sex trajectories that remain unresolved, perhaps because they were unresolvable—either for social reasons or simply because some of our choices in life preclude the pursuit of other interests, or both.[17] A similar pattern is to be found in R3 and R7, the stories of Silvius, Phebe, and Ganymede/Rosalind. The difference here is that it is never clear Phebe has heterosexual feelings at all; related to this, the heterosexual story sequence (R3), though superficially resolved, is unsatisfying. It is resolved formally–in terms of what happens in the story, including Phebe’s statement about a (very speedy) change in her “fancy” (V.iv.150)[18]—but it is not really resolved emotionally, at least for any audience member who reflects on the marriage.

A Note on Future Research

A great deal of literary study involves the careful analysis or interpretation of individual works. Research on literary universals necessarily considers broad patterns beyond individual works. However, this does not mean that universals are irrelevant to particularistic analysis or interpretation. There is clearly a great deal of scope for future treatment of universal story structures and motifs in individual works. In addition, while focusing on story—thus, the actions and events that constitute “what happens” in As You Like It–I set aside the “discourse” aspects of the work, which is to say, the plot selection (what is presented from the story and when it is presented) and the manner of presentation (e.g., depicted onstage or reported by a character). Research on cross-cultural aspects of discourse too should prove a fruitful area for articulating general principles and for analyzing particular works.


We began with the question of to what extent the study of universals might contribute to our understanding of individual works in their particularity. I focused on story universals—genres and motifs—which allow us to isolate particular story trajectories and to consider the ways in which such trajectories repeat, specify, complete, integrate, or alter universals. Considering As You Like It in these terms, and in relation to Shakespeare’s source for the play, we were able to see some patterns in Shakespeare’s story style as well as some thematic concerns that may have been less clear, or even obscure, otherwise.

The stylistic patterns include the multiplication of parallel story sequences, sometimes with a systematic alteration, such as heavily ironic deromanticization, as in the Touchstone-Audry love story. They also include the causal intersection of distinct story lines. The multiplication may be an instance of a more abstract and universal stylistic technique of symmetry enhancement, which may apply not only to sequences of events, but to scenes, the structure of dramatic acts, the generation of characters, or such verbal practices as parallel phrasing.

The thematic concerns include Shakespeare’s preference for repentance and examination of conscience, or “conversion,” over revenge and violence—or, alternatively, his preference for familial reconciliation rather than heroic victory. Perhaps more significantly, somewhat unexpected patterns in the resolution and non-resolution of story sequences may suggest a subdued, partially denied concern with the place of same-sex romantic love in the lives of individuals and in the practices and possibilities offered by society.[19] In short, the preceding analysis suggests that the study of universals, though by its nature general, can and does have consequences for our understanding of particularity. That particularity includes style and theme. It also includes what some psychoanalytically-influenced critics refer to as “symptomatic” elements, concerns that haunt an author, but that he or she has not been able to work through in a systematic and clarifying manner, either for others or for himself or herself.

But that is not all. This examination of As You Like It suggests more general, theoretical ideas as well. Specifically, I take the general structure of the universal story prototypes to tell us something about the ways in which our emotions systems and our processes of simulation (or imagination) operate.[20] In its complex patterns of resolved and unresolved story sequences, As You Like Itindicates some further points about these systems and processes. Specifically, the preceding analysis suggests that we all are regularly engaged in multiple, simultaneous or alternating forms of simulation or imagination. These forms of simulation partially overlap, but also diverge from one another in some respects. Thus, Orlando has complex and various imaginations of Rosalind (whom he has apparently seen only briefly and in the past); these partially converge with his simulations of the features and behavior of Ganymede, as well as his possible interaction with Ganymede. (The same general points hold for other characters as well.)

These various simulations are necessarily interwoven with emotion, including attachment feelings and sexual desire. That interweaving is inevitable because simulation is motivated and emotion systems provide us with motives for both action and thought. The variability of our simulations is in part cognitive, but in part emotive, suggesting that we think of various people in often contradictory ways and emotionally respond to them in often ambivalent ways. Indeed, in some degree, we may respond to a given person as masculine in one context and as feminine in another context; perhaps there is even a sense in which we may sometimes tacitly respond to someone as alternatively male and female (not just masculine and feminine), even if we would never self-consciously affirm such variability.

Finally, some of these simulated trajectories (or imagined stories) may be resolved, while others are not open to resolution. That irresolvablility is sometimes social, as when same-sex union is not accepted. But it is sometimes personal or psychological, in the sense that one sometimes cannot in practice satisfy all one’s emotion systems and simulations. For example, Orlando cannot be united with both Ganymede and Rosalind; similarly, Phebe cannot have the socially acceptable union with Ganymede along with the socially unacceptable union with Rosalind. In a sense, then, none of these stories is fully resolved. But Orlando seems pretty well satisfied with Rosalind alone, thus giving his story a high degree of resolution. The situation is very different with Phebe.[21]


Works Cited

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.

Danson, Lawrence. “The Shakespeare Remix: Romance, Tragicomedy, and Shakespeare’s ‘Distinct Kind.’” In Guneratne, 101-118.

de Grazia, Margreta and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

DiGangi, Mario. “Queering the Shakespearean Family.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47.3 (1996): 269-290.

Gilman, Albert, ed. As You Like It. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Guneratne, Anthony, ed. Shakespeare and Genre: From Early Modern Inheritances to Postmodern Legacies. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm.The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Story.” The Literary Universals Project(2016),

Hope, Jonathan and Michael Witmore. “The Hundredth Psalm to the Tune of ‘Green Sleeves’: Digital Approaches to Shakespeare’s Language of Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61 (2010): 357-390.

Lodge, Thomas. Rosalynde or, Euphues’ Golden Legacy. Ed. Edward Baldwin. Boston: Ginn, 1910. (Unpaginated Kindle edition.)

Marcus, Leah. “Anti-Conquest and As You Like It.” Shakespeare Studies 42 (2014): 170-195.

McEvoy, Sean.Shakespeare: The Basics. 3rded. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Nardizzi, Vin. “Shakespeare’s Queer Pastoral Ecology: Alienation around Arden.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.3 (2016): 564–582.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004.

Segal, Janna. “‘And Browner Than Her Brother’: ‘Misprized’ Celia’s Racial Identity and Transversality in As You Like It.” Shakespeare 4.1 (2008): 1-21.

Snyder, Susan. “The Genres of Shakespeare’s Plays.” In de Grazia and Wells, 83-97.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. In Gilman, 35-140.

Traub, Valerie. “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare.” In de Grazia and Wells, 129-146.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare, Sex, and Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.


[1] The latter book also includes some (admittedly brief) references to other work in narrative theory (Greimas, Propp, Genette, and others) in relation to the study of emotion and story universals.

[2] For a clarifying, historical account of the traditional genre classification, see Snyder.

[3] Danson goes so far as to say that “the mixed mode is the Shakespearean default mode” (102).One referee for this essay suggested that the traditional classification has perhaps been supported by the statistical analyses of Hope and Witmore. Since this essay is not about the classification scheme for Shakespeare’s plays (being an interpretive analysis of one play), I cannot treat the issue at length here. However, it is worth making three points. First, my claim here is about story structures, specifically that the best way to categorize the story structure of the plays is by reference to the cross-cultural genres. There could of course be other patterns to the plays, depending on the period when they were written, the sceneswhere they are located, or other variables. Second, Hope and Witmore do not in fact find that stylistic features perfectly align with traditional genres. For example, they find “the early history plays massing in one part of the diagram” and “the later history plays, along with some of the tragedies, clustering in another” (390). Finally, even Hope and Witmore findapparent anomalies. For example, Othello clusters with comedies. This is, of course,not because it has a happy ending or makes us laugh. It is, however, related to the fact that most of the works traditionally categorized as comedies are at least in part romantic works (in the cross-cultural scheme)—and so is Othello. In this respect, then, the cross-cultural scheme may fit even Hope and Witmore’s analysis better than the traditional categories that Hope and Witmore presuppose.

[4] By “theme,” I mean implications of the play that are designed to systematically affect the audience’s thought about or response to the real world, the world outside the theater—for example, their judgments about political events. However, by “designed,” I do not mean that the author has self-consciously articulated a thematic concern to himself or herself. Rather, I take it that authors have some sense of whether a particular version of the work is “right,” thus whether it seems likely to produce the (implicitly and often vaguely) desired effects. But the author need not be able to articulate those effects, and may even be mistaken if he or she undertakes to do so. Theme is that part of the desired effects that bears systematically on the audience’s thought about or response to the real world.

[5] One referee worried that my “approach” to motifs differs from that in folklore studies and that I should make this clear. In fact, I would not say that I am treating the same category of object as folklorists, but adopting a different theory. Rather, I am simply using the word “motif” in this particular manner. It is true that my usage is related to my theory of narrative universals (e.g., the motif of the quest is bound up with my account of how space is organized in stories). But the fact that I am using the same term as another writer does not mean that we are talking about the same object. Indeed, that is the point of defining how I use the term, “motif.”

[6] See, for example, chapter four of Booker.

[7] For the most part, the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s play and Lodge’s work are not consequential for the main purpose of the present essay. The study of universals is or not significant for our interpretation and analysis of individual works—either Shakespeare’s or Lodge’s—independent of whether a particular event is or is not shared by the two of those works. After all, a particular event in Shakespeare’s play is there and bears on interpreting the play, whether Shakespeare got the idea for it from Lodge, some biographical experiences, a free associative process, or something else. On the other hand, the relation between Shakespeare’s and Lodge’s works is important for other considerations, such as claims about Shakespeare’s style or about distinctive features of either work.

[8] The relevance of this motif is perhaps more evident in the source, where Ganymede expresses doubt about whether Rosader/Orlando is “deeply enamoured” of Rosalynde (Lodge), and urges him to turn his attention toward Alinda/Celia instead.

[9] The homoerotic quality of this relation has, of course, been developed by directors and analyzed by critics. For an account of a particularly influential staging of the play, see McEvoy (78-82). As to critics, Wells for example summarizes a common view, writing that “Shakespeare shows us Orlando becoming confused between desire for an imaginary Rosalind and for the boy Ganymede whom the real Rosalind impersonates. It is an ambivalence that would have been enhanced when the real Rosalind was played by a boy, and that would have been signaled and emphasized by the use of the name ‘Ganymede,’ a common term for a man’s young male sexual partner” (106-107). However, as far as I am aware, such analysis has not been developed in relation to prototypical story sequences and their associated expectations. Indeed, the theoretical context for such readings has been very different, as suggested by Segal’s brief summary statement that “As You Like It has become a centrepiece in feminist and/or queer discussions concerning early modern English gender and sexual prescriptions and the theatre’s role in contesting or reconsolidating a patriarchal and/or heteronormative social structure” (1). To some extent, the present reading contests such analyses, in that it does not construe the thematic or emotional points at issue in the same terms; however, I take it that the present analysis is more often complementary to such feminist and queer interpretations.

[10] In Lodge, there is a problem also, though it is slightly attenuated. Upon meeting her father, Rosalynde soon reveals herself. But it is not clear why she does not seek to meet him earlier, since she learns of his whereabouts from Rosader/Orlando, who explains that he is living in the company of “the unfortunate Gerismond [Senior]” (Lodge).

[11] Jay Farness pointed out to me that there is some ambiguity as to whether or not Oliver will follow through on this resolution in the changed circumstances of the ending. Jaques does suggest that Oliver will be returning to his lands (V.iv.189). But the counter-argument here is that Jaques has no reason to know about Oliver’s intentions. Moreover, Oliver had said that he was handing over the family estate to Orlando; this indicates that he was opting for the pastoral life even if he could return to the estate (V.ii.10-12), in which case the changed circumstances should not matter.

[12] With the exception of Henry V; see Hogan, How 56-58.

[13] Other critics have noted that there is something un-heroic and un-military about Shakespeare’s play. For example, Marcus interprets the play as involving a critique of colonialism, with Jaques as a sort of repudiated colonial figure. I obviously believe Marcus was onto something. However, by relating the story sequences of the play to cross-cultural prototypes, I have come to a much different interpretation of these un-heroic aspects of the play, and of Jaques’s retreat at the end. I take it that my interpretation is incompatible with Marcus’s view of Jaques, but it is at least potentially compatible with her more significant claims about anti-colonialism.

[14] This echoes Celia’s/Alinda’s even more suggestive assertion in the source that the two share “a secret love” and that they “have two bodies and one soul” (Lodge).

[15] This has been stressed by some recent critics, though (again) in a different theoretical context, which leads to different development of the shared idea (see, for example, Nardizzi).

[16] This is clearer in Lodge, through Phoebe’s stress on Ganymede’s “beauty.”

[17] Again, prior critics have recognized the homoerotic elements in the play; however, they have not analyzed these elements in relation to the genre of particular story sequences. In part for this reason, and in part because their theoretical presuppositions are very different from my own, their conclusions about these elements is often quite different from mine. For example, in a pathbreaking essay, DiGangi maintains that “the marriages succeed to the extent that premarital female homoerotic desire and post-marital male homoerotic desire have been successfully banished” (271). My view is rather that most of the characters in the play have some degree of bisexual desire, manifest in different romantic storylines, more or less following a romantic prototype; however, social constraints and the limitations imposed by life choices prevent the homoerotic storylines from reaching a resolution. This leads to unresolved heteroerotic storylines only in the case of Phebe, for in her case the heteroerotic storyline is not reciprocal; again, she has been married off to the undesired rival, not the beloved. Despite these and other differences, however, I believe that the present reading is more complementary to DiGangi’s than contradictory of it. Certainly, his highly informative treatment of the literary and social history that contextualize Shakespeare’s play adds greatly to our understanding of same-sex desire in the play, and it does so in a way that would not really be possible for an interpretation based solely on literary universals. On the other hand, the point of the present essay is not that interpretation based on literary universals is sufficient or complete, merely that it provides insights not readily available otherwise.

[18] Some critics have seen such swift alterations as part of the play’s “destabilizing” of hegemonic norms of gender and sexuality. Though I am very skeptical of such a conclusion on this particular point, it is clear that the play can serve to challenge some rigid assumptions about gender and sexuality (for a nuanced discussion of this topic, see chapter four of Neely).

[19] Of course, this analysis in terms of particular, same-sex, romantic storylines can be developed only if one first recognizes that “homoerotic desire is evinced in Shakespeare’s plays” (Traub 142). But this initial recognition seems to be more a matter of not suppressing relatively clear indications, rather than one of particular hermeneutic insight.

[20] I have treated these topics at length in The Mindand Howrespectively.

[21] An earlier version of this essay was part of the seminar on As You Like It seminar of the 2019 annual convention of the Shakespeare Association of America. I am grateful to the seminar participants for their comments, questions, and suggestions.