The need to belong can cause us to develop comforting relationships, powerful social groups, productive workplace teams, and inspiring religious and national bonds. But it can also be responsible for hurtful and damaging behaviour when those who are unable or unwilling to adapt are forced to conform or are completely excluded. These two aspects of belonging are evident in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Kevin Costner’s film Dances with Wolves and W. H. Auden’s satiric poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’.
Shakespeare makes us aware of the contrasting qualities of the natural harmonious forest (where everyone seems contented and loving) and the corrupt, pompous court, controlled by the usurper Duke Frederick with his use of symbolic juxtaposition and allusion to. His fury over his daughter’s close relationship with Rosalind (the daughter of the displaced Duke Senior) reinforces their close bond. Celia describes the two of them with a harmonious image from the natural world: “coupled and inseparable.. like Juno’s swans”.
Dramatically, Shakespeare emphasises their closeness by including their good-hearted banter, and having them adopt disguises before entering the forest. Their supportive relationship gives them strength, so that instead of feeling grief as a result of their expulsion from court, they focus on the positive. Celia’s comments help us to see court and forest as binary opposites when she declares “now go we in content to liberty and not to banishment. ” Shakespeare shows us how belonging in a close relationships can bring strength, but how this exclusivity may also be seen as a threat by others.
Another text which shows a surprising response to exile is Kevin Costner’s Academy award-winning film “Dances with Wolves”. In it the main character, John Dunbar voluntarily exiles himself, leaving both his own white American culture, and also the senseless Civil War that he had been fighting in, determined to see the west “before it has gone”. Even though he had been compelled by tradition, expectation and a sense of duty to serve loyally, he finds himself drawn to establish stronger links with the Dakota Sioux Indians, who were commonly viewed as “thieves and beggars”.
Like Celia in As You Like It, he does not view his exile as banishment, but as an opportunity to escape a restrictive and corrupt society in order to gain a sense of freedom and find spiritually renewal. In addition to Dunbar’s first person narration, the film uses a number of mis-en-scene elements, such as costuming, dialogue and symbolic motifs to show the way John Dunbar is gradually accepted into the Sioux culture. Early in his exile, we see him dressed in full uniform, and hear him using military jargon as he describes “burying excess ordinance” and trying to “mount an adequate defence”.
After his initial encounters with the Lakota Indians his new-found sense of belonging is evident as he begins to speak their language, and is greeted courteously. A change of identity is indicated by his altered appearance, as he becomes clean-shaven, begins wearing a red shirt and trades his army hat for a knife. The film shows a montage of incidents in which Dunbar adopts Sioux customs, such as eating raw buffalo heart. Dean Semler, the cinematograph-er, uses a red filter and passionate music to depict Dunbar’s sorrow when he is separated from his new friends.
Finally, Dunbar’s assimilation into the Lakota culture is evident when he becomes able to speak fluently in Lakota, and falls in love with Stands With a Fist. “I’d never known who John Dunbar was. But as I heard my Sioux name (“Dances with Wolves”) called out again and again, I knew who I really was”. Costner’s film shows us that humans have a need for relationships, but that we can belong within many different relationships, groups and cultures.
Just as Celia and Rosalind establish new relationships in exile and are not troubled by their exclusion from court, Dunbar is restored and fulfilled by his acceptance into a more meaningful and supportive Lakota culture. In contrast to Dunbar’s experiences of belonging, the character of Jaques in “As You Like It’ shows us that belonging can be impossible for people who are very independent and highly individual. Although he goes into exile willingly he does not accept Duke Senior’s analogy that adversity, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head”.
For Jaques, unlike Dunbar, living in exile does not bring rewards and happiness. He insists that he loves to be miserable and to ‘suck melancholy from a song as a weasel sucks eggs”. Shakespeare’s use of such images from nature is very effective in suggesting that, unlike most people, Jaques does not find the experience of being in exile with others either comfortable or necessary. This is evident from his use of highly emotive words to express his dislike of the world around him and his wish to “Cleanse the foul body of the infected world”.
Inevitably his critical, judgmental character makes him an outcast ridiculed for his tears for a wounded stag. Jaques’ depressive nature makes it difficult for him to view life positively as he reveals in his speech on the seven Ages of Man, which finishes with the tragically negative repetition of ‘sans’ (meaning ‘without’) to emphasise the desperate plight of the elderly “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. When the opportunity arises to return to court, with Duke Senior reinstated, Jaques rejects the idea as he prefers to remain in the ‘abandoned cave’ rather than returning with the others to the trivial pomp of the court.
His sense of moral superiority, his inflexibility and his preference for being sombre prevent him from valuing the notion of belonging. Whereas characters like Jaques and Dunbar have the option of choosing whether to belong or not, the ‘unknown citizen’ in W. H. Auden’s satiric poem has been forced to fit in to a tightly run capitalist bureaucracy. The poem takes the form of a eulogy written on the tombstone of this ‘perfect’ member of society, who is only known by his serial number, JS/07 M 378.
Auden adopts a formal, prosaic tone to praise the man’s achievements: “when there was peace, he was for peace When there was war, he went. ” The tone of congratulation is clear as the monument praises JS’s life and praises him for being quite ‘normal’. In appearing to praise this ‘saint’ Auden is actually mocking the way those around him in the 1930s blindly relinquished their individuality to the ‘Greater Community’ and he condemns the consumer society which exerts so much control over its citizens. Auden’s oem is laced with irony as the monument extols the virtues of JS who “had everything necessary to the Modern Man A phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire. ” In this capitalistic conservative society, people are valued for conformist behaviour. The ultimate irony is conveyed in the patronising final lines: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard. ” To belong in such a society, Auden suggests, requires people to abandon any search for freedom and happiness as these are, in the authorities’ view, insignificant and irrelevant.
Whereas Shakespeare provides Jaques with the opportunity of maintaining his individuality by not belonging, Auden’s speculative vision of the world allows very little opportunity for those who choose not to belong. In contrast to the magical transformative qualities of the forest of Arden in which marriages and reunions abound, Auden’s sterile society depicts the negative behaviour of mindless conformity where individual names are lost, and people are only valued if they can conform to the government’s expectations.
The need to belong can force us to adopt conformist behaviour, and can even force humans to live a life of deceit and pretence, as Jaques commented: ‘All the world’s a stage and we are merely players’. Belonging can, on the other hand, provide us with comfort, security, affection and self-worth. The need to belong is certainly both a gift and a curse.