Into the Woods

(I posted this at the class blog page I am using for my students at Ohio Dominican University. We have just finished Act One of Into the Woods and will finish the film in class on Wednesday.)

The woods are just trees.
The trees are just wood.

Into the woods,
Without delay,
But careful not
To lose the way.
Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on the journey?
Into the woods
To get the thing
That makes it worth
The journeying.
into the woods-


As we know by now, nothing is as it seems in Stephen Sondheim’s play. The woods may initially provide the setting for our characters’ comings and goings, but very quickly, they take on the metaphorical density already implied by the musical prologue. The woods are unfamiliar, often dark, and sometimes dangerous, but they are also exciting, alluring, and the place through which our characters must travel in order to gain what they desire.

The trick, of course, is that our characters do not know what they desire, or at least, they do not know if what they desire is what they really want. The clearest case of this struggle with wanting, desiring, and wishing is Cinderella. When Cinderella goes to her mother’s tree, her mother sings, “Do you know what you wish? / Are you certain what you wish is what you want? / If you know what you want, then make a wish.” Cinderella wishes to go to the festival and to dance before the prince, but it becomes clear in Act II that she is not quite so certain what she wants from the dancing. The narrator draws attention to this uncertainty, calling her “indecisive Cinderella” when we see Cinderella’s third escape from the ball. Three times, then, Cinderella has gone to the festival, danced with the prince, and fled before the evening ended. On the third night, however, the prince prepares for her escape. Trapped in the pitch on the steps of the palace, Cinderella sings about her indecision and about the need to make a choice. Her song echoes that of her mother’s, “All right what do you want? / Have to make a decision.” But Cinderella’s decision is not to make a decision. Instead, she decides to leave the choice up to the prince. She sings:

I know what my decision is,
Which is not to decide.
I’ll just leave him a clue:
For example, a shoe.
And then see what he’ll do.
Now it’s he and not you
Who’ll be stuck with a shoe,
In a stew, in the goo.
And I’ve learned something, too,
Something I never knew,
On the steps of the palace.

The final lines of Cinderella’s song echo the final song we had heard from Little Red Riding Hood. The hungry girl in the red cape learned things from her dalliance in the woods – “many valuable things / That I hadn’t known before.” While Little Red Riding Hood’s song explicitly enumerates this “many valuable things,” however, Cinderella’s song is vague with respect to its lesson. What is it that Cinderella learns while she is stuck in the pitch on the steps of the palace?

One possibility may begin to come into focus when Cinderella talks about the festival with the Baker’s Wife. Their exchange  begins in much the same way that Little Red Riding Hood’s earlier song had ended. As Little Red Riding Hood explains her lesson in the conclusion to her song, she notes, “Nice is different than good.” It is a small line, but it comes at a break in her song and resonates as the rhyme word to the earlier “hood.” These two elements make the line stand out such that when Cinderella begins tries to explain to the Baker’s wife why she fled the prince, the audience ears should prick up at her opening line: “He’s a very nice prince.” (The title given to their duet is “A Very Nice Prince.”) If Cinderella is uncertain about what it is that she wants after three nights of dancing with the prince, the audience might be forgiven for thinking that it has as much to do with Cinderella as it does with the Prince, himself. Act III will drive much of this home, but in the middle of the play, in the middle of the woods much remains unclear to the audience and as well as to the play’s characters.

I have focused on some minor repetitions in order to point to some larger thematic issues. In particular, I am interested in how the woods come to function as a densely packed metaphor for desire (Review closely the lyrics to “It Takes Two” if you have any doubt about the metaphorical layerings. Yikes!) What other connections between characters have you notices? How else might we talk about the woods as more than “just trees” and more than setting? Finally, do you think Chris Pine had Into the Woods in mind when he delivered this line?

x-posted to


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