As You Like It Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Alliance of Seriousness and Levity in As You Like It

(From Shakespeare's Festive Comedy by Cesar Lombardi Barber. © 1980 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

In a true piece of Wit all things must be,
Yet all things there agree.
—Cowley, quoted by T. S. Eliot in "Andrew Marvell."

Then is there mirth in heaven,
When earthly things made even
Atone together.
As You Like It

SHAKESPEARE's next venture in comedy after The Merchant of Venice was probably in the Henry IV plays, which were probably written in 1597-98. Thus the Falstaff comedy comes right in the middle of the period, from about 1594 to 1600 or 1601, when Shakespeare produced festive comedy. Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night were written at the close of the period, Twelfth Night perhaps after Hamlet. The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Shakespeare's creative powers were less fully engaged, was produced sometime between 1598 and 1602, and it is not impossible that All's Well That Ends Well and even perhaps Measure for...

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Overviews

Sylvan Barnet
[Barnet presents a succinct overview of As You Like It in relation to Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's otherfestive comedies. In this excerpt, the critic explores the contrasting elements of the court and Arden forest, relates the various implications that the courtships of Orlando and Rosalind, Oliver and Celia, Silvius and Phebe, and Touchstone and Audrey have on the whole play, and surveys the theme of redemption through the characters' gradual self-knowledge, especially the improbable conversions of Oliver and Duke Frederick. This essay has been reprinted in Four Great Comedies (1982) by Sylvan Barnet.]

Near the turn of the [seventeenth] century—just after he had finished his second tetralogy of history plays and was nearing the great tragedies-Shakespeare wrote three comedies that for many readers and spectators are the essence of Shakespearean romantic comedy: Much Ado About Nothing (1598-1600). As You Like It (1599-1600). and Twelfth Night {1600-02). These plays, like The Merchant of Venice and to a lesser degree A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, are plays of courtship. The assumption behind them is that despite momentary absurdities and pains, love liberates, enriches, and fulfills the lovers, (p. 93)

Like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It presents two worlds. A Midsummer Night's Dream moves from Athens, with its harsh law and its harsh father, to the moonlit woods outside of Athens, where lovers are transformed into their better selves; The Merchant of Venice moves from the commercial world of Venice to the moonlit world of Portia's Belmont. In As You Like It the movement is from the court of the usurper. Duke Frederick, to the Forest of Arden, where lovers find what they seek and where the wicked are converted. Only Touchstone, the Clown, and Jaques, the melancholy man, remain unimproved by Arden, a sort of hint of man's recalcitrance or self-conceit.

The play is full of "holiday foolery," but the foolery is not devoid of meaning, for it embodies an enduring vision of love and of the triumph of the gifts of nature over those of fortune. Various kinds of lovers are juxtaposed: the romantic young lovers, Rosalind and Orlando and Celia and the reformed Oliver; the prettified artificial pastoral figures, hardhearted Phebe and her mooning Silvius, who thinks no man has ever loved as he loves: the low pastoral figures, old Corin, who has forgotten the ridiculous actions that love moved him to in his youth, and the young bumpkins William and Audrey; and finally the clown Touchstone, who remembers that when he was in love he kissed "the cow's dugs that her pretty chopt [chapped) hands had milked" [II. iv. 49-50]. Love is wonderfully displayed in the "strange capers" of these figures, and it is treasured even when it is mocked—as when Rosalind realistically warns Phebe against scorning Silvius' offers, saying. "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets" [III. v. 60] or when Rosalind, concealing her love for Orlando, offers to cure him of the madness of loving Rosalind, and he replies, "I would not be cured" [III. ii. 425]. Nor, of course, would Rosalind or the audience want him cured. The love poems that Orlando writes are wretched (Touchstone drily offers to produce such rhymes "eight years together, dinners and suppers and sleeping hours excepted" [III. ii. 96-7]), yet we would not have Orlando's rhymes improved; we value them for their delightful ineptitude. Rosalind herself is delightfully mocked, as in this bit of dialogue in which Celia (Aliena) prosaically reminds us that people in love can be very boring:

ROSALIND. I'll tell thee. Aliena I cannot be
out of the sight of Orlando. I'll go find a
shadow, and sigh till he come.

CELIA. And I'll sleep.
[IV. i. 215-18]

In short everything in the play, including the folly, is in Celia's words "O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful" [III. ii. 191-92]. Not least wonderful are the improbable conversions of Oliver and the wicked Duke Frederick; again we are grateful for these improbabilities because we would not deny to anyone the possibility of finding joy by shedding self-centeredness. These two men come late to self-knowledge and its concomitant generosity of spirit, but better late than never. The play ends with "a wedlock hymn" and other strong hints of a transfigured world—though Jaques' refusal to join in the dance suggests that the new joyous order is less than total. The return of the exiles to the court is not a bit of cynicism discrediting their experience in the forest; rather, it brings the vitality and harmony of the forest into the court, which earlier in the play is a place of tyranny, (pp. 95-7)

Sylvan Barnet, "The Comedies," in his A Short Guide to Shakespeare, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 73-112.

Alfred Harbage
[Harbage provides a scene-by-scene summary of As You Like It, often accompanied by critical commentary. Each of the play's characters—particularly Rosalind, Orlando, Touchstone, and Jaques—are discussed as they appear in the text.]

To Adam, an old family servant Orlando de Boys complains that his elder brother Oliver is disregarding the will of their deceased father and is rearing him as an oaf. He repeats this complaint to Oliver and is rewarded with a blow, whereupon he lays hold of his surly guardian and demands the legacy due him so that he may make his own way in the world. Oliver half promises to meet the terms but has no intention of doing so. When Charles, the champion wrestler, comes with a warning that Orlando is apt to be injured if he persists in his plan to enter the matches about to be held at court, Oliver traduces the youth and incites Charles to do his worst. Secretly he hopes that the bouts will prove fatal to Orlando, whose natural graces have been putting his own merits in the shade. In the course of his conversation with the wrestler, we have learned of the situation at court. The rightful Duke has been forced to retreat to the Forest of Arden where he lives a Robinhood sort of life with some faithful comrades, while power at home resides in the hand of Duke Frederick, his usurping younger brother. The banished Duke's daughter Rosalind remains at court as companion to Frederick's daughter Celia.

1-22 This is a somber opening for a play with so beckoning a title. A recital of grievances can never be truly engaging, but the note of aspiration in Orlando's voice offsets the petulant tone. He craves the education, the gentility, proper to his birth. As he invokes the spirit of his honored father, he seems less concerned with personal status than with the honor of his line. The speech, evidently continuing a conversation with Adam (as thou say'st), but with something of the air of an expository soliloquy [As I remember) comes out as a compromise between the two. It has the virtue of indicating at once the domestic situation and the nature of this menage, a considerable manor, with home-farm, horse-trainers, hinds; the names Oliver, Rowland, Jaques, Dennis make it sufficiently 'French.' 23-78 The ethical basis of Orlando's rejoinders save them from seeming impudent. He gains greatly in contrast with his snarling brother, indeed seems the more mature and restrained of the two. His physical prowess is impressive: obviously he is able to subdue Oliver without much personal agitation or expenditure of energy. This physical conflict of brothers, one of whom stands in place of a parent, is an ominous sign of decay, as witness Adam's distress (58-59) and Orlando's own apologetic words at its conclusion. It is evidently no casual thing, but the first overt act of rebellion against long oppression. When Oliver's spleen is vented on Adam—you old dog (75)—the latter's remark makes clear which of these brothers is truly the family renegade. There is an iron-age atmosphere now; things were different in the days of the good Sir Rowland. 79-111 Charles's old news (92) is so obviously old that there is no reason why it should be conveyed except to post the audience. Shakespeare's expository devices are usually less flatfooted than this question-and-answer sequence, yet it contains the most memorable speech in the scene—on the merry men in the Forest of Arden who fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world (110-11). It is relieving to hear, in this gloomy establishment, that something merry and golden survives at least somewhere. (Charles, incidentally, is more articulate than most wrestlers we have known.) 112-49 And he is not ill-disposed. Actually he has come on a mission of good-will, and Oliver bends him to his purpose by deceiving him, in fact by appealing to his moral sense. Oliver's brotherly characterization of Orlando functions like a photographic negative: we deduce that the youth is the opposite of what he is here said to be. 150-59 The 'positive' of the portrait follows, furnished by the same villainous speaker but when no one is present to hear. This is one of many instances in Shakespeare where virtue receives tribute from vice. Oliver's rancor reminds us of Iago's remark about Cassio: 'He hath a daily beauty in his life That makes me ugly' [Othello, V. i. 19-20].

I, ii
Troubled by the absence of her banished father, Rosalind is rallied by her cousin Celia. The two amuse themselves with remarks about the vagaries of Dame Fortune and Lady Nature in bestowing their gifts upon women. With the appearance of the court-jester Touchstone, the conversation erratically swerves to the subjects of wisdom, folly, and empty oaths. The courtier Le Beau brings news that Charles the wrestler has just maimed three challengers and is about to take on a fourth. If they remain in this place, they will see the 'sport.' Touchstone is dubious about the appeal of bone-crushing as an entertainment for ladies, but Rosalind and Celia decide to stay when they see the young and handsome challenger. They add their pleas to Duke Frederick's to dissuade Orlando from the unequal match, but he is resolved to risk everything in this chance to distinguish himself. The girls lend him ardent support, and he easily defeats the champion, but Duke Frederick sourly withholds his favor upon learning that the young victor is a son of a former enemy. Celia deplores her father's ungraciousness, and Rosalind, who remembers old Sir Rowland as a supporter of her father, rewards Orlando with a guerdon. She gives-him ample chance to improve the acquaintance, but he can only gaze at her in awe. Le Beau, who has departed with the Duke and his retinue, returns with a warning that Orlando stands in danger of the Duke's active displeasure, as does also the exile's daughter upon whom he has just been gazing. Orlando realizes that he is in worse plight than before, but consoles himself with thoughts of heavenly Rosalind! (270)

1-21 Our knowledge of the political situation is here reinforced, and we see the children of the enemy-brothers behaving as loving foster-sisters. Since Celia intends to right the wrong done by her usurping father, the future as well as the past is tinged with gold. 22-49 Rosalind's conversational gambit on falling in love (22) is dramatic 'foreshadowing.' Observe how swiftly the subject is switched off by Celia's moralistic reply. Shakespeare's heroines are not permitted to fall in love in the abstract; ripeness is not all in this area; there must be single and worthy objects. The logic-chopping about Nature and Fortune will do as a sample of small talk between lively and cultivated girls, but it seems to come from the top of their heads. 50-85 Touchstone will do better, too, when the occasion improves. The words dullness of the fool (51) promises no scintillating performance, indeed no more than the routine clowning we get. The 'demonstration' (about invalid oaths sworn on non-existent beards) is of the tried-and-true order of comic business such as would be part of any jester's repertory, but observe that aspersions are slyly cast upon the usurper, as his daughter notices (76-79): Touchstone's knight without honor is one whom Duke Frederick loves. 86-111 Le Beau is a tame courtier, in contrast with the merry men who have followed the elder Duke; he is a gossip and perhaps a fop, but his officiousness is good-natured, and there is nothing in his lines and actions to suggest the effeminacy that is often projected ad nauseam in modem productions; a slightly vapid timidity should do. The merriment of Rosalind and Celia is determinedly sophisticated. For the moment they appear as a pair of smart little minxes. 112-203 The impression does not endure. They grow tender when they hear of the injured wrestlers, more tender still when they see Orlando. Now they are sketched with swift contrasting strokes. They address the youth with a studied grown-up gravity, but when the match is on, show the delightfully uninhibited partisanship of children. Celia's impulses are especially fetching (193-94). Charles's boastfulness is just enough to set off the quiet modesty of Orlando, who is remarkably successful in concealing his uncouth rearing; in his plaintive and courtly address to the girls he proves quite the rhetorician. Again his physical prowess is impressive: he is Shakespeare's most muscular lover. 204-41 Duke Frederick has appeared anything but villainous thus far—trying to spare Orlando, limiting the bout to one fall, even making an inquiry (as the girls do not) about the condition of the loser. There is a hint of regret in his manner as he turns upon Orlando, so that the action seems prompted more by a bad conscience than by evil nature. Celia sides against her father in his churlishness (as does Jessica [in The Merchant of Venice]) without forfeiting our esteem. With the Duke's display of passion, the medium shifts to blank verse, and naturally remains so; it would not do for Orlando and Rosalind to fall in love in prose. As usual in these plays, it is the lady who makes the first practical overtures. Rosalind's four-line speech (233-36) illustrates the suppleness which the playwright required of his principal actors, as she lets a wish be father to a thought {He calls me back), speaks to herself in an aside (My pride fell with my fortunes), addresses a face-saving remark to Celia [I'll ask him what he would), and then almost proposes to Orlando. A fine bit of business is implied here, as she hovers invitingly before him while he stands too dumbfounded to speak. How he should have responded, of course he realizes later with chagrin. 242-70 Frederick's villainy is carefully kept within bounds. Le Beau speaks of his condition, his manners, his humorous state, rather than of inveterate malice. Perhaps he will not prove obdurate in evil, and this iron age will pass. Again the idea of a better world than this (265) is obtruded on our attention. To Frederick as to Oliver, it is someone's virtue (260-62) which seems to constitute a threat.

I. iii.
Rosalind replies to Celia's questioning by confessing that she has a new reason to be pensive: she has fallen in love with Orlando. Duke Frederick breaks in on their council with an order that Rosalind leave the court within ten days on pain of death. Both she and Celia staunchly protest but the Duke distrusts Rosalind as the daughter of his banished brother and the object of his subjects' love. Celia resolves to share Rosalind's exile; they will disguise themselves and seek out the elder Duke in the Forest of Arden. Rosalind will don male attire and swagger it out as 'Ganymede' while Celia will pose as 'Aliena.' Touchstone will be persuaded to go along.

1-35 The repartee of the girls has improved now that they have worthy matter to work on. Rosalind is no longer pensive about her father but about her child's father (11). How swiftly and implacably her thoughts have fixed upon ultimate objectives! 36-85 Again the shift is from prose to blank verse, with the shift from wit and whimsey to passion. Duke Frederick's anger seems a kind of seizure, like that of Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Rosalind and Celia are armed only with honesty, but their plain-speaking is so formidable that we almost pity the Duke. Twice he calls Celia a fool (76, 83) because, blinded by love, she fails to see that Rosalind's virtues make her a serious rival. The playwright loves these ironic collisions, where hatred and moral defect must, in self-defense, attack love and virtue as dangerous. The Duke is convinced that his appraisal of the situation is quite rational. 86-134 So resolute a moment before, Rosalind and Celia now sound defenseless and forlorn—but not for long. Cheerfulness seeps rapidly into their voices, so that by the end of the brief dialogue they sound less like refugees than like schoolgirls planning a Halloween junket. Especially captivating is Rosalind's eagerness to wear a gallant curtle-axe and to cloak her timidity in a swashing and martial outside (110-18). The two seem truly standing in half-water between childhood and womanhood. Of course Touchstone will go along; Shakespeare's fools all adhere to the right side.

II, i
In the Forest of Arden, Duke Senior extols the simple life and the sweet uses of adversity. His comrades share his content, if not his solicitude for the dappled deer whose dominion they have invaded. They tell of how one of their number, the melancholy Jaques, lies sighing by a brook, moralizing the fate of a wounded stag into an allegory of corrupt society. The Duke goes to seek Jaques out, since he loves to 'cope him' in his 'sullen fits.'

1 s.d. The direction like Foresters (later like Outlaws) indicates the Kendal green attire of the little band, in contrast with the courtly finery of Frederick and his retinue. We are in the Forest of Arden. After the somewhat asphyxiating atmosphere of Oliver's manor and Frederick's court, the air seems cleansed and cool. The effect is achieved by the relaxed words and conduct, as well as the Robinhood attire of the actors. 1-20 The rightful Duke is not even equipped with a proper name, but he has the composure and graciousness of the natural leader, like Theseus. Although his opening lines are filled with allusion to what is painted and envious in society, to what is churlish in nature, the tone is serene and the verse is limpid, in harmony with the theme of peace-of-mind. Amiens describes truly what the speaker does, translate, and the style in which he does it, so quiet and so sweet (20). The image of the ugly toad wearing in its head the precious jewel (13-14) lends just the touch of strangeness needed to set off the easy simplicity of the rest. His last two lines, with their artfully varied parallelism rising to a climax, good in everything (17), have a peculiar significance, as the first generalization we hear in the Forest of Arden spoken by its tutelary spirit. The Duke is not a Pangloss, since, in his pronouncement, that which is not good is absorbed and neutralized rather than ignored, and happiness is something earned. The Forest is not an earthly paradise, for here the fang of winter bites even though it bites to man's advantage; Arden seems to symbolize a process rather than a place. 21 -69 The Duke's next brief speech contains the text of the two long speeches following. The suggestion of pathos in the fate of the hunted deer, and the idea of their being the native burghers (23) of this sylvan city, are imaginatively expanded. The picture of the brook which brawls past the gnarled oak-roots, the stag which stretches with groans its leathern coat (31-38), is painted from nature sharply observed, but the painting is stylized-decorative and consciously artificial rather than realistic, as is the treatment of the Forest as a whole, in harmony with the symbolic use to which it is being put. The 'moralization' of the picture attributed to Jaques is remarkable for its ingenuity and neat devices of condensation, but its excesses create the impression that the orator was enjoying himself, and we feel a little skeptical about his weeping (66). Perhaps he can weep at will.

II, ii
The absence of Celia and Touchstone as well as Rosalind leads Duke Frederick to suspect connivance on the part of Orlando. He orders the youth brought to court for questioning. If he is missing, his brother Oliver must answer for him.

1-21 The birds have flown as we knew they would, and Frederick scents treason as he was bound to do. However one new detail is introduced, the eavesdropping of Hisperia, which directs the Duke's attention to the de Boys household. Presumably this will have importance in the economy of the plot; at least we are pleased to hear that Oliver will have to answer for something.

II, iii
Old Adam warns Orlando that the praise he has won for his wrestling victory has inflamed his brother's rancor, so that if he tarries at home he is apt to be burned in his lodgings. Adam puts at Orlando's disposal his life's-savings of five hundred crowns, and the two set forth to seek in the...

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Pastoral Conventions

Orlando and Adam by Robert Smirke (1798) Published by Gale Cengage

Brigid Brophy
[Brophy surveys the elements of pastoralism in As You Like It (pastoralism is a literary form that presents an ideal and virtuous vision of rustic life). In addition, the critic discusses the comedy in relation to its source, Thomas Lodge's novel Rosalynde. Brophy asserts that among the play's most moving aspects are Shakespeare's brilliant dramatization of the romantic love affair between Orlando and Rosalind and the bond of friendly love exhibited by Rosalind and Cetia.]

As You Like It is a play I have loved virtually all my life, but it was only recently that I realised that it is not what the Copyright Act would call 'an original work'....

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Dualities

Celia, Silvius, and Rosalind in National Theatre Production (1979) Published by Gale Cengage

George Ian Duthie
[In the excerpt below, Duthie discusses As You Like It in light of the opposition of order and disorder generally found in Shakespeare's comedies. Although life is comfortable at Duke Frederick's court and in Oliver's house, the critic declares, moral order has been overthrown by the corrupting influence of materialism and envy. By contrast, the country setting of Arden is depicted as physically hard, but it offers an atmosphere of moral purity. Duthie insists, however, that this is not just a simple contrast between good and evil life. Jaques's and Touchstone's critical observations throughout the play establish that Arden is not the ideal alternative to court life. According...

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Disguise and Role-Playing

Celia, Orlando, and Rosalind by Schwoerer Published by Gale Cengage

Nancy K. Hayles
[In the excerpt below, Hayles discusses Shakespeare's use of sexual disguise in As You Like It. The critic argues that this device is developed in distinct stages: first, Rosalind assumes layers of disguise for the journey to Arden, then the layers are slowly removed as she gradually renounces the role of Ganymede, and finally they are eliminated altogether when the heroine abandons her disguise to marry Orlando. The layering-on movement, Hayles contends, suggests selfish control and creates conflict in the play, while the removal of layers fosters reconciliation. Moreover, the critic remarks, this unlayering allows Rosalind to convey her true personality to Orlando, which...

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Time

Jay L. Halio
[Halio describes time's two functions in As You Like It: first, as a foil whose two extremes—timelessness and time-consciousness—favorably contrast virtuous rustic life in Arden with dissolute court life, and second, as timelessness alone, as a link between life in the present and life in an earlier, less corrupt, generally better time. The critic maintains that Shakespeare perceives the city and court to be ruthless and degenerate, threatening places from which Arden's timeless world is a refuge, a world where past and present merge and people flourish. Surveying the dramatic and thematic juxtapositions of these two worlds, Halio especially focuses on Rosalind's awareness of...

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Orlando

Charles, Duke, Frederick, Celia, Rosalind, Touchstone, Orlando, and others by Daniel Maclise Published by Gale Cengage

Thomas Kelly
[Kelly provides an extensive analysis of Orlando's character, asserting that he is distinct from Shakespeare's other romantic heroes who, as a rule, tend to be portrayed as inept and slightly ridiculous. The critic regards Orlando as generally self-possessed and capable of controlling events in As You Like It; according to Kelly, he also demonstrates a wisdom that sets him apart as a "romantic hero of a new stamp." For further commentary on Orlando's character, see the excerpts by Alfred Harbage, Brigid Brophy, Kenneth Muir, John A. Hart, and Nancy K Hayles.]

As a rule … we are inclined to regard Shakespeare's romantic heroes as peculiarly inept and slightly...

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Rosalind

Lorentz Eckhoff
[In the following excerpt, Eckhoff examines Rosalind's character, particularly the "sparkling gaiety and wit" she maintains even in the face of adversity. It is the heroine's "proud and benevolent nature, "according to the critic, that makes her not only a stable person, but a source of encouragement for other characters in the play. For further commentary on Rosalind's character, see the excerpts by Alfred Harbage, Brigid Brophy, Kenneth Muir, John A. Hart, Nancy K. Hayles, Thomas F. Van Laan, Thomas Kelly, and Clara Claiborne Park.]

Let us consider Rosalind in As You Like It. It goes without saying that she is closely related to many others of...

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Touchstone

Audrey and Touchstone in 1955 production of the play Published by Gale Cengage

John Palmer
[In the following excerpt, Palmer discusses Touchstone's character in As You Like It. According to the critic, Touchstone is a wise fool who acts as a kind of guide or point of reference throughout the play, putting everyone, including himself, to the comic test. This function is apparent in Touchstone's parodic exchanges with Corin, Silvius, Audrey, and—especially—Jaques, with whom the fool acts as a foil throughout the play. For further commentary on Touchstone's character, see the excerpts by Alfred Harbage, Kenneth Muir, John A. Hart, and Enid Welsford.]

In most of Shakespeare's comedies there is a character who stands, as it were, at the centre. To get a...

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Jaques

Oscar James Campbell
[Campbell interprets Jaques from a historical perspective, noting events in Shakespeare's own lifetime that strongly influenced his dramatization of the character. According to the critic, Jaques reflects the stock Elizabethan literary figure of the malcontent traveler who, upon returning home from his sojourn to other countries, is corrupt, bitter, and bored with life. Jaques's melancholy, like that of the character-type in Elizabethan literature, is thus both real and exaggerated, Campbell states. The critic further maintains, however, that Jaques is also "something much more significant," namely Shakespeare's "amusing representative of the English satirists whose works streamed...

(The entire section is 4183 words.)