Study Guide

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare

As You Like It Essay - As You Like It (Vol. 80)

As You Like It (Vol. 80)

Introduction

As You Like It

For further information on the critical and stage history of As You Like It, see SC, Volumes 5, 23, 34, 46, 57, and 69.

As You Like It, a Shakespearean comedy largely adapted from Thomas Lodge's pastoral romance Rosalynde (1590), is generally thought to have been written and first performed sometime between 1598 and 1600. Essentially a light-hearted piece with elements of satire and social criticism derived from its juxtaposition of urban and rural settings, As You Like It remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. Its plot centers on Orlando de Boys and his beloved Rosalind, both of whom are separately banished from the corrupt court of Duke Frederick to the idyllic Forest of Arden. In the forest, lovesick Orlando encounters Rosalind while she is disguised as the male page Ganymede. Offering the credulous young nobleman advice on ways to woo his seemingly unattainable love, Rosalind commands the remainder of the play with her charm and wit. As the story progresses, the audience is introduced to the requisite misunderstandings, farcical happenings, and clownish figures, including the melancholy Jaques, foolish Touchstone, and a handful of rustics. The play ends in multiple marriages cleverly orchestrated by Rosalind and the peaceful restoration of the usurped Duke Senior to power.

Critics have traditionally focused on the drama's central figures: Rosalind, who is viewed as one of Shakespeare's most convincing and charismatic female roles, and Orlando. Edward I. Berry (1980) compares the drama's principal character with her source, the title figure in Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde. Contrasting Lodge's completely conventional heroine with Shakespeare's version, Berry observes that Shakespeare crafted his Rosalind into the true protagonist of the work and instilled her with psychological depth, linguistic brilliance, and compelling virtue. Thomas Kelly (1973) concentrates on Orlando, the male lead in As You Like It. After surveying some of the common characteristics of Shakespeare's romantic heroes, noting such qualities as adolescent melancholy and limited self-awareness, Kelly explores the ways in which the developing Orlando supersedes these tropes. Responding to the consensus opinion that Orlando is somewhat of a disappointing match for the inspired Rosalind, Kelly maintains that the young nobleman is possessed of a wit and verve that suitably and fully equal those of his beloved. The play's minor characters have also attracted the attention of contemporary scholars. Agnes Latham (see Further Reading) surveys the drama's comic characters: Jaques, Touchstone, and the pastoral clowns. In Latham's view, Jaques caricatures the sixteenth-century view of human temperaments based on bodily humors, in this case depicting the melancholic man—a hypersensitive but nevertheless insightful individual whom Shakespeare may have drawn from life. Latham argues that Shakespeare developed Touchstone to a lesser degree than Jaques, rendering him as a type—the stage fool—rather than as a fully drawn character. For Latham, Touchstone was likely a dramatic convenience well suited to the skilled comic actors of the late Elizabethan period, and suffers in comparison with Shakespeare's other fools in such works as King Lear and Twelfth Night. Lastly, Latham views the country clowns William, Audrey, and Corin as essentially prop characters who speak rough dialects and perform stereotypical actions that Shakespeare's audiences would have immediately recognized as comical.

In modern performance, As You Like It has enjoyed a reputation as one of Shakespeare's most frequently staged dramas. Featuring a charming central character, a delightful setting, and numerous opportunities to enchant audiences, its theatrical history has been one of considerable success, a trend that has largely continued into the twenty-first century. Reviewing director Lucy Bailey's 1999 production of As You Like It at the Globe Theatre, Lois Potter highlights Anastasia Hille's unconventional Rosalind, admiring her ability to make the most out of the sexual ambiguity of this feminine role that largely takes to the stage in male disguise. Overall, Potter finds the production satisfying, but is disappointed that some of the interpretive risks taken by Hille were not reflected in adjoining performances or in Bailey's relatively traditional direction. Reviewer Ben Brantley attended a 1999 Williamstown Theater Festival staging of As You Like It that featured noted screen star Gwyneth Paltrow as Rosalind. After complimenting an excellent performance by Paltrow, Brantley laments that the remainder of director Barry Edelstein's staging demonstrated more artificiality than imagination. Considering the same production, Charles Isherwood is less impressed with Paltrow's insouciant Rosalind, and suggests that her performance failed to live up to the actress's potential. Isherwood likewise deems Edelstein's interpretation of As You Like It adequate in its comic payoff, but only superficial in plumbing the emotional depths of the drama. D. J. R. Bruckner reviews another 1999 staging of the play, directed by Ray Virta with the Kings County Shakespeare Company, which he finds both visually and emotionally agreeable. According to the critic, strong performances from the leads and ensemble cast, including Jon Fordham's inspired, philosophical Jaques, made for a highly gratifying production. Bruckner attended director Erica Schmidt's 2000 production of As You Like It the following year, and views the comedic and acrobatic staging—with only a six-member cast and numerous textual abridgments—as “a good-humored tribute to Shakespeare.” Joel Henning attended a winning As You Like It directed by David H. Bell in late 2001. A visual delight in Henning's estimation, the staging evoked an imperial Russian court and featured a consistent series of fine individual performances and thoughtful directorial additions.

Critics acknowledge that on its surface As You Like It is thematically concerned with a comic representation of romantic love and with a depiction of corrupted court society set in opposition to pastoral virtue and tranquility. But, as Thomas McFarland (1972) suggests, such easy generic and thematic estimations of the play fail to fully address some of its underlying tensions. For McFarland, the work oscillates between comedy and tragedy. Ostensibly comic, it nevertheless features darker tones, allowing its celebration of pastoral purity, the potential of social renewal, and the wonders of passionate love to be undercut by ironic voices—most notably that of the cynical, melancholic Jaques. Taking an anthropological approach to As You Like It, Susan Baker (1989) offers an interpretation of the work as ritual, suggesting the play's shape is analogous to a rite of passage. In Baker's assessment, the play depicts a process of psychological and symbolic transformation that occurs as its characters move through the liminal space of Arden. Themes of identity and self-knowledge predominate in John R. Ford's 1998 study of As You Like It. According to Ford, Arden is a place of creation and destruction, disguise and dissolution. Ford contends that by entering the forest as exiles, the drama's major characters embark on a period of estrangement that conditions their eventual metamorphosis and return. A. Stuart Daley (1994) emphasizes political issues in the play, analyzing its dramatization of Tudor commonwealth ideology, in which the virtues of reason and temperance combine to regenerate a society corrupted by fraternal strife. Martha Ronk (2001) considers the relationship between the verbal and visual in As You Like It, evaluating the thematic and structural significance of visual metaphor, emblem, and theatricality in the drama. Ronk asserts that the play, which calls attention to its own theatricality, artificiality, and allegorical nature, “is more than an isolated play about lovers in the forest; it embodies a theory of theatrical production.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: McFarland, Thomas. “For Other Than for Dancing Measures: The Complications of As You Like It.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's As You Like It, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 23-45. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, McFarland examines the tragic, cynical, and unpastoral elements in the otherwise comic As You Like It.]

To approach As You Like It immediately after Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream is to encounter a darkening of action and tone. The pastoral realm into which it enters has, in marked contrast to the moonlit forest outside Athens, genuine problems to ameliorate. The moment of pure pastoral celebration in Shakespeare's art is now forever gone. The motif of criminal action, which had been tentatively put forward in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, only to be banished from the golden confines of Navarre's park and Oberon's forest, now reasserts itself. As You Like It is a play that labors to keep its comic balance, and for this reason the comic reclamation in the Forest of Arden involves complicated character interactions and severe criticisms of behavior. The play exhibits more humor, but much less happiness, than its two great pastoral predecessors.

The situation at the start of As You Like It could, indeed, as well serve for a tragedy as for a comedy. The index to the state of moral well-being in Shakespeare's comedies is usually provided by the character and circumstances of the ruler. The mysterious illness of the King in All's Well casts that whole play into deviation from an ideal state; the lovesickness of Orsino at the beginning of Twelfth Night forebodes maladjustments throughout the Illyrian society. Conversely, the youth and magnanimity of Navarre, the puissance and benignity of Theseus, authenticate a pervasive well-being in their two realms. It is significant, therefore, that the world of As You Like It is presented at the outset as a severely disfigured, for its ruler has been banished and his power usurped.

Grave though usurpation is, it is rendered still more grave by the fact that the usurper, as in The Tempest, is the brother of the true ruler, and the action of usurpation therefore reverberates with the archetypal crime of Cain. When Claudius faces his own offense, he says; “O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, / A brother's murder” (Hamlet, 3.3.36-38). Neither in As You Like It nor in The Tempest does the crime of brother against brother proceed to murder; for such an outcome would put the actions of the two plays irrevocably beyond the power of comedy to heal. But usurpation and banishment represent the most serious kind of transgression. We recall the word that, in opening the somber action of The White Devil, casts all within that play into a nightmare of alienation: “Banished?” Or we recall Romeo's agony:

They are free men, but I am banished.
Hadst thou no poison mix'd, no sharp-ground knife,
No sudden mean of death, though ne'er so mean,
But “banished” to kill me?—“banished”?
O friar, the damned use that word in hell;
Howling attends it.

(Romeo and Juliet, 3.3.42-48)

When, therefore, we learn that “the old Duke is banished by his younger brother the new Duke” (1.1.91-92), a mood of intense alienation settles over As You Like It. The mood is deepened by its foreshadowing in the relationship of Orlando and Oliver. “He lets me feed with his hinds, bars me the place of a brother,” says Orlando (1.1.17-18). Indeed, it is bitter irony that in this play the comic motif of repetition doubles the Cain-and-Abel motif by extending it from Oliver and Orlando to the young Duke and the old Duke. In the supporting trope of Orlando and Oliver, moreover, the trouble between the brothers specifically involves, as does that of Cain and Abel, the relationship between father and son:

My father charg'd you in his will to give me good education: you have train'd me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities. The spirit of my father grows strong in me, and I will no longer endure it.

(1.1.60-65)

Their father being dead, the old servant Adam fills his place in the psychodramatic struggle, his name reinforcing the motif of “primal eldest curse.” It can hardly be without significance that Shakespeare here slightly alters his source, for in Lodge's Rosalynde the retainer is called “Adam Spencer, the olde servaunt of Sir John of Bordeaux,” and is almost always referred to by both given and surname. In changing “Adam Spencer” to simple “Adam” in the struggle of brother against brother, As You Like It conveys the sense of old woe ever renewed.

Beset from its beginning by such clouds of gloom and disharmony, the play must stake its claim to comic redemption very early. In the same conversation in which Oliver, fresh from his mistreatment of his brother and old Adam, learns from the wrestler Charles the “old news” of the old Duke's banishment (1.1.90), he, and the cosmos of the play, also learn of the existence of the land of pastoral wonder:

OLIVER:
Where will the old Duke live?
CHARLES:
They say he is already in the Forest of Arden … many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.

(1.1.104-9)

It is interesting that the play here invokes, instead of the Theocritan iconology of formal pastoral, the separate but intertwined tradition of the Golden Age; for the latter, by being more explicitly paradisal, more explicitly repels tragic possibility. Rapin urges in 1659, in his “Dissertatio de carmine pastorali,” that pastoral poetry “is a product of the Golden Age.” To Rapin, pastoral itself is “a perfect image of the state of Innocence, of that golden Age, that blessed time, when Sincerity and Innocence, Peace, Ease, and Plenty inhabited the Plains.” So, to bring in the golden world so early, and entrust the message to such an unexpected source as Charles, is to go—not historically but semiotically—to the very fountainhead of the pastoral myth and thereby to concede the dire need for alleviation of the alienated mood.

Secure, then, in the promise of Arden's redemption, the play indulges in a still closer approach to tragic irrevocability. “I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger,” says Oliver to Charles, perverting the latter's honorable intentions in the proposed wrestling match against Orlando (1.1.132). Oliver adorns the malignant proposal by language of studied villainy:

And thou wert best to 't; for if thou dost him any slight disgrace, or if he do not mightily grace himself on thee, he will practise against thee by poison, entrap thee by some treacherous device, and never leave thee till he hath ta'en thy life by some indirect means or other; for, I assure thee, and almost with tears I speak it, there is not one so young and so villainous this day living. I speak but brotherly of him; but should I anatomize him to thee as he is, I must blush and weep, and thou must look pale and wonder.

(1.1.132-40)

Such brotherly betrayal prefigures the relationship of Edmund and Edgar. And when Charles departs, Oliver's musing to himself suggests also the selfless dedication of Iago's hatred:

I hope I shall see an end of him; for my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he.

(1.1.144-46)

This play, then, involves the first massive assault of the forces of bitterness and alienation upon the pastoral vision of Shakespeare, and its action glances off the dark borders of tragedy. Indeed, the motif of repeated abandonment of the court, first by Orlando and Adam, then by Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone, is prophetic of the departings and rejections of Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar at the beginning of King Lear's quest for essential being.

It is, accordingly, both fitting and necessary that the second act of As You Like It opens with an equally massive attempt to restore comic benignity and to check the tragic tendency. For the rightful ruler, Duke Senior, without preliminary of action, invokes the pastoral vision and the idea of a new society in extraordinarily specific terms. In fact, the social assurance of comedy, the environmental assurance of pastoral, and the religious implication of both, are all established by the Duke's speech:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say,
“This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.”
Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stone, and good in everything.

(2.1.1-17)

But “good,” despite the Duke's statement, is not “in everything” as it is in Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream; and the early promise of a “golden world” is not entirely fulfilled. The Forest of Arden, though a paradise, is not an unequivocal paradise; the “churlish chiding of the winter's wind,” even if not painfully felt, is present. “Arden,” as Helen Gardner notes in her well-known essay on As You Like It, “is not a place where the laws of nature are abrogated and roses are without their thorns.” The gall of the court, before it is flushed away by the Arethusan waters, mingles and dissolves itself into the pastoral limpidity. Hence the existence of natural danger in the forest makes it a place halfway between reality and paradise. As Oliver says of his encounter with Orlando there:

A wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair,
Lay sleeping on his back. About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreath'd itself,
Who with her head nimble in threats approach'd
The opening of his mouth; but suddenly,
Seeing Orlando, it unlink'd itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush.

(4.3.105-12)

The presence of the serpent, potentially dangerous, indicates a certain admixture of harsh reality in this version of a golden world, for of that world Virgil stipulates that “occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet”—both the serpent and the false poison plant shall die (Eclogues, 4.24-25). And in the Forest of Arden, an unpastoral danger is brought still closer by the lioness that almost kills Oliver:

A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay crouching, head on ground, with catlike watch,
When that the sleeping man should stir.
.....This seen, Orlando did approach the man,
And found it was his brother, his elder brother.
.....kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him.
.....In brief, he led me to the gentle Duke,
Who gave me fresh array and entertainment,
Committing me unto my brother's love;
Who led me instantly into his cave,
There stripp'd himself, and here upon his arm
The lioness had torn some flesh away,
Which all this while had bled.

(4.3.113-47)

The function of the serpent and the lioness are clearly revealed in these lines: as figures of venom and fury, they symbolically accept the burden of the venom and fury generated by the Cain and Abel contest of Oliver and Orlando. The two brothers, their rage displaced into the iconic beasts, are ready for reconciliation:

CELIA:
Are you his brother?
ROSALIND:
                                                                                          Was't you he rescu'd?
CELIA:
Was't you that did so oft contrive to kill him?
OLIVER:
'Twas I; but 'tis not I. I do not shame
To tell you what I was, since my conversion
So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am. …
When from the first to last, betwixt us two,
Tears our recountments had most kindly bath'd,
As how I came into that desert place—
In brief, he led me to the gentle Duke.

(4.3.132-41)

Thus the Cain-against-Abel tragic disharmony gives way to the legendary Roland-for-an-Oliver togetherness implied by the brothers' names.

The seriousness of the deviances to be reclaimed is to be found not only in a slight deterioration in the pastoral environment, but also in the introduction of Jaques, a pastorally untypical character. Jaques is a humor figure representing the type of the malcontent; he is a member of the tribe not only of Marston's Malevole but, in a sense, of Hamlet himself. Like Hamlet, he calls into question all aspects of life that fall below an exalted ideal of human conduct. It is significant that the first mention of his name refers to his awareness of this less-than-ideal pastoral environment. The old Duke says:

Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should, in their own confines, with forked heads
Have their round haunches gor'd.
FIRST Lord:
                                                                                                    Indeed, my lord,
The melancholy Jaques grieves at that;
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish'd you.

(2.1.21-28)

It is emphasized that the Forest of Arden is a version of pastoral like Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest (Charles had said at the outset that “in the forest of Arden” the Duke and his retainers “live like the old Robin Hood of England” [1.1.105-9]). The specification not only prefigures Jonson's pastoral variant, whose “scene is Sherwood” (The Sad Shepherd, Prologue), but it also indicates a world somewhat less perfect than Ovid's golden age. Indeed, as Elizabeth Armstrong points out, “Peace between man and the animal creation” was “a traditional feature of the Age of Gold”; and the “existence of this tradition” may have deterred Ronsard “from allowing his Age of Gold people to slay animals for food or sport” (Ronsard and the Age of Gold). The continuation of the First Lord's report suggests, in direct ratio to its length, the deficiencies of this only partly golden world:

To-day my Lord of Amiens and myself
Did steal behind him as he lay along
Under an oak whose antique root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood!
To the which place a poor sequest'red stag,
That from the hunter's aim had ta'en a hurt,
Did come to languish; and indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heav'd forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting; and the big round tears
Cours'd one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase; and thus the hairy fool.

.....

Stood on th' extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears.
DUKE Senior:
                                                                                                    But what said Jaques?
Did he not moralize this spectacle?
FIRST Lord:
O, yes, into a thousand similes.

.....

                                                                                swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what's worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign'd and native dwelling-place.
DUKE Senior:
And did you leave him in this contemplation?
SECOND Lord:
We did, my lord, weeping and commenting
Upon the sobbing deer.

(2.1.29-66)

The import of the passage can hardly be mistaken: the deer, with its human coordinates of feeling (“The wretched animal … the big round tears … his innocent nose …”), brings the reality of human pain into the forest; and Jaques's moral criticism, by linking the killing of the deer with usurpation and tyranny, indicates that the forest is not completely divorced from the reality of the urban spectacle. Jaques, indeed, links city, court, and pastoral forest together by his criticism.

Although a pastorally atypical figure in the play, Jaques is nevertheless in a sense its central figure, or at least the figure who does most to define the idiosyncratic strain of malaise. But the type of the malcontent can imply not only Hamlet's idealism but Bosola's cynicism, and Jaques's presence threatens as well as criticizes the pastoral environment. It is therefore necessary to provide him a counterweight, so that the unchecked burden of malcontentment may not become so heavy as to break up entirely the fragilities of the pastoral vision. That counterweight the play summons up in the character of Touchstone, the fool. Replacing the “hairy fool / Much marked of the melancholy Jaques” (that is, the deer whose travail brings out Jaques's role as in part the emissary of a realm of more beatific feeling), Touchstone reminds us, perhaps subliminally, of Jaques's compassion and at the same time dissolves the accompanying melancholy into a language of ridicule and jest more fitting to comic aims. The function of the fool is to redeem Jaques from the melancholy that is so dangerous to the comic-pastoral aspiration:

DUKE Senior:
What, you look merrily!
JAQUES:
A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' th' forest,
A...

(The entire section is 7736 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Thomas Kelly (essay date winter 1973)

SOURCE: Kelly, Thomas. “Shakespeare's Romantic Heroes: Orlando Reconsidered.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 1973): 12-24.

[In the following essay, Kelly argues that unlike most of Shakespeare's romantic heroes, As You Like It's Orlando possesses considerable self-control and self-awareness.]

The romantic heroes of Shakespeare's comedies have always enjoyed a questionable importance within their own plays. The heroines easily eclipse them and even the fools—Dogberry, Feste, and Bottom—have commonly commanded more attention than the generally innocuous young men. A further irony is that when we do notice one of Shakespeare's romantic heroes it is...

(The entire section is 6208 words.)

Edward I. Berry (essay date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Berry, Edward I. “Rosalynde and Rosalind.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 1 (spring 1980): 42-52.

[In the following essay, Berry compares Shakespeare's Rosalind in As You Like It with the title figure of Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, observing that Shakespeare instilled his Rosalind with psychological depth, linguistic brilliance, and compelling virtue.]

Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, the narrative source of As You Like It, provides a particularly instructive guide to Shakespeare's play. As a coherent, engaging, yet thoroughly conventional work, Rosalynde enables us to define with unusual precision some of the differences between...

(The entire section is 6067 words.)