William Shakespeare’s As You Like It was written in 1599. At the time, the “pastoral romance,” a romance that takes place in a rural setting, was quite popular. Ever practical and commercial, Shakespeare wrote As You Like It because he knew it would appeal to his Elizabethan audiences; his intention was to entertain and amuse. To that end, he employed the convention of “country vs. court,” the notion that life in a rural setting is ideal, while life in the court is superficial and filled with the dangers of political intrigue. Moreover, the trendy psychology of the time is evidenced in the play with its references to “humours” (bodily fluids associated with personality traits) and the pose of being melancholic, as seen through the character of Jaques. As You Like It is indeed a pastoral romance, but in Shakespeare’s hands, it becomes a comedy satirizing the popular genre itself, one in which characters lament the suffering caused by love. Shakespeare’s characters suffer in the throes of love, but their laments are ridiculous and unbelievable.
In addition to entertaining, As You Like It explores the theme of challenging hierarchies, primarily through the character of Duke Frederick. Elizabethans believed that monarchs ruled by divine right, that they were chosen by God to sit upon the throne and to head a fixed social order in which all were relegated to permanent, specific ranks in society, as well as in the family. Therefore, in addition to violating notions of family hierarchy, Duke Frederick’s having usurped his brother, Duke Senior, would have been considered unholy, likely the reason for Duke Frederick’s conversion at the end of the play. The plot of As You Like It is simple. It develops from the experiences of a few couples as they encounter obstacles to love and marriage in the wake of being banished from the court. Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, plays a vital role in the plot, as she contributes to all the conflicts, even as she helps to finally resolve them. As in all pastoral plays, the “villains” are disposed of (here through the conversion of their characters), and all ends happily.
Shakespeare was notorious for borrowing stories from other writers. In the case of As You Like It, Thomas Lodge’s novel, Rosalynde (1590), seems to have supplied many of the storylines: an exiled ruler, hostile brothers, a young maiden in disguise, an escape to the country, a love-sick shepherd, and a young woman who woos her lover in disguise. Note that at the time women were not allowed to appear on stage; young boys would play girls’ parts. Thus Shakespeare’s Rosalind would have been a boy dressed up as a girl pretending to be a boy.
At the time Shakespeare wrote As You Like It, early modern English was less than 100 years old. Most documents were still written in Latin, and there were no established grammar texts, no published dictionaries, and no formal study of English. Shakespeare’s intention was that his plays be performed, not published, but his writing contributed considerably to the language. Although much of his vocabulary is now archaic or obsolete, much of it is not, and many of his expressions have made their way into modern vernacular; for instance, “eaten out of house and home,” “neither rhyme nor reason,” “a wild goose chase,” “dead as a doornail,” and “brave new world.” Encountering these familiar expressions in Shakespeare’s works often surprises and delights modern readers.
Although As You Like It is written in the language of the sixteenth century, filled with references contemporary at the time but now obscure, it is not an exercise for the intellect; its intention is much less grand but nonetheless worthy. A fanciful, romantic comedy, As You Like It has remained popular for more than four hundred years because it continues to entertain and amuse audiences, just as the author intended. There is poetry in the play, of course, passages remembered for their music and beauty of expression; in others, Shakespeare’s sharp wit and satirical voice are heard clearly. For those willing to practice “the suspension of disbelief” as they follow the misadventures of the often silly, love-struck characters, As You Like It offers much to enjoy and to consider, as human nature has not changed at all.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define and describe the central conflict.
2. Identify the primary themes and motifs.
3. Identify and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of court and country.
4. Identify the various definitions of love as presented in the text and explain the significance of each.
5. Describe the role of the “fool” and discuss what Shakespeare may have intended to say through the characters that play it.
6. Discuss the role of gender and cross-dressing and the ideas developed through them.
7. Explain how Shakespeare addresses the possibility of transformation/conversion.
8. Identify and understand the various allusions to the ancient world.
9. Recognize literary devices, such as paradox, dramatic irony, metaphor, and satire.
10. Discuss the differences between prose and verse and their utilization as a means to reinforce character, meaning, or tone.
11. Determine what makes As You Like It such a timeless and popular work.