One of Shakespeare's early plays, As You Like It (1598-1599), is a stock romantic comedy that was familiar to Elizabethan audiences as an exemplar of "Christian" comedy. Although the play does include two offstage spiritual conversions, the "Christian" designation does not refer to religion itself. Instead, it denotes the restoration and regeneration of society through the affirmation of certain Christian values such as brotherly love, marital union, tolerance for different viewpoints, and optimism about life at large.
The plot is very simple: the resolution of the dramatic problem in the warped attitudes of two evil brothers toward good brothers, and related obstacles to marriage for several couples in the play (most notably Rosalind and Orlando) are easily overcome, and a happy ending is never in doubt. On one level, the play was clearly intended by Shakespeare as a simple, diverting amusement; several scenes in As You Like It are essentially skits made up of songs and joking banter. But on a somewhat deeper level, the play provides opportunities for its main characters to discuss a host of subjects (love, aging, the natural world, and death) from their particular points of view. At its center, As You Like It presents us with the respective worldviews of Jaques, a chronically melancholy pessimist preoccupied with the negative aspects of life, and Rosalind, the play's Christian heroine, who recognizes life's difficulties but holds fast to a positive attitude that is kind, playful, and, above all, wise. In the end, the enjoyment that we receive from the play's comedy is reinforced and validated by a humanistic Christian philosophy gently woven into the text by a benevolent Shakespeare.
Summary of the Play
Orlando, youngest son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, complains to Adam, an elderly family servant, that his brother Oliver has unfairly withheld his late father's inheritance and prevented him from being educated as a gentleman. Oliver enters and a heated argument ensues. When Oliver learns that his brother plans to challenge Charles, Duke Frederick's hulking wrestler, he plots with Charles to break his brother's neck during the match.
The next day Duke Frederick, his daughter Celia, and his niece Rosalind witness the competition. Charles has subdued his first three opponents, but Orlando manages to defeat his adversary. Duke Frederick is infuriated when he learns the identity of Orlando's father, in life his bitter enemy, but Rosalind is captivated by Orlando and gives him a chain from her neck as a reward for his victory. Orlando is immediately taken by her charm, yet he finds himself speechless to thank her.
Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke Senior whom Frederick has usurped, tells Celia that she has fallen in love with Orlando. Duke Frederick has allowed Rosalind to remain at court because of her friendship with his daughter, but now he banishes her, despite Celia's pleas to allow her to remain. Rosalind and Celia make plans to join Rosalind's father in the Forest of Arden. They decide to travel in disguise, Rosalind as Ganymede, a young man, and Celia as Aliena, a peasant girl. Touchstone, Duke Frederick's court jester, agrees to accompany them.
Duke Frederick is enraged when he learns that his daughter and Rosalind have fled. He believes Orlando is with them and plans a search party, led by Oliver, to find them. Orlando, meanwhile, has learned from Adam that Oliver is plotting to have him killed, and they make plans to leave the court for the countryside.
Rosalind and Celia, now in disguise, arrive in the Forest of Arden along with Touchstone. There they overhear a young shepherd, Silvius, tell an old Shepherd, Corin, of his love for Phebe, a shepherdess who has spurned his affections. Orlando and Adam, in the meantime, have arrived in another part of the forest. Adam becomes weak with hunger, and Orlando sets out in search of food. He soon discovers the banished Duke Senior and his court and confronts them with his sword drawn. Duke Senior greets him with kindness, however, and invites him to share in his feast. Orlando agrees and leaves to bring Adam to safety.
Obsessed by his love for Rosalind, Orlando writes poems about her and hangs them on trees. Rosalind discovers the poems and is critical of their literary merit, but when she learns they are by Orlando, she has a change of heart. She meets Orlando, who does not recognize her in her male disguise, and offers to cure him of his lovesickness if he will court her as if she were Rosalind. Touchstone, in the meantime, has begun courting Audrey, a goatherd, and Silvius has continued to pursue the shepherdess he loves. Phebe, however, has fallen in love with Rosalind in her Ganymede disguise.
Orlando meets with Rosalind and tells her how he would charm and win his beloved. Oliver arrives in the forest soon afterward and tells Rosalind and Celia that Orlando, unaware of Oliver's identity, had rescued him from a lioness while he slept beneath a tree. He tells them he is Orlando's brother and that he and Orlando have reconciled. When he reveals that Orlando was wounded by the lioness, Rosalind faints.
Oliver confesses to Orlando that he has fallen in love with Celia. Orlando tells Rosalind that his brother's marriage is to take place the next day and wishes he could marry his own beloved. Rosalind, still in disguise, tells him that through "magic" she will make her appear. She also pledges to help Silvius and Phebe. Touchstone tells Audrey that they, too, will be married on the morrow.
The next day, Rosalind reveals her true identity; and she and Orlando, Oliver and Celia, and Silvius and Phebe are married before the banished Duke. Jaques de Boys, the middle son of Sir Rowland, brings the news that Duke Frederick has met an old religious hermit and has decided to forsake the world and restore his brother's dukedom. The newly united couples dance, and Rosalind speaks the epilogue.
Estimated Reading Time
This play should take the average student about five hours to read. It will be helpful to divide your reading time into five one hour sittings for each of the play's five acts. Shakespeare's language can be difficult for students who are unfamiliar with it, so each act should be read carefully on a scene by scene basis to ensure understanding.
As You Like It is typical of Shakespeare’s great comedies in many respects. The action of the play occurs in two locales, so that the values taken for granted at court may be presented for examination in the foreign setting of the forest. What might be described as the pattern of pastoral comedy is played out in this drama. The heroes and heroines of the play are forced to leave the city and retreat to the forest, where they learn the simple values of rustic life.
The dramatic action is precipitated by the usurpation of the country’s throne by Duke Frederick, who deposes his elder brother, Duke Senior. When the play opens, Duke Senior has retreated to the forest of Arden. His daughter Rosalind has been allowed to remain at court, but her popularity makes Frederick jealous, so she too is banished. Frederick’s daughter Celia, bound to Rosalind by strong ties of affection, accompanies her to Arden. They are pursued there by Orlando, also a victim of persecution; his older brother Oliver hates him simply because he also is popular. In the forest, Rosalind disguises herself as a man for safety’s sake. Her disguise allows her to test Orlando’s love and to offer sage advice to other pairs of lovers, notably the shepherd Silvius and his beloved Phebe; the fool, Touchstone, and the object of his desire, Audrey; and Celia and Oliver who, while visiting Arden in search of his brother, is converted miraculously from his hatred for Orlando when the latter saves him from an attack by a lioness.
In the forest of Arden, Rosalind and Orlando discover what mature love really is: not something simply earthy or entirely ethereal, but rather a total, healthy appreciation of the beloved that allows one to recognize faults but forgive them readily. The other three pairs of lovers serve as counterpoints to Rosalind and Orlando, representing the various forms of incomplete love. Throughout the play, the lovers are reminded of the tenuous nature of their feelings by the melancholic Jacques, who sees that all human efforts eventually end in death. The fool Touchstone, whose name signifies his role as a judge of others’ actions, also serves to call the other characters “back to earth” in a way, pointing out the irrationality of so much of their behavior when they are spurred on by love.
At the end of the play, however, all four pairs of lovers are married, signifying what for Shakespeare is the proper culmination of sensible courtship. The triumph of love at the end of the drama suggests Jacques’s cynical view of life and society can and must be overcome if people are to create a harmonious society. Even Duke Frederick is cured of his greed and reconciled with his brother when he pursues the fugitives into the forest. It is significant, too, that most of those who have come into this magic land of Arden agree to return to the city after the marriage ceremony. There, presumably, they will live more wisely and fully, having learned the power of love and its role in perpetuating what is best in society.