William Shakespeare takes most of the plot of As You Like It from a popular novel of the period, Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590). What he adds is a dramatic characterization and wit. The play, a splendid comedy on love and life, is compounded of many elements, the whole set to some of Shakespeare’s loveliest poetry. As You Like It more than fulfills the promise of its title. Its characters are, for the most part, wonderfully enamored of love, one another, and themselves. The play has freshness and vitality and, although adapted from an older story full of artifice, suggests a world of spontaneity and life.
As You Like It is often called a pastoral comedy because it employs the conventions of pastoral literature. Beginning in the third century b.c.e. and popular in the late sixteenth century, pastoral literature enabled poets, novelists, and dramatists to contrast the everyday world’s fears, anxieties, disloyalties, uncertainties, and tensions with the imagined, mythical world where peace, longevity, contentment, and fulfillment reigned. Each age develops its own manner of describing lost happiness, far removed from the normal toil of human existence; the pastoral was the dominant vision in the late sixteenth century.
In the pastoral, the mythic, lost world is set in a simple, rural environment, which then becomes the image of all things desirable to honest people. As You Like It is typical of this convention and contains two contrasting worlds: the world of the court and the rural world—in this case the Forest of Arden. The court is inhabited by corrupt men such as Duke Frederick and Oliver. It is not significant that the gentle banished duke, Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia also once resided there. Rather, as the play develops, the court is the natural home of the wicked and ambitious. The audience is not shown the degeneration of Duke Frederick and Oliver; they are naturally wicked, and the court is their proper milieu.
The elder duke, Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia, on the other hand, are naturally good and the forest is their natural milieu. If the court represents elaborate artifice, ambition, avarice, cruelty, and deception, the forest represents openness, tolerance, simplicity, and freedom. Rather than developing complex characters such as Hamlet, who like most humans has good and bad characteristics, pastorals apportion good and bad traits to separate characters, an allocation that imposes a necessary artifice upon the play and colors all actions, from falling in love to hating to helping a brother. A play such as As You Like It does not present natural behavior. On the other hand, by his adroit use of the conventions and artifice, Shakespeare achieves a remarkable exploration of love and its attendant values.
In the opening scene, Orlando, who has been denied an education and kept like an animal by his brother, is seen to be naturally good and decent. Talking to his brother Oliver, Orlando says, “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: therefore allow me such exercises as may become a gentleman. . . .” Oliver, as naturally wicked as Orlando is naturally decent, says, “for my soul—yet I know not why—hates nothing more than he.” Logic has no necessary place in this world. Love, however, does.
Love is a natural part of the pastoral world. Practically at first glance, Rosalind and Orlando are in love. Shakespeare’s magic in As You Like It is to take the contrived love that is the expected part of the pastoral convention and make of it a deeply felt experience that the audience can understand. Shakespeare manages this not only through the extraordinary beauty of his language but also through the structure of his play.
As You Like It is full of parallel actions. Orlando and Rosalind meet and immediately fall in love. Silvius and Phebe are in love. Touchstone meets Audrey in the forest, and they fall in love. At...
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