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
—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 Measure were produced around the turn of the century, despite that difference in tone that has led to their being grouped with Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. I shall deal only with As You Like It and Twelfth Night; they are the two last festive plays, masterpieces that include and extend almost all the resources of the form whose development we have been following. What I would have to say about Much Ado About Nothing can largely be inferred from the discussion of the other festive plays. To consider the various other sorts of comedy which Shakespeare produced around the inception of the period when his main concern became tragedy would require another, different frame of reference.
As You Like It is very similar in the way it moves to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost, despite the fact that its plot is taken over almost entirely from Lodge's Rosalynde. As I have suggested in the introductory chapter, the reality we feel about the experience of love in the play, reality which is not in the pleasant little prose romance, comes from presenting what was sentimental extremity as impulsive extravagance and so leaving judgment free to mock what the heart embraces. The Forest of Arden, like the Wood outside Athens, is a region defined by an attitude of liberty from ordinary limitations, a festive place where the folly of romance can have its day. The first half of As You Like It, beginning with tyrant brother and tyrant Duke and moving out into the forest, is chiefly concerned with establishing this sense of freedom; the traditional contrast of court and country is developed in a way that is shaped by the contrast between everyday and holiday, as that antithesis has become part of Shakespeare's art and sensibility. Once we are securely in the golden world where the good Duke and "a many merry men … fleet the time carelessly," the pastoral motif as such drops into the background; Rosalind finds Orlando's verses in the second scene of Act III, and the rest of the play deals with love. This second movement is like a musical theme with imitative variations, developing much more tightly the sort of construction which played off Costard's and Armado's amorous affairs against those of the nobles in Navarre, and which set Bottom's imagination in juxtaposition with other shaping fantasies. The love affairs of Silvius and Phebe, Touchstone and Audrey, Orlando and Rosalind succeed one another in the easy-going sequence of scenes, while the dramatist deftly plays each off against the others.
[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...
(The entire section is 55,651 words.)