As You Like It As Who Liked It
by William Shakespeare

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As Who Liked It

(Shakespearean Criticism)

As Who Liked It?

Juliet Dusinberre, Girton College, Cambridge

Bernard Shaw wrote on 4 October 1897 that the Shakespearian producer Augustin Daly 'was in full force at the Islington Theatre on Monday evening last with his version of "As You Like It" just as I don't like it'.1 Surprisingly, the reaction of many people in the late twentieth century to this most actable of plays is often one of disappointment. The actress Juliet Stevenson, who played Rosalind in 1985, complained of productions which offered ' "a rural romp in an Arden full of polystyrene logs" ' and protests: 'I'd always suspected that there's a much more dangerous play in As You Like It.'2 The 1990 Cheek by Jowl all-male production was greeted ecstatically by both male actors and male critics: Adrian Lester's Rosalind was voted 'sexy' and exciting. Men liked it. But what about women? If a woman's voice was raised in the critical debate, I missed it. In the past, of course, there would have been no such voice, except from the reminiscences of a few celebrated actresses. How different our theatrical records might have been had Elizabeth Pepys scribbled in the margin next to her husband's account of A Midsummer Night's Dream as the most ridiculous and insipid play he ever saw in his life: 'Sam didn't like it but I thought it was great, very sexy.'

What did the numerous women in Shakespeare's audience like? The Elizabethans considered theatre-going to be unavoidably erotic,3 and in anti-theatrical literature it was feared the boy actor would arouse homoerotic fantasies.4 But what, in that case, would the fantasy life of the women in the audience look like?

In As You Like It Rosalind finds herself in a script supplied She becomes, by men which she rewrites as the play progress.5 She becomes, more than any other heroine, the author of more than her own drama. The idea of a woman's writing a part for herself which she liked better than those written by men is present in one of the works Shakespeare certainly used for As You Like It.

When Shakespeare sought a name for his hero he rejected Lodge's Rosader in favour of the much more dashing 'Orlando' of Ariosto's romance, the Orlando Furioso, translated into English in 1591 by the Queen's godson, Sir John Harington. At the beginning of Canto 37 Ariosto has a conventional address to worthy ladies, regretting that they are underrated by jealous male writers and have no chance to write their own praises and thus redress the balance:

Though writers in time past were not your frends,
The present time shall make you large amends.

Harington added three lines of his own:

Yet in this age, so learn'd are some of you,
So well acquainted with the noble muses,
You could your selves, remedie such abuses.6

Women could rewrite the record in truer vein, as they liked it. This was probably intended as a compliment to the Queen, to whom the translation is dedicated. But it contrasts with the dedication of Lodge's Rosalynde 'To the Gentlemen Readers'.7 Harington had begun his translation by offering Elizabeth's ladies the bawdy Canto 28, a tale of women's desires satisfied despite men's attempts to control them. The Queen sent him away with a flea in his ear to translate the rest of the poem, which he did, embellishing its eroticism.8

I want to argue that the fictions of sexuality conjured up in As You Like It draw some of their vitality from the complex relationship which existed for more than a quarter of a century between Harington and the Queen, an interaction captured in the play in the relation between Rosalind and two Shakespearian inventions, Touchstone and Jaques. The orientation of As You Like It towards women as inventors of the fictions in which they must play a part, and as recipients of those fictions, suggests that Harington, as courtier, translator, wit, ladies' man, is a central part of the play's frame of reference. His presence in the play gives Shakespeare's pastoral an edge within the politics and fictions of 15999 which casts light on its original courting of danger,...

(The entire section is 9,079 words.)