As You Like It
Although As You Like It received little or no critical recognition prior to the early eighteenth century, it has become one of Shakespeare's most-performed comedies. Adapted primarily from Thomas Lodge's pastoral romance Rosalynde, As You Like It was written and first performed between 1598 and 1600, perhaps for the opening of the Globe Theatre. Many commentators have criticized As You Like It for its minimal plot and limited action, while praising the play for its dynamic characterizations and energetic prose. Past critical commentary has addressed such thematic issues as Touchstone's comic role, Rosalind's sexual disguise, and the depiction of time in the Forest of Arden. These topics continue to garner the attention of contemporary critics as well.
Scholars consider Touchstone to be one of Shakespeare's most important additions to the original cast of characters he borrowed from Lodge's Rosalynde. Described as an intellectual fool, Touchstone was regarded as a new figure in English drama. In contrast to the assertion by some that the role of Touchstone was written expressly for jester Robert Armin, who joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1599, Guy Butler (1983) has contended that the role was "originally intended for [Will] Kempe, an old style clown," who was replaced by Armin in 1600. According to Butler, Shakespeare adapted Touchstone's part to Armin's "new style witty fool" in a deliberate decision to merge "the rival styles of humour" found in the taverns and on the stage in Elizabethan times. The significance and dramatic function of Touchstone in As You Like It has been of enduring interest to many critics, who frequently see the clown as a mediator between the action onstage and the audience. As such, David Frail (1981) has pointed out that as the "wise fool," Touchstone's function is to blur the line between wisdom and folly. Through his "riddle-dissolving riddles," Touchstone prods the members of the audience into acknowledging their own paradoxical thoughts, actions, and beliefs, thus enabling them to see what "foolish humans" they truly are. In a similar vein, Bente Videbaek (1996) has asserted that Touchstone's purpose is to "lift the audience to a higher level" of awareness and enjoyment. The critic has claimed that Touchstone mirrors, mocks, and exposes the folly of those he encounters so that the audience can anticipate and "view the 'strange capers' on stage from the delightful distance this new transparency brings."
Rosalind's disguise as the youth Ganymede continues to intrigue modern scholars, particularly as it relates to the theme of sexual identity. Philip Traci (1981) has asserted that although the characters themselves are heterosexual, the dramatization of Rosalind's multiple identities reveals the homosexual side of As You Like It, especially when the role is performed by a boy actor, as it was in Elizabethan times. Analyzing the impact that homosexuality had on families, sex, and marriage in early modern England, Mario DiGangi (1996) has relied on the Ganymede myth, a narrative that recounts Jupiter's desire for his page Ganymede in lieu of his wife, Juno. DiGangi has contended the myth, used by Shakespeare as a "parable of conflict between husbands and wives," reflected the Renaissance culture's promotion of male homoeroticism and fear of female sexuality. Thus, Rosalind's male disguise permits her to "assay the sincerity of Orlando's love" and assuage her fears of postmarital sexual rejection.
The concept of time in As You Like It remains a focus of modern critics. Although the Forest of Arden has frequently been hailed as a timeless refuge where the inhabitants "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world" (I.i.118-19), recent criticism has focused on alternative views. Frederick Turner (1971) has suggested that time itself has not been eliminated, but that the "measurable, social time of clocks" has transmuted into diverse modes of time that reflect the characters' perceptions: the personal, subjective time that rules Rosalind and Orlando, the historical, objective time that Jacques embraces, and the natural, biological time that governs Touchstone. Arguing for the existence of "more than one 'time-sense'" in the play, Rawdon Wilson (1975) has examined the shift from objective to subjective time, noting that it marks not only the journey from the court to the forest, but the characters' attitudes toward change as well. Harry Morris (1975) has delved into the darker aspects related to the subject of time in As You Like It—death and decay. According to Morris, Touchstone is the initiator of the "death-in-Arcadia motif," the agent of time. His announcement, "Ay, now am I in Arden," echoes the expression, "Ay, now am I in Arcadia," the translated version of et in Arcadia ego. This phrase was inscribed on the tomb of a shepherd found in seventeenth-century pastoral paintings by both Guercino and Nicolas Poussin, nearly twenty-five years after As You Like It was written. Morris nevertheless has speculated that perhaps an earlier source was available to Shakespeare, given the parallels between the death elements in the paintings—the skull, the dead shepherd, and all-devouring time—and those found in the Forest of Arden.