As You Like It
As You Like It, most likely written in 1599, is one of Shakespeare's most highly regarded comedies and most frequently performed works. Based on Thomas Lodge's prose romance Rosalynde (1590), the play recounts the love story of Rosalind and Orlando. Roughly divided into three parts, the play features a middle section set in the Forest of Arden, where many aspects of Elizabethan social order are turned inside out. This magical place—where gender roles are reversed, social restrictions loosened, and time suspended—has garnered much critical attention throughout the twentieth century. Scholars frequently compare Arden to the setting in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and analyze the ways in which Shakespeare used this environment to address the social problems of his day, including sexual inequality and changes in the traditional English agrarian life. As You Like It introduces many notable characters, including the clown Touchstone and the insightful, melancholy Jaques—the source of the famous line “All the world’s a stage.” Rosalind, who disguises herself as the boy Ganymede, raises many interesting debates on homosexuality, gender blending, androgyny, and sexual identity. With the rising influence of feminist studies and the application of new historicism, scholars have applied a previously unexplored set of questions to the play. Chief among them is the nature of gender relations, the role of eroticism, and the degree to which patriarchal ideals are maintained in the play. In addition, emerging historical data about Elizabethan popular culture has given scholars new insight into the significance of sport and the influence of philosophical ideals in the play.
Critics note that Rosalind's double role as a female pretending to be a male provides rich fodder for gender studies. The issues about sexuality are further complicated by Phebe's love for Rosalind's alter ego Ganymede, Orlando's complex relationship with the “boy” whom he treats as a confidante about his love for Rosalind, and, most significantly, the fact that all the female roles were played by boys at the time when Shakespeare was writing. What has resulted is a proliferation of studies on the formation of sexuality, the social construction of gender, the significance of gender blending during the Elizabethan era, the politics of sexuality, and the role of homosexuality and crossdressing in English society. Susan Carlson (1987) provides an overview of how thought has shifted among Shakespearean scholars about the role of women in comedies and the critical debate which has developed around this issue. The first school of thought includes those who have endorsed the theories of H. B. Charlton. Charlton argues that women represent an ideal in the comedy genre, and that they are embodiments of creativity and the keys to happiness. Critics of this school focus on the middle section of As You Like It where social norms are suspended and women enjoy unprecedented freedom of speech and power. A second group of literary critics, in contrast, argue that in the end the norm is restored, Rosalind and Celia become powerless and voiceless wives, and any gains of insight are enjoyed by the males alone. Carlson counts herself among the latter group of scholars who view As You Like It, not as a radical reform of traditional patriarchal ideals, but as a drama which “offers more limitations than possibilities for the women in the play.” She states that while Shakespeare tried to advance ideas on the politics of gender, he was limited by the conventions of his day. Kay Stanton (1989) echoes many of these same views, stating that she believes the juxtaposition between the freedom of the middle scenes and the loss of options in the conclusion was Shakespeare's way of voicing criticism. Furthermore, Stanton examines the epilogue, a scene which has troubled and puzzled modern critics. In this scene, the actor playing Rosalind professes to be both man and woman in a convoluted display of both genders. Stanton posits that it is only in this mixture of genders that men and women can be equal; however, this gender blending only existed in Shakespeare's eyes through magic. Penny Gay (1999) more fully examines the ramifications of boys playing female roles in Elizabethan times. She argues that Shakespeare produced a more interesting drama than Lodge because Shakespeare capitalized on the fact that boys occupied female roles, creating an intriguing situation of ambiguities and possibilities. Gay believes that although the play lacks plot, audiences find it a favorite because of the erotic possibilities of Rosalind's courtship scenes. Susanne L. Wofford (1994) considers the role of language in establishing meanings about gender in the play.
Another area of interest for scholars is the topic of representation and identity. In many ways this topic is closely related to issues of gender, sexual identity, and disguise discussed above. In her essay on transvestism, Anne Herrmann (1989) discusses the difference between the divided self, as represented by Orlando, and the doubled self, depicted in the characters of Celia and Rosalind. The scholar states that transvestism is not a violation of social norms but highlights social contradiction. She states that merely by donning a disguise Rosalind cannot alter her true nature as a female. The disguise does not signify veiled eroticism but serves as a means of pointing out the arbitrary constructions of social relations, or the means by which we represent ourselves. In her 1985 essay, Kay Stanton also discusses the relationship between disguise and representation, concentrating on the prevalent use of the device of disguise by many of the cast. She states that all the characters have to don disguises in order to mask their true feelings, and all misrepresent who they are. In her explanation of the epilogue, Stanton suggests that it is only through disguise that Rosalind can be both male and female, but, in fact, she represents “the spirit of art,” a necessary component for humans to understand their own identity. In his article on the nature of theater, P. H. Parry (1998) considers the differences between the role of the characters in As You Like It and the audience. He argues that Shakespeare understood the self-conscious nature of theater in the Elizabethan era, which is markedly different from the emphasis on realism in today's dramas. Shakespeare incorporated aspects of his audience into the drama, at times making his characters part of the audience as they observed the actions of other characters on stage. Parry points out that although the epilogue is troublesome to modern casts and audiences, to the Elizabethans it would have made perfect sense.
Emerging historical data about Elizabethan popular culture has given scholars new insights into the significance of sport and the influence of philosophical ideals in the play. For instance, Cynthia Marshall (1993) discusses the role of sport as metaphor, particularly the role of wrestling in As You Like It. She posits that in the Elizabethan theater wrestling played a role both as sport and as spectacle; it was a means of exercise and entertainment and aided in the establishment of the moral order. Stating that Shakespeare was illustrating the ways in which “truth” may be socially constructed, she argues that through the wrestling match even violence can be “socially codified.” In the same vein, A. Stuart Daley (1993) examines the significance of the hunting scenes which take place in the Forest of Arden. While earlier critics have suggested that the scenes may reflect the social prestige and noble background of Senior Duke, Daley analyzes the scenes in light of what scholars now know about upper class hunts for entertainment versus the woodmen's hunt out of necessity. Applying new knowledge about the cultural and ideological developments of the period, Robert Schwartz (1989) considers the role of Jaques, referred to as a libertine by Duke Senior. Schwartz believes that this term refers to the Familist society, an antinomian sect who believed that man could be freed from natural sin through a spiritual awakening linked to nature. Gene Fendt (1995) juxtaposes audience reaction to the play in Elizabethan and modern times in his study of the cathartic role of the comedy. He focuses specifically on the function of the Forest of Arden scenes which he refers to as “the green world,” linking the role of such characters as Jaques and Touchstone with the inspiration of empathy among the audience.