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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 81,124 words.)