(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 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.

Susan Carlson (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Women in As You Like It: Community, Change, and Choice,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1987, pp. 151-69.

[In the following essay, Carlson refutes earlier critics who claim that As You Like It reflects sexual equality. She argues that patriarchal norms persist, especially in the play's ending.]

At the end of As You Like It, when Hymen teases Phebe that she cannot love Ganymede—“You to his [Silvius's] love must accord, / Or have a woman to your Lord” (V.iv.127-28)1—he reminds us of the comic mileage Shakespeare has gotten from Rosalind's disguise as Ganymede. Also, less obviously, he reminds us of the...

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Susanne L. Wofford (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To You I Give Myself, For I Am Yours’: Erotic Performance and Theatrical Performatives in As You Like It,” in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, edited by Russ McDonald, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 147-69.

[In the following essay, Wofford considers the role of language in establishing meanings about gender in As You Like It.]

More than almost any other of Shakespeare's comedies, As You Like It is the play of proxies, of actions enacted in or undertaken by an alternative persona. Whereas in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare's Adriana says, “I will attend my husband … for it is my office / And will have no...

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Penny Gay (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Call Me Ganymede,” in William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Northcote House, 1999, pp. 33-50.

[In the following essay, Gay analyzes the meaning of gender within the context of Elizabethan theater.]

Few critical issues in Shakespearean comedy have been discussed more energetically in the last twenty years than the question of what it meant to an Elizabethan audience to see boys playing the roles of women. For modern play-goers it is largely a dead issue … ; since the mid-seventeenth century the roles of Rosalind and Celia, Phebe and Audrey, have been claimed as their right by actresses who revel in the richness of Shakespeare's language and the potential...

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Robert Schwartz (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rosalynde Among the Familists: As You Like It and an Expanded View of Its Sources,” in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 69-76.

[In the following essay, Schwartz argues that Shakespeare's emphasis on Familist ideology, a sixteenth-century libertine movement, accounts for the variations between As You Like Itand Lodge's Rosalynde.]

Geoffrey Bullough, considering the ways in which Shakespeare used Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, observed that As You Like It “is more than a pastoral play of escape to an idyllic world; it is rather an inquiry into the different ideas of country life current at the time,...

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Gene Fendt (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Resolution, Catharsis, Culture: As You Like It,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1995, pp. 248-60.

[In the following essay, Fendt explores the cathartic effects of As You Like It on the audience, juxtaposing the views of the characters Jaques and Touchstone.]

Happiness does not lie in amusement; indeed it would be strange … if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.

Aristotle (NE 1176b30-35)

Comedy is a vision of...

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Kay Stanton (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Disguises of Shakespeare's As You Like It,” in Iowa State Journal of Research, Vol. 59, No. 3, February, 1985, pp. 295-305.

[In the following essay, Stanton argues that many of As You Like It's characters disguise their true feelings and nature, a fact which clarifies many of the play's nuances.]

The physical disguise of Rosalind as the male “Ganymede” is one of the most discussed features of Shakespeare's As You Like It.1 Most commentary, however, either completely neglects or minimally addresses the disguises of Celia as “Aliena” and the Clown as “Touchstone.” More than a simple plot device, the disguises...

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Anne Herrmann (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Travesty and Transgression: Transvestism in Shakespeare, Brecht, and Churchill,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, May, 1989, pp. 133-54.

[In the following essay, Herrmann examines the role of transvestism in As You Like It, Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, and Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill.]

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither
shall a man put on a woman's garment; for all that do so are an abomination
unto the Lord thy God.

—Deuteronomy (22:5)

                                             This earth that beareth and nourisheth us,
hath been turned into a...

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P. H. Parry (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Visible Art and Visible Artists: Reflexivity and Metatheatricality in As You Like It,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Parry discusses Shakespeare's self-conscious representation of the nature of theater and the role of audience in As You Like It.]

Theatre is based upon twinned assumptions—that theatre is life-like because life is theatrical—which have survived so many changes in dramaturgical fashion that they may reasonably be thought to be foundational.1 But critics with a heavy investment in beliefs about the differences between kinds or periods of theatre...

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A. Stuart Daley (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Idea of Hunting in As You Like It,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 21, 1993, pp. 72-95.

[In the following essay, Daley questions the nature of the hunt in As You Like It, stating that it indicates the desperation of Duke Senior, and that it functions on an allegorical level as well.]

Dr. Samuel Johnson counsels us that, “He who will understand Shakespeare must not be content to study him in the closet, he must look for his meaning sometimes among the sports of the field.”1 This good counsel certainly applies to studying As You Like It, which is in some respects a hunter's play. We learn in the opening scene that the...

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Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wrestling as Play and Game in As You Like It,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 265-87.

[In the following essay, Marshall explores the way in which wrestling is used as a metaphor for socially constructed emotion.]

As You Like It, long considered among the happiest and most refined of Shakespearean comedies, has lately been seen as shadowed by various social tensions. Critics have traced the difficulties of “fraternal enmity” and hostilities over primogeniture,1 the bitter implications of a changing agricultural economy,2 and the ambiguous resistances that were enacted against an...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Dusinberre, Juliet. “As Who Liked It?” Shakespeare Survey 46 (1993): 9-21.

Discusses the influence of Elizabethan politics on the depiction of Rosalind and the presentation of gender roles.

Harley, Marta Powell. “Rosalind, the Hare, and the Hyena in Shakespeare's As You Like It.Shakespeare Quarterly 36, No. 3 (Autumn 1985): 335-37.

Argues that Rosalind establishes her complex sexual nature partially through the use of animal imagery.

Kott, Jan. “The Gender of Rosalind.” New Theatre Quarterly 7, No. 26 (May 1991): 113-25.


(The entire section is 436 words.)