As You Like It
Generally thought to have been written and first performed sometime between 1598 and 1600, As You Like It is largely a dramatic adaptation of Thomas Lodge's pastoral romance Rosalynde (1590). One of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays, the work is essentially a light-hearted comedy with satirical elements and is filled with the requisite misunderstandings and farcical happenings of the genre. The play centers on the figures of Orlando de Boys and his beloved Rosalind, who are separately banished from Duke Frederick's court to the bucolic setting of the Forest of Arden. Critics agree that in these two characters Shakespeare personified two of the work's leading themes: Orlando represents dishonored virtue restored, while Rosalind—who is disguised as Ganymede, a young man, for the majority of the play—characterizes the theme of appearance versus reality. In his introduction to the Oxford Shakespeare edition of As You Like It (1993), Alan Brissenden highlights the play's central concern—love—and its motifs of metamorphosis and character doubling, both of which contribute to the play's representation of harmony restored. Surveying the work as a social drama, Camille Wells Slights (1993) concentrates on the efforts of Rosalind and the other exiles in the Forest of Arden to renew the disrupted social order.
Critical studies of character in As You Like It often focus on Rosalind, the drama's principle figure. Marta Powell Harley (1985) examines Rosalind's references to hyenas and hares, two animals commonly viewed as sex-changers by Renaissance audiences. Harley connects these references to the shifting gender identity of Rosalind as she dons her masculine disguise as Ganymede. Marjorie Garber (1986) similarly concentrates on gender disguise, arguing that Rosalind maintains her identity as a young man for the three intermediate acts of the drama so that she can more easily orchestrate events in the Forest of Arden and vigorously educate Orlando on the subtleties of love. Unlike Harley and Garber, Arthur Stuart Daley (1988) and Michael Gelven (2000) focus their attention on two of the play's minor figures. Duke Frederick is the subject of Daley's study. Drawing attention to the events of Act I, scene ii, which features a wrestling match between Orlando and the Duke's champion Charles, Daley emphasizes Frederick's role as a stock Elizabethan stage villain—an unyielding tyrant figure who subsequently finds his despotic plans thwarted by virtuous adversaries. Turning to the conventional pastoral characters that populate Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, Gelven observes that Silvius, an inept shepherd whose affection for the shepherdess Phebe remains unrequited, nevertheless personifies the qualities of true love elsewhere tainted by Rosalind's deceitful wooing of Orlando.
The theatrical history of As You Like It has largely been governed by the quality and skill of the actresses who have played the part of Rosalind. This forceful, witty, and intelligent character has attracted many of the best performers of every generation, and the varied interpretations of Rosalind have been seen as reflecting society's changing attitudes toward women. Appraising Barry Edelstein's 1999 production of the drama at the Williamstown Theatre, reviewer Robert Brustein comments on the performance of celebrated film star Gwyneth Paltrow as Rosalind, claiming that she carried the drama despite a generally mediocre supporting cast. In cases where a contemporary Rosalind has failed to charm the critics, estimations of the play have tended to be less than favorable. Such is the case in regard to Gregory Doran's staging of As You Like It for the 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Reviewers Patrick Carnegy (2000) and Russell Jackson (2001) both acknowledge that substandard acting and direction impaired the drama, which was dominated by sumptuous costumes, setting, and design that generally eclipsed the individual performances. Amelia Marriette (2000) looks back to Christine Edzard's commercially unsuccessful but artistically viable 1992 film adaptation of As You Like It, an avant-garde rendering in which a gritty, urban, and contemporary setting foregrounds Edzard's strongly anti-utopian interpretation of Shakespeare's pastoral drama.
Thematic estimations of As You Like It embrace a wide variety of critical perspectives, including Shakespeare's use of language, allusion, and generic convention, as well as the drama's representation of nature and personal identity. Concentrating on the prevalence of “ifs” in the drama, Maura Slattery Kuhn (1977) emphasizes the conditional quality of As You Like It and its motifs of paradox, specious logic, and dramatic feigning. Contemplating the subject of rhetoric, Dale G. Priest (1988) highlights three competing forms of manipulative language in the play, represented by the words of Jaques, Touchstone, and Rosalind. Priest concludes that Jaques's mannered oratory and Touchstone's wit eventually cede to the power of Rosalind's talent as a charming negotiator. Paul J. Willis (1988) explicates the metaphor of the “book of nature” in the drama, contending that while various characters offer differing interpretations of nature, Shakespeare ultimately endorsed a relatively orthodox Christian view. The illumination of antithetical or contrary thematic elements in the drama is another major concern of late twentieth-century critics. W. Hutchings (see Further Reading) views As You Like It as essentially a conventional pastoral romance, but notes that powerful satire and parody add substance to the otherwise artificial drama. Mark Bracher (1984) finds that Shakespeare contrasted opposing notions of identity—one exclusive and satirical, the other inclusive and compassionate—throughout the comedy. A. Stuart Daley (1985) argues against the generally held view that As You Like It portrays a clear antithesis between city and country, the former represented by Duke Frederick's court, the latter by the Forest of Arden. Focusing on the theme of time in As You Like It, Maurice Hunt (1991) suggests that Shakespeare presented both the classical conception of seizing the opportune moment and a Judeo-Christian teleological view of temporality to imply a providential return to paradise by the close of the drama.