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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 92,513 words.)