As You Like It
As You Like It, a Shakespearean comedy largely adapted from Thomas Lodge's pastoral romance Rosalynde (1590), is generally thought to have been written and first performed sometime between 1598 and 1600. Essentially a light-hearted piece with elements of satire and social criticism derived from its juxtaposition of urban and rural settings, As You Like It remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. Its plot centers on Orlando de Boys and his beloved Rosalind, both of whom are separately banished from the corrupt court of Duke Frederick to the idyllic Forest of Arden. In the forest, lovesick Orlando encounters Rosalind while she is disguised as the male page Ganymede. Offering the credulous young nobleman advice on ways to woo his seemingly unattainable love, Rosalind commands the remainder of the play with her charm and wit. As the story progresses, the audience is introduced to the requisite misunderstandings, farcical happenings, and clownish figures, including the melancholy Jaques, foolish Touchstone, and a handful of rustics. The play ends in multiple marriages cleverly orchestrated by Rosalind and the peaceful restoration of the usurped Duke Senior to power.
Critics have traditionally focused on the drama's central figures: Rosalind, who is viewed as one of Shakespeare's most convincing and charismatic female roles, and Orlando. Edward I. Berry (1980) compares the drama's principal character with her source, the title figure in Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde. Contrasting Lodge's completely conventional heroine with Shakespeare's version, Berry observes that Shakespeare crafted his Rosalind into the true protagonist of the work and instilled her with psychological depth, linguistic brilliance, and compelling virtue. Thomas Kelly (1973) concentrates on Orlando, the male lead in As You Like It. After surveying some of the common characteristics of Shakespeare's romantic heroes, noting such qualities as adolescent melancholy and limited self-awareness, Kelly explores the ways in which the developing Orlando supersedes these tropes. Responding to the consensus opinion that Orlando is somewhat of a disappointing match for the inspired Rosalind, Kelly maintains that the young nobleman is possessed of a wit and verve that suitably and fully equal those of his beloved. The play's minor characters have also attracted the attention of contemporary scholars. Agnes Latham (see Further Reading) surveys the drama's comic characters: Jaques, Touchstone, and the pastoral clowns. In Latham's view, Jaques caricatures the sixteenth-century view of human temperaments based on bodily humors, in this case depicting the melancholic man—a hypersensitive but nevertheless insightful individual whom Shakespeare may have drawn from life. Latham argues that Shakespeare developed Touchstone to a lesser degree than Jaques, rendering him as a type—the stage fool—rather than as a fully drawn character. For Latham, Touchstone was likely a dramatic convenience well suited to the skilled comic actors of the late Elizabethan period, and suffers in comparison with Shakespeare's other fools in such works as King Lear and Twelfth Night. Lastly, Latham views the country clowns William, Audrey, and Corin as essentially prop characters who speak rough dialects and perform stereotypical actions that Shakespeare's audiences would have immediately recognized as comical.
In modern performance, As You Like It has enjoyed a reputation as one of Shakespeare's most frequently staged dramas. Featuring a charming central character, a delightful setting, and numerous opportunities to enchant audiences, its theatrical history has been one of considerable success, a trend that has largely continued into the twenty-first century. Reviewing director Lucy Bailey's 1999 production of As You Like It at the Globe Theatre, Lois Potter highlights Anastasia Hille's unconventional Rosalind, admiring her ability to make the most out of the sexual ambiguity of this feminine role that largely takes to the stage in male disguise. Overall, Potter finds the production satisfying, but is disappointed that some of the interpretive risks taken by Hille were not reflected in adjoining performances or in Bailey's relatively traditional direction. Reviewer Ben Brantley attended a 1999 Williamstown Theater Festival staging of As You Like It that featured noted screen star Gwyneth Paltrow as Rosalind. After complimenting an excellent performance by Paltrow, Brantley laments that the remainder of director Barry Edelstein's staging demonstrated more artificiality than imagination. Considering the same production, Charles Isherwood is less impressed with Paltrow's insouciant Rosalind, and suggests that her performance failed to live up to the actress's potential. Isherwood likewise deems Edelstein's interpretation of As You Like It adequate in its comic payoff, but only superficial in plumbing the emotional depths of the drama. D. J. R. Bruckner reviews another 1999 staging of the play, directed by Ray Virta with the Kings County Shakespeare Company, which he finds both visually and emotionally agreeable. According to the critic, strong performances from the leads and ensemble cast, including Jon Fordham's inspired, philosophical Jaques, made for a highly gratifying production. Bruckner attended director Erica Schmidt's 2000 production of As You Like It the following year, and views the comedic and acrobatic staging—with only a six-member cast and numerous textual abridgments—as “a good-humored tribute to Shakespeare.” Joel Henning attended a winning As You Like It directed by David H. Bell in late 2001. A visual delight in Henning's estimation, the staging evoked an imperial Russian court and featured a consistent series of fine individual performances and thoughtful directorial additions.
Critics acknowledge that on its surface As You Like It is thematically concerned with a comic representation of romantic love and with a depiction of corrupted court society set in opposition to pastoral virtue and tranquility. But, as Thomas McFarland (1972) suggests, such easy generic and thematic estimations of the play fail to fully address some of its underlying tensions. For McFarland, the work oscillates between comedy and tragedy. Ostensibly comic, it nevertheless features darker tones, allowing its celebration of pastoral purity, the potential of social renewal, and the wonders of passionate love to be undercut by ironic voices—most notably that of the cynical, melancholic Jaques. Taking an anthropological approach to As You Like It, Susan Baker (1989) offers an interpretation of the work as ritual, suggesting the play's shape is analogous to a rite of passage. In Baker's assessment, the play depicts a process of psychological and symbolic transformation that occurs as its characters move through the liminal space of Arden. Themes of identity and self-knowledge predominate in John R. Ford's 1998 study of As You Like It. According to Ford, Arden is a place of creation and destruction, disguise and dissolution. Ford contends that by entering the forest as exiles, the drama's major characters embark on a period of estrangement that conditions their eventual metamorphosis and return. A. Stuart Daley (1994) emphasizes political issues in the play, analyzing its dramatization of Tudor commonwealth ideology, in which the virtues of reason and temperance combine to regenerate a society corrupted by fraternal strife. Martha Ronk (2001) considers the relationship between the verbal and visual in As You Like It, evaluating the thematic and structural significance of visual metaphor, emblem, and theatricality in the drama. Ronk asserts that the play, which calls attention to its own theatricality, artificiality, and allegorical nature, “is more than an isolated play about lovers in the forest; it embodies a theory of theatrical production.”