As You Like It
Literature scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It sometime between 1599 and 1600. These critics have characterized the play as an example of one of Shakespeare's mature comedies, citing the playwright's sophisticated integration of verse and prose dialogue, his invention of psychologically complex characters, and his ingenious manipulation of romantic themes. Many commentators have surveyed the central theme of pastoralism—that is, the artistic representation of idyllic rural life—as it applies to Arden, the forest setting which serves as a refuge for Shakespeare's characters in As You Like It. Identifying Thomas Lodge's pastoral romance Rosalynde—first published in 1590 and reprinted three times in the subsequent decade—as a direct literary antecedent for Shakespeare's comedy, a number of critics have examined how Shakespeare borrowed from Lodge to satirize the hackneyed theme of pastoralism. Recent scholarship has also contributed to the discussion of other major themes in As You Like It, including the thematic and cultural implications of Rosalind's sexual disguise, the dramatic impact of Jaques's melancholic behavior within the idealized romantic milieu of Arden, and the significance of mutuality in love and courtship.
Typically, modern critical scholarship has focused on Rosalind as the unifying, central character in As You Like It. In his examination of the cross-gender disguise in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Michael Shapiro (1994) asserts that the triple-layering of the Rosalind character—that of a boy actor playing a female who pretends to be a male—afforded the performer a rich opportunity to demonstrate his art. Shapiro explores how the actor portraying Rosalind dominates the dramatic action and, by extension, the audience's perception of the play. Clare R. Kinney (1998) turns to Shakespeare's sources to elucidate the character of Rosalind, tracing her literary evolution from Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender (1579), to Lodge's Rosalynde, to As You Like It. Kinney contends that by varying degrees each of the authors prevents Rosalind the artist from fully expressing herself through the application of extratextual cultural influences and intratextual strategies of recontainment. In her 2003 study of fathers and daughters in Shakespeare's plays, Sharon Hamilton discusses Rosalind in terms of her thematic role as an authority figure who orchestrates much of the action in As You Like It. Commentators have also considered the dramatic significance of Jaques—a cynical malcontent who is seemingly out of place in Arden. Robert Bennett (1976) examines the literary heritage that Shakespeare drew upon in order to create Jaques, noting that he is “Shakespeare's and Elizabethan drama's only fully conceived comic malcontent.” Bennett concludes that Shakespeare's transformation of the literary archetype is crucial in that Jacques serves as a satirical complement to the idealized romantic behavior of the other characters in Arden.
Several recent theatrical productions of As You Like It have emphasized the engaging character of Rosalind and the fantastic possibilities of the forest of Arden. In 1999 Barry Edelstein presented As You Like It at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts—a production distinguished by Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow as Rosalind. Indeed, most critics admitted that their primary interest in the production was to see how well Paltrow performed in the demanding role of Shakespeare's heroine. They generally agreed that she gave an insightful and refined performance, but noted that Edelstein's overall production lacked the same qualities. The following year, Gregory Doran mounted a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) rendition of As You Like It at Stratford-upon-Avon. The majority of critics derided this production for its emphasis on lurid, gaudy scenery. Reviewers further contended that the cast gave uninspired, transparent performances, with the principal offender being Alexandra Gilbreath's Rosalind. In 2003 the RSC presented another version of As You Like It, this time with director Gregory Thompson at the helm. Most commentators argued that Thompson's gratuitously somber interpretation, combined with an inexorable pace and merely competent acting, produced a markedly gloomy and turgid adaptation of Shakespeare's festive comedy. That same year, Peter Hall presented As You Like It at the Theatre Royal in Bath. This staging incorporated minimal scenic decoration and exacting elocutionary standards. Overall, critics were impressed with Hall's direct, unpretentious interpretation of the play and with the veteran actors' polished performances. Reviewers particularly admired the alluring and graceful Rosalind portrayed by Hall's daughter, Rebecca.
Modern critical analyses of As You Like It have probed the play's structure, language, and ideological influences in an effort to elucidate the comedy's central themes. John Russell Brown (see Further Reading) examines how Shakespeare adroitly employed language and wordplay to energize the complex dramatic action in the play. Ruth Nevo (1980) also views As You Like It as a specimen of Shakespeare's self-assured dramatic technique, pointing out that in the course of the play the playwright elevates dramatic comedy to a sophisticated art form in which the characters act improvisationally rather than within the traditional classical model. Nathaniel Strout (2001) considers the concept of mutuality in As You Like It, maintaining that it reinforces the purpose of drama, which is to establish the “dynamic nature of the relationship between audience and play, spectator and actor.” According to Strout, As You Like It endorses the concept of mutuality through its characters' expressions of love and through the choices they make; by contrast, Lodge's Rosalynde reinforces the patriarchal system of rigid, absolute human behavior. Several modern commentators have analyzed the cultural and historical circumstances that may have informed the pastoral milieu of Shakespeare's Arden forest. Richard Wilson (see Further Reading) discusses Shakespeare's invention of Arden as a satire of the social and political conflict between the Elizabethan court and its rural constituents in the late sixteenth century. Peter Milward (2001) posits that the locale of Arden reflects the playwright's nostalgic desire to recreate a time and place that existed before the ecclesiastical disruption and persecution brought about by the Tudor dynasty. Linda Woodbridge (2004) considers the historical and cultural contempt for pastoralism, asserting that “[n]obody listens to this Cassandra among genres. Even in its most oppositional moments, it has been cast as a tool of the establishment.” Woodbridge then attempts to rescue pastoralism from centuries of critical disparagement by demonstrating how Shakespeare used it to establish a romantic antithesis to the courtly intrigue and manipulation in As You Like It.