As You Like It Themes

The main themes of As You Like It include the performance of life, the performance of gender, and the performance of love.

  • The performance of life: The play stresses that one’s experience unfolds according to scripted patterns, much like a theatrical performance.
  • The performance of gender: Rosalind and others successfully pretend to be the opposite gender, demonstrating that gender is performative.
  • The performance of love: The play explores the conventions and pretensions of courtship, investigating how lovers act for one another.


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The Performance of Life

Performance is a comprehensive theme throughout the play. In act II, scene V, Jaques says, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” to suggest that life is a performance for everyone, from the characters on the stage to the people in the audience. In this way, the experiences that one considers unique or special can be seen as a typical script that follows the “seven ages of man,” from infancy to death. While Jacues’s speech is a serious contemplation, it also gives the audience a lens through which to interpret the humorous situations in the play. The humor in the play comes from pointing out and mocking the various types of performance in which people engage. Some of these performances include the performances of gender, of romantic love, and of the pastoral. Below are three in-depth discussions of how life is viewed as a performance in As You Like It.

The Performance of Gender

Throughout the course of the play, Shakespeare examines the extent to which gender is a performance. While many Shakespeare plays feature women who dress as men (Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline) or men who disguise themselves as women (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Taming of the Shrew), the self-referential cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s As You Like offers more of a commentary on gender roles in Shakespeare’s time.

Rosalind becomes the male Ganymede to protect herself in the forest. Once there, Ganymede pretends to be Rosalind in order to teach Orlando how to woo. This act of triple cross-dressing is further complicated by Elizabethan politics: The character Rosalind would have been played by a man on the Elizabethan stage, because women were forbidden from acting. The many layers of crossdressing, and the willingness of all characters to accept each performed gender, suggests that Rosalind was written to blur gender lines and to draw attention to its performative nature.

Because Shakespeare wrote during the time of Queen Elizabeth, the cross-dressing in his plays can be interpreted as commentary on the queen’s reign. Elizabeth distanced herself from her gender, exclaiming in one speech at Tilbury, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Elizabeth’s reign challenged the patriarchal order of Early Modern England. She proved that a woman didn’t need a husband and could rule with the power of a king. Elizabeth remained conservative towards the rights of women throughout her reign and worked to separate her reputation from her gender. Shakespeare’s tendency to play with gender in his plays demonstrates a public fascination with the performative nature of gender, which may have extended to the queen’s performance of those roles.

The Performance of Love 

Orlando plays the part of a romantic poet: he writes sentimental, hyperbolic love poetry and makes dramatic statements to Rosalind about his undying love for her. Because Orlando plays the vapid version of a romantic hero, Rosalind must correct his behavior and transform him into a respectable lover. This plot line defines the difference between romanticized love and natural love. Romanticized love can be understood as love at first sight: the couple, or one member of the couple, is more in love with the idea of the person and the romance than the actual object of their affection. Rosalind and Orlando fall in love with each other immediately, only for Rosalind to discover that Orlando is not as dashing or clever as she originally thought. Rosalind’s attempt to transform Orlando’s love, and in turn Orlando himself, provides both comedy and commentary on the performance of romantic love. When the couple resolve their romantic pursuit, the performance ends, resulting in a more natural mode of love.

The Performance of the Pastoral

The pastoral is a literary tradition that depicts—and usually idealizes—country life. Pastoral works often feature courtiers or other city dwellers entering a paradisiacal countryside where life is simple, calm, and peaceful (for more details see historical analysis below). Duke Senior’s harmonious court in the Forest of Arden embodies the pastoral tradition. The courtiers sing like shepherds, the Duke is accepting and forgiving towards his usurping brother, and the forest court harbors the characters who escape from the corrupt court. When courtiers in Duke Senior’s court reflect on their lives at court, they dismiss it as corrupt and overly complicated. In performing the pastoral tradition, Duke Senior’s court is able to solve the problems of the courtly world within the natural world. The forest becomes the balance to the schemes and corruptions of civilized life.

The Struggles and Bonds of Family

As You Like It centers around family strife: Duke Senior’s younger brother, Duke Frederick, usurps his throne and throws the courtly world into disarray. This moment of betrayal and corruption of the family order puts the play into motion. This plotline is doubled in the relationship between Oliver and Orlando. Oliver, the elder brother, hates his younger brother. He first tries to get his brother Orlando killed by entering him into a fight that he is sure to die in. He then vows to kill Orlando when his younger brother survives. This causes Orlando to run into the Forest of Arden. Both plots of brotherly betrayal are juxtaposed with the devoted family love between the female characters. Celia is so dedicated to Rosalind that she accompanies her cousin into the Forest of Arden even though her position in the court is safe, because Frederick is her father.

Extended Themes

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At the conclusion of As You Like It, Rosalind remains on stage to end the play with a standard epilogue. After acknowledging that it is unusual to assign the epilogue to a female character, she sends the audience home with the words, "My way is to conjure you and I begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of the play as please you; and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women … that between you and the women the play may please" (V.iv). This upbeat but very slight final word is consistent with Shakespeare's primary purpose in As You Like It: to entertain his audience. Filled with skits, songs, and superfluous side stories (the love affairs between Touchstone and Audrey and between Silvius and Phebe) and featuring many exchanges of comic wordplay, As You Like It does not have any dominant theme or message to convey beyond goodwill to all and tolerance toward each. There is, however, a particular point of view that is brought to bear on the subjects that arise in its course (love, aging, time, nature, and the like). That perspective or worldview is brought to the fore in the person of Rosalind (as both a woman and a man) and contrasted with the dour outlook of Jaques.

We are at liberty to choose how we wish to live and to experience life, Shakespeare tells us in As You Like It. The most obvious choice presented to us in the play is between the civilized realm of the courtly society and the natural world of Arden. As the veteran shepherd Corin tells us, "those that are good manners at the court are ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at court" (III.ii.46-47). The Forest of Arden is initially presented to us as a romanticized and idealized alternative to the cruelty of the court under Duke Frederick and the "evil" brother Oliver. The first that we hear of Duke Senior and the lords who have taken refuge in Arden is that, "They live like old Robin Hood of England" (I.i.117). While they recognize the hardships of natural life, the good Duke and his men are a merry lot, happy to trade their station at court for the freedom of the woods.

But Shakespeare also includes some negative dimensions to country life, which is seen to be physically strenuous with uncertain terrain, lions and miscreants roaming about along with bumpkins and rural fools. When Touchstone is asked by Corin how he likes life as a shepherd, the jester answers: "In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life" (II.ii.15-16). Since "solitary" and "private" are virtual synonyms, the clown's opinion seems meaningless; in fact, it encompasses a broader point made time and time again in the play: that our experience of anything is largely a product of how we look at it and define it.

The most consistent and recognizable worldview in As You Like It belongs to Jaques, the melancholic member of Duke Senior's court who finds fault not with individuals but with life at large. The constant target of ridicule from Amiens and the hearty lords of Duke Senior's sylvan court, Jaques recites the play's most famous speech in Act II, scene vii, in which the melancholy loner tells us that:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

There follows a highly unflattering depiction of man's development from its first stage as a "mewling infant" to that of a "whining schoolboy," a foolish lover, a quarrelsome soldier, a fat judge, a preposterous old man trying to act youthful, and lastly to the infirmity of Old Age as a pathetic type of second childhood. In his view, human life is devoid of dignity in each of its seven ages and ends in a state of ridiculous weakness. Pining at the sight of a dying stag or ridiculing country life and love, Jaques' viewpoint is that of a misanthropic pessimist, a man who holds an opinion of human folly so low that it compels others to treat him as an object of folly. Jaques excludes himself from the play's concluding dance.

While several of the play's other characters recognize that love fades, that people are often ridiculous and cruel, and that human life becomes worm fodder, they are generally willing to embrace the joys of being alive. Rosalind serves as the prime example of this tempered humanism. For example, in her disguise as Ganymede, Rosalind tells Orlando that "love is merely madness" (III.ii), but in the next act she confides to her cousin Celia that she is now hopelessly deep in her love for Oliver. Alongside her tolerance for human frailty (including her own passions), Rosalind epitomizes the virtues of a caring heroine. Chief among these traits are compassion and a concern for others. In the first scene of the play, Rosalind is understandably disturbed by the banishment of her father and the treachery of her uncle, but she nevertheless says to her cousin Celia, "I will forget the condition of my estate, to rejoice in yours" (I.i.15). What Rosalind stands for are values of love and harmony and the willingness to construct a positive experience even in the face of adversity. This spirit is also found in the behavior of Orlando when he comes across the brother who wronged him, asleep at the mercy of a fierce beast. As the reformed Oliver puts it in Act IV, scene iii, his younger brother considered allowing him to be mauled, "But kindness, nobler ever than revenge, / And nature, stronger than his just occasion." At risk of his own life, Orlando repays Oliver's mistreatment with an act of sacrifice. This, in turn, causes a conversion in Oliver, while a meeting with an old religious man causes Duke Frederick to undergo a parallel awakening.

Love and time are among the subjects that occupy the conversation in Arden, and we are exposed to varied viewpoints on these themes. Alongside the seemingly perfect romantic love of Rosalind and Orlando, for instance, we see an imperfect and somewhat common love of Touchstone and Audrey and, beyond that, the lopsided love of Silvius for Phebe. Time marches on as Jaques reminds us, but we are also presented with positive models of the aged, particularly Orlando's faithful retainer, Old Adam. While there are no clocks in Arden, Orlando is nevertheless late for two of his courtship practice sessions with Ganymede. In each instance, there is something valid about Jaques point of view. Nothing is perfect even in a romantic comedy, but we understand that Jaques perspective is self-defeating and unbalanced.

Lastly, there is an enormous amount of wordplay in the text of As You Like It. In Act II, scene v, for example, Jaques sings a parody song in which the nonsense word "ducdame" is repeated three times. When he is asked what a ducdame is, Jaques replies that it is "a Greek invocation, to call fools into a circle" (60). This type of amusing banter is the stock and trade of Touchstone, the great corrupter of language, a fool who is able to make his way through life on puns, malaprops, and the jestful use of language.

Advanced Themes

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Numerous oppositions in As You Like It reveal Shakespeare's partiality toward the pastoral rustic life of Arden forest to life at court. At Duke Frederick's court, disorder holds sway. The deterioration of political authority is the most obvious form of disorder, for Duke Frederick has unlawfully seized Duke Senior's kingdom. This political degeneration is compounded by a more personal disorder, since the dukes are also brothers at odds with each other; this conflict is underscored by the antagonistic relationship of two other brothers at the court, Oliver and Orlando. Arden forest offers a sense of pure, spiritual order in contrast to the corrupt condition of Duke Frederick's court. The journey there is long and arduous; when the characters arrive, they are physically exhausted and hungry. Moreover, such threatening elements as the "icy fang" and "churlish wind" portray life in Arden as anything but ideal. The harsh experience of nature acts as a purgative process, however, which lays bare the characters' virtuous natures calloused by court life. Some characters, like Orlando and Rosalind, need little improvement, yet find in Arden a liberation from the oppression they have endured at court. Others, such as Oliver and Duke Frederick, approach the forest with malicious intent only to undergo a complete spiritual reformation. Arden thus represents a morally pure realm whose special curative powers purge and renew the forest-dwellers, granting them a self-awareness which they will ultimately use to restore order at court. Closely allied with the opposition of court life and Arden forest is another dichotomy, that between fortune and nature. Here, "fortune" represents both material gain—which is achieved through power, birthright, or possession—and a force that unpredictably determines events. "Nature," on the other hand, reflects both the purifying force of Arden and humanity's fundamental condition stripped of the trappings of wealth, power, and material possessions. The opposition of these two entities provides another example of the overall theme of antithesis and conflict in As You Like It.

Time is another theme that is treated differently in the court scenes and those in Arden forest. At court, time is specific; it is marked by definite intervals which amplify the corrupt and violent nature of Duke Frederick's rule. In most cases, it is related to the duke's threats: he orders Rosalind to leave the court within ten days or she will be executed, and he gives Oliver one year to find Orlando or else his land and possessions will be confiscated. In Arden, however, the meaning of time is less precise. Some scholars argue that in the forest time is replaced by timelessness, enhancing Arden's mythical, otherworldly properties. Others interpret time not in the passage of hours and minutes but in the progress of events, leading to self-awareness that the characters experience in Arden. This view of time has a cause and effect aspect, determined by the characters' changes in attitude as events in the forest ultimately lead to the multiple marriages. Time is also explored in relation to the human being's aging process. Jaques's melancholy "Seven Ages of Man" speech (II.vii.139ff.) pessimistically illustrates the individual's passage through life in distinct stages, ending with the image of man and woman as pathetically ineffectual and dependent creatures. Touchstone also offers a description of the aging process, but his concern is that as human beings age, they lose their ability to enjoy physical love. Rosalind presents a more optimistic opinion of aging, however, asserting that life is worth living when you can grow old with someone you love.

Sexual disguise and role-playing are two other closely related and important themes in As You Like It. These issues primarily focus on Rosalind, who disguises herself as a gentleman named Ganymede to insure her safe passage to Arden. Though she can discard her male costume when she reaches the forest, Rosalind does not do so until the end of the play. Critics generally agree that she continues to act as Ganymede because the disguise liberates her from her submissive role as a woman. She is therefore able to take more control of her own life, especially in her courtship with Orlando. In their play-acting scenes, Rosalind controls the tactics of courtship usually reserved for men, inverting the strategy to teach Orlando the meaning of real love rather than love based on his ideal vision of her. An added dimension to Rosalind's role-playing is evident if we consider the comedy in its Elizabethan context. In Shakespeare's age, it was common for boys to play the roles of women in dramas. The playwright takes advantage of this convention in As You Like It to accentuate the play's theatricality. If we consider that the boy actor who performs Rosalind must also play Ganymede, who in turn portrays Rosalind in the play-acting sessions with Orlando, we can appreciate that this subtle, yet complex, theatrical technique illustrates how disguise and role-playing often operate on several different levels in the play.

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Act Summaries