At a Glance

  • Free Will: As You Like It stresses the freedom of individuals to determine their own fates; one’s experience is largely dependent on how one chooses to view a situation, as exemplified by Jaques’ pessimism and Rosalind’s tempered humanism.
  • Passage of Time: Time is a recurring motif in the play; it is evident in the aging character of Old Adam and Orlando’s late arrival for his meeting with Ganymede.

  • Power of Love: As You Like It counters Jaques’ pessimistic insistence that love fades with Rosalind’s love for Orlando. It also pits the virtues of love and kindness against the belief that human beings are weak and undignified.

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Themes

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...

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