As You Like It Themes
by William Shakespeare

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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...

(The entire section is 3,024 words.)