As You Like It's context in the Shakespeare canon
Though some scholars speculate that As You Like It was composed earlier in the 1590s, most believe that this play was probably written in 1599, perhaps as a new production for the first season in the Globe Theater. In the years before 1599 Shakespeare had almost certainly completed, in addition to several comedies, at least eight or nine history plays dealing with serious and weighty themes such as regicide and rebellion, and wars both "civil" and foreign (as we shall see in the "Henry" plays); in these pre-1599 years Shakespeare completed at least three tragedies also, which are of course "serious and weighty" by definition. Between mid-year of 1599 and 1601, probably, Shakespeare wrote a trio of comedies, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, which are seen as together representing a sort of "care-free" interlude amidst the weightier concerns of the histories and tragedies. These three comedies, all acknowledged masterpieces, present collectively a sort of pause near the middle of Shakespeare's career where he indulged in delightful flights of fancy, where, as A.C. Baugh's Literary History of England notes, "They are escapes from thinking, anodynes against worry, inclining heavily to prose in their style, and in their themes savoring more of the world of pleasant fancy than the world of strong imagination" (526). As You Like It, the middle of these three plays, demonstrates in its structure just this sort of escape from weighty and anxious cares of the "real world"—where the central hero and heroine, Orlando and Rosalind, each have the threat of execution hanging over them—and into the magical world of the Forest of Arden, where the real-world conflicts can dissolve or be resolved in the most improbable or fanciful but highly entertaining ways—they are resolved so completely and satisfactorily in As You Like It that Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom, at least, considers this "very much Shakespeare's happiest [play]" (204).
The fanciful "Green World"
As in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we see in this play a sharp division between the "real world" of a ducal court and a "forest world" where fantastical things can and do occur, the forest being the land of fairies and genial sprites where the serious conflicts that threaten to create chaos or tragedy in court can be resolved in whimsically humorous ways so that in the end all or nearly all characters seem set to live "happily ever after"—or at least they get married, anyhow. :) In As You Like It the forest is not inhabited by fairies who sprinkle magic juice in the eyes of sleeping lovers, as is the case in A Midsummer Night's Dream; rather, the Arden forest is the "green land" of pastoral romance, a literary tradition popular in the Renaissance but dating as far back as the Greek poetry of Theocritus in the third century BC. The conventional pastoral world is inhabited by shepherds ("pastor" is Latin for "shepherd"), and the usual tone of the pastoral, be it a romance or an elegy, is one of nostalgia for a lost and "simpler time" presented in hyperbolically ideal terms in which the shepherds or "swains" lived in perfect harmony with nature. In Shakespeare's play, as in his source for As You Like It, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, Arden is a "green refuge from the troubles and complications of ordinary life, where all enmities are reconciled, all problems resolved, and the course of true love is made to run smooth" (Abrams 128).
This is not to say that Arden is purely a world of idyllic perfection, however, as Duke Senior and Jaques (by report) suggest when they comment on the tragic plight of the innocent deer killed in this forest, recognizing that the intruding humans "Are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what's worse, / To fright the animals and to kill them up / In their assigned and native dwelling place" (2.1.61-63). Shakespeare both celebrates and parodies the pastoral world in As You Like It, especially through the most purely traditional "pastoral" characters, the shepherd and shepherdess Silvius and Phoebe, and also through the more down-to-earth shepherd, Corin, who seems to have lived too long to accept the foolish notions of idyllic love that Silvius exemplifies. Corin is a very earthy, very "real" shepherd to provide contrast with the "ideal" swain of the typical pastoral. Then, too, things go awry in the pastoral world when the shepherdess Phoebe professes her love for the young man, Ganymede, who happens really to be the young woman Rosalind in disguise! As you follow the characters away from Duke Frederick's court into the Forest of Arden, keep your eyes peeled for just this sort of humorous exaggeration of "the ideal world" represented by Silvius and note how it is humorously undone or undercut by coming into conflict with "reality" in a variety of different ways.
Rosalind the great
The fool, Touchstone, and the overly melancholic would-be fool Jaques provide much of the humor in the play with their wit. But the wittiest, the most wholly attractive, and clearly the most dominant character in the play is Rosalind. Harold Bloom notes that this is really her play, so much so that it could be called As Rosalind Likes It. Bloom's love of Rosalind probably exceeds even Orlando's: "of all Shakespeare's comic heroines, Rosalind is the most gifted, as remarkable in her mode as Falstaff [in 1 Henry IV] and Hamlet are in theirs" (203); "Rosalind is the most admirable personage in all of Shakespeare" (207); "she must be the most remarkable and persuasive representation of a woman in all of Western literature" [!] (221). This praise may be extravagant, but as you will see, As You Like It is indeed Rosalind's play.
In the world of Arden, the hierarchical social order of "the real world" melts largely away, and Rosalind is, in her disguise as the male Ganymede, able to take on supremacy in a variety of ways she could not in the world of the court—at least without being thought as much an oddity as Katharina the shrew is early on in The Taming of the Shrew. Rosalind is bold enough to indicate her interest in Orlando even before she enters the world of Arden ("Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown / More than your enemies" [1.2.244-45], by which she means "you have overthrown me as well as your wrestling opponent"). But when she meets Orlando later, in the forest, Rosalind-as-Ganymede instructs Orlando in how to go about winning her, Rosalind's, love—the irony gets deliciously deep when Rosalind pretends to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. Although she gains license to be so forward only through her male disguise, she seems as much in firm control of her courtship of Orlando as Petruchio is of his with Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew. And of course in the end, it is Rosalind who single-handedly unravels all the threads of confusion between Orlando and herself and Phoebe and Silvius in the neatly-orchestrated climactic scene in Act 5. She is in charge of things throughout, once she escapes Duke Frederick's court and enters into the "magical" world of Arden.
Touchstone is another comic gem, and though there are predecessors in different sorts of "clownish" characters in Shakespeare's earlier plays, he is the first actual "fool" dressed in the motley colors of the official court jester. From medieval times, English nobles kept more literal "fools," men with diminished intellectual capacity, as part of their households for the purpose of entertainment. More than actual "jesters," who told jokes and had comedy routines to entertain their patrons, the originals of these "fools" were found humorous because they were in one respect or another mentally or intellectually deficient, lacking proper understanding of the world as adults, and their noble masters found their "slow-witted" comments on all manner of subjects highly diverting. The cruel inhumanity of this practice is certainly hard for us to fathom from our twenty-first-century perspective. These official "fools" were generally well-cared-for, however, and there was a documented history of men pretending to be dim-witted just so that they could be taken in and maintained by those wealthy enough to "keep" professional "fools."
Historically, and certainly in Shakespeare's plays, "fools" have greater license to speak freely on any subject whatsoever than any other persons. In fact, their patrons often goaded them to make shocking, rude, and unacceptably bold or direct criticisms of other persons (and in their presence): in theory, the target of the fool's wit should hardly get too upset at what a fool might say about him or her because, after all, the fool was a fool (see Jaques's speeches on this subject in 2.7.36-61). As Jaques says, when wishing that he could wear the motley uniform of the fool, "I must have liberty / Withal, as large a charter as the wind, / To blow on whom I please, for so fools have" (2.7.47-49). And indeed, proper fools were permitted to speak more freely than others without fear of chastisement.
The "clownish" fool-type characters in Shakespeare's plays before 1599 were used primarily for slapstick humor of a physical sort such as we saw glimpses of in the Dromios of The Comedy of Errors. The chief comic actor in the troupe, Will Kempe, was replaced in the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1599, however, and Shakespeare wrote the role of Touchstone specifically to accommodate the talents of his replacement, Robert Armin, a small man who was less a physical actor and more a master of musical and verbal skills that Shakespeare would capitalize upon in a variety of "clever clown" roles from 1599 forward (Boyce 34).
With Touchstone, certainly, and indeed with any official "fool" in Shakespeare's plays, you should be intently on the lookout not just for humorous silliness—and certainly none of the kind suggesting serious, legitimate mental deficiencies—but rather, for the fool to offer very keen and intelligent insights indeed. Often, under the guise of being able to speak freely in a fashion that others could not, as was the case with actual kept "fools," Shakespeare's fools speak some of the most important truths in a given play. Just as it is something of a stock idea that a "blind" person in Shakespeare will "see" more clearly than characters with sight, so is it conventional that "fools" will often dash off greater wisdom in their "fooling" than would seem to be the case on the surface of things. Read each of Touchstone's speeches very carefully: discover what nuggets of truth he conveys both as humorous wit and as legitimate insights about the human condition.
A different sort of comedy: parallels and juxtapositions
As You Like It differs markedly from the two other comedies we've read in its dependence less upon plot for entertainment. In fact, this play is more about pure "entertainment" of different sorts than a tightly-woven story that holds our interest in purely narrative fashion as most stories do. As You Like It contains the greatest number of songs of any Shakespeare play, and in addition to the songs, there are "set pieces" of dramatic staging that are entertaining purely in their own right, as songs are, in the wrestling match between Charles and Orlando in Act 1 and in the wedding ceremony presided over by the god Hymen in Act 5.
There is clearly dramatic tension of the sort that drives most plots in Act 1: the initial scenario in which one duke has been banished to the forest by his usurping brother, in which Oliver plots to murder Orlando, and in which Rosalind's life is threatened if she remains at court set up dramatic conflicts aplenty, conflicts that in another play could easily support a tragic outcome for each of these threatened characters. However, in Acts 2-4 of As You Like It, it is not really the "what happens next" of most plots that moves the play forward and sustains the dramatic interest (as the question of how will the Katharina-Petruchio relationship work out does in The Taming of the Shrew, e.g.). Instead, this play works more by the interplay of ideas represented or expressed by different sets of characters in different scenes. As Charles Boyce puts it, "Instead of a plot, the play presents conversations among different combinations of characters. They talk mostly about romantic love, country living, or both. Their remarks weave a shimmering pattern of agreements and contradictions, harmonies and counterpoints, that constitute the substance of Acts 2-4" (38). What pushes the play forward and leads to its evocation of specific themes, or statements about life, is how different characters and situations echo, mirror, or contradict characters and situations in other scenes in the play. These are matters we will get into in discussion, but among other things to look for as you read, consider how different characters, or pairs of characters, or different scenes involving different sets of characters, focus on similar issues but with substantially different insights or outcomes. A few specific themes to consider include city life vs. rural life; the role of the "witty observer" (Touchstone vs. Jaques, e.g., and/or perhaps vs. Rosalind); romantic love, of course (the several sets of lovers); and Rosalind as Ganymede vs. Rosalind as herself—more to come in discussion.
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Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 5th edition. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988.
Baugh, A.C. , ed. A Literary History of England. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1948.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtable Press, 1990.
The passages below are by no means the only ones of especial importance in the play. They are but a selected few of many that help convey the play's central themes, motifs, or other key features. I encourage you to consider these passages for your contributions in discussion, certainly, but not exclusively these and these alone, by any means.
- They say he [the old Duke] is already in the Forest of Arden, and many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world. (1.1.110-14)
- Did you call, sir?
Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown
More than your enemies. (1.2.243-45)
- Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
"This is no flattery; these are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am." (2.1.1-11)
- Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with forked heads
Have their round haunches gored. (2.1.21-25)
- We that are true lovers run into strange capers; but as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly. (2.4.51-53)
- I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please, for so fools have.
And they that are most galled with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?
The "why" is plain as way to parish church:
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob. If not,
The wise man's folly is anatomized
Even by the squand'ring glances of the fool.
Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th'infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine. (2.7.47-61)
- DUKE SENIOR: thou see'st we are not all alone unhappy.
This wide and universal theater
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
JAQUES: 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. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy. . . . (2.7.135ff)
- Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is naught. (3.2.13-15)
- If I could meet that fancy-monger, I would give him some good counsel, for he seems to have the quotidian of love upon him. (3.3.355-57)
- AUDREY: I do not know what "poetical" is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?
TOUCHSTONE: No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign. (3.3.15-20)
- But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. (4.1.100-2).
- You have simply misused our sex in your love prate. We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest. (4.1.193-96)
- He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit. (5.4.105-6)
Discussion questions: a few matters to consider as you read:
Point out and discuss mirroring or ironic parallels between different characters or sets of characters in different scenes.
Discuss different views of city life vs. country life.
Point out and explain any of the many humorous witticisms delivered by Touchstone, Jaques, or Rosalind. What legitimate truths do they convey beneath the cover of their wit?
Discuss the significance of any of the songs: how do they relate to or comment upon the play's central themes or events?
What advice do characters offer other characters on the topic of love? Discuss especially Rosalind's "instruction" of Orlando: what does Ganymede teach Orlando about how to woo Rosalind?
Discuss the play's commentary upon gender and gender-roles. In particular, consider implications that arise from or are suggested by Rosalind's assumption of male identity.
Explore the depth and richness of Rosalind's character. What makes her so special that such eminent Shakespearean scholars as Harold Bloom consider her one of Shakespeare's three greatest characters (along with Falstaff and Hamlet)?
The play's continuing relevance: any significant applicability to modern readers?
Critical response options below: Address one of the options below (not both):
a): Explore/explain in some depth Touchstone's assertion that "the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign" (3.3.17-20)
b): Compare and contrast Touchstone and Jaques as observers of the human comedy, with greater attention to contrast than similarity. What fundamental differences can you discern in their views on life? Include at least two carefully selected quotations from each character to illustrate your claims.