I have been away from Shakespeare for far too long. I have taken two courses in Shakespeare, one in college and one in graduate school. In both cases, we spent the majority of the time studying his histories and tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Henry V, etc.), as well as the history of the period, his contemporaries (Marlowe, Jonson, Lily, Nashe, etc.) and some of the sonnets. In only one class did we read a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I firmly believe we only read this one because a) the instructor felt it necessary to include at least one example of Shakespeare’s comedic work and b) the instructor was also interested in mythology. So, I went into this play not having read any Shakespeare in more than 4 years and having very little experience with his comedies, though I’ve read quite a bit of his oeuvre.
While it is impossible to know just how much of As You Like It is still in its original form (this play, like all his others, was changed multiple times to suit stage needs and audience feedback, prior to having been printed for the first time), it is clear that it was likely written around 1599 (near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign) and that it fits into the genre of the pastoral, which is inspired by ancient Greek literature. As in other pastoral stories, this one includes high-ranking members of society who must flee from court and hide in the countryside, for fear of imprisonment or execution. They abandon their princely lives to become shepherds, farmers, shopkeepers, etc.
As the play begins, we learn that Sir Rowland de Bois has died and his power and property have passed on to his eldest son Oliver. Oliver is charged with taking care of his brother, Orlando, but the brothers are not friends and Oliver instead completely neglects Orlando, leaving him without education, without property, and without any training which might allow Orlando to advance in the world and make a life for himself. There is a wrestling match at court, which Oliver attempts to “fix” so that the master wrestler, Charles, will kill Orlando during the match – but Orlando wins and during the match catches the eye of the beautiful Rosalind (who is the daughter of Duke Senior, who has been usurped by his brother, Frederick). After the match, Orlando learns that he must flee for his safety, so he heads for the Forest of Ardenne, where Duke Senior happens to be hiding, and is soon followed there (unknowingly) by Rosalind and her bosom friend Celia, both of whom are disguised (Rosalind as a boy, Celia as a darker-skinned peasant).
Ultimately, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to find Orlando and bring back Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter), and threatens him with destruction and poverty if he fails. In the Forest of Ardenne, Orlando meets Rosalind as Ganymede (that name should ring some bells!), who says he will pretend to be Rosalind so that Orlando can practice courting her. This is some of the most elaborate gender-bending in literary history and is somewhat shocking to find in a 17th Century play. Rosalind will eventually become the mastermind of a community wedding, where four couples get married, after agreeing to her terms (given as Ganymede) the day before. There was a woman in love with Rosalind (as Ganymede) who agrees to marry another man, if Ganymede can convince her not to want to marry him (which he does by revealing himself to be a woman) and an agreement from her father, Duke Senior, that he will allow his daughter, Rosalind, to marry Orlando, if only they could find Rosalind (which, again, comes true after Ganymede takes off his disguise).
It gets even more complicated when we recall that, at the time, women’s roles would have been played by boys. So, here we have a boy playing Rosalind, who then – in the play- pretends to be a boy (so a boy playing a girl playing a boy), who then reveals himself to be a girl (all the while still a boy in real life). Talk about a sense of humor!
The primary theme of As You Like It seems to be the complexity of life and the tongue-in-cheek spoofing of conventional romances, where men are love slaves to their ladies and where love itself acts like a disease, disabling its sufferer. This play is littered with arguments, possibilities, choices, and dichotomies, all of which are presented as realities of life, without much (if any) preaching on Shakespeare’s part. There are plenty of binaries, but few didactic absolutes – it is as if Shakespeare is saying, “these are the many ways man and woman can live, the many choices they could make, and who are we to say which is right or wrong?”
My thoughts are all over the place on this one, because there is so much going on (within the play) and so much being said (by Shakespeare, through the play). That being said, the plot and story are surprisingly easy to follow, despite the play’s complexity. It is also highly entertaining and enjoyable because of the novelty of the story, for its time, and also because of its farcical nature and its ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of love, all the while being a love story. Enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking, and funny. Classic Shakespeare.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Roles, Primogeniture, Patriarchy, History, Comedy/Drama, Identity, Homoeroticism, , Cross-dressing.
Symbols/Motifs: Ganymede, Poetry (Orlando), Cuckoldry; Exile, Artifice, Homoeroticism.
Dichotomies: City (Court) vs Country; Nature vs Fate; Realism vs. Romance; Old vs. Young; Noble Birth vs. Social Advancement; Reason vs. Foolishness.
“The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.” (11)
“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (25)
“I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it.” (33)
“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.” (44)
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (89)
*Page numbers correspond to the 2000 Pelican Shakespeare edition, ed. by Frances E. Dolan.