When are we?
As You Like It was (probably) written in 1599, though as with most of the details of Shakespeare's life, we can't pinpoint it exactly. But certainly it was during Queen Elizabeth's reign over a powerful England. Shakespeare's acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were in particular favor with the Queen, and they were in the process of building a brand new theatre on the south side of the Thames. Yup--the Globe. Things were looking good for Will. He had just written Much Ado, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. Only a year later, he would write Hamlet.
Will's histories--and to a lesser extent, his tragedies--tend to be full of political and societal commentary. His comedies, a little less so. But that doesn't mean that there is no contemporary political statement being made in As You Like It. There are some references to Elizabethan law throughout the story that might have been considered controversial. For example, Oliver is well within his legal rights to deny his younger brother Orlando any privileges or property, regardless of their father's dying wishes. Many thought this a short-sighted law, and perhaps they would have been cheered by Orlando's inheritance in the end. But clearly, political and legal exploration is not the purpose of As You Like It, and thus the play only touches upon such topics.
During this time, about 200,000 people lived in London (which had a much smaller footprint than it does today). Overpopulation was a real problem, and a lot of people were crammed into not a lot of space. To give some perspective, the city of Norwich had 15,000 and Newcastle only had 10,000. London was crowded, and the pressure of that overcrowding was a grinding part of everyday life; not to mention the fact that the spread of disease (small pox, influenza, and the plague) was a big problem.
The Elizabethan class system was another oppressive part of life. The poor were barely scraping by, and the rich lived lives that were rigidly ruled by societal constructs and courtly conduct.
The theatre can be seen as a bright spot in all this. It provided a momentary escape from the pressures of city life. Unlike the other live entertainment available to Londoners (e.g. violent bear/dog baiting), it was a thought-provoking, peaceful retreat for both the rich and poor of London.
Will recognized the need for a simpler life and a quieter space. And thus, his pastoral play was born. Read on for more.
Painting: Daniel Maclise, The Wrestling Scene in 'As You Like It' 1854
Rosalynd v. Rosalind
Big surprise: this story isn't entirely original to Shakespeare. But this can be said about most of his work. (Generally, it is thought that The Tempest and Midsummer were his own invention, and the rest are lifted heavily from source materials.) A primary source for As You Like It was Thomas Lodge's Rosalynd, written in 1590. Will took this prose romance and translated it into his own masterpiece only 9(ish) years later. Don't judge him too harshly for that--modern copyright laws and ideas of artistic ownership are very different from the laws and artistic culture of Shakespeare's time. Guys--everyone was doing it.
Lodge's play provided Will with all his central characters except Jaques, Touchstone, and Audrey. It's hard to imagine the merit of the show without them when you consider the level of intellect and/or humor they bring to the piece. There's no denying that Shakespeare lifted a lot of his plots and characters over the years, but he certainly had a knack for improving them.
A pastoral play.
To understand the thematic purpose of As You Like It, you'll want to know what a pastoral work is. Pastoralism was inspired by ancient Greek literature. Basically, a pastoral story takes place in the country or forest and usually features a significant transition from a complex life in the city to a simpler one in nature. An example we all know: Robin Hood and his merry men. Oh, and look--Shakespeare even uses that powerful reference right at the top of the show to set the mood! "...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."
In many ways, Shakespeare purposefully exaggerates the qualities of a pastoral play: the humor, the wit, the simplicity of life and love. So while Will is definitely writing in the pastoral style, he is also poking fun at it--lovingly, of course.
As You Like It is set in the French court and the nearby Forest of Arden. Turns out, there is a forest in France named Ardenne, so story checks out. And there was also a forest named Arden near Shakespeare's hometown. What a nice way to tie everything back into familiar English culture. After all, audiences like to see things they recognize up on the stage.
The word Arden draws from Arcadia (a paradise on earth from mythology) and Eden (the paradise of Adam and Eve). Nice touch.
Oh, but there's more. Arden was Shakespeare's mother's maiden name. Perhaps just a coincidence or simply a nod to a familiar family name. But maybe this was a touch of Shakespeare's personal yearning to return to a simpler time.
While it is true that not much happens plot-wise in As You Like It, those who dismiss the play as shallow in this regard may be missing the point. It is an intellectual retreat meant to stimulate the mind, full of songs, word-play, poetry, and intellect. We must remember that this is a pastoral piece, one that removes its characters from the complexities of society to enjoy a simpler time. Then we realize that just as "there's no clock in the forest" for our heroes, so it is for the audience. We travel with them to Arden and lose ourselves in the simplicity of life, without sacrificing the poetry and magic of it. It's a vacation for us as much as for Rosalind.
"And in my heart, lie there what hidden women's fears there will, we'll have a swashing and a marshal outside..."
Rosalind smashes the patriarchy.
A cross-dressing lady is no stranger to the Shakespearean stage. In choosing to disguise herself as a man, Rosalind isn't doing anything more bold than Viola, Julia, and Imogen did before her. But there are a few ways in which Rosalind out-mans the others.
To begin with, Rosalind doesn't exactly have to disguise herself as a man. Celia first presents her with a more obvious option.
ROSALIND: Alas, what danger will it be to us, maids are we are, to travel forth so far. Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.
CELIA: I'll put myself in poor and mean attire and with a kind of umber smirch my face. The like do you, so shall we pass along and never stir assailants.
Solid plan. But Rosalind has another idea. One that she comes up with suspiciously quickly...almost as if she's thought this through already, and in great detail.
ROSALIND: Were it not better, because that I am more than common tall that I did suit me at all points like a man? A gallant curtal-ax upon my thigh, a boar spear in my hand...we'll have a swashing and a marshal outside...
No doubt about it--Rosalind gets real into the idea real fast.
Since her disguise is only meant to shield them from the dangers of the road, she should be able to abandon it as soon as they arrive safely in Arden. But, she doesn't. She maintains her male identity and seems to revel in it. She certainly takes full advantage of her independence, doing many things that an Elizabethan woman could never have done.
Interesting side note: some people argue that Rosalind keeps her man's apparel on in the forest because otherwise, she could not have purchased the cottage and pasture from Corin's master, nor could she own the farm as a single woman. This is not true--it was only married women who could not purchase or own property. Single or widowed women could absolutely own land--especially if they paid in cash. Also, Rosalind does not purchase the cottage herself. She entreats Corin to do it for her, and she reimburses him afterward. Let's just face it--Rosalind was having fun and wasn't ready to be done with it.
What's in a gender?
The Elizabethans had a different understanding of gender roles than we do today. Gender and class were identified primarily through behavior and clothing. Simply put, only men dressed and acted like men and only women dressed and acted like women--end of story. So when Rosalind cross-dresses and plays up her masculinity, the transformation would have seemed pretty realistic to the contemporary audience. Instant man, just add pants.
Rosalind's role-play throws into sharp reality how fragile gender roles actually are. All she needs to do is dress the part and speak her mind and suddenly she is afforded all the luxuries of a man. So maybe the divide between men and women is about as flimsy as a simple pair of breeches.
Rosalind’s epilogue complicates the idea of gender identity even further. The original actor playing Rosalind would have been male. Rosalind fully owns up to that truth in her epilogue, and truly, it is more the boy from Shakespeare's company speaking to us than it is Rosalind. “If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me…” In that moment, we are compelled to remember that Rosalind was once a boy playing a woman playing a boy. This gets even crazier in modern productions when an actual woman speaks the line. The tangled levels of gender identity here is not a mistake. Shakespeare is simply reminding us that, just maybe, gender roles are not so set in stone.
Painting by Francis Hayman
Test your understanding of the characters and their motivations by identifying who said what.
- "'Twas I, but 'tis not I. I do not shame to tell you what I was, since my conversion so sweetly tastes, being the thing I am."
- "Treason is not inherited my lord, or if we did derive it from our friends, what's that to me? My father was no traitor."
- "...the spirit of my father, which I think is within me, begins to mutiny against this servitude. I will no longer endure it..."
- "I do now remember a saying: 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.'"
- "When I did hear the motley fool thus moral on the time, my lungs began to crow like chanticleer that fools should be so deep-contemplative, and I did laugh sans intermission an hour by his dial. O noble fool! A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear."
- "If she be a traitor, why so am I. We still have slept together, rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together, and, wheresoe'er we went, like Juno’s swans still we went coupled and inseparable."
- "Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of painted pomp?"
- "A gallant curtal ax upon my thigh, a boar spear in my hand, and in my heart--lie there what hidden women's fears there will--we'll have a swashing and a marshal outside, as many other mannish coward have that do outface it with their semblances."
- "Do you wish then that the gods had made me poetical?"
- "Know of me then—for now I speak to some purpose—that I know you are a gentleman of good conceit. I speak not this that you should bear a good opinion of my knowledge, insomuch I say I know you are."
"Whoever loved but loved not at first sight?"
Fools in the forest.
As You Like It was written in Queen Elizabeth's England, and although the Forest of Arden and the nearby court are (mostly) fictitious places, they are clearly established with all the societal constructs of an Elizabethan court. It would have been highly unusual for nobles of the court to marry for love; rather, strict rules dictated who would marry whom and marriages were often arranged. Certainly women did not have much say in whom they wedded.
So when Rosalind, Orlando, Celia, and Olivier run away into the woods, fall in mutual love, and get married, it's a pretty bold move. (Particularly in Rosalind's case since she's the primary wooer in her relationship.) In this play, Shakespeare explores a more whimsical, freer existence. One where we are more in tune with nature, and thus with our own desires; one where people can fall in love and marry one another; one where society is stripped away and we become our true selves.
Love & Marriage
Will explores many different kinds of love through the various couples who woo and wed in the forest. Let's take a look at the lovers and see what kinds of love they represent.
Rosalind & Orlando: Worth the wait
Rosalind and Orlando's love is at the heart of the story, and thus is established as the most deeply felt and explored relationship. There is certainly an initial sense of "love at first sight" with these two. When they meet at the wrestling match, there is a glimmer of extraordinary feeling. But instantly, they both are dealt crippling (albeit separate) blows: Rosalind is banished from the court and Oliver has plotted against Orlando's life. Their romance takes a back seat as they separately flee to the Forest of Arden.
When we first meet Orlando, he has given up on the world and seems ready for death. "Only in the world do I take up a place." But once he is safely settled into his new forest home with Duke Senior, his love rises again to the surface and gives his life new meaning. Rosalind likewise recalls her love for Orlando once she is safely settled in her country cottage, and her love becomes her purpose. In their time apart, their love has room to kindle and grow into a flame.
Then Rosalind is given an almost unimaginable opportunity--to fully explore Orlando's love without ever having to expose her own feelings (or identity) to him. She is able to figure out exactly who he is, exactly what kind of lover he would be, all without having to put her own heart on the line. Through their shared word-play, role-play, and friendly feuding, Rosalind (as Ganymede) is able to establish an honest friendship with Orlando, which serves as a strong foundation for a real relationship. One could argue, too that her disguise allows her to be more honest in her relationship with Orlando. She is allowed to become his friend without the constructs of courtly wooing and its strict gender roles.
We can't help but be left with the feeling that, yes--this couple is worth shipping.
Celia & Oliver: Love at First sight
Celia and Oliver are the classic example of love at first sight. They "no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed..." Oliver transformation from an unfriendly (and somewhat murderous) brother to a kind and contented man is made complete the moment he sees Celia.
It only takes 1.5 scenes for these two to meet, fall in love, and marry. Through them, we see a simple, fairy tale love--perhaps one that seems more fantastical or unbelievable than the others. Yet we ultimately accept it as another form that love takes--one that is swift and merciless. "They are in the very wrath of love and they will together--clubs cannot part them."
Phebe & Silvius: Unrequited Love
Silvius is just as lovestruck as any of the others, but he is the only one with the misfortune to not have his love returned. Actually, he has his love thrown back in his face time and again. Phebe wants nothing to do with him, and she's not afraid to say it--loudly.
Yet he has no intention of giving up and he follows Phebe like a wounded puppy. In the end, he gets what he wants, though it remains to be seen if what pleases him contents him. It is easy for us to relate to Silvius's love-pains (who hasn't been rejected at some point?), and this couple reminds us that not all love is as easily won as others.
Audrey & Touchstone: Basest Pleasures
Perhaps the simplest example of love, Touchstone and Audrey represent a very simple want: lust. Their desire to get married stems from a desire to at least attempt to follow societal rules. "Sluttishness may come hereafter."
Though we could dig a little deeper. Touchstone is a clever fool, spending most of the play indulging in witty word-play (even cheering the melancholy Jaques with his intellect). Yet Audrey is about as simple as they come. Touchstone and Audrey remind us that we don't choose who we love. Sometimes, it makes no sense on paper, but somehow, it just works.
Brotherly (and sisterly) love
"...and never two ladies loved as they do."
Beyond romance, As You Like It explores familial strains of love. Brotherly relationships are at the heart of the show's plot--Duke Fredrick and Duke Senior have fallen completely away from one another, turned from brothers to bitter rivals. The du Boys brothers are headed down that path, too. Oliver claims, "I never loved my brother in my life." He is so jealous of his younger brother Orlando that he even plots to have him killed. This brotherly rivalry is keen throughout the show in both the older and younger generations. Yet in the end, we get to see a brotherly love reestablished through Orlando and Oliver.
But Celia and Rosalind seem to have it figured out from the get-go. "...never two ladies loved as they do." They are inseparable, like Juno's swans, and they stay that way. Their love is never put to question or test, and in this way, their's is perhaps the most pure love on the stage.
Painting: Brides and Bridegrooms All, by Richard Russell
List of Characters
- Rosalind--The heroine of our story, daughter of the banished Duke Senior, childhood friend of Celia's. She disguises herself as a boy called Ganymede. She falls deeply in love with Orlando.
- Celia--Rosalind's childhood best friend, Duke Frederick's daughter. A clever and deeply loyal friend. She disguises herself as the shepherdess Aliena.
- Orlando--the younger brother of Oliver, treated poorly by his brother and eventually exiled to the woods. He is deeply in love with Rosalind.
- Oliver--Orlando's older brother. He has little love for Orlando at the beginning of our story.
- Touchstone--the clownish fool of Duke Fredrick's court who travels with Rosalind and Celia to the forest of Arden where he meets his love--Audrey.
- Jaques--a melancholy and pensive forester living with Duke Senior and his lords.
- Duke Frederick--The reigning duke at court who, before our play begins, has banished his older brother, Duke Senior. He is Celia's father.
- Duke Senior--Duke Fredrick's older brother, Rosalind's father, and the central figure of the banished lords who live happily in the Forest of Arden.
- Phebe--a shepherdess living in Arden who has little love for Silvius and much love for Ganymede.
- Silvius--a shepherd living in Arden who is madly in love with Phebe.
- Audrey--a very simple country girl.
- Corin--a shepherd who works at the farm that Rosalind and Celia purchase.
- Jaques de Boys--middle brother of Oliver and Orlando
A quick list of interesting facts, fun pictures, and links.
- Rosalind is Shakespeare's largest female role at 685 lines, making her part larger than many famous male protagonists, including Prospero, Romeo, and Falstaff. But while she's first on the list of female leads, she's number 15 when compared to all the men in his cannon.
- The plot and characters for As You Like It were all lifted from Thomas Lodges' Rosalynd. All except Touchstone, Audrey, and Jaques.
- In 1879, a production of As You Like It in Stratford-upon-Avon featured a real, and freshly killed, deer. Gross.
- There are more songs in As You Like It than in any other Shakespeare play.
- Peg Woffington played Rosalind on the London stage for almost 16 years, from 1741-57.
- The Forest of Arden (or Ardenne) might be real--there is one near Shakespeare's hometown and one in France. But Will might have also been inspired by his mother's maiden name (Arden) while creating the fictional setting.
- The 1996 movie directed by Kenneth Branaugh relocates the setting to 19th century Japan.
- George Bernard Shaw famously disliked Shakespeare's plays. He considered As You Like It to be particularly flimsy and pandering. He suggested that the title itself was the ultimate sell-out, throwing romantic nonsense in the audiences' face.
- The "fool in a forest" speech takes on a new (and raunchy) meaning when you hear it in original pronunciation--how we think Shakespeare's company sounded. Warning: mildly dirty joke ahead
Painting: John Downman
Use these as prompts for classroom discussion, essay questions, or simply as inspiration for your critical mind.
- What statements about gender identity is Shakespeare making throughout this play? In what ways does Rosalind become more true to herself as a man than she is as a woman? How does her final epilogue complicate her gender identity even further?
- When is the music of the play used as a transitional device and when does it serve a more thematic purpose? Or are those two ever separate?
- Like many comedies, As You Like It ends with a wedding. Compare and contrast the relationships between the four couples. What does Shakespeare have to say about love and marriage?
- There are parallel relationships between brothers for Duke Fredrick/Duke Senior and Orlando/Oliver. In both cases, someone undergoes a conversion. How does the forest setting facilitate these transformations?
- What is Shakespeare saying about the relationship between wealth and happiness? How does he use the different settings of court and the forest to highlight those differences?
- Though Jacques, Shakespeare famously described the seven ages of man for his early modern audience. How might the seven ages of man look different for today's world? What about the seven ages of woman?
Glossary of Terms
- countenance--facial expression
- gentility--good brith/family
- umber--a brownish yellow color
- invectively--bitterly criticizing
- quail--cower in fear
- chanticleer--the name of the rooster in the folk tale of Reynard the Fox
- incontinent--lacking in self-restraint
- ditty--a simple poem/song
- chipher--an insignificant person
- peevish--cross, stubborn
- victualled--supplied with food