Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: David Bevington
Peer Reviewed

As You Like It: Critical Reception


The Twentieth Century

9This buoyantly optimistic view of AYL continues on into some twentieth-century criticism, not surprisingly; the play is, after all, a romantic comedy ending in a regular feast of marriages. One particularly insightful book in this vein is Robert G. Hunter's Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (1965). Hunter defines the "comedy of forgiveness" as a sub-genre of romantic comedy, one in which forgiveness is at the heart of the plot and the theatrical experience of the play. AYL amply fits the definition; forgiveness is the key to the play's resolution. This idea gives us insight into the characters of the villains, Oliver and Duke Frederick: both are envious of their more virtuous brothers at the start of the play, and both would be more like those brothers if they knew how. The forest improbably, almost magically, shows them the way. Their embracing of the very qualities they have stood out against is sudden because the experience of conversion is appropriately sudden: they see the light, won to virtue by the charitable ways of forest life that the play has invited us to admire. Arthur Quiller-Couch (ed. 1926, x ff.), for one, agrees: AYL reveals Shakespeare at his happiest, showing us men and women who "are lost to the world for a time, to indulge their own happy proclivities and go back somehow regenerated."

10Just as a twentieth-century revolt against such genial verities inevitably found its way into British and American theatre, however, it was sure to do so in critical analyses of AYL. One line of revisionist investigation has been to look closely at what is far from idyllic in Arden. H. B. Charlton (1938, 278ff.) reminds us that "Arden is no conventional Arcadia. Winter, rough weather, the season's differences,s the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter's wind invade Arden as often as they invade this hemisphere of ours." Nature survives by killing its own creatures in a competition for survival, as evidenced in the saga of the weeping deer (2.1). Humans too suffer under harsh social inequalities, as we see in the plight of Corin, bound in servitude to a master who, in his "churlish disposition," "little recks to find the way to heaven / By doing deeds of hospitality" (2.4.76-8). J. Dover Wilson (1927) warns us not to miss "the vein of mockery that runs throughout," manifesting itself in the portrait of an aged servant (Adam) about to perish from hunger, or of Oliver, arriving in the forest 'footsore, in rags, and so dog-tired that when he falls asleep even a snake coiling about his throat is not able to wake him." Our first glimpse of Arden "is in winter-time." Caroline Spurgeon (1935, 276ff.) observes of the play's persistent nature imagery that it includes talk of thorny woods, briers, burs, and broken ears in the harvest field. Edward A. Armstrong (1946, 1963, 12ff.) points out how important are the doctrine of the Fall of Man and the story of the Prodigal Son as archetypes and background for the play.

11George Bernard Shaw, though reluctantly won over by some of Rosalind's witty iconoclasms which are perhaps not unlike Shaw's own, is merciless in his distaste for what is for him the play's saccharine empty-headed optimism. "Shakespear found that the only thing that paid in the theatre was romantic nonsense," writes Shaw. "When he was forced by this to produce one of the most effective samples of romantic nonsense in existence -- a feat which he performed easily and well -- he publicly disclaimed any responsibility for its pleasant and cheap falsehood by borrowing the story and throwing it in the face of the public with the phrase As You Like It." To Touchstone's wry characterization of life as as process wherein we ripe and ripe and then rot and rot (2.7.26-8), Shaw rejoins, "Now considering that this fool's platitude is precisely the 'philosophy' of Hamlet, Macbeth ('Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' etc.), Prospero, and the rest of them, there is something unendurably aggravating in Shakespeare giving himself airs with Touchstone, as if he, the immortal, ever, even at his sublimest, had anything different or better to say himself" (1986, p. 585). Shaw grumbles that Orlando's appeal for charity from Duke Senior and his co-mates ("If ever you have looked on better days," etc., 2.7.112-17) "would have revolted Mr. Pecksniff" in its pious show of weeping for the downtrodden: "Was ever such canting, snivelling, hypocritical unctuousness exuded by an actor anxious to show that he was above his profession, and was a thoroughly respectable man in public life?" The line in this speech that seems to Shaw particularly sanctimonious is, "If ever been where bells have knolled to church." Shaw crows in mock exultation: "How perfectly the atmosphere of the rented pew is caught in this incredible line!" (ed. Wilson, 28ff.).

12The famous Seven Ages of Man speech delivered by Jaques in 2.7 elicits from Shaw nothing but incredulity for its recitation of dreary commonplaces. "Shakespeare . . . with his usual incapacity for pursuing any idea, wanders off iinto a grandmotherly Elizabethan edition of the advertisement of Cassell's 'Popular Educator'. How anybody over the age of seven can take any interest in a literary toy so silly in its conceit and common in its ideas as the Seven Ages of Man passes my understanding." Shaw admires the play's lean prose style, but cannot resist using even this praise as a whipping boy for those places where Shakespeare writes instead in blank verse, "which any fool can write." Corin and Le Beau espeeially lapse into blank verse, "like Mr. Silas Wegg, on the most inadequate provocation; but at least there is not much of it" (ed. Wilson, 28ff.). The best thing,about Rosalind, in Shaw's view, is that she wears a skirt for only a few minutes, though lamentably she does then change into a wedding dress at the end, which "ought to convert the stupidest champion of petticoats to rational dress." Orlando comes across to Shaw as an "amiable, strong, manly, handsome, shrewd-enough-to-take-care-of-himself, but safely stupid and totally unobservant young man" (34).

13A substantial amount of scholarly writing about AYL in the twentieth century, especially in the earlier decades, concerns itself with source study: with Shakespeare's debt to Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, to Cervantes, to Robin Hood legends, to Spenser and Sidney and the pastoral tradition, to Renaissance theories about melancholy, to Renaissance Christian humanism, and still more. Historical scholars in this vein include W. W. Greg (1905), W. P. Ker (1916), E. K. Chambers (1930), Oscar J. Campbell (1943), Alfred Harbage (1947), Madeleine Doran (1954), Harold Jenkins (1955), R. P. Draper (1958), Marco Mincoff (1960), John Vyvyan (1961), David Young (1972), and still others. The scholarly endeavor in such undertakings is to provide historical perspective on Shakespeare's creativity by assessing what he has learned and how he has tranformed it. Sidney and Spenser point ways in which the Elizabethan lyric could reshape pastoral convention. A comparion of Shakespeare's play with Rosalynde can suggest in what ways Shakespeare passes judgment on the pastoral ideal and at the same time adapts its conventions for his own dramatic purposes. Cervantes offers a potential model for ridiculing pastoralism while at the same time making use of some especially beautiful episodes. A study of pastoralism can reveal how it can serve the purposes of comedy by showing up the absurdity of both court life and rural life. The long vogue of the pastoral, going back to Virgil and Theocritus, can suggest the universality of the human need for simplicity and innocence. A close examination of Arden reveals that it is the French Ardenne, Warwickshire's Arden, a natural landscape of the classical Golden Age, and the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood and his merry men all drawn into a composite whole. Christian Platonism can show how the human spirit is sure to rebel at certain autocratic forms of government. The characters Shakespeare adds, not having found them in his sources -- Jaques, Touchstone, Audrey, William -- are particularly instructive in enabling us to see the dramatist at work. AYL makes use of traditional pastoral themes while commenting thoughtfully on the pastoral itself.

14Such insights at their best offer much valuable information about the literary and cultural context in which Shakespeare wrote his play. As a method, this historical criticism offers itself as a kind of reaction against the prevailing character criticism of the nineteenth century and before. Historical scholars are not satisfied with appraisals of moral intent, or judging a play by how well it obeys the classical rules or satisfies emotional demands in the audience for poetic justice. Its practitioners tend to be not the poets and amateur essays of earlier generations but scholars associated with learned institutions. They tend to be keenly aware of the part played by artifice and convention in the construction of a play. A play is an artifice arising out of a historical mileu.

15Another kind of historical research has to do with the Elizabethan theatre and conditions of performance in Shakespeare's day. Again, this kind of scholarly work has flourished since the early twentieth century. E. K. Chambers has amassed an impressive amount of information about Shakespeare and his theatrical world in The Elizabethan Stage (four volumes, 1923) and William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols, 1930). Much more information has since been provided by Bernard Beckerman (Shakespeare at the Globe, 1962, 1967), Richard Hosley in several essays, Andrew Gurr in several studies, Work of this kind has enabled critics to appreciate the fluidity of Shakespeare's stage in AYL, the absence of scenery in the original performances, the function of male disguise for women characters originally played by juvenile male actors, other significances of costuming, the role of music, and much more. See, for example, John Russell Brown's Shakespeare and His Comedies (1957, 2nd ed. 1962, 141ff.), describing how the play, having begun with images of disorder in both the family and the state, arrives in the final scene at formal groupings, music, song, and dance, all presided over by the god Hymen in such a way as to express 'Shakespeare's ideal of love's order'. Peter Brook (ed. 1953, 6ff.) notes that much of the spirit in a successful production of AYL "comes from the juxtaposing of scenes written in different keys," so that the director "must not be afraid of inconsistency." A production stands or falls, says Brook, by the success with which the elements of fight, song, dance, movement, adventure, disguise, and high spirits are combined "swiftly, in a strong, clear-cut way." A director who fails to provide a terrific wrestling in Act 1 "betrays his author." See also the essay in this volume on AYL in Performance.

16Studies of language and imagery in AYL, as in other plays, have made great strides since the early twentieth century. Caroline Spurgeon (1935) notes how the conversation of Rosalind and Celia especially scintillates with witty images in a verbal firework display of similes, as when Rosalind imagines how time trots hard (i.e. joltingly, uncomfortably) with a maiden impatiently awaiting her marriage day, ambles lazily with a shiftless priest, gallops with a thief expecting to be hanged all too soon, and stays still with sleepy lawyers between court terms (3.2.304-27). Jaques too is given to artful similes; as Duke Senior says, when Jaques is in his sullen fits, "he's full of matter" (2.1.67-8). The play's nature images include many animal similes: pigeons feeding their young (1.2.90-1), a doe seeking food for its fawn (2.7.127), a weasel sucking eggs (2.5.12), wild geese flying (2.7.86), etc. Metaphors of gardening abound, of grafting (3.115), pruning (2.3.63), and weeding (2.7.45), generally bespeaking control and ordered harmony, Edward Armstrong (1946) pursues garden images in the biblical Garden of Eden, evoked for example when Touchstone jests about a tree yielding bad fruit (3.2.114). F. E. Halliday (1964) ventures that "probably no other play has so many aphorisms," as in "All the world's a stage" (2.7.138), or "Blow, blow, thou winter wind. / Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude" (2.7.173-5). Punning is incessant, as in Touchstone's playing on "bear" ("bear with" and "carry") and "cross" (a burden and a coin) at 2.4.10-12. J. W. Lever (ed. 1967) points to the prevalence of hunting images, not just because the play is set in a forest but because hunting can describe ways in which humans pursue other humans. Brian Vickers (1968) analyses the supple use of prose in AYL for riddling repartee, witty sophistry, and rhetorical chop-logic. H. J.Oliver (ed. 1968) concurs in his admiration for Shakespeare as an artist in prose: 'The prose is more artfully balanced and formal than one might think on first reading or hearing it.'

17Some astute critical observations on language and metaphor in AYL have pointed out how such devices often become reflexive, commenting on the very nature of dramatic art. For Edward I. Berry (1980), Rosalind, in her witty and playful control of the plot and its romantic outcome, is a figure of the playwright himself. Ruth Nevo (1980) essentially agrees, arguing that Rosalind's activities embody "comic pleasure itself," as she acts out a "liberating playful fantasy" testing herself and the other characters as well in terms of their capacities for loving commitment and happiness. Robert Watson (2003) takes the play's title, As You Like It, to signal a profound thematic interest in simile as an expression of the human wish to be coupled with others in likeness while at the same time fearing the loss of autonomy in too close an engagement with the loved person.

18In what ways does AYL reflect current events in the late 1590s? The question has fascinated a number of critics. They are generally agreed that the play shows a timely interest in the pastoral, in literary satire, in the stylish affection of melancholy, and in faddish allusions to humours psychology, as manifested in George Chapman's, An Humorous Day's Mirth (1597) and Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour (quarto version, 1598), and elsewhere. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London issued an edict prohibiting satires and epigrams on 1 June 1599, and calling for existing existing copies to be burned in public. Alan Brissenden (ed. AYL, 1993) proposes that the printing of AYL may have been 'stayed' because it contained Jaques's defense of satire. Richard McCabe (1981) wonders if Celia's line, 'the little wit that fools have was silenced' (1.2.85-6) alludes to this suppression of satire. A more plausible explanation, as Juliet Dusinberre (ed. AYL, 2006) observes, is that 'complaints against satire are ubiquitous in the 1590s'. Touchstone's talk of 'the most capricious poet, honest Ovid', among the Goths should perhaps remind us that Ovid's Amores was one of the book burned in 1599; see Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (1993, 159).

19More problematic is the play's putative relationship to current political controversy and particularly to the trouble being stirred up by Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, which would erupt into an abortive rebellion in 1601. George Chalmers was the first to suggest, in 1799, that the exile of Duke Senior to the Forest of Arden might reflect the sequestration of Essex when he returned from Ireland, having been unsuccessful there, in September 1599. Robert Cartwright (1864) adds to this hypothetical scenario by proposing that Duke Frederick is a stand-in for Lord Cecil. Such picklock interpretations quickly get out of hand. Cartwright, for instance, sees Orlando and Oliver as representing Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene. Anti-Stratfordians get into the act: Thomas Looney (1920) and Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn (1962), among others, identify Touchstone as the Earl of Oxford, with Touchstone's triumphing over William for the hand of Audrey as an implicit denial by William Shakespeare that he was the author of this and other plays. Jaques is variously identified with John Lyly, Essex, Philip Sidney, Oxford, and still others. See Knowles, ed. AYL, 537-8, for a fuller account.

20More sanely, but still controversially, Juliet Dusinberre (2006) pursues the candidacy of Essex, that charismatic and troublesome focus of political restiveness in the late years of Elizabeth's reign. The Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare had appealed for patronage in his early poems, was a close associate of Essex. Shakespeare seemingly alludes to Essex as a heroic warrior in the last chorus of Henry V (1599). Troilus and Cressida may well echo the strive-torn atmosphere of Essex's failed rebellion in 1601. In early 1599 Essex was poised for departure to Ireland, amidst high hopes but also with a marked awareness of Queen Elizabeth's displeasure at delays in the expedition. Dusinberre thinks AYL may have been written for the delectation of the Essex circle. Is Essex portrayed in the play as a Robin-Hood figure leading his gallant associates into a kind of exile like that of Duke Senior and his co-mates? An obvious difficulty in this interpretation is that Essex in early 1599 was not yet in disgrace, though Essex did complain to the Queen in March 1599 that his appointment to Ireland amounted to a kind of enforced rustication. Could the fiction have anticipated the reality? Do the rivalries in the play reflect hard feelings between Essex and Sir Walter Ralegh? Is the play's reconciliation in harmony a plea for a reconciliation that was not to be fulfilled? Michael Hattaway (2000) prefers instead to see a political connection in the play's implicit comment on pastoral complaints against enclosure and other injustices of the landowning system. As Hattaway says, 'pastoral is a kind of history, not an escape from politics but a reading of politics' (24).

21No less controversial as a topical reading is Dusinberre's contention that the character of Touchstone was written not for Robert Armin, as commonly argued by theater historians, but for Will Kemp. Armin joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men late in 1599. The traditional view is that a shift in comic styles is discernible, from Kemp's more clownish roles of Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595) and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9) to the wittily wise fools like Touchstone, Feste in Twelfth Night (1600-2), Lavatch in All's Well That Ends Well (c. 1601-5), and the Fool in King Lear (c. 1605-6). Whether Kemp also played Falstaff in 1 and 2 Henry IV (1596-8) is debated. The date of Kemp's departure is unsure, and so is the exact date of AYL. Armin was known for his witty philosophical line of fooling, and was even published in this vein, so that the idea that Shakespeare's company recruited him to give Shakespeare the opportunity to develop a deeper and more melancholy sort of folly is attractive; but then Armin was famous also as a singer. Feste, Lavatch, and Lear's Fool are much given to song, but Touchstone does not sing. Kemp was also a phenomenal dancer. Dusinberre, who argues for a date of AYL early in 1599, allows that Armin may have taken over the part when Kemp left. The point of the as-yet-unresolved argument would then seem to be, for whom did Shakespeare originate the role? If for Kemp, the puzzle would still remain: why is it that Touchstone's delicious foolery seems so well suited to the actor who would go on to be Feste, Lavatch, and Lear's Fool? How specialized was the role of the fool in Shakespeare's plays?

22Issues of gender and sexuality have gained increasing visibility in our postmodern world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The idea that sexual identity is largely performed or constructed rather than genetically fixed lends itself adroitly to Shakespeare's practice in this play (as also in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline) of centering his plot around a young woman, played by a boy actor in Shakespeare's company, who cross-dresses as a young man. Unquestionably, Shakespeare is playing with ambiguities of sexual identity, and with hints of homoeroticism; after all, Rosalind chooses to disguise herself with the name of Ganymede, Zeus's young male cupbearer and lover. James Bulman (2004) is on record as saying, a propos of an all-male 1991 production of AYL, 'It is time to bring Cheek By Jowl's As You Like It out of the closet' (quoted by Dusinberre, 20). Bulman rightly sees that production as having raised issues of contemporary gay politics about homophobia, AIDS, and the like. The relationship between Rosalind (Adrian Lester) and Celia (Tom Hollander) was delicately balanced between sisterly and gay affection. The scenes of courtship between Rosalind and Orlando (Patrick Toomey) were, as Bulman describes them, "played unabashedly as two men pledging their love to one another."

23"Feminist thought has highlighted the audacity and originality of Shakespeare's conception of Rosalind," writes Dusinberre (9), "analysing the ways in which the play participates in an Elizabethan questioning of attitudes to women." Among the critics who pay particular attention to these aspects of AYL are Alan Bray (Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 1982), Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, 1990), Stephen Orgel (Impersonations, 1996), Mario DiGangi (The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama, 1997, focusing particularly on the mythological story of Jupiter's desire for his page Ganymede), Valerie Traub (Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakesparean Drama, 1997, arguing that the practice of having boys play women's roles enhanced the opportunity for depicting multiple sexual desires), and Theodora A. Jankowski, Pure Risistance: Queer Virginity in Early Modern English Drama (2000). Stage history, as Dusinberre observes (17-18), has often documented the thinness of the line separating masculine from feminine in AYL. Michael Redgrave fell in love with Edith Evans as the Rosalind to his Orlando in the Old Vic's production of 1936, directed by Esmè Church: being bisexual himself, did Redgrave fall in love with Rosalind, or Ganymede, or some admixture of the two? Unisex styles in clothing and haircut in recent years complicate the issue of how to convey the maleness of Rosalind's disguise, but by the same token enrich the opportunities for exploring ambiguity of sexual identity. In 1599, Shakespeare had to negotiate the delicate matter of widespread disapproval of cross-dressing women; puritanical opposition to theater thrived on what was regarded as transgressive, and male egos felt threatened by women assuming male roles. The play does close on an array of heterosexual unions, though it arrives at that conclusion in an endlessly playful manner. Rosalind in her/his epilogue thereupon courts both women and men in the audience, erasing the boundary also between stage character and stage performer. AYL is thus a play with a particular relevance for theater audiences and readers today.