Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: David Bevington
Peer Reviewed

As You Like It: Critical Reception


Victorian Criticism

5Victorian criticism of AYL, as of Shakespeare generally, tends to exalt Shakespeare as a poet and philosopher rather than as a playwright, and as a creator of immortal characters whose "lives" might be appreciated as though those characters enjoyed an existence quite apart from their fictional existence. Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, in their edition of 1864, stress the literary and generic features of the Forest of Arden: it "represents a poetical forest generally, where lovers, dukes, lords, shepherds, jesters, natural philosophers and artificial philosophers, lions and lambs, serpents and goats, oaks and olives, palm-trees and osiers, may all flourish contentedly and plausibly, without disturbing the peace of those whose imaginations accept the truths of poetry as universal truth, not mere geographical, animal, or botanical literalities." Arden is "the archetype of poetic and romantic forests." Critics such as these see Arden as a wholesome and restorative place, inhabited for the most part by charitable and loving folks. The moral contrast of country and court is edifyingly plain. Values of generosity, forbearance, good nature, honesty, and chaste if romantic affection help define Shakespeare as an unholder of decency and idealism. Despite a few sly sexual double entendres, offered espcially by Touchstone, AYL is seen as good innocent entertainment well suited to Dr. Thomas Bowdler's Family Shakespeare. "Perhaps there is no play more full of real moral lessons than As You Like It," declares Charles Knight in his 1841 edition. Shakespeare's "moral lesson" is to be collected not out of sermonizing but "out of his incidents and characters." Edward Dowden is sure that the marked preference for Arden over "the envious court" is autobiographical: "Shakspere turned with a sense of relief, and a long easeful sigh, from the oppressive subjects of history, so grave, so real, so massive, and found rest and freedom and pleasure in escape from courts and camps to the Forest of Arden" (1875, 75ff.). After all, Shakespeare grew up in bucolic Stratford-upon-Avon, and his mother's family name was Arden. To Grace Latham (1982299), "The underlying thought in the play is this struggle between good and evil." C. A. Wurtzburg insists that "The deep truths that may be gathered from this play of As You Like It are the innate dignity of the human soul, . . . the development of self. . . . [and] the aim of true self-fulfillment in the good, not of each individual, but of society" (1892,1863 498).

6For Victorian critics, as for the Romantics, character criticism tends to be moral and appreciative, applauding virtuous conduct and deploring its opposite as positive and negative models for human behavior. Rosalind ceaselessly delights readers with her complementary qualities of adventurousness and sagacity, mischivousness and tenderness, sense of humor and romantic passion, courage and weakness. She is at once "a Grace, a Muse, an angel, an imp," says Daniel O'Sullivan (1838, p. 81). "Such is the woman that God has made." Georg Gervinus finds her loyal in her friendships, innately good-humored, enterprising, plucky, and delightfully iconoclastic (1849-50, trans. 1875, 1.554ff.). We bask in her wit, say the Clarkes in 1863. Rosalind manages somehow to be feminine and modest even in her man's attire. She is especially winsome in her manner of deflating the coquettishness that is so often attributed to her sex (Helena Faucit Martin, 1884, 405). Male critics tend to appreciate Rosalind's robust beauty and charm together with the absence of Beatrice's sharp edge. Rosalind is, for Richard G. White, "the most charming, the most captivating, of all Shakespeare's women" (1885, 247). Women like Helena Martin are drawn to Rosalind because she is so unhampered by claptrap romantic illusions about falling in love. Rosalind has good reason to hope, then, as she says in her epilogue, "that betweeen you [the men] and the women the play may please." Victorian critical opinion avidly endorse her view that both the men and the women of the period find Rosalind irresistible.

7Jaques suffers the one real danger posed by the Forest of Arden, which is ennui leading to melancholy. Such, in Georg Gervinus's view, is the reason for Jaques's ill humor, making this "witty and sententious worldling far more of a rude fault-finder than a contented sufferer like the rest." In his "hypchondrial mood" and "spirit of contradictio,", Jaques "finds this forest-life just as foolish as that of the court which they have quitted." He is thus a creature of gloomy excess, admirable only as a foil for the better-tempered men with whom he shares the forest existence. Hyppolite-Adolphe Taine (1863-4, trans. 1871, 1.346) is more sympathetic to "one of Shakespeare's best-loved characters"; Taine fancies that behind the mask of brooding "we perceive the face of the poet. He is sad because he is tender; he feels the contact of things too keenly, and what leaves the rest indifferent, makes him weep." Abner Kellogg (1866, 92ff.) agrees: Jaques is not typical of morose men in that he never pleads for sympathy for himself. He is fully as interested in the clownish courtship of Touchstone and Audrey as he is interested in that of Orlando and Rosalind. Though these critics disagree as to whether Shakespeare meant Jaques to be sympathetic, their critical approaches are similarly that of the nineteenth century in their devotion to the art of character study aimed at calibrating the moral and ethical purpose of the character sketch.

8Fans of Touchstone are apt to be enamored of his debate with Corin on the city vs. the country (3.2) as a demonstration of both his wit and his wholesomeness. To Charles Clarke (1863, 54ff.) Touchstone is the sort of sweet-natured person who is "able to make himself happy and contented wherever fortune chances to cast him. He is gay and easy at court; -- he is good tempered and at ease in the forest." Touchstone "carries his own sunshine about with him." Henry T. Hall (1871, 130ff.) is inclined to see Touchstone as more at ease in the court, but so agreeable in his nature that he cheerfully obeys the behest of Celia to follow her into the forest. J. C. Smith (ed. 1894, 27ff.) is delighted with Touchstone's "oft-quoted antithesis between the country and the court," which he sums up "with a nicety that leaves not a straw to choose betwen them." Henry Ruggles (1895, 430ff.) agrees with Hall that Touchstone's "bit of self-sacrifice" in giving up the creature comforts of the court "puts him in accord with that kindnesss and friendship which are made the chief motives of the piece." Thus for Victorian critics generally, AYI is a profoundly benign play, one inhabited by persons whom would dearly like to know better. Even its villains are not incorrigible.