Critical Approaches to As You Like It

Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Critics

1As You Like It must have been successful in its day, but it did not attract much critical attention. It was not published until the 1623 folio edition of the collected works, and seems not to have been revived on stage until 1723 and even then in markedly adapted form as Love in a Forest; not until 1740 was something like the original play seen on the London stage. See Stage History. Critical attention too had to wait until the eighteenth century, and even then is sparse. Dr Johnson, writing in 1765, finds the fable "wild and pleasing," the character of Jaques "natural and well-preserved," the comic dialogue "very sprightly, with less mixture of low buffoonery than in some other plays," and "the graver part" "elegant and harmonious." Johnson complains only that the hurried-up ending might have profited from some dialogue between the usurping Duke Frederick and the hermit with whom he is reported to have sought out for religious instruction, which might have provided "an opportunity of exhibiting a moral lesson" worthy of Shakespeare's "highest powers." Perhaps too Rosalind and Celia are a bit too quick to "give away their hearts" (2.108). These observations, brief though they be, are characteristic of much eighteenth-century criticism: they offer appreciative judgments of the characters in terms of what is "natural" and in terms of what is morally edifying. Johnson's general observation on literature is that "nothing pleases, and pleases long, but a just representation of general nature." This is precisely what Shakespeare does so well, in Johnson's view. Shakespeare's genius is to depict what is universally true and universally inspiring as a model for human conduct. Dramatic language should be decorous, appropriate, restrained, and not given to unseemly word play.

2Francis Gentleman, writing in 1770, basically concurs: he knows "of no more agreeable piece on the stage" than AYL, since the play's characters are "various," its incidents certainly pleasing even if not striking, its sentiments generally "pregnant with useful meaning," and its language, "though quaint in some places," showing a "general strength and spirit worthy of Shakespeare's pen." Yet the play suffers from a "severe invasion" of the unities, and a plot "hurried on to an imperfect catastrophe" in which the unnatural and abominable brother Oliver is undeservedly rewarded with fortune and love (1.474ff.). Again, a play should be morally edifying and true to the dictates of poetic justice. Among the play's major characters, Jaques scores an early triumph. George Steevens, in 1773, is especially appreciative of Jaques's "gloomy sensibility" and consistency of character that makes him an "amiable though solitary moralist" (3.339).

3Character criticism emphasizing what is idiosyncratic and heartwarming in human behavior comes increasingly into vogue in the Romantic period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Enthusiasm predominates; Romantic critics tend favor that which is spontaneous. Jaques continues to be a favorite. William Hazlitt is typical in praising Jaques as "the only purely contemplative character in Shakespeare." "His only passion is thought; he sets no value upon anything but as it serves as food for reflection" (1817. 306). Hermann Ulrici is similarly delighted by Jaques's "meditative superficiality, his witty sentimentality, his merry sadness," and above all his melancholy "contempt of life and men" (1839, 1876, 2.18). Rosalind quickly emerges as another favorite. In Anna Jameson's words, she displays an exquisitely blended and volatile "compound of esssences." She is sprightly, imaginative, vivacious, and able to don masculine attire "without the slightest impugnment of her delicacy" (1833, 1.144ff.) Indeed, Rosalind quickly rises to become, for the nineteenth century as a whole, a shining example of the Shakespearean romantic heroine. Touchstone comes to be appreciated as a "personification of caprice and ridicule" who shares Jaques's perception of human failings but with a fool's "capricious folly and foolish capriciousness" (Ulrici, 1839. 1876. 2.19).

4More generally, AYL is greeted by Romantic critics as the very embodiment of the Romantic spirit. For Nathan Drake, "There is something inexpressibly wild and interesting both in the characters and in the scenery" (1817, 2.431ff.). In Hazitt's view, "The very air of the place seems to breathe a spirit of philosophical poetry; to stir the thoughts, to touch the heart with pity, as the drowsy forest rustles to the sighing gale" (1817, 306). AYL is, to Hazlitt, "the most ideal of any of this author's plays" (305). August W. von Schlegel rejoices to see how the "unlimited freedom" of the wilderness compensates Duke Senior and his followers for the lost conveniences of life, thus demonstrating that "nothing is wanted to call forth the poetry which has its dwelling in nature and the human mind but to throw off all artificial constraint and restore both to their native liberty" (1809-11, 1815, 2.172ff.). Here indeed is a call to Romantic idealism about liberty and freedom of the human spirit. If Shakespeare is, for Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others, a "wild, irregular genius," then no comedy could hope to surpass AYL. Shakespeare's disregard for the classical "laws" of dramatic composition, for which he was faulted by Francis Gentleman, above, now becomes a positive feature of his writing. William Maginn, writing in 1837, answers those who object to a tropical lion and snake in Arden as violating concepts of decorum and plausibility by celebrating AYL's imaginative genius. "All the prodigies spawned by Africa . . . might well have teemed in a forest, wherever situate, that was inhabited by such creatures as Rosalind, Touchstone, and Jaques" (p. 65). Charles Knight concurs: "We most heartily wish that the critics would allow poetry to have its own geography" (1849, 301).