Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: As You Like It: Introduction
  • Author: David Bevington
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-369-4

    Copyright David Bevington. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: David Bevington
    Peer Reviewed



    1As You Like It is one of the crowning achievements of Shakespearean romantic comedy. It is paired in Shakespeare's canon with Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, or What You Will; all three bear throwaway titles, as if these plays are offering themselves as frothy confections about nothing much, to be enjoyed if we are so minded and in whatever fashion we choose. Rosalind, as epilogue, self-deprecatingly picks up on this sense of the play's title when she pleads for our understanding of the plight she finds herself in, being "neither a good epilogue" nor able to insinuate with her audience "in the behalf of a good play." She charges the women in the audience, "for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you," and the men to do the same from their point of view, so that "between you and the women the play may please." They are to take it As They Like It, in other words. The dates of these three plays, approximately from 1598 to 1601, suggest that Shakespeare rounded out this phase of his writing career with three especially wonderful romantic comedies, the capstones of his achievement in the genre. He was about to turn to the writing of "problem" plays and the great tragedies.

    As You Like It specializes in literary satire. It is the most self-conscious of these three plays about such news items in the contemporary literary scene as the vogue of pastoral romance, the current craze for classical-style satire, the trendy "humors" psychology and the fashionable pose of being melancholic, the affected mannerisms of the well-born traveler, the newfangled custom of picking one's teeth, the elaborate Italianate code for conducting duels, the conventional antithetical debate of court versus country, romantic platitudes about being in love "forever and a day," and still more. The large cast of characters is designed to represent and satirize as many of these fashionable topics as possible. The play's setting, at the court of Duke Frederick and in the Forest of Arden, affords an ample imaginative space in which to expatiate on ideas set in opposition to one another.

    The contrast between court and country is a recurrent theme in the play. It handsomely embodies the mythology of Shakespeare's "green world," as argued by Northrop Frye (1948). Shakespeare's vision here is of contrasting and antithetical worlds: one of harsh reality, political maneuvering, legal shystering, and commercial competition, the other a restorative world of sylvan harmony, green landscapes, idealized family relationships, and poetic imagination capable of enabling sympathetic figures to redress social inequalities and to return at last to a rejuvenated court. We see the pattern of such a journey to a "green world" and return in earlier Shakespearean romantic comedies, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labors Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. The pattern returns also in late romances like Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale.

    As You Like It's version of this "green world" journey is especially rich and detailed. The "envious court" of Duke Frederick, as it is known (2.1.4), is a place of betrayal and danger. Duke Frederick has usurped power from his elder brother, a man of integrity who commands deep respect and love from those who follow him into exile. Duke Frederick rules through threats and violence against those whom he considers his political enemies, including anyone loyal to Duke Senior. "I would thou hadst been son to some man else," he tells the young Orlando, to whose manly courage in the wrestling match he is attracted despite himself. Any son of Sir Jaques de Boys, Orlando's father, is by definition an "enemy" of Frederick (1.2.214-16). Similarly, Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind, his daughter Celia's dearest companion, solely because she is daughter to Duke Senior. "Thou art thy father's daughter. That's enough" (1.3.56), is all the explanation he gives for banishing Rosalind. He does not trust her (53). He has allowed her to stay at court during her minority years, but, now that she is coming of age, she is a threat to his rule because she is the presumed heir of the legitimate duke, Duke Senior. In a similar vein, Orlando's older brother, Oliver, deprives Orlando of the education to which he should be entitled because he too represents a threat to Oliver's harsh and tyrannical authority. Oliver hates his younger brother to such an extent that he commissions the wrestler Charles to break Orlando's neck in an upcoming wrestling match. The court in this play is a place of hatred, fear, resentment, and, above all, envy. Even some of its flattering hangers-on, like Le Beau, are aware of the Duke's dangerously "humorous" inclination to violence. As Le Beau confides in Orlando, in bidding him flee into exile before it is too late, "Hereafter, in a better world than this, / I shall desire more love and knowledge of you" (1.2.257, 275-6).

    5The only saving grace is that the envious rulers of this "envious court" are partly aware that happiness might better be found in loving generosity and forgiveness. Oliver confesses in soliloquy that his hatred of Orlando is perversely based on resentment of a brother who is more virtuous and beloved than Oliver is capable of in himself. "My soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he. Yet he's gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved, and indeed so much in the heart of the whole world and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprised" (1.1.156-61). Similarly, Duke Frederick advises his daughter Celia not to continue her loving relationship with her dear cousin Rosalind for the very reason that Rosalind will win the hearts of others and leave her, Celia, unappreciated:

    She is too subtle for thee; and her smoothness,
    Her very silence, and her patience
    Speak to the people, and they pity her.
    Thou art a fool. She robs thee of thy name,
    And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous
    When she is gone. (1.3.75-80)

    Hard-hearted men who are thus somehow aware of their own defects are, one might suppose, in a state of mind that could be swayed to virtue if only these men could find it in their hearts to act virtuously. They secretly long to be loved, but have not yet found the way.

    The Forest of Arden is an imaginary place where love and charity find sanctuary, even if contradictions are ever-present to remind us that the forest is not Eden. Duke Senior and his followers live in amity, by and large. The Duke addresses his companions in their first appearance onstage as follows:

    Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
    Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
    Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
    More free from peril than the envious court?
    Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
    The seasons' difference. (2.1.1-6)

    10The Duke invites his followers to think of him as a fellow-exile and brother; rank and social distinctions have been left behind to a significant degree, even though they all respect the Duke as their leader. We have already heard Charles the wrester tell Oliver how Duke Senior now lives "in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England . . . and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world" (1.1.95-114). Two powerful images here combine: that of Robin Hood as the legendary exile who nurtured a kind of just equality not obtainable in corrupt society, and the golden world of classical mythology as described in Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses, a primal age of innocence and ease from which humankind was thought to have degenerated.

    Yet the Forest of Arden is not quite Edenic or golden. "Sweet are the uses of adversity," insists the Duke (2.1.12). He and his followers do not "feel the penalty of Adam, / The seasons' difference" in the sense that they have learned to be indifferent to the hardships of seasonal change that have afflicted the world ever since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. The Forest can indeed be a place of sudden death. The Duke is irked to consider that the deer who rightly inhabit the Forest "Should in their own confines with fork{`e}d heads / Have their round haunches gored" (22-5). Jaques even more sharply reminds the Duke that he and his followers are usurpers, not only commandeering the deers' terrain but killing those deer for venison (26-8). When Orlando and his loyal servant, old Adam, flee from the menace of Oliver into the Forest, starvation nearly claims the life of Adam (2.6). Later, when Oliver himself comes to the Forest in search of his brother, he is nearly killed by "A green and gilded snake" and "A lioness, with udders all drawn dry" (4.3.109-15). The Forest is not malicious, but it is indifferent. Competition for survival requires that life sustain itself, if necessary at the expense of less fortunate creatures. The Duke's philosophical and stoic embrace of hardship must take into account the existential reality of all this.

    Shakespeare's imaginary forest encompasses still another legendary world, that of pastoral romance. Silvius and Phoebe are caricatures of the young shepherds and shepherdesses found in Shakespeare's chief source for his play, Thomas Lodge's Rosalind: Euphues' Golden Legacy (1590), in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590), and to no less a degree in the Arcadiaof the Italian Sannazaro and in the Diana of the Portuguese Jorge de Montemayor. Indeed, the tradition goes all the way back to the eclogues of the ancient Greek Theocritus and of Virgil. Pastoralism by the 1590s was populated by thoroughly conventional stereotypes: the infatuated young shepherd, prostrating himself before the cruel tyrant that he adores; the beautiful but disdainful shepherdess, basking in the perverse pleasure of making her wooer miserable by her refusal to reciprocate his affection; writers of love sonnets who hang their poems on trees and shrubbery; princes and princesses in shepherds' disguise; an idealized landscape in which these conventional figures can debate the relative merits of court versus country; and still more. Some of these conventions were to be found also in the sonneteering tradition that flourished in late sixteenth-century England in imitation of the sonnet writing of Francesco Petrarch, thereby giving the name of "Petrarchism" to the popular stereotype.

    Shakespeare indulges in genial literary satire, pointing out what is ineffably mawkish and artificial about the genre. At the same time, the fruitless courtship of Silvius and Phoebe has a larger purpose in the play: it enables Rosalind to instruct the naive Orlando as to what a real loving relationship should be like. Disguised as a young man who then agrees in a sportful way to act the part of Orlando's "Rosalind," she must persuade Orlando to abandon his idealization of the Rosalind he has briefly met at court in favor of a real flesh-and-blood woman, one who, as she says, "will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more newfangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey." She will cross his moods, weeping when he is disposed to be merry and laughing "like a hyena" when he is disposed to sleep. Orlando must learn to give up the cliches of romantic fiction, in which young men and women die for love. "These are all lies," she insists, these ancient stories about Troilus and Cressida or Leander and Hero. "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love" (4.1.89-149). A part of Rosalind's refreshing charm is that she can be so iconoclastic about romantic stereotypes. Rosalind prefers the real thing, and Orlando must learn from her what that can mean.

    In the myriad configurations of love in As You Like It, Shakespeare also juxtaposes Silvius and Phoebe with Corin, Touchstone, Audrey, and William. Corin is a shepherd, with a name out of pastoral tradition, but he is as practical and down-to-earth as the young Silvius is infatuatedly floating on Cloud Nine. Corin steers his life with the aid of commonsense wisdom. He knows "that the more one sickens the worse at ease he is; and that he that wants money, means, and content is without three good friends; that the property of rain is to wet and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun" (3.2.22-7). He is, as Touchstone mockingly labels him, a "natural philosopher" (30). Touchstone, the clownish fool who has come from the court to Arden in company with Rosalind and Celia, is, as his name suggests, the perfect "touchstone" or stone used to test for gold and silver. In his conversations with Corin he explores what is so charmingly absurd about the debate of court versus country. When asked by Corin how he likes country life, Touchstone has a series of answers that are really no answers at all. "Truly, shepherd," he says, "in respect of itself it is a good life, but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare like, look you, it fits my humor well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach" (13-21). The comic absurdity of this disquisition lies in its inherent self-contradictions: something that is good because it is solitary can hardly be bad because it is private. Later, Touchstone brilliantly demonstrates what is absurd about duelling in much the same way: by reducing its rules to seven comically labeled "causes" (the "Reply Churlish," the "Quip Modest," etc.) which the combatants can avoid by an "If," as in "If you said so, then I said so" (5.4.49-102), Touchstone mocks what is so foolish not only about dueling but about much human behavior. Duke Senior is delighted with this "motley-minded gentleman" (41), and so is Jaques.

    15The country wench Audrey is the perfect partner in courtship for Touchstone in that her delightful coarseness of manners and her attempts at defending the ideal of chaste affection give Touchstone the ammunition he needs for his send-up of marriage as an institution. As he tells Duke Senior, he "presses in . . . among the rest of the country copulatives, to swear and to forswear, according as marriage binds and blood breaks." Audrey is, for Touchstone, "A poor virgin, sir, an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own; a poor humor of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will" (5.4.55-9). Actually, another man would willingly take her: William, the country bumpkin whose good-natured illiterate ways offer a perfect foil for the zany wit of Touchstone. Human experience in the Forest of Arden is as varied and kaleidoscopic as one could hope to find in Shakespeare's generous depiction of "la com{'e}die humaine."

    Jaques is paired with Touchstone from the very start. Jaques bursts in upon Duke Senior and his followers with great excitement, because he has just met "a fool i'the forest." Delighted with Touchstone's gnomic wisdom about "how the world wags," telling us by the passing of time that "from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, / And then from hour to hour we rot and rot," Jaques playfully asks for a suit of motley all his own (2.7.12-44). The insistent comparison requires that we differentiate these two observers and critics of the human condition that are drawn to each other and yet are unlike in both method and intent. Touchstone is a professional fool, like many such found in the courts of Renaissance Europe. He is identified for us by Rosalind as "The clownish fool" of Duke Frederick's court (1.3.128). Dressed in motley, that is, the parti-colored dress supplemented with a fool's cap and bells and a coxcomb or fool's baton, Touchstone stands out absurdly in a forest of shepherds and hunters. In actuality, court fools were often mentally and physically defectives whose childlike, innocently barbed questions and sing-song riddles could express a kind of coded critique of courtly life that more "normal" people would hardly dare utter. The Fool in King Lear employs this technique in the quizzical advice he offers the king.

    Jaques, on the other hand, is a malcontent, a satirist, a melancholic outsider and traveler. He is a good example of a "humors" character, that is, one whose idiosyncratic behavior illustrates a particular personality quirk. "Humors" comedy came into vogue in the 1590s and 1600s in London, especially in the plays of George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Dekker, among others. Melancholy supposedly arose from an excess of black bile, one of the four humors, associated with the qualities of cold and dry, like the earth. The other humors were the sanguine, associated with the blood and with hot and moist, like air; the choleric, associated with choler or yellow bile and with hot and dry, like fire; and the phlegmatic, associated with phlegm and with cold and moist, like water. The symptoms of melancholy could include sullenness, mental gloom, sadness, and sudden and violent anger. Jaques tends to be like this. He shares Touchstone's perceptions of what is absurd about much human life, but is more ready to adopt the satirist's censorious tone and abrasive laughter. In one of the play's most important debates, he defends the right of the satirist to criticize outspokenly. He "must have liberty / Withal, as large a charter as the wind, / To blow on whom I please," he insists. To those who protest that satire is too fond of its own censoriousness, Jaques answers that anyone not guilty of what is being criticized need not fear the satirist's lash; only the foolish and corrupt are in danger of being exposed as hypocrites or villains. Jaques thus defends impersonal satire, not libel: the satirist's task, in his view, is to depict generic follies of love of extravagant dress of reckless consumption of wealth in such a way that the portrait will skewer only those whose own behavior resembles that of the satiric portrait. If a particular individual is free of blame, insists Jaques, "Why then my taxing like a wild goose flies, / Unclaimed of any man" (2.7.47-87). This is the standard classical defense of satire, as found for example in the writings of Horace and of Shakespeare's near-contemporary, Ben Jonson. It is answered by Duke Senior, who worries that satirists are too often guilty of getting back at the enemies while claiming the privilege of free speech and protesting disingenuously, as a means of providing legal and moral cover, that they are not attacking individuals. The debate ends in a draw; Shakespeare avoids the dogmatism of taking sides.

    In the same evenhanded fashion, Shakespeare gives Jaques a justly famous speech on the Seven Ages of Man, in which humanity is seen as progressing through the "seven ages" of life from fretful infancy and fatuous adolescence to complacent middle age and finally to the "second childishness and mere oblivion" of old age, as though the whole process has no further meaning or beauty than its own existential vapid emptiness (2.7.138-65). Yet at this same moment Shakespeare brings in the starving Orlando and old Adam, so that we can witness how compassion and generosity can do much to counter the seeming cruelty of the human struggle for survival. As Duke Senior puts it in answering Orlando's appeal for help:

    True is it that we have seen better days,
    And have with holy bell been knolled to church,
    And sat at good men's feasts, and wiped our eyes
    Of drops that sacred pity hath engendered.
    And therefore sit you down in gentleness,
    And take upon command what help we have
    That to your wanting may be ministered. (2.7.119-25)

    20Jaques's brilliant dissection of human life in all its apparent meaninglessness is not the whole story in this play. The charity practiced by good persons, aided by such cohesive customs as churchgoing and communal feasting, offers a way in which civilization can hope to renew itself. The Forest of this play is the theatrical space where discordant voices can negotiate their differences. Debate of this sort is inherently theatrical.

    Ultimately, the plotting of the play aims toward marriage, especially that of Orlando and Rosalind, and Oliver and Celia. As in Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, courtship is fraught with difficulties and even perils. Orlando is, though gentlemanly born and fitted out with the right instincts of courage and compassion, woefully unlearned. His older brother, in denying him the education to which his birth should entitle him, has helped to render Orlando unfit for courtship as well. Though attracted to Rosalind as she to him at the wrestling match, Orlando is too tongue-tied to reply to Rosalind's gracious and encouraging hints of love interest. He berates himself furiously for his failure at this critical moment: "Cannot I say, 'I thank you'? My better parts / Are all thrown down, and that which here stands up / Is but a quintain, a mere lifeless block" (1.2.239-41). He has much to learn about the gentle sex and about himself. His next response, once he reaches the Forest, is to hang verses on the trees "in witness of my love" (3.2.1). The verses he composes are so cliched that they lend themselves to merciless lampoons by Touchstone:

    If a hart will lack a hind,
    Let him seek out Rosalind.
    If the cat will after king,
    So, be sure, will Rosalind, (3.2.99-102)

    and so on in seemingly endless profusion; as Touchstone boasts, "I'll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners and suppers and sleeping hours excepted" (94-5).

    Rosalind sees at once that she has some educating to do. Like other Shakespearean romantic heroines (including Katherine in Love's Labors Lost, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Viola in Twelfth Night), Rosalind is more emotionally mature than her young man, more self-knowing, more aware of what she wants. Her needful disguise as a youth, like that of Portia and Viola, enables her to form a relationship with a young man that grows in confidence and intimacy because they both, seemingly, are males and can share experiences without the threatening distractions of sexual desire. Once that friendship is firmly developed, and once Orlando has been shown the importance of his loving a real woman rather than some unrealistic Petrarchan ideal of womanhood, Rosalind/Ganymede can then do what Viola/Cesario will do in Twelfth Night: throw off her male disguise by the simple theatrical expedient of changing her costume, and, presto-change-o, she is now the person that Orlando can desire as both sexual partner and friend. By the same stage magic she restores herself as daughter to her father, straightens out the complications in the relationship of Silvius and Phoebe, and helps foster the new love of Oliver and Celia. Rosalind is the presiding theatrical genius of the play, its mistress of ceremonies, its deviser of theatrical surprises. Not coincidentally does the boy actor playing her part then set aside the role or Rosalind/Ganymede for that of Epilogue, speaking directly to the spectators about the theatrical fantasy they have just witnessed.

    25The conclusion of As You Like It seems somewhat contrived and huddled together for some some audience and readers, and in a sense this is of course true. The conversion of Oliver from villainous older brother to the wooer of Celia and devoted sibling of Orlando is as sudden as it is implausible. Shakespeare makes no attempt to present this moment as likely: the scene, described for us, of Orlando coming upon his sleeping brother in the Forest about to be killed by a snake or a hungry lioness, or both, is made up out of improbable fictions. Little attempt is made to suggest why such a frightening experience would lead to a fundamental change of heart. Even less explained is the conversion of Duke Frederick from relentless persecutor of his enemies to a religious convert now intent on giving back his dukedom to his banished brother and adopting a life of solitary contemplation (5.4.153-65). Yet the ending makes theatrical sense if we consider As You Like It to be what Robert Grams Hunter (1965) has called it: a comedy of forgiveness. Religious conversion is, after all, supposed to be sudden, mysterious, ultimately inexplicable. Following the great model of Saul who, on the road to Damascus, was "stricken down to earth" hearing the voice of the Lord saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" and, after three days in a state of blindness, arose at the bidding of Ananias to answer the call of religious faith in his new person as Paul (Acts 9), both Oliver and Frederick can be understood as born again into a life of charity and forgiveness. Their sin having been that of envying those persons who outshown them in goodness, they were arguably in a frame of mind to adopt the very goodness that they so envied. Shakespeare's Forest provided the theatrical world in which that miracle can occur.