As You Like It

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731).

Act 1, Scene 1 (673-77, Orlando rebels against Oliver’s mistreatment; Oliver schemes with Charles the Wrestler to deal with the young man at the next public match.)

The light pastoral quality of As You Like It is particularly enjoyable. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies mix dark and light moods, but in this one the forecast is “mostly clear and sunny.” It’s a mature play from 1599 or early 1600, which makes it roughly kin to Hamlet. It’s based on a pastoral romance by Thomas Lodge named Rosalynde, and pastoral itself is an ancient subgenre going at least as far back as the Greek poet Theocritus (3rd BCE), who wrote the Idylls, and Longus, author of Daphnis and Chloe. Shakespeare gives us a central pair of lovers (Orlando and Rosalind) driven from their urban setting by powerful, ungenerous characters (Orlando’s selfish brother Oliver and Duke Frederick the usurper, respectively) to explore the nearest green place they can find.

What they find is the Forest of Arden, which turns out to be a magical space where the lovers can set themselves playfully against the constraints of gender and explore the rituals of romantic love and courtship. In Arden we will hear some fine perspectives on court, country, love, and life not only from Rosalind and Orlando but also from Celia (Rosalind’s friend) and from Touchstone the Clown and Jaques the melancholy traveler, along with Corin the shepherd. Even the “baddies” get something from Arden: Duke Frederick the usurper and Oliver, Orlando’s stingy brother, undergo sudden transformations for the better in the Forest, and the play’s several marriages (including that of the rustics Silvius and Phoebe) pave the way for a renewal of social and political harmony at court.

As always, comedy is about the accommodation of individual desire to social demands, and vice versa. It’s also about the generous, perhaps even providential disposition of time itself. In Shakespeare’s comedies, you do what Viola does in Twelfth Night: commit your cause to time, stay open to experience (a classical virtue—just ask Odysseus), and hope for the best. And as always with Shakespeare, we can look for the playwright both to inhabit his artistic forms with genuine passion and to treat them from a certain distance, whether friendly or satirical—he wasn’t one to be reduced to the moods or demands of any narrow setting or set of conventions, so we’ll see the pastoral ideal of unspoiled, natural innocence laughing at itself from time to time.

Well, the bad characters in comedy tend to be stick figures whose villainous behavior seems rooted in insecurity and selfishness, and that’s what we have in Oliver and the usurping Duke Frederick. We aren’t dealing with the ancient problem of evil here, at least not in a serious way. From the outset, we can see that Oliver is jealous of his brother’s virtues, and holds to an economy of scarcity model of status and virtue: more love and honor for one person means less for him. Orlando deals with him boldly after what has obviously been a great deal of indifference and snubbing from his elder brother: “The courtesy of nations / allows you my better … but the same / tradition takes not away my blood … “ (674, 1.1.39-41). Oliver promptly calls upon Charles the Wrestler to deal with this young whippersnapper, calling his brother “an envious emulator of every man’s good / parts, a secret and villainous contriver against me, his natu- / ral brother” (676, 1.1.123-25).

On the whole, in comedies such characters as Oliver are bogeymen, not complex evildoers. Oliver is simply an uncharitable brother. Comedies don’t represent the social order or human nature as intractable—there would be no point in bothering with comedy if that were the case. We don’t need to worry about providing compensation for insupportable loss, as in King Lear or Oedipus the King.

The goal is instead to restore happiness to individuals and smooth functioning to the social order, and to allow people to hope for better things to come. A key concept is balance: how can we bring people together in such a way as to achieve happiness and harmony, even if perfection may be beyond our reach? Coleridge says that literary symbols can “balance or reconcile opposite or discordant qualities.” That’s more or less what comedy does: often by strategies involving parallels, contrasts or antithesis, it reconciles and balances out individuals who might otherwise stay in conflict, and makes possible a dynamic but sustainable social order. In the first scene, Celia and Rosalind give us a fine example of true friendship that further condemns Oliver’s vicious dislike of his brother. Celia and Rosalind are cousins, not sisters, but their reciprocal generosity is no less complete for it.

Act 1, Scene 2 (677-83, Orlando wrestles Charles and wins; Rosalind is love-struck.)

As for the attraction between Rosalind and Orlando during his participation in a wrestling match, well, as Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander” (1598) runs, “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” (Phoebe will later quote these lines at 712, 3.5.81). This notion is typical in comedy. The ancient idea is that love strikes people first through the eyes, as if the lovers had been struck with Cupid’s arrow. Accordingly, the love between Rosalind and Orlando begins with sudden attraction, although for the audience the experience is more drawn out since it is distributed across Rosalind’s viewing of the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles later in the second scene. Orlando doesn’t yet know himself and can hardly speak to his new admirer, but Rosalind sees his integrity and potential along with his youth. When he wins, she says, “Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown / More than your enemies” (682, 1.2.223-24). It is improbable for Orlando to win his match against the powerful Charles, but the big fellow is an important device in that Orlando’s desperation drives him on to the match, and his victory secures him Rosalind’s heart. The text doesn’t say exactly how Orlando defeats Charles, though the BBC version starring Helen Mirren as Rosalind makes Orlando’s victory a matter of clever strategy.

Act 1, Scene 3 (683-86, Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind; Rosalind and Celia decide to go to the Forest of Arden, and Rosalind will dress as a man.)

Duke Frederick is a competitive, ill-spirited ruler. He obviously believes in an economy of scarcity when it comes to virtue: he tells Celia regarding her friend, “She robs thee of thy name, / And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous / When she is gone” (684, 76-78). He is little more than a straw man, and while his threat to Rosalind sounds awful, it rings hollow: “if that thou beest found / So near our public court as twenty miles, / Thou diest for it” (684, 39-41).

It doesn’t take Rosalind and Celia long to work out a strategy to beat Frederick: Celia says they ought to go “seek my uncle in the forest of Ardenne” (685, 1.3.103), that uncle being the banished Duke Senior (Rosalind’s father). Rosalind chimes in with an addition she thinks will make the journey safer: “Were it not better / Because that I am more than common tall, / That I did suit me all points like a man …” (685, 1.3.110-12). And they’ll take Touchstone the Clown with them for company.

Act 2, Scene 1 (686-87, Duke Senior muses in the Forest: “the uses of adversity.”)

There are different perspectives to be heard about the Forest of Arden, and in this scene we hear the view of the banished Duke Senior regarding “the uses of adversity” (643, 2.1.12). He considers the Forest a place to gain spiritual insight, and seems to like living there for a time. It suits his contemplative nature, and in this he is almost a Renaissance Henry David Thoreau: he has no difficulty finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (686, 2.1.16-17). But his is not the only perspective, as we will find in later scenes of Act 2 and throughout the play. Perhaps there’s just a touch in Senior’s statement of the sort of idealism or spaciness that sometimes gets Shakespeare’s rulers booted from office—in a less light-hearted vein, one thinks of the poet-king Richard II, or of Prospero, who lost his dukedom in The Tempest partly because he spent more time reading his books than dealing with the responsibilities of power. All the same, not much is made of that problem in As You Like It. The comic dispensation of the play keeps Duke Senior from ending up like some of Shakespeare’s signally incompetent sovereigns.

Act 2, Scene 3 (688-89, Orlando escapes the wrath of Oliver, with faithful old Adam’s help and money.)

In this brief scene, the servant Adam warns Orlando of his brother’s plot against him, and offers his life savings to help the young man escape: “fortune cannot recompense me better / Than to die well and not my master’s debtor” (689, 2.3.75-76).

Act 2, Scene 4 (689-91, Silvius makes his pastoral lament to Corin about Phoebe; Rosalind offers to help Corin buy Arden: it isn’t paradise, even if it isn’t a dystopian setting like “The Real Shepherds of the Forest of Arden.”)

Silvius complains to Corin about his unrequited passion for Phoebe (690, 2.4.20-38), and moves Rosalind, who overhears him. Meeting the shepherds, she offers to buy the sheepfold and cottage, which, as Corin informs her, is for sale (691, 2.4.88-92). That part of the Forest is for sale reminds us that while the place is a Green World, it isn’t a paradise: there’s “winter and rough weather” (692, 2.5.8), poverty, ignorance, and commerce. On the whole, the Forest of Arden is closer to Virgil’s reality-tinged pastoral locations in the Eclogues than to an earthly paradise. For the shepherd Corin, indeed, Arden is a rather harsh terrain where a man may eke out a living. (Country people often seem to regard the woods this way: they don’t wax eloquent about it the way urbanites tend to do.) So while Amiens’ songs sometimes promote an idyllic image of Arden and the Duke is pleased with the “lessons” he learns from the woods, that isn’t how all of the characters regard Arden. It’s a good place to visit, but most of the characters will need to be getting back home soon. (That view of nature holds true in Shakespearean tragedy, too, though perhaps in an edgier way: consider King Lear, in which raw nature is conceptualized in as a dangerous, temporary perspective-gaining ground for suffering humanity.) The value in the country/city debate for Shakespeare seems to lie in the achievement of a sense of balance: nature (and by proxy, natural desire) isn’t to be denied, but artifice is a vital attribute of humanity.

Incidentally, there is a real Forest of Arden, and Shakespeare must have been familiar with it as a child growing up in Warwickshire, even though the forest referred to more directly is the Ardennes in France since that’s where the play is set. But the exact setting doesn’t much matter—this writer saw an excellent, fun production of the play live at UC Irvine years ago, and the director chose to have Corin and his helpers herd gigantic orange beach balls across the stage for the pastoral scenes. Just in case anyone was disappointed in all the beach balls, the director had the wit to bring to the fore a single live sheep. One wonders what the poor sheep thought, surrounded by orange beach balls in front of hundreds of people. Still, it was good theater.

Act 2, Scene 5 (692-93, Amiens sings pleasantly of “winter and rough weather”; Jaques sings to mock the pastoral mood of Duke Senior’s company.)

Jaques shows himself a melancholy-making machine, drawing his rather perverse sustenance even from Amiens’ more conventionally comforting songs: “Here shall he see / No enemy / But winter and rough weather” (692, 2.5.6-8). Jaques turns this song into something quite different: “If it do come to pass / That any man turn ass …” (693, 2.5.42-43). According to the ancient theory of the humors, in which the balance of four basic substances in the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) is at least partly responsible for a given person’s disposition, Jaques may be suffering from an excess of black bile. But Shakespeare never reduces any character in such a deterministic way, and Jaques’s perspective is in fact a sophisticated, highly intelligent one, even if it hardly endears him to the other characters. Let’s just say that he will serve as the “odd man out” in this play, the one who self-consciously avoids stepping into the comic circle of “shiny happy people holding hands” (the title of an R.E.M. hit, of course) because he would prefer to keep his own company and counsel.

Act 2, Scene 6 (693, Adam is near death, so Orlando vows to find help.)

In this brief scene, Adam is on the point of perishing, and Orlando promises to help him. In terms of Christian symbolism, Old Adam, or unregenerate man, is aided by his younger counterpart, the one who is poised to enjoy the benefits of regeneration in the Forest. But there’s no need to lean heavily on such symbolic interpretations. Adam is a model of uprightness and faithful service, not a fool or a sinner. Orlando treats him tenderly, as a son should treat his elderly father: “I will bear thee to some shelter, and thou shalt not / die for lack of a dinner …” (693, 2.6.14-15).

Act 2, Scene 7 (693-98, Jaques covets Touchstone’s status as fool; Orlando commandeers help and is given it freely instead; Jaques details Seven Ages of Man, Duke Senior welcomes Orlando & Adam for the sake of Sir Rowland.)

Jaques tells everyone how impressed he is with Touchstone, whose particular brand of foolery he seems to find attractively broad in comparison to his own narrower spectrum of observation: “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’th’ forest … (694, 2.7.12; see lines 12-43). Touchstone is free to draw out what’s valuable in people, but Jaques’s view is more limited; his insight is drawn through a filter. So the latter seeks some of this power, and hopes that with his peculiar brand of melancholy foolery, he will “Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world / If they will patiently receive my medicine” (695, 2.7.60-61). 

Orlando bursts in on the bantering, and tries to commandeer some food for Adam, in the name of “necessity” (695, 2.7.90). It soon turns out that there’s more civility in the Forest than he had thought possible, as Duke Senior promises him all he needs: “Your gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness” (695, 2.7.102-03). We may well imagine that Orlando feels just a little foolish when he receives such a kind reception in this “savage” woodland.

As for Jaques, he delivers his excellent variation on an old theme: the Seven Ages of Man: “All the world’s a stage” (696, 2.7.139), he says, and all of us play our parts, which consist in the seven ages: infant, schoolboy, young lover, soldier, mature professional (a justice), declining pantaloon, and, finally, second child, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (697, 2.7.166). This is a hollowed-out conception of humanity, wherein even the most heartfelt passion is entirely scripted by one’s time of life. And what is Orlando but a stock lover when he scribbles his bad poems all over Arden’s trees?

But if we look at Jaques’ musings in a more brooding way, we can see how much against the generous spirit of comedy they are: in his view, we experience time as an opportunity to run through the paces of life and then vanish. His notions are really neither tragic nor comic since in tragedy, at least death gives meaning to life, whereas for Jacques it makes everything seem pointless. In general, Shakespeare’s comedies deal in a more uplifting way with the fact that our very selves may be mostly the product of typification, of categorizations into which our society wants us to fit. The point is not that we must be absolutely original in all things; rather, the manner in which we inhabit or dwell resourcefully within our respective “types” renders us happy or unhappy. Moreover, individuation plays a more important role in comedy than in Jaques’s view, which insistently stresses dis-individuation. Comedy makes fun of us and our pretensions to uniqueness and high-serious significance, but it ultimately accepts us with our follies. Jaques’s melancholic outlook sees life as always being in the shadow of “mere oblivion” (697, 2.7.165).

Jaques himself is a stock melancholy traveler. Melancholia was a popular subject in Elizabethan-Jacobean times and attained something like cult status later in the 1600’s. Robert Burton’s late-Jacobean Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) attests to its significance in Shakespeare’s era. Depression was thought to be caused by an excess of black bile, and indeed the word “melancholy” comes from the Greek words melas (black) and kholē (bile). Jaques, as a melancholy traveler, goes around looking for things that accord with his sadness and isolation from others. So while his “Seven Ages of Man” speech in 2.7 is excellent, it consists of stock ideas with which we probably are not meant to agree—he reduces life too willingly to its bleakest and most hopeless level, and his simplistic view is promptly, silently undercut by the entrance of the aged servant Adam, who remains cheerful and kindly disposed towards the younger generations.

The scene ends with Duke Senior welcoming Orlando for the sake of his father, Sir Rowland de Bois, and we find that civility, not the savagery Orlando had expected, reigns in Arden (697-98, 2.7.191-200).

Act 3, Scene 1 (698, Duke Frederick angrily sends Oliver into the Forest to locate Orlando.)

The usurping grinch Duke Frederick is at it again, booting Oliver out of the realm to search for Orlando, who has earned his ire by defeating Charles the Wrestler. He commands Oliver to “Seek him with candle; bring him dead or living / Within this twelvemonth …” (698, 3.1.6-7). Only at the beginning or in the middle of a comic play can a thorough rascal like Frederick hold such sway over characters who are kinder and gentler than he is even on his best day.

Act 3, Scene 2 (698-707, Touchstone the Clown battles Corin over value of court and country; Rosalind and Touchstone jest over love/sex; Orlando dismisses Jaques’ gloomy conversation; Rosalind/Ganymede says love is madness and offers Orlando courtship lessons to cure him.)

Touchstone, who here engages in an epic battle of wits with Corin the Shepherd, is the play’s “all-licensed fool” who has great scope to offer his perspective (698-700, 3.2.11-74). As such, he is a fine foil for Jaques as well as for the lovers. Touchstone employs a kind of schoolboy chop-logic against Corin. The whole argument should probably go to Corin by a decision, as they say in boxing. The old shepherd has the innate civility of a country fellow who knows his limitations but also his virtues, so he doesn’t take Touchstone seriously. Touchstone conflates good manners with theological grace: since he’s never been at court, the Shepherd’s “manners must be wicked, and wickedness is sin, and sin is / damnation” (699, 3.2.38-39). This seems ridiculous to Corin, who doesn’t share in Touchstone’s courtly understanding of the supposed affinity between moral goodness and fine appearance. (That there’s a close connection between physical beauty and moral goodness is a Neo-Platonist view that we can find in Baldesar Castiglione’s The Courtier and other European Renaissance texts).

Touchstone is also more interested in words than in action, even though he is (unlike Jaques) willing to take part in the play’s marriage festivities. Jaques wants nobody, but Touchstone will soon have Audrey to think of, silly as the match may be. In any case, Corin’s response to Touchstone’s quibbling is excellent: as the shepherd says, “… those that are good manners / at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior / of the country is most mockable at the court” (699, 3.2.40-42). Corin understands exactly what decorum is: adroitly suiting one’s style to the relevant place and station.

Also in this scene, Rosalind parries wits with Touchstone (700, 3.2.77-111), who tries to reduce her love for Orlando to mere physical desire: “He that sweetest rose will find, / Must find love’s prick and Rosalind” (700, 3.2.100-01). She fends off his sardonic sallies without difficulty.

Meanwhile, Orlando, author of those poems that Touchstone calls “the very false gallop of verses” (700, 3.2.102), meets up with the unadmiring Jaques, who begs him, “mar no more trees with writing love songs / in their barks” (704, 3.2.240-41). But Orlando sends him on his way, dismissing his attempt to typecast him as a stock lover and a bad poet (704, 3.2.242-73). Lovers can easily reduce themselves to a laughingstock in others’ eyes, and yet for their own part conduct themselves with perfect earnestness. The fact that what one is experiencing has been experienced by millions of others does not make it any less real, or any less worthwhile.

Finally, Rosalind/Ganymede meets Orlando and offers to school him in courting his beloved Rosalind (704-07, 3.2.274-393). Claiming to have learned the art of courtship from an elderly uncle, Rosalind/Ganymede tells Orlando that he lacks all the telltale signs of a genuine suitor: “A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and / sunken, which you have not …” (706, 3.2.342-43). But the main piece of advice Rosalind/Ganymede offers is that “Love is merely a madness and … deserves / as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do …” (706, 3.3.363-64). The plan is for Orlando to visit “Ganymede” each day and practice his suit until a cure is achieved (706, 3.3.381-83).

Act 3, Scene 3 (707-09, Touchstone the Clown determines on Audrey and engages with Oliver Martext to marry the pair.)

As is evident from his silly courtship of Audrey, Touchstone’s coming marriage to this country lass is more a thing of words, a cover for his lust, than a legitimate institutional act, or at least that’s how the clown at first wanted it: an attitude that shows in his desire to let the incompetent Oliver Martext perform the ceremony. Audrey, as we can tell from their conversation in Scene 3, understands very little of what Touchstone says, so there’s no question of their being well-matched company. He isn’t particularly concerned about Audrey’s not being beautiful, saying “Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness—sluttishness / may come hereafter” (707, 3.3.33-34). Touchstone also doesn’t mind the prospect of becoming a cuckold: “As horns are odious, they are necessary” (708, 3.3.43). It is better, as far as he is concerned, to participate in the institution of marriage and take one’s chances than to languish as a bachelor. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the desperate Helena insists that “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (Norton Comedies 411, 1.1.232-33). Touchstone and Audrey really don’t need this kind of love-magic since their aim isn’t what anyone would call romantic love; it’s simply an accommodation acceptable to both them and society at large. St. Paul might as well have had this couple in mind when he wrote, “But if they cannot abstain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with lust]” (1 Corinthians 7:9, Geneva Bible, 1599).

On the whole, Touchstone is what his name implies: a sharp stone of a wit who draws sparks and tests the quality of others. His verbal wit is his way of staying at the surface of things. He will later join in the marriage rites, but does not much appreciate matrimony’s holier dimension—that attitude so vital to romantic comedy is left to other characters, most particularly to Rosalind and Orlando, and perhaps to Celia and the transformed Oliver. For Touchstone, marriage isn’t holy or steeped in honor—it is something a person does to keep up appearances and serve his or her own convenience. Shakespeare by no means condemns court life, but here in the attitude of Touchstone, he points out the courtly tendency to slide towards hollowness and ceremonialism. At least Touchstone is honest about his limitations. He doesn’t pretend to be better than he is.

Act 3, Scene 4 (709-10, Rosalind and Celia gossip about Orlando; Corin steers them towards Silvius and Phoebe.)

Rosalind and Celia exchange gossip about Orlando and his qualities, and then Corin the Shepherd enters and announces that Silvius and Phoebe are on the scene: “If you will see a pageant truly played / Between the pale complexion of true love / And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain …” (710, 3.4.46-48), he tells the pair, all they need do is listen to these humble country folk.

Act 3, Scene 5 (710-13, Rosalind/Ganymede schools Phoebe after overhearing her proudly reject Silvius; Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind/Ganymede.)

Rosalind, invited by Corin, eavesdrops on Phoebe as she overplays her hand, while Silvius is loyal to her far beyond her desserts (710-11, 3.5.1-34). Rosalind brusquely reminds Phoebe that she is “not for all markets” and that she ought, therefore, to sell while someone is still willing to buy (711, 3.5.60). This match is hardly going to be perfect; Phoebe, we may assume, will never love Silvius as much as he loves her, but that’s perhaps rather common: do two people generally love each other to precisely the same degree? Probably not. Silvius and Phoebe it will have to be—they are a match sufficient for civilization’s purposes. Silvius is a good example of the sort of stereotype that Orlando inhabits partly and for a limited time; all the same, Silvius is a fine fellow: he is decent and faithful. Moreover, Phoebe’s high ideals, while misplaced, are by no means contemptible. Of course, “Ganymede’s” sage counsel only makes her fall hopelessly in love with him, and we see that firmer guidance will be needed in her case (711, 3.5.66-69). Phoebe even quotes from Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander” (1598): “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” (668, 3.5.81)

Act 4, Scene 1 (713-17, Rosalind/Ganymede demolishes Jaques’ antisocial pose; Rosalind/Ganymede instructs Orlando in the rigors of courtship: men and women’s inconstancy, and the truth of masks.)

Rosalind’s deflation of Jaques at the scene’s beginning is decisive even if not devastating. He professes the goodness of his disposition, saying, “Why, ’tis good to be sad and say nothing” (713, 4.1.8), and Rosalind answers him, “Why, then ’tis good to be a post” (713, 4.1.9). She ventures that it seems foolish to her to go about seeking experiences that make you sad: “and to travel for it too!” (714, 4.1.26). With that remark, Rosalind is on to her pretend-real courtship with Orlando, with some assistance from Celia.

As for the value of the dialogue in 4.1, Shakespeare recognizes that for the most part people inhabit types and that a great deal depends on how they inhabit a given type, or how they inflect it. We are not dealing with Romantic-Era originality and uniqueness here, and not with the utilitarian-style bourgeois self of somewhat later times, even if there are perhaps touches of that sensibility in Shakespeare’s plays. There is always some Jaques-like way of describing our present stage of life.

The question is, does the type swallow us up, or do we improve upon it or at least inhabit it competently? Orlando (what with pinning bad verses on trees) has played the lover’s type. We’re not too worried about him actually becoming Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and going mad for love, but still, that thought may remind us of love’s potential to obliterate the boundaries of personal identity—a risky venture that is kept from turning bad by means of reflection, distance, and playfulness. The present scene shows how the Forest allows both Rosalind/Ganymede, who leads the way, and Orlando, who follows gamely, the time and distance they need to play around with love’s lore and with gender typification. Both will emerge the better for their experimentation. The “masks” they wear for a time allow them to speak and act with frankness and a degree of detachment. Often, Shakespeare treats love as something like a game with its own rules and conventions that must be learned. The rules turn out to be flexible, but they’re not altogether to be dismissed.

What do men and women say about, and to, one another? It is difficult for them to be honest in real-life situations, so the disguising and conversations that occur in the Forest of Arden are valuable to Rosalind and Orlando as they move towards a more complete accommodation of each other’s desires. Rosalind’s Forest performances especially in 4.1 allow her to gain some freedom and insight by playing both a male suitor (Ganymede) and a choosy, unpredictable female object of pursuit (Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind). One thing she explores, of course, is her own anxiety about the constancy or inconstancy of men, women, and romantic love generally. Rosalind/Ganymede’s characterizations of men and women are appropriately mocking: “men / are April when they woo, December when they wed; maids are / May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are / wives” (716, 4.1.127-30). Rosalind/Ganymede goes out of her way to make Orlando understand that a wife will do all sorts of things to set his teeth on edge, including exhibitions of jealousy, screaming, weeping, and laughing (716, 4.1.130-36).

 “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” says Oscar Wilde in his 1891 essay, “The Critic as Artist.” Rosalind’s mask is Ganymede, so we have Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind: just the right degree of anonymity necessary for her to sort out Orlando’s qualities as a suitor. As for Orlando, those who believe most fully in the ideal vision of love most need distance from such idealism: idealizing eroticism is noble, but it has its risks, disillusionment and eventual cynicism being the most severe among them. Orlando needs to be tested: he must show some capacity to moderate and reflect upon his high passions since that is partly what makes a marriage successful. He plays his role as suitor to Ganymede-as-Rosalind with good cheer, putting up with his opposite’s whims and generally saying and doing the right things. As the play in its entirety shows, Orlando’s inner worth is greater than the silly stereotype he has temporarily inhabited: a successful comic hero, he plays a role without being permanently trapped by it.

Shakespeare writes perceptively about love as a potentially destructive experience because it threatens to obliterate a person’s boundaries. (“Sonnet 129” and Othello give us the darkest presentations of what love can do, while the comedies deal with the lighter and more uplifting dimension of love, its civilizing and uniting power.) Distance and reflection seem appropriate as “preventative medicine,” given this tendency of love to strip us of our capacity to define, judge, and maintain our sense of who we are. The playfulness of Rosalind in particular allows her to keep some sense of an independent identity. 

Act 4, Scene 2 (717-18, Jaques again makes fun of Duke Senior’s party: deer-hunting, cuckoldry.)

Apparently, Duke Senior’s men have been deer hunting. Jaques offers yet another song to counter the sort generally sung by Duke Senior’s upbeat group: “What shall he have that killed the deer? / His leather skin and horns to wear” (717, 4.2.10-11). As usual, Jaques takes up a counter-perspective, in this case making an obvious pun on infidelity that probably owes something to the classical Ovidian hunting or chase scene to describe love relations.

Act 4, Scene 3 (718-21, Rosalind orders Phoebe to love Silvius; Oliver recounts how he was rescued by Orlando from a snake and a lioness: he’s a changed man!)

Rosalind sees her opportunity to transform Phoebe’s cruelty towards Silvius into acceptance, and, as Ganymede, orders the intransigent shepherdess to love Silvius instead: she tells Silvius to “say this to her: that if she love me, I charge her to / love thee” (719, 4.3.70-71). Oliver, rescued by his brother just when he is surrounded by two predators—a snake and a lioness—is suddenly transformed: he tells the ladies, “I do not shame / To tell you what I was, since my conversion / So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am” (720, 4.3.134-36). We don’t need to see a painful, penance-driven process of transformation. Oliver doesn’t for a moment believe that Ganymede is male, but goes along with the act nonetheless; he is on an embassy from his younger brother Orlando to communicate what has just happened in the Forest (721, 4.3.151-55).

Act 5, Scenes 1-2 (721-25, Touchstone the Clown chases away Audrey’s bumpkin suitor; Oliver and Celia suddenly decide to marry; Rosalind/Ganymede promises Orlando he’ll have his Rosalind; comic knot: “and so am I for…”)

In the first scene, Touchstone impresses Audrey by chasing away a rustic suitor with long-winded talk, but at least the end of it makes sense: “I will kill thee a hundred and fifty / ways. Therefore tremble and depart” (722, 5.1.51-52).

In the second scene, Oliver’s recent alteration is supplemented by his equally sudden love-struck decision to marry Celia as “Aliena.” As Rosalind/Ganymede tells Orlando, “your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked, / no sooner looked but they loved …” (723, 5.2.30-31). This newest change may in part be a perspectival device whereby the brief courtship of one couple appears more credible in comparison to the even briefer one of another—one so brief that it really isn’t a courtship at all. Oliver even tells Orlando that he’s decided to give their father’s estate to him and “here live and die a shepherd” (723, 5.2.11). The suddenness of the transformation makes sense: characters like Oliver (and Frederick) found their hopes on rational calculation over an abyss of ignorance into the real why and wherefore of their stingy, mean temperaments. “Don’t know much about you and me” has ever been their theme song, so some measure of humaneness and empathy come over them like a sudden wave or a lightning strike, not as the fruit of a gradual realization.

Rosalind/Ganymede finally decides to move forward with Orlando, promising him, “If you do love Rosalind so / near the heart as your gesture cries it out, when your brother / marries Aliena shall you marry her” (724, 5.2.56-58). She has a certain magician in mind, supposedly, who can do the trick, and of course that magician is her.

We now come to the comic knot that Rosalind/Ganymede must shortly untie. When Phoebe orders Silvius to explain to Rosalind/Ganymede what it means to love, Silvius says, “It is to be all made of sighs and tears, / And so am I for Phoebe” (724, 5.2.75-76). This is the cue for a number of “And I for…” repetitions: Phoebe is in love with Ganymede, Orlando is in love with Rosalind whom he sees nowhere around, and Rosalind pines “for no woman” (724-25, 5.2.77-93). 

Act 5, Scene 3 (523-26, Touchstone the Clown makes pleasantries with Audrey to two pages’ springtime song)

Touchstone enjoys some brief conversation with Audrey, and two young pages crown the third scene with a song about the associations between spring and marriage rites: “It was a lover and his lass … / In spring-time, the only pretty ring-time …” (682, 5.3.14, 17), only to be dismissed by Touchstone’s criticism of their voices (682, 5.3.39).

Act 5, Scene 4 (726-30, Touchstone recounts his courtly quarrel; Rosalind reveals her identity to Duke Senior and Orlando; Hymen does the honors; Duke Frederick has been convinced by an old hermit to return his brother Duke Senior to power and stay in the Forest; Jaques will remain with him; Oliver and Celia will stay, too.)

The fourth scene offers the pleasant interlude of Touchstone’s famous recounting of a courtly quarrel which, he claims, began when he professed to “dislike the cut of / a certain courtier’s beard” (727, 5.4.65-94). He sets forth a preposterously detailed series of insults and counter-insults between himself and the courtier with the disagreeable beard. But the whole thing begins and ends in words, and they part company without exchanging a single blow: “I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial; / nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct” (728, 5.4.78-79). The reason? Cowardice—neither of them ever had any intention of getting into an actual fight. So much, then, Touchstone suggests, for a great deal of masculine “honor.” This insight allies him with Sir John Falstaff from I and II Henry IV, Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well, and certain other of Shakespeare’s deflators of male puffery. Touchstone sings the praises of the circumstantial phrase: “Your / ‘if’ is the only peacemaker: much virtue in ‘if’” (728, 5.4.93-94). This play is more tolerant of love-driven exaggerations and rituals than it is of honor-based ones.

To cap things off, Hymen the god of marriage does the honors after Rosalind enters in her own person and clears up the reigning confusion, presenting herself to her father Duke Senior and to Orlando as herself (728, 5.4.107-08). Hymen is an urban god, so his presence is a reminder that most of the characters will soon return to the court. The right matches have been made, and in any case society demands not perfection but adequacy: it needs rustics like Silvius and Phoebe and strange pairings like Touchstone and Audrey as much as it needs the near-perfect Rosalind and Orlando. Touchstone’s phrase “country copulatives” (727, 5.4.53) applies to all equally: they’re all kin by the act of generation. The phrase “as you like it” seems to mean “follow your desire,” so long as your desire doesn’t impede the charitable disposition of things.

Jaques de Bois (the brother of Orlando and Oliver) informs everyone that Duke Frederick has been turned away from his wicked intentions in the Forest by an “old religious man,” and now intends to stay on in the wilderness that has seen his salvation, where he will live a retired life of religious devotion (729, 5.4.142-62). Jaques the melancholy traveler will follow this newly retired Duke Frederick. He did not join with the lovers in dancing to Hymen’s tune, and now prefers to remain in the Forest of Arden because he believes there’s more to learn there than at court: “To him will I: out of these convertites / There is much matter to be heard and learned” (730, 5.4.175-76). Jaques is the odd man out, but he only matters a little in this play. As You Like It doesn’t have the bittersweet quality of Shakespeare’s romance plays (as we call them today) such as The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest even though it has about it something of the romance ambience—Orlando, after all, is the name of the hero in Ariosto’s epic romance poem Orlando Furioso (1532)—and in general the play seems satisfied with its sunny, comic approach to life. Comedy is, after all, not only a genre but a perspective on life, just as tragedy and romance are life-perspectives. Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t monolithic in tone or in degree of optimism—they range from dark (Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice) to light fare such as the present play, which is perhaps the most perfect of its type in Shakespeare’s canon.

Now that all is done, what exactly might we say is the magic of the Forest of Arden? It’s appropriate to borrow the phrase “freedom and variety of situations” from Wilhelm von Humboldt. Arden has a power to transform people, to alter their perspectives, and set things between them to rights. It’s a liberating place where we can either find out over time who we are (as Rosalind and Orlando do by way of romantic experimentation), as well as a place where we can go and “just change,” as Oliver does. It is markedly different from the Court or cityscape, where competition and greed may hold sway.

Of course there’s something of the seasonal cycle’s magic in the Forest, too: spring is the time of regeneration and hope. But “nature” is a very complex concept in Shakespeare, and his exploration of it varies from play to play. In King Lear, the King sees Edgar in the guise of Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, and declares him “the thing itself: a poor, bare, fork’d animal.” But that play as a whole surely doesn’t tell us we should reduce ourselves to such an extreme; we are not most authentically ourselves when stripped and “unaccommodated” by the arts and considerations of civic and family life. Artifice is part of our nature as human beings, it seems. The Forest of Arden encourages artifice and play, and its magic consists in the freedom to experiment with the styles and types that are undeniably part of life.

Epilogue (730-31, Rosalind calls for harmony and applause from men and women in the audience.)

The Epilogue makes light-hearted reference to the license and experimentation necessary for success in love matters: “It is not the fashion to see the lady / the epilogue …” (730, Epilogue 1-2), but it’s Rosalind who gets the last word. With that last word, she entreats the audience to applaud the play (or at least what they like of it) in remembrance of the love men and women bear to one another, play or no play.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Document Timestamp: 3/23/2024 7:54 PM

As You Like It

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. (Norton Comedies, 3rd edition, pp. 661-731).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, how might we take Oliver’s disposition and his treatment of his younger brother Orlando as a paradigm for the way this play represents “the bad guys,” or, if you prefer the metaphysical term, evil? How much power does Oliver have? Why does he dislike his brother so much? How does he respond when Orlando challenges his authority?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what contrast does the relationship between Rosalind and Celia present to that between Oliver and Orlando in the first scene? What is the basis of the two women’s friendship? What does Touchstone’s presence add to our introduction to Rosalind and Celia?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the text describe the beginning of Rosalind’s and Orlando’s love for each other? How does the wrestling match between Orlando and the Duke’s man Charles figure in this process, and to what extent should we analogize this contest with love as a kind of struggle or contest?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, Duke Frederick imperiously banishes Rosalind from his court. What is his reason for doing this — what logic does he urge upon Celia to justify his decision? How credible a villain does the Duke seem at this point?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, what plan do Rosalind and Celia devise to escape the wrath of Duke Frederick? Why does Rosalind decide that disguising herself as a young man would be best — what does this decision suggest about the play’s attitude towards traditional gender assumptions?


6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 4, we are introduced to the banished Duke Senior and to the shepherds Corin and Silvius. What impression do these scenes give us of the Forest of Arden? How close does the Forest come to being an idyllic pastoral space? What concerns beset Duke Senior and the shepherds, respectively?

7. In Act 2, Scenes 3, 6, and 7, how does Adam both assist and burden Orlando? What is the significance of Adam’s biblical name in the context of the old servant’s relationship to Orlando?

8. In Act 2, Scenes 5 and 7, Jacques is at his finest. In Scene 7, why is he so impressed with the conversation he and Touchstone have just had? As for Jacques’ description of the Seven Ages of Man from lines 139-66 of Scene 7, how much faith should we put in his characterizations — is Jacques’ perspective trustworthy? What is the value of his melancholy observations in such an otherwise sunny play?


9. In Act 3, Scene 2, Touchstone engages Corin the shepherd in a debate over the relative merits of court and country life. How does Touchstone assess the life shepherds lead and the “manners” they exhibit? How does Corin respond to Touchstone’s arguments against his way of life and his outlook? Does Shakespeare seem to be taking sides, or is the debate presented neutrally? Discuss.

10. Act 3, Scene 2 is structured around a series of pairings between key characters: Touchstone and Corin, Touchstone and Rosalind, Celia and Rosalind, Orlando and Jacques, and — most significantly — Orlando and Rosalind. Examine this last pairing: what kind of dialog does Rosalind (as Ganymede) engage in with the “love-shaked” (336) Orlando? What does Rosalind as Ganymede offer to do in order to cure Orlando of his passion? Why doesn’t she just reveal who she is at once — what is the value of this sort of play-acting and dialog on the subject of courtship?

11. Act 3, Scene 2 is structured around a series of pairings as mentioned in the preceding question. Choose any pair of dialog partners except Orlando and Rosalind, and discuss the significance of their conversation in light of the play’s main themes (country versus court; love versus melancholia and cynicism; etc.).

12. In Act 3, Scene 3, Touchstone determines to marry the shepherdess Audrey, and his conversation with her makes yet another pairing of diverse characters. What is the basis of Touchstone’s match with Audrey? In what ways are they similar, and what are their differences? How might they be a good match, in spite of the gap in understanding that divides them?

13. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, Rosalind and Celia hide, and overhear poor Silvius courting the shepherdess Phoebe. What does Rosalind expect to be her reward for eavesdropping? What role does she play when she intervenes in the scene that Corin had called “a pageant truly played / Between the pale complexion of true love / And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain” (3.4.46-48)?


14. In Act 4, Scene 1, Rosalind meets and spars with Jacques while she is waiting for Orlando to show up for his “lesson.” How does Jacques describe the benefits of his outlook on life to Rosalind? How much value does she see in what he tells her? Do you take her words as definitive regarding Jacques’ presence in the play? Why or why not?

15. In Act 4, Scene 1, Rosalind (as Ganymede playing Rosalind, that is) schools Orlando in female ways and wiles, and then, when he’s gone, she confesses to Celia how deeply she is in love with him. Why is she keeping up this disguise — what is to be gained from such make-believe sessions about courtship? How well is Orlando doing as a student in such matters so far?

16. In Act 4, Scene 3, Phoebe’s chiding letter arrives in the hand of Silvius, and Oliver makes his entrance. How does Oliver explain his sudden conversion from one of the play’s two villains into Orlando’s benign messenger? How does he describe Orlando’s rescue of him in the forest? How does he know “Ganymede” is not male, and what seems to be his attitude towards Rosalind’s acting the part of a young man?


17. In Act 5, Scene 2, Ganymede/Rosalind promises to sort out the play’s love matches by a kind of “magic.” But while Silvius and Phoebe, and Rosalind and Orlando, are still bound up by resistance and disguise, respectively, what ideal of love does Silvius set forth? To what extent is this view privileged in As You Like It? What does Rosalind’s refrain “And (so am) I for no woman” (79ff) connote in this light — how does he/she relate to the ideal Silvius has proclaimed?

18. In Act 5, Scene 3, two young boys (“Pages”) sing a song that begins “It was a lover and his lass” (14-31). To what extent does this song relate to the coming resolution of the play or comment on what has gone before? Time permitting, to what degree do other songs in this play (Amiens’ “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “Who doth ambition shun” along with Jacques comic overturning of it at 2.5; Amiens’ “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” at 2.7; the 2nd Lord’s “What shall he have?” at 4.2; or Hymen’s “Wedding is great Juno’s crown” at 5.4) relate to the main action?

19. In Act 5, Scene 4, Touchstone explains how a courtly quarrel should proceed, basing his account on his own experience. How does this famous account (usually referred to as “Touchstone’s quarrel”) function structurally and thematically at this point, as we await the resolution Rosalind has promised?

20. In Act 5, Scene 4, Hymen (the God of marriage) intervenes. What does Hymen decree for the four couples gathered? Why is it appropriate that he (and not Rosalind) should “bar confusion” and “make conclusion” (116-17) of the play’s events?

21. In Act 5, Scene 4, after Hymen has pronounced his lines, Jacques de Boyes (brother of Orlando and Oliver) enters and informs everyone that Duke Frederick has (like Oliver earlier) been transformed from a villain into good man and has decided to hand over his usurped powers to the rightful ruler, Duke Senior. How did this change take place? Why does it make sense that villainy should be so easily dispensed with in this comic play — what is the usual function of villains in a Shakespearean comedy?

22. In the Epilogue, Rosalind has a special request to make of the audience. What is her request — how is she drawing them into the action?

23. General question: how would you compare this play’s comic resolution (the nature of it and the means by which it is effected) to that of any one of Shakespeare’s other comedies that you have studied?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake