As You Like It
96-97 Season Season

As You Like It On Stage "A Gender Bending Performance"

MIRANDA JOHNSON-HADDAD

As You Like It was first performed in 1599 at the Globe Theatre by Shakespeare's company, then known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Theatre historians have recovered a good deal of information about this company and the actors in it. Scholars believe, for example, that As You Like It may well have marked the first appearance of the highly gifted Robert Armin in the role of Touchstone. Armin had replaced the talented comic actor Will Kemp in the late 1590's, and many of the more complex fools of Shakespeare's later plays (such as Twelfth Night's Feste and Lear's Fool) were probably created with Armin in mind. Theatre historians also suspect that in Shakespeare's all-male company, in which young boys took the women's roles, there may have been two principal boy actors of noticeably different heights, because several of the plays, including As You Like It , make a point of the fact that of the two main female characters, one is, like Rosalind, " more than common tall."

The fact that a boy actor would have been playing the part of Rosalind in Shakespeare's day makes for some suggestive complexities that tend to be less apparent in a modern production. Although several of Shakespeare's heroines disguise themselves as men the so called "britches part" or "woman's part" the levels of disguise are nowhere so elaborate as in As You Like It . Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, who then pretends, for Orlando's benefit, to be a young woman (Rosalind herself). When we recall that a boy actor would have been playing Rosalind, we begin to appreciate the full complexity of what is happening on stage: a boy actor playing a woman, who disguises herself as a boy, who then pretends to be a woman.

That Shakespeare was fully aware of this complexity seems evident in his choice of an alias for Rosalind, who calls herself Ganymede, a name that connoted homosexuality in Renaissance art and literature. Shakespeare may well have been inviting us to speculate on the nature of same-sex attraction, as he seems to do in Twelfth Night and other plays. In recent years several all male productions of As You Like It have been performed in both England and the United States including the 1995 Cheek by Jowl production in New York, and the all male casts enable modern audiences to appreciate afresh the ingenious complexities of this play.

After the original sixteenth century production, As You Like It does not appear to have been performed again with any regularity until 1723. During the eighteenth century the play was presented frequently in London but with many substantial revisions, a fate that was all too common for most of Shakespeare plays during this time. Additional songs from other Shakespeare plays were included in the performances, and productions tended to stress the roles of Rosalind and Jacques or Touchstone, whose parts were often written and expanded to serve as vehicles for a particular actress or actor.

In the nineteenth century the set for productions of As You Like It became increasingly elaborate as they did for other Shakespeare plays, a preference usually not followed by later directors. Several critics have observed over the years that the Forest of Arden, which is rich in literary associations, represents a state of mind as much as an actual physical setting. Most theatre critics agree that productions that overemphasize the forest through elaborate sets, soundtracks of baaing sheep and the liked tend to miss something vital about the play and its themes. Nevertheless, such productions are by no means without charm, as the 1936 film version starring a strikingly young and handsome Laurence Olivier and the German actress Elizabeth Bergner demonstrates.

In the twentieth century, the play has been staged in a variety of settings with a variety of casting choices. It is not unusual for a contemporary production to locate the early Arden scenes in a bleak, wintery setting that gradually becomes more spring-like as the play goes on. The emphasis on hardship and the simple sets of many recent productions emphasize the psychological significance of Arden as a place of self-discovery and personal redemption. Still other recent productions hearken back to earlier traditions by presenting a lush and verdant Arden in which the characters while away their time in a land of perpetual spring. Regardless of the themes that a particular production stresses, As You Like It remains one of Shakespeare's most popular and most frequently performed plays, perhaps because it is comically satisfying without any of the unsettling elements that distinguish the "problem" plays and some of the other late comedies, such as Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing . As You Like It also contains more songs than any other Shakespeare play and though we do not know what the original melodies sounded like, these songs contribute greatly to the sense of harmony and happiness that ultimately prevails in this sunniest of comedies.

Miranda Johnson-Haddad
The Folger Shakespeare Library

9/19/2005

 

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