As You Like It is often referred to as a "festive" comedy, and there can be no doubt that it is among the happiest of Shakespeare's dramatic accomplishments.
A product of the poet's prime (the date normally assigned to it is late 1599, when Shakespeare was thirty-five), As You Like It allows us to watch the playwright experiment with a genre in which he had already demonstrated unprecedented mastery. Most notably, it introduces two new character types, the court jester and the melancholic malcontent, who would move on to significant roles in the dramatist's major tragedies. Here they treat us to two of the author's most popular set-pieces, Touchstone's satiric anatomy of the Seven Degrees of the Lie, and Jaques' solemn reflections on the Seven Ages of Man.
Even more than most of Shakespeare s comedies, As You Like It invites the audience to ponder the problematic relationships between the "real" world a work of dramatic art reflects and the "play" world it conjures into the magic circle, the "Wooden O," in which a cry of players performs it. At different points in the comedy, this exploration centers on different senses of "real" and "play" characters, and "real" and "play" acting. And in the final analysis it forces us to consider the, elusiveness of such concepts as Nature and Art, fate and Freedom, Win and Wit, Folly and Wisdom, and Madness and Sanity.
As You Like It derives much of its plot, and a hint of its title, from a prose romance by Shakespeare's contemporary, Thomas Lodge. In the preface to Rosalynde, or Euphues' Golden Legacy (1590), Lodge tells his readers "If you like it, so." At least one reader did, and he drew on Rosalynde , for many of teh characters and situations he dramatized in As You Like It. What we find if we set the play and its source side by side, however, is that, as usual, Shakespeare's modifications are at least as telling as his borrowings.
In Lodge, for example, the situation that opens the story is grimmer than the one we encounter in Shakespeare's play. There the firstborn who corresponds to Oliver has subverted his father's will to cheat his youngest brother out of an inheritance that was intended to be even larger than the oldest brother's own. In Lodge, rather than merely authorize the Duke's wrestler to encounter an Orlando who has rashly challenged him, the oldest brother incites the challenge and secretly bribes the wrestler to show no mercy. In Lodge the match itself is preceded by preliminary bouts in which the wrestler kills rather than maims his opponents. And in Lodge the brother who corresponds to Orlando slays rather than stuns a brutal grappler who has none of the redeeming qualities we see in As You Like It 's Charles the Wrestler.
What Shakespeare does, in sum, is soften the harsh edges of the story he found in his source. His Oliver may seem just as mean-spirited as the oldest brother in Lodge's narrative, but in fact Oliver's malice is prompted, not by greed or by an understandable sense of injustice, but by an irrational "humor": an obsessive envy of his youngest brother"s innate goodness and favor. Meanwhile the youngest brother in Shakespeare's play has less reason to blame all his troubles on the firstborn, since Orlando's deprived condition has at least as much to do with society's laws of primogeniture as with Oliver's denial of the little that Orlando is entitled to receive as the youngest of three sons.
As a consequence of the changes Shakespeare made, the encounters between the two brothers in As You Like It are less violent than the ones to be found either in Lodge or in Lodge's own source, a 14th-century Tale of Gamelyn in which the youngest brother becomes a Robin Hood-style outlaw and eventually sees his wicked brother hanged.
And what is true of the Oliver and Orlando story is also true of the playwright's treatment of the two Dukes. Shakespeare augments his source by making them brothers. To reinforce the parallel with Oliver, moreover, he portrays the usurping Frederick as a "humourous" ruler, susceptible to repentance and conversion, rather than as a man so reprobate and tyrannous that he must finally be slain in battle. The net result of these and other alterations is to render As You Like It less realistic and more allegorical in its major plot lines than Rosalynde. Rather than attempting to "motivate" either the humours or the sudden conversions of the "bad" brothers, Shakespeare simply presents them as aspects of a world in which "Strange Events" will have their way.
But if much of what happens in As You Like It would seem too improbable to believe in an ordinary setting, Shakespeare persuades us to accept it by transporting us almost immediately from a familiar, constraining environment at Court to a Forest of Arden in which virtually anything becomes possible. Commentators sometimes speak of Arden as a benign, garden-like expanse with affinities to the Eden of Biblical lore and the Golden Age of classical antiquity. That is how it is depicted in the play's first reference to a "Golden World" where men "fleet the time carelessly" without concern for the malice and injustice of Duke Frederick's usurped Court. Once everyone gets to Arden, however, even such characters as Old Adam find it to be something quite different from the land of ease and plenty celebrated in myth and romanticized in pastoral poetry.
To be sure, this Forest has its literate shepherds and shepherdesses, its Silviuses and Phebes; but it also has its crude and inarticulate rustics, its Audreys and Williams. Shakespeare's Arden may afford a home for benevolent Corin, but the playwright reminds us that it also has its share of stingy masters, like the churlish landowner who has decided to sell Corin's sheepcote. And far from providing unlimited abundance and perpetual spring, the Forest we encounter in As You Like It appears instead to be a "desert" place (largely uninhabited and uncultivated) where food is hard to come by.
In short, Shakespeare's Arden is a locale with the usual allotment of "Wind and Rough Weather." And though the life it offers may be "Sweet" for Duke Senior and his band of loyal Lords, its blessings are reserved for those who have learned to "translate the Stubbornness of Fortune" into a "Style" that enables them to appreciate "the Uses of Adversity. "
For two of the Court characters this proves difficult. The melancholy Jaques complains that the banished Duke has merely usurped the Forest from its "native Burghers, " the poor deer whose "round Haunches" must be " gor'd " to support a Court in exile. Meanwhile the witty Touchstone says, "Now am I in Arden, the more Fool; when I was at home, I was in a better place." Despite the poses with which they satirize the sentiments of others, though, both Jaques and Touchstone accommodate themselves to their new situation. Touchstone presses in 11 amongst the rest of the Country Copulatives" in the wedding feast that concludes the play, and Jaques,, eventually decides that rather than "dancing" back to Court, he will join the "Convertites" on "the Skirts of this wild Wood."
For the remainder, Arden proves to be a restorative retreat. Here a young Orlando who "cannot speak" to his Rosalind at Court finds "Tongues in Trees" and counsel from a disguised "Ganymede" who prepares him for marriage by warning him of the worst that may befall him if he persists in his romantic pursuit. Here an Oliver hell-bent on becoming another Cain discovers what it really means to be a brother's keeper. Here a Celia who is prepared to return her inheritance to the cousin from whom it has been usurped is rewarded with marriage to one of the dukedom's foremost gentlemen. And here a Rosalind who enters with nothing but her wit and resourcefulness emerges as the presiding genius over a sylvan realm that she alone sees steadily and as a whole.
Rosalind may be the most balanced and sane of all of Shakespeare's characters. She possesses in full measure the tenderness and sensitivity of humanity's "weaker vessels." She loves ardently and feels deeply; at one point she even faints at the report of blood. But she understands and openly acknowledges her vulnerability, and she complements it with a sage "counterfeiting" that enables her to explore her deepest self while she simultaneously guides others to the roots of their own beings.
Like all of Shakespeare's plays, As You Like It is largely about how men and women think, and what they must do to attain the things they most desire. It can be approached as a dramatic meditation on the way to achieve what a later writer would call "wise blood," and Rosalind emerges as the principal embodiment of the equanimity and harmony the comedy commends.
Fittingly, the work concludes with a dance and an Epilogue in which Rosalind invites the audience to "like as much of the Play as please you." Its rich production history would suggest that most audiences have found a lot to like in this joyous celebration of the good idea.
John F. Andrews
Editor of The Guild Shakespeare