Tonight we open As You Like It, Shakespeare’s playful comedy where poetry, mistaken identities and true love abound. In celebration, we take you deeper into the world of the play with a look at one of our feature articles from ASIDES, written by Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Associate and Resident Dramaturg at STC.
Many scholars believe that As You Like It, which was written around 1599 or 1600, was one of the first plays performed at the Globe Theatre, following quickly on the heels of Henry V. 1599 was a pivotal year for Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Queen Elizabeth had just passed a law banning the representation of historical figures onstage. This meant that Shakespeare would have to abandon the history play—the genre in which he saw his first commercial success—and come up with a new, seemingly apolitical form of drama.
In quick succession, Shakespeare would write Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night (Or What You Will). In these plays, known as the “high comedies,” Shakespeare leaves behind the comfortable and somewhat rigid confines of the chronicle history play for a more imaginative and richly symbolic kind of dramaturgy. The action of these plays is not so much what did happen to historical figures as what could happen to any of us. They are fantasy landscapes all ruled under the sign of the hypothetical: what you will, as you like, what you make much ado about. Of the three of them, As You Like It casts the widest net: it is the most panoramic in form and subject matter, and the one that most looks forward to Shakespeare’s late romances.
The bulk of the action occurs in the Forest of Arden, a world in which, as the good Duke says, there are “sermons in the stones, books in the brooks, and good in everything” (act 2, scene 1). In Arden, inner liberation manifests as outer transformation: Rosalind, forced out of the court by her malign uncle Frederick, dresses up as a boy and adopts the name of Ganymede. Her cousin Celia becomes Aliena. Orlando, physically impressive but tongue-tied in the court, hangs “tongues on trees” once he comes to the lover’s paradise of Arden. Even Touchstone, the Fool, is born again in the forest as an ardent wooer. It is a place of psychological possibility, a kind of repository for the imagination, combining paradises literary, mythic and geographic (after all Arcadia + Eden = Arden). Everything in the Forest truly is as you like it, that is, as you imagine it. Instead of a political drama, then, one that hinges on the actions of men and women, Shakespeare provides us with a deeper and more symbolic kind of drama, one in which the thoughts and spirits of humankind are regenerated from within. The true plot of As You Like It is that of the spiritual quest, a journey that begins in a fallen world, followed by a period of regenerative exile.
The most famous speech in the play—one of the most famous passages in the Shakespeare canon—comes at the conclusion of Act 2, in Jaques’ famous description of the “Seven Ages of Man”:
All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players …
Seen in the context of the play, Jaques’ words take on an almost religious meaning. Act 2 is divided into seven scenes—just as St. Augustine divided the history of the world into seven ages—and it encompasses all of God’s creation. Using the radically empty stage of the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare moves us with staggering economy between such disparate locations as Duke Frederick’s court, Duke Senior’s camp in Arden, Orlando’s orchard, the shepherd Corin’s humble cottage, and the “Greenwood Tree” of Amiens and Jaques’ song. The final scene is a meal, a kind of last supper that also has Old Testament echoes. The Act that started with the Duke talking of “the penalty of Adam” ends here with Orlando entering, carrying an ailing old Adam upon his back.
Shakespeare yokes together this wide and universal theatre with one of his most astonishing creations, the sublime Rosalind. Like Shakespeare himself, Rosalind is the ultimate intermediary, able to converse with characters from all walks of life. She trades bawdy innuendos with Touchstone, looks askance at Jaques and bargains pragmatically with Corin the sheep-hand. She provides friendly advice to the lovelorn Silvius and reproach for his cruelly indifferent mistress, Phoebe. At 686 lines, her role is twice as large as that of her love object, Orlando, and she commands a central function in the play’s dramaturgy. She is the single largest reason the play’s tone changes, after its wintry first movement, into pastoral romance. In a world in which all the men and women are merely players, Shakespeare seems to be saying that the ideal protagonist is Rosalind, i.e. the ideal actor. As proof of her supreme interest, Shakespeare gives Rosalind the Epilogue, granting her a one-on-one intimacy with the audience that no other character in the play possesses. It is the only play in the canon, significantly, that concludes with a woman speaking.
As one of Shakespeare’s richest meditations on the enigma of sexual desire, the play seems to grasp intuitively the liberating power of the theatre itself, which revels in contradiction and disguise. Of course, such a state of affairs cannot exist forever. Eventually the show must end, the clocks must start back up, and we must stop playing make-believe. As the play moves inexorably toward marriage and a return to the outside world, however, Shakespeare surprises us. Unusually, the author leaves us in the forest, in a state of suspended animation. For another moment, we are allowed to imagine ourselves in a world of transcendent make-believe, as we like it.