Sunday, 9 February 2014


As You Like It is a pastoral comedy written by William Shakespeare in 1599.  Shakespeare drew the story from a story called Rosalynde written by Thomas Lodge and published in 1590.

The plot is very simple:  dramatic troubles caused by two evil brothers toward good brothers, and related obstacles to marriage for several couples in the play (most notably Rosalind and Orlando) are easily overcome, and a happy ending is never in doubt. On one level, the play was clearly intended by Shakespeare as a simple amusement; several scenes in As You Like It are essentially sketches made up of songs and joking banter. But on a somewhat deeper level, the play provides opportunities for its main characters to discuss subjects  such as love, aging, the natural world, and death from their particular points of view. At its center, As You Like It presents us with the respective worldviews of Jaques, a chronically melancholy pessimist preoccupied with the negative aspects of life, and Rosalind, the play's heroine, who recognizes life's difficulties but shows a positive attitude that is kind, playful, and, above all, wise. 

Rosalind dominates As You Like It.  So fully realized is she in the complexity of her emotions and the subtlety of her thought that no one else in the play matches up to her. Orlando is handsome, strong, and an affectionate, if unskilled, poet, yet we feel that Rosalind settles for someone slightly less magnificent when she chooses him as her mate. In the same way, the observations of Touchstone and Jaques, who might shine more brightly in another play, seem rather dull whenever Rosalind takes the stage. 
Rosalind is admired for her ability to subvert the limitations that society imposes on her as a woman. With boldness and imagination, she disguises herself as a young man for the majority of the play in order to woo the man she loves and instruct him in how to be a more accomplished, attentive lover  - a tutorship that would not be welcome from a woman. There is endless comic appeal in Rosalind’s ridiculing the conventions of both male and female behaviour, but an Elizabethan audience might have felt a certain amount of anxiety regarding her behaviour. After all, the structure of a male-dominated society depends upon both men and women acting in their assigned roles. Her emergence as an actor in the Epilogue assures that theatregoers, like the Arden foresters, are about to exit a somewhat enchanted realm and return to the familiar world they left behind, but because they leave having learned the same lessons from Rosalind, they do so with the same potential to make that world a less punishing place.

The wonderful heroines of the romantic comedies - Rosalind in As You Like It, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Viola in Twelfth Night - reflect a blend of feminine and masculine attitudes and behaviors. Although they are women, subject at some point in each play to the care of fathers, brothers, or husbands, each is also "masculine" in her actions. As "strong females", they demonstrate more self-awareness than the men; they use their reason, they talk, they are mobile, often found in the out-of-doors rather than inside their fathers' or husbands' houses. They control the action. Portia, for example, controls the final scene of The Merchant of Venice by bringing about the downfall of Shylock through her tempering of justice with mercy and by controlling the forces which enable her to live happily ever after with Bassanio. Like Portia, Rosalind dominates the action in As You Like It. She is intelligent, strong of character, patient, and demonstrates an unshakable integrity. 

The play has more songs in it than any other Shakespearean drama, a sign that Shakespeare enjoyed the pastoral genre he was using for the play. The forest of Arden, where the characters all end up, turns out to be very similar to other forests: it causes fear through the wild animals, but provides the right atmosphere for healing to occur. This corresponds closely to the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream where most of the action occurs before the characters return to Athens with their problems resolved. Indeed, after hunting deer, tending sheep, singing songs and writing love sonnets on bark, most of the cast in this play returns home again with all their problems solved.

Here you can download a PDF presentation of the play.

You can find a worksheet about Jaques' speech on the seven ages of man, which begins "All the world's a stage", here and a detailed analysis of the monologue here.

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