Celebrating Shakespeare: As You Like It by William Shakespeare

by Sharon Browning

I get it.  As You Like It is not considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedies.  It certainly doesn’t have strong leads who can dash off continuous lines of sparkling repartee like Much Ado About Nothing.  It doesn’t have the fantastic fantasy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It doesn’t have the slapstick potential of The Comedy of Errors.  But it does have some witty banter, fantastic misdirection, wonderful characters and, when performed well, lots of hearty laughs.  It’s my favorite Shakespearean comedy.

In As You Like It, Rosalind is the daughter of the deposed Duke Senior who has fled to the Forest of Ardenne to live with his band of loyal followers.  Because she is the favorite companion to her cousin, the rambunctious Celia, Rosalind has been allowed to remain at court even though her graciousness and wholesome demeanor pricks at the conscience of her mean spirited uncle (the current Duke).   Meanwhile, headstrong yet virtuous young nobleman Orlando chafes at the abuse he suffers from his tyrannical older brother.

Rosalind and Orlando cross paths, and immediately fall in love.  But before they can learn anything about each other, Rosalind is abruptly banished from the city by her jealous uncle.  She decides to strike out in search of her father, traveling in disguise (for safety’s sake) as a young nobleman.  Celia, unable to face life at court without her favorite cousin, insists on accompanying her, assuming the role of a simple shepherdess who is sister to the young “man” now known as Ganymede.  (They also take along, inexplicably but hilariously, the court jester, Touchstone.)  Shortly after arriving in the forest, they acquire a modest cottage and settle in to a rustic lifestyle.

Unknown to Rosalind, Orlando, too, has fled to the forest after learning of a plot of his brother’s to do him harm.  He likewise is unaware that Rosalind is there, but continues to demonstrate his love for her by posting sappy, irritating love poems on the trees around the forest.  This eventually gains him notice of not just Rosalind (now Ganymede) but many others who have found a living in the forest, and they initiate much of the humor that follows.

As Ganymede, the disguised Rosalind confronts lovesick Orlando and he confides in his new acquaintance that his feelings for his beloved are quite overpowering.  Ganymede makes the claim that he (she) could “cure” him of being in love altogether if Orlando would only woo him (her) as if he (she) were the object of his affection.  Why does she do this?  Why does he accept?  Heck, I don’t know!   Ok, ok, so it had to do with spoofing the courtly notion at the time of love being akin to a disease, and men in love being slaves to their lovers, and Rosalind certainly enjoys twisting silly Orlando around… but does it matter?  It sets up some awfully fun scenes turning on fantastic phrases, hidden meanings and double entendres that is Shakespeare at his best.

Of course there are many side stories that add to the comedy, what with all the misdirection of identities and the simplicity of life outside the court, and of course, in the end everything is resolved.  Everyone ends up with the right partner, the evil duke sees the error of his ways and Duke Senior is restored to power, brothers are reunited, and the play ends with a joyous multiple wedding.  Everyone is happy – except melancholy Jaques, the nobleman who rejects the good fortune of the others and chooses to remain behind in the forest because, well, he’s Jaques.  That’s just how he rolls.

As You Like It may not be the most well known of Shakespeare’s plays, but it still abounds with oft quoted and familiar phrases.  “Oh! how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes”, “O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all whooping!”, “I do desire we may be better strangers”, “I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul”, “Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown more than your enemies”, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”, and “And thereby hangs a tale”, among others, have stayed familiar to this day.  (After working on a production of As You Like It in college, I forever would greet particularly close girlfriends with, “Oh, coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz!”)

But As You Like It contains what is perhaps the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare  save for Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy:  the “Seven Stages of Man” speech, spoken again by the witty yet dour Jaques:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Cynical, yet beautifully lyrical, the speech may seem disheartening, but is spoken by one who wears his melancholy like a badge of honor.  It is not so much a chastisement of life as it is a somewhat bleak view of it from a man who has become disillusioned with his own libertine and superficial life which he had led at the Duke’s court.  We’ll allow him his conceit as long as he speaks as wonderfully as he does, and then we’ll sing a song and share a good meal afterwards, even as he pouts.  Don’t we all know folks like that, eh?

In the end, though, As You Like It is about love.  Glorious love, silly love, love between lovers, between friends, between brothers, between masters and their servants, between fathers and daughters.

Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish’d and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.

Silly love, infatuous love, misplaced love, love of convenience, love of opportunity, instantaneous love, impractical love, transcending love, true love.  It is, in fact, a tale of, or many entwined tales of, lusty, bawdy, lovely, endearing, cynical, hilarious love – however you might like it.

~ Sharon Browning

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Maura McHugh 23 April, 2013 - 7:00 pm

It’s my favourite Shakespearean comedy too. I love the cross dressing and the dialogue. It’s silly, well-written, fun.

Kim 25 April, 2013 - 10:19 pm

Harold Bloom considers Rosalind to be nearly the greatest of Shakespeare’s female characters, so I’m unsure of why you think this play “doesn’t have strong leads.” Can you explain further?

Sharon Browning 27 April, 2013 - 9:55 am

Hi, Kim – thanks for reading and responding to the article! And please don’t get me wrong – I love Rosalind. I have heard, though, and somewhat agree, that her instantaneous falling in love with Orlando, her inability to recognize that he is the one who has been writing the love letters left on the trees, her moving between strength in being able to keep up the facade of Ganymede while swooning when she sees his blood makes her too much of a circumstantial foil than some of Shakespeare’s other heroines. My, but she has some great moments, doesn’t she?

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