William Shakespeare's As You Like It

William Shakespeare's As You Like It

William Shakespeare's As You Like It

William Shakespeare's As You Like It


As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's greatest comedies, is the story of several simultaneous and complicated seductions, all of which come to a climax at the end of the play in a multiple marriage ceremony. Set for the most part in the forest of Arden, where many of the characters assume the roles of foresters and shepherds, the play tells of the exiles of the rightful Duke Senior, his daughter Rosalind, and here cousin Celia, daughter of the unsurping Duke Frederick. The isolated forest allows the characters to create a new community, which is not a microcosm for the "real" world, but an envocation of the world traditionally described in the pastoral genre. Following the tragic threat of the play's opening act, this idealized pastoral mode works to transform the play from tragedy to comedy, and to send the restored community back to its proper sphere in the city.

Among eight distinguished critics assembled in this volume, Thomas McFarland analyzes character interactions and sees them as leading toward an equivocal conclusion; Rosalie Colie explores the pastoral aspects of the work; Peter Erickson centers his argument on the play's sexual politics; and Barbara J. Bono relates the play's mixed-genre to the complex "sexological situation" enacted in it.


The dramatic and emotional effect of Shakespearean comedy can be defined as a process of making manifest “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.” This comic toughness derives in part from Shakespeare’s ability to mix genres, an ability that helps to account for his artistic power. In exploring Shakespeare’s use of genre, we must be concerned as much with overlapping as with differentiation. The father-son motif, for example, provides a specific point of contact between As You Like It and Henry V. The analogous relationships between Duke Senior and Orlando in the first play and Henry IV and Hal in the second help to cut across an oversimplified generic distinction that says history plays deal with political power (implicitly understood as male power) whereas comedies treat love. Rosalind’s androgynous allure can appear so attractive, her linguistic virtuosity so engaging, that all our attention becomes focused on her, as if nothing else happened or mattered. Her talking circles around Orlando seems sufficient proof of her complete triumph. Yet this line of response is deficient because it ignores important parts of the play; that is, political power is a significant element in As You Like It.

The transmission of paternal heritage, announced at the outset in Orlando’s lament, begins to receive fulfillment when Orlando fashions an alliance with Duke Senior in the forest when no women are present.

After his initial complaint about being deprived of a “good education” (1.1.67–68), Orlando is educated twice: once by Rosalind’s father and then by Rosalind. The exiles in the forest can indulge in the pleasures of melancholy because the play can amply satisfy the need for true versions of debased human relationship: “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly” (2.7.181). We relish the platitude of this general rule in order to appreciate the magic of the exceptions. But the question still remains: how are the twin themes of friendship and loving coordinated with each other? And an exclusive focus on Rosalind prevents our asking it. Male friendship, exemplified by the reconciliation of Duke Senior and Orlando, provides a framework that diminishes and contains Rosalind’s apparent power. My point is not that As You Like It is a history play in disguise or that there are no differences between genres. The pastoral feast in the forest of Arden is far less stressful than the feast of Crispían that Henry V imagines as an antidote to the disturbing memory of his inheritance through “the fault / My father made in compassing the crown” (H5, 4.1.293–94). Unlike Henry V, Orlando is never made to confront a paternal fault. However, an exaggerated contrast between history and comedy is misleading. Concentration on Rosalind to the neglect of other issues distorts the overall design of As You Like It, one that is governed by male ends.

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