Analysis of ‘As You Like It’

A pastoral comedy Shakespeare is believed to have written about 1599, As You Like It has been met with a varied critical response, though I am one of the play’s staunch supporters.  The story is about Rosalind, who is banished from the oppressive court of Duke Frederick, usurping brother of her father, Duke Senior.  Duke Frederick is the father of Rosalind’s cousin, Celia, who flees with her.  The two young women, in disguise and accompanied by Touchstone, the witty court jester, enter the Edenic forest of Arden, where they’re eventually reunited with Duke Senior and all his courtiers, who have also been banished by Frederick, before the play starts.

Others to leave the court and enter the forest are Orlando and the aged Adam, soon to be chased by Orlando’s wicked older brother, Oliver.  The two brothers are soon reconciled, and both have fallen in love with the women; Touchstone is matched with a country girl, Audrey.  The couples are all married at the end of the play with another country couple, Silvius and Phoebe.  While on the way into the forest with an army to do war on his brother, Duke Frederick surprisingly gives up the dukedom on meeting a religious man.

The two settings of the play are sharply contrasted: the corrupt court, where there is much scheming and little happiness; and the idyllic forest of Arden, a relative paradise on earth where the worst sorrows are mere complaints of unrequited love.  (The name of the forest could be a portmanteau of ‘Arcadia’ and ‘Eden’; or it could simply be an anglicizing of Ardennes, since the story is set in France.)

Here are some famous quotes:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity/Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,/Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;/And this our life, exempt from public haunt,/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

–Duke Senior, Act II, scene i, lines 12-17

“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 schoolboy, 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 lin’d,/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 sav’d, 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.”

–Jacques, Act II, scene vii, lines 139-166

“O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful!  and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all whooping.”  –Celia, Act III, scene ii, lines 178-180

“”Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”  –Rosalind, Act IV, scene i, lines 108-109

“No, no, Orlando: men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.”

–Rosalind, Act IV, scene i, lines 131-134

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

–Touchstone, Act V, scene i, lines 19-31

As You Like It is Shakespeare’s most self-consciously theatrical play.  As a playwright and actor, he was always sensitive to the illusory nature of theatre, to a degree far greater than most of us, and he enjoyed playing little games with that artificiality in the plays-within-plays of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and others.  The bad acting in the ‘Pyramis and Thisbe’ play (interrupted by constant laughter in the audience in MND), Hamlet’s outbursts during the performance of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, and the brief interruption of the Petruchio and Katharine play to wake nodding Christopher Sly in TOS, are all pre-Brechtian forms of ‘alienation effect’, meant to take away the illusion of the story and remind the audience that they’re really just watching actors on a stage.

In As You Like It, the Bard uses no plays-within-plays to demonstrate theatrical artificiality, but he emphasizes that dramatic phoniness in other ways.

Duke Frederick, not the rightful duke, usurps the dukedom of his elder brother, Duke Senior, and plays the role, as it were, of duke.  Banished Rosalind and her faithful cousin Celia, ladies of the court, leave for the forest of Arden dressed as poor people; Rosalind even goes so far as to disguise herself and act like a boy!

Orlando–as much an heir to the fortune of his father, Sir Rowland de Boys, as his wicked elder brother, Oliver–plays the role of lowly farmer at the beginning of the play.  Then, Orlando plays the role of wrestler in a match against the far bigger and stronger Charles.  Entering Arden, he plays the roles of bandit and love poet, both foolishly.

Jacques, of course, gives his lengthy speech on how we all play seven roles our whole lives: “All the world’s a stage…”  First, we play the role of baby, then those of the schoolboy, lover, soldier, respectable man of society, aging man who watches his body slowly deteriorate, and finally the senile old man who suffers from dementia and dies a baby all over again.

Another insightful moment from Jacques comes when he sings the ‘Ducdame’ verse, “a Greek invocation, to draw fools into a circle.”  Aren’t crowd-pleasing comedies the same thing, that is, just theatrical invocations drawing audiences into circles, so they can watch meaningless frivolity?  Who knows what ‘Ducdame’ is supposed to mean?  It quite possibly means nothing, yet people continue to speculate in their circles nonetheless.

Not everyone thinks As You Like It is on the same artistic level as, for example, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, or the great tragedies.  It’s assumed by some that As You Like It is a mere crowd-pleaser (as even the play’s title suggests).  I disagree.  I say it’s both a crowd-pleaser and a satire of the crowd-pleaser.  Just as much as Touchstone speaks derisively of the performance of the two boy singers in Act V, scene iii, Shakespeare was deriding, however indirectly, the hack playwrights of his day.

I see Shakespeare as the Frank Zappa of Elizabethan theatre.  Like Zappa, the Bard wrought his art in a genre that, during their lifetimes, was given slight regard by contemporary art snobs; fortunately and deservedly, their work has been posthumously viewed, however, with much more respect.  Also, like Zappa, Shakespeare took his art form, experimented with it radically, subverted it, and used it to critique society.  Not only was his audience laughing at his comedies, he was laughing at the audience, too, for quite often not seeing the deeper meaning, however subtly shown, in the writing.

Though AYLI is supposed to be a gleeful comedy, the wisest characters are the fool Touchstone and Jacques, who significantly is always melancholy.  Jacques won’t even join the others in their–to him–empty celebrations at the play’s end.  He’d rather find spiritual enlightenment from the religious man who’s converted Duke Frederick so suddenly…and in so contrived a fashion.

Jacques’s speech, “All the world’s a stage…”, is the most famous part of the play, put right in the middle of it, and as mentioned above, it’s all about the sad and phoney roles we all play throughout our lives…an odd, subversive thing to put in an ostensibly cheerful, mindlessly crowd-pleasing pastoral comedy.

The play is all about artificiality, pretence, theatricality, deceit, and role-playing.  Rosalind, disguised as the boy Ganymede (a name whose homoerotic overtones should be obvious to anyone well-versed in Greek myth), represents what for Shakespeare must have been an amusing dramatic joke: female characters were always played by boys in his day.   Furthermore, ‘Ganymede’ tells lovesick Orlando ‘he’ will play the role of Rosalind in an attempt to cure Orlando of his yearning for her (actually, she’s testing his love for her).

So, we have, in theatrical terms, a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl.  In terms of the story, we have Rosalind, who’s playing Ganymede, who’s playing Rosalind.  Seem reasonable to you?

On top of that, Orlando’s in on this farce, pretending that an effeminate ‘boy’ (appropriately named Ganymede, as we observed above) is his lover.  Celia plays the role of priest in a mock marriage of the would-be (and will-be) lovers in Act IV, scene one.

But in the end, Orlando cannot continue pretending, so ‘Ganymede’, pretending to know magic, says ‘he’ can make Rosalind appear.  When she does come out of the bushes with Celia, both women now in beautiful dresses, Shakespeare deliberately makes things even more contrived by presenting, out of nowhere, Hymen, the god of marriage!

The deus ex machina (or ‘god out of the machine’) was a contrived device used in ancient Greek tragedy to give a quick and easy resolution to an almost unsolvable problem.  A god would appear, coming down from heaven, lowered onto the stage by a crane, and he would fix whatever the problem was in the tragedy.

Shakespeare seems to be subverting this idea, for no god is needed to marry Rosalind and Orlando, Oliver and Celia, Sylvius and Phoebe, and Touchstone and Audrey.  All Rosalind has to do is change back into women’s clothes, and Orlando will have her; then the four couples can find, for example, the religious man who’s converted Duke Frederick so miraculously, and they can all be married.

Which brings us to the second contrived element at the end of the play.  Another Jacques, younger brother of Oliver and older brother of Orlando, appears at an all-too-well-timed moment to announce that Duke Frederick raised an army to help him make war on all who’d left the increasingly unpopular dukedom to live in Arden; yet Frederick’s had a conversation with a religious man in the forest, and repenting all of a sudden, he’s given up the dukedom to live a monastic life!

This absurdly improbable resolution of Duke Senior’s usurpation outdoes the bizarre appearance of Hymen by far; and what must be stressed here is that its phoniness is too blatant and painfully obvious to have been an oversight on Shakespeare’s part.  How could a writer of his genius have allowed himself to settle for such an uninspired ending?  Obviously, he intended this double deus ex machina ending as a further development of the play’s themes of theatricality and artificiality.  What’s more, he perverts the deus ex machina ending by having no god resolve the problem of Duke Frederick’s intended attack, but instead puts a god in a place where one simply isn’t needed.

Finally, this deus ex machina ending, in a perverse distortion of its original function, makes fun of other, less talented contemporary playwrights, who may well have often used it.  Here we see Shakespeare in true Zappa-esque form.  By writing a play with an obviously phoney ending, the Bard is mocking less capable writers: don’t ever believe he was being a bad writer himself.

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