Detailed Synopsis of ‘As You Like It’

Act One: Forced by his elder brother, Oliver, to do menial work, Orlando complains of him to Adam, the family’s aged servant.  Though Orlando’s late father, Sir Rowland de Boys, gave an inheritance to all three of his sons, Oliver, the eldest, refuses to let Orlando, the youngest, have his share.  Orlando will no longer endure this unfair treatment.

Oliver enters, scorning Orlando when he demands his inheritance.  The brothers fight, and Orlando has Oliver in a headlock, not letting him go until he says he’ll give Orlando the inheritance.  Let go, Oliver speaks abusively to Adam, who protests the abuse.  Oliver leaves angrily.

Elsewhere, Oliver meets with Charles, a big, strong wrestler who’s killed men in wrestling matches.  Charles mentions the usurped Duke Senior and his men, who are living like Robin Hood in the forest of Arden.  Charles also says that Orlando wishes to fight him in a wrestling match, and warns Oliver that Orlando will most likely be killed in the fight.  Oliver, though saying he will try to dissuade Orlando from wrestling Charles, secretly would like his brother to die in the match, of course.

In the next scene, Rosalind complains to her cousin and good friend Celia of how sad she is that her father, Duke Senior, has been usurped and banished by Duke Frederick, her uncle and Celia’s father.  Celia tries to cheer her up by speaking with her about love.  Touchstone the jester enters and makes some witty remarks.  Then Le Beau, a courtier, arrives, and tells them all about the wrestling match between Charles and Orlando.  They all go over to watch it.

The girls meet Orlando and try to dissuade him from fighting the much bigger and stronger Charles.  Orlando says he doesn’t care if he dies, for he has no friends, nor anything to live for, and his absence will give more room to the rest of the people of the world.  He and Rosalind are already beginning to have feelings for each other.  Charles arrives, as does Duke Frederick.  The match begins.

At first, Charles is clearly winning, though Orlando won’t give up.  Celia wishes she could be invisible and trip Charles.  Orlando, however, gets lucky and wins the match, injuring Charles badly enough that other men must life the heavy wrestler and carry him off.

Duke Frederick congratulates Orlando and asks him his name.  When Orlando says he’s the son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, a friend of Duke Senior, Frederick leaves angrily.

The girls go to speak with Orlando, congratulating him.  Rosalind gives him a necklace to remember her by, and they’re already in love, though they haven’t said so.  The girls leave him.

Alone with Celia, Rosalind tells her of her love for Orlando, and that, since her father and his were friends, that makes her love of Orlando all the luckier.  Celia says that her father disliked Sir Rowland de Boys, but that she likes Orlando no less for that.

Duke Frederick enters and tells Rosalind she’s banished from the dukedom.  When she asks why, he says it’s because she’s Duke Senior’s daughter.  Though he tolerated her before, for Celia’s sake, he now feels his power is threatened by the likes of her.  When Celia tries to defend her, he calls Celia a fool for not worrying about Rosalind as a threat to her future power.  He leaves.

Celia comforts Rosalind, insisting that her father has banished her, too, for she has no life without Rosalind’s company.  The girls plan to dress as poor people to avoid being enticing targets for highway bandits.  And since Rosalind is the taller of the two, she’ll disguise herself as a boy, and call herself ‘Ganymede’.  Celia will pretend to be ‘his’ sister, and call herself ‘Aliena’ (foreigner).  They’ll have Touchstone accompany them for protection, go into Arden, and look for Duke Senior.

Act Two: In Arden, Duke Senior speaks with his men of how much better life in the forest is, compared with the phoney court.  With the harshness of nature, one has honesty instead of flattery, and nature can impart much wisdom to us.  (See quote 1 from my ‘Analysis of As You Like It‘.)

He asks of the melancholy Jacques (pronounced ‘JAY-queez’), and is told that Jacques is weeping over the killing of a deer.

Back in the dukedom, Adam warns Orlando of Oliver’s plot to burn down Orlando’s home while he’s sleeping.  Orlando plans to flee into Arden; Adam wants to go with him, and offers him all the money he’s saved from his employment with the de Boys family.  Orlando is touched by the generosity of the older generation, a virtue he feels is lacking among the young.  They prepare to leave for Arden.

‘Ganymede’, ‘Aliena’, and Touchstone have been walking long to get to Arden, and are all exhausted.  They see two shepherds, older Corin and younger Silvius.  Silvius is complaining of his unrequited love for the shepherdess Phoebe, saying that Corin, in his age, has forgotten of the young’s pain from lovesickness.  Silvius leaves.

‘Ganymede’, affecting a boy’s voice and manner, asks Corin where ‘he’ and ‘his’ friends can find accommodation.  Corin tells them of the house of a churlish old shepherd who wants to sell it, and he takes the three tired travellers there.

After Amiens, a singer in Duke Senior’s company, and his backing musicians perform a song, Jacques adds a verse with the word ‘Ducdame’, explaining to them that it’s ‘a Greek invocation, to draw fools into a circle.’  Amiens sings the new verse.

Orlando and Adam are entering the forest in the evening.  Adam is deathly tired, and desperately needs rest and food, which Orlando searches for.

Duke Senior and his men arrive at the camp with the food from their hunt.  Jacques enters, laughing and saying he’s seen a jester in motley clothes going about in the woods.  He chatted with the jester, and Jacques laughed at the fool’s witty remarks.  Now Jacques wishes he were a fool: ‘Motley’s the only wear.’

Orlando, brandishing a sword, surprises them, demanding they give him their food.  Duke Senior gently says he is free to eat with them if he wishes.  Disarmed by their unexpected gentleness, Orlando blushingly sheathes his sword and apologizes for his roughness, saying he assumed rudeness was a universal trait in the forest.  He mentions Adam’s age and weakness, and his desperate need for food and rest.  Duke Senior promises he and his men won’t touch any of the food till Orlando returns with the old man.  Orlando hurries off to get Adam.

Duke Senior speaks of how we all suffer in the ‘wide and universal theatre’ of the world.  Jacques speaks of how we all are actors, playing the roles of seven ages throughout our lives.  (See the second quote from my ‘Analysis of AYLI‘.)

Orlando returns with Adam, and everyone eats that night while Amiens sings a sad song.

Act Three: Back in the dukedom, Duke Frederick is paranoid about everyone leaving the court to go to Arden; he forces Oliver to find and kill Orlando.  Oliver rushes off, glad to do the job.

The next day, Orlando, ecstatic with love for Rosalind, starts carving her name in tree bark and writing love poems, sticking the paper on which they’re written on tree branches.  He does this all over the forest.

Corin asks Touchstone how he likes the rustic life; the jester answers this question with his usual wit, comparing life in Arden with life in the court.  Celia finds one of the poems and reads it to Rosalind.  Touchstone hears, and begins improvising witty parodies of the poem, annoying Rosalind.  Celia realizes Orlando is the poet (third quote), and tells Rosalind, who is upset, since she’s still dressed as Ganymede.

Jacques meets Orlando, and they make a witty exchange, saying how displeased they are to have met; Jacques asks Orlando not to mar the trees with any more of his bad verses.  ‘Ganymede’ finds Orlando, and Jacques leaves.

‘Ganymede’ asks Orlando if he knows what the time is; when Orlando says he couldn’t possibly know in a forest, ‘he’ says that he couldn’t possibly be in love then, for lovesick people can know the exact time anywhere from counting every sad second of the day.  Also, a man in love would be ill-groomed.

Not knowing he’s speaking to Rosalind, Orlando insists that he loves her.  ‘Ganymede’ claims ‘he’ can cure Orlando of his lovesickness by ‘pretending to be Rosalind’ while he pretends to love ‘Ganymede as Rosalind’.

In another part of the forest, Touchstone hopes to marry the country girl Audrey, and he even gets a priest, Sir Oliver Martext, to marry them; but Jacques intervenes, advising Touchstone not to use Sir Oliver’s dubious services, and to find a church instead.  Touchstone thus dismisses Sir Oliver.

Back to where ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ are, Rosalind complains of how Orlando hasn’t returned to meet her at the promised time.  Corin comes over and tells ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ about a true ‘pageant’ of love.  He leads them to see Silvius complaining of his love to disdainful Phoebe.  ‘Ganymede’ scolds her for not realizing how lucky she is to have Silvius’ love, since she’s ‘not for all markets’.  Though Phoebe doesn’t like the rudeness of ‘Ganymede’, she sure fancies ‘him’, thus shocking Rosalind, who tries to discourage Phoebe’s advances.  After ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ leave, Phoebe tells Silvius to help her write an angry letter complaining to ‘him’ of ‘his’ rudeness to her.

Act Four: ‘Ganymede’ and Jacques speak of the latter’s melancholy, whose uniqueness Jacques describes as having many diverse ingredients.  Orlando appears, and Jacques leaves.

‘Ganymede’ chides Orlando for being late.  (As the discussion continues, quote four appears.)  With ‘Aliena’ playing the role of priest, ‘Ganymede’ and Orlando have a mock wedding.  He says he’ll love Rosalind ‘For ever and a day’.  (Next comes quote five.)  Orlando then leaves, having promised not to be late for their next meeting.  Rosalind then tells Celia of ‘how many fathom deep’ she is in love, ‘But it cannot be sounded’.

Elsewhere in the forest, Jacques complains to the lords of their killing of another deer.  He demands they sing a song for the deer.

Back with ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’, Silvius gives ‘him’ a letter written by Phoebe, complaining of ‘his’ disdainfulness to her.  Oliver then appears; looking on ‘Aliena’, he’s quite taken by her beauty.  He explains to her and ‘Ganymede’ that Orlando can’t be there at the promised time, since he’s been injured by a lioness, having defended then-sleeping Oliver from the beast (and a snake).  Seeing Orlando’s bloody handkerchief as proof, ‘Ganymede’ faints.  Oliver tells ‘him’ to be more of a man.

Act Five: Touchstone learns of a country fellow named William who fancies Audrey.  Jealous Touchstone has a witty conversation with William (see quote six), then scares him off.

Now reconciled to Orlando, Oliver tells him of his love for ‘Aliena’, and of their plan to be married.  Though happy for his brother, Orlando is sad from lacking Rosalind.  He tells ‘Ganymede’ he can no longer pretend; ‘Ganymede’, claiming ‘he’ knows magic, claims ‘he’ can make Rosalind appear.

Silvius and Phoebe go over to ‘Ganymede’ and Orlando.  Phoebe tells Silvius to explain to ‘Ganymede’ what love is; Silvius speaks of the pain and devotion one feels, and that he feels that way for Phoebe, who says she feels that way for ‘Ganymede’.  Orlando in turn says he feels that way for Rosalind, while ‘Ganymede’ says ‘he’ feels that way ‘for no woman’.  ‘Ganymede’ can endure no more of this: ‘he’ promises to fix everything for all of them, saying that if Phoebe can’t love ‘Ganymede’, she must then love Silvius.  Phoebe agrees to this.  They will all meet again the next day.

Elsewhere in the forest, Touchstone and Audrey are visited by two singing boys.  Touchstone doesn’t like their performance.

The next day, everyone comes together where Rosalind will appear.  Duke Senior notes how ‘Ganymede’ looks rather like his daughter Rosalind.  Orlando agrees.  ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ go into some bushes.  When Touchstone appears with Audrey, Duke Senior and Jacques talk with the jester, who has many witty things to say.  Jacques mentions again what ‘a rare fellow’ he is, ‘and yet a fool’.

Rosalind and Celia appear, in beautiful dresses, accompanied by Hymen, the god of marriage.  Everyone, especially Orlando, Oliver, Duke Senior, and Phoebe, stare at the three in amazement.  Hymen marries Orlando to Rosalind, Oliver to Celia, Silvius to Phoebe (who clearly has no intention of having a woman for her lord), and Touchstone to Audrey, a comically awkward match.

Celebrations are in order, with Amiens singing and everyone dancing.  Jacques, brother of Orlando and Oliver, appears and tells everyone of Duke Frederick coming into Arden with an army and planning to do war with them all.  Racing through the forest, however, the usurping duke met a religious man who dissuaded him from going ahead with his attack.  Instead, Frederick has given up his power and decided to be a religious man himself.  Duke Senior has his dukedom back.

Melancholy Jacques asks Jacques de Boys of the religious man, and would rather find him and receive his spiritual enlightenment than join the–to Jacques–empty-headed celebrations.  Duke Senior asks him to stay, but he won’t.  He leaves immediately.  The celebrations continue.

Epilogue: Rosalind ends the play with a few words to the men and women in the audience, entreating them, who love each other, to enjoy the play as much as it should please them.  During the speech, indirect acknowledgement is made to the fact that a boy actor is playing ‘her’.  ‘She’ asks the audience to bid ‘her’ farewell.

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.