As You Like It

By William Shakespeare


As You Like It occupies a secure place in Shakespeare's canon as one of his most successful and most popular comedies. Completed in 1600, a year after Twelfth Night, the play's underlying romantic-comedy formula - boy meets girl, they fall in love, they overcome a variety of misunderstandings and obstacles and marry to live happily ever after - is an archetype that has always pleased audiences. But As You Like It's continued appeal perhaps stems from its unusual variation on this tried and tested formula.

Rather than boy meeting girl this is girl meeting boy, as the female lead, Rosalind, indeed takes the lead in much of the wooing, so that the play provides a presentation of the romance theme that is unconventional in literature before the twentieth century. The dramatic focus necessarily centres therefore on Rosalind, making her (alongside, perhaps, Cleopatra) one of Shakespeare's strongest and most attractive heroines. She is now, however, attractive because we share in her thoughts through as series of soliloquies (as we do with Hamlet), but because of her wit and verbal inventiveness. Her exuberance is the expression of an essentially happy nature falling in love and its effect is exhilarating and liberating. It's also a characteristic she shares with two other cast members, Touchstone, the court jester, and her cousin Celia. The abundance of wordplay and witty argument which this trio and even the more melancholy characters engage in makes As You Like It one of the funniest and most persuasive of Shakespeare's comedies.

Like Hamlet feigning madness, Rosalind adopts a disguise that she retains for much of the action, before, again, like Hamlet, orchestrating a triumphant denouement through her own ingenuity. This devise of disguise (deployed so often in comedy) is well-motivated since she uses it to woo her unwitting lover, Orlando, to both test and educate him. The resulting dramatic irony that arises when Shakespeare creates and exploits a discrepancy between what the characters know and what the audience knows is both entertaining and allows Rosalind to expose the shallowness and absurdity of conventional modes of seduction. The cross-dressing also allows for much intrigue and comedy, and prompts serious thought about the divide between the sexes, making us question how much of our behaviour is innate and biologically determined and how much is simply learnt.

As You Like It opens with the consequences of a usurpation, a man plotting his brother's death and the unjust banishment of the play's heroine. The play thus begins with a serious presentation of the propensity of humans to evil, and so with the potential for tragedy. Thought it cannot really be called a tragicomedy, since evil is turned to good in a happy ending. The play has a greater mixture of moods than is generally found in comic drama (although it is typical of turn of the century Shakespeare - see also Twelfth Night). This lulls the audience into a sense that multiple perspectives have been examined and lends the play a feeling of authenticity.

This variety is reflected in its linguistic texture. There are grand poetic speeches from the exiled Duke or the malcontent Jacques, poetic set pieces expressing romantic love and a simpler pastoral beauty in the much-anthologised songs. The language is shaped by the surroundings - either the court of the usurper Duke Frederick or the Forest of Arden. The way in which the terrain affects its inhabitants is also one of the play's central concerns. The forest represents an alternative world, not wholly idealised, but still one in which humans live a more 'natural' life away from the competitive rat race of life in the city, where life seems far from civilised. Arden is therefore an idea in the mind evoking a nostalgia for a simpler past that is gently mocked at the close of the play, when the exiles enthusiastically head back to the town they vowed never to set foot in again.