As You Like It
Things to consider while reading As You Like It
This is one of Shakespeare’s most peculiar comedies. It has a good deal of serious material mixed in with some plain old-fashioned silliness. It has a pattern of action that runs contrary to expectation — slumping in the middle, and having its functional ingredients at both ends. It offers an almost static pastoral reality embedded in a political play filled with hatred and connivance, and then resolves the chief political problem (which has sent everyone out to the woods in the first place) by a completely arbitrary offstage dodge, wholly unanticipated before it is revealed. And yet it remains the favorite play of many readers, and it certainly has many of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters and most renowned speeches.
A narrative retelling of As You Like It from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
As You Like It and the previous plays we’ve read
- Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It take their main characters to an alternate reality in the forest, where they struggle with issues of their own identity amid surreal situations and strange characters. Both plays offer a life at court and a kind of shadow-court in the wilderness. As You Like It gives us no actual magic, though Rosalind professes to be a kind of magician at the end.
- We have asked about the matter of moral accountability already in some other plays. In both Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, it seems worthwhile to question the moral structure and to ask whether any given character bears the chief moral responsibility. What about this play? Is it the same here? It’s fairly easy to say that Duke Frederick (the usurper) and Oliver (the older brother) are the agents who, by their misdeeds, get the plot moving. But how important is that? Is their rehabilitation at the end significant or meaningful? How important is it to the direction the play takes as a whole?
- Some of you have read The Tempest though it hasn’t been assigned in this class, it has been reading for World Literature. Like the Tempest, this play has at its outer shell the story of a rightful duke reclaiming his rule from a usurping brother. There the chief agent of the action is Prospero, the offended duke; one of the main events is the courtship and marriage of his daughter. How does that compare with this story?
- Compare the courtship (in all its several varieties) that takes place in this play with the two main courtships of The Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare wrote more comedies than any other single kind of play. There are thirteen comedies if one does not include the romances among them; if one does, there are eighteen. They range in tone from the slapstick farce of The Comedy of Errors to the dark melancholy of Measure for Measure; in style they stretch from the outlandish to the staid; in content they go from the magical to the rationalistic. This is the third comedy we’ve covered so far, and it’s fairly strikingly different from those that have come before. Consider as you read: what makes a comedy a comedy? Is it a matter of how funny it is? Is there something else? What are the limits of comedy, really?
In particular consider:
- Typically a drama, whether comic or tragic, attempts to derive its resolution from its initial ingredients. Is this equally true of comedy and tragedy?
- In a farce, the situation is primarily used as an occasion for humor and jokes. Is that the case here?
- How does a comedy differ from a tragedy? What makes the difference? Is that difference to be found in the driving issues or in the manner of their resolution?
- In what way can comedy be used as a vehicle for the discussion of various issues? Is it more or less effective than tragedy? How does Shakespeare do that here or in other comedies you have read?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Concealment as a form of revelation: how does the hidden identity help characters (especially Rosalind) to be more themselves?
- The temporary journey outward (here, into the woods) as an inward journey of self-discovery.
- The varieties of romantic love:
- love in the starry-eyed romantic mode (Celia and Oliver cf. Hero and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet);
- love as a sparring match (Rosalind and Orlando cf. Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing, perhaps Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew);
- love as comfortable faithfulness in opposition to the traditionally romantic (Silvius and Phoebe);
- cynical opportunistic love (Touchstone and Audrey cf. Borrachio and Margaret in Much Ado About Nothing.);
- love denied (William and Audrey cf. Portia’s unsuccessful suitors in The Merchant of Venice);
- love renounced (Jaques cf. both Malvolio and the clown in Twelfth Night, the Duke in Much Ado About Nothing.)
Of those varieties of love, does Shakespeare appear to favor one over the other? Does he have a favorite?
Symmetries in the play
- The two courts — the ducal court and the pseudo-court in the country. Which is the truer? Can one exist without the other?
- The four pairs of lovers: how do they differ? How are they similar?
- The dual identities of Rosalind/Ganymede and Celia/Aliena.
Inconsistencies or problems in the play
Does it bother you that the beginning problems of the play — the ill treatment of Orlando by Oliver, and the banishment of Rosalind by the usurper Duke Frederick — are effectively resolved with a wave of the hand at the end? What does this suggest to you?
- It has served its purpose and therefore can be resolved summarily.
- It wasn’t the real problem in the first place. (But if not, what was?)
What is the function of the poems written on the trees throughout the middle portion of the play? What do they accomplish thematically? What is Shakespeare saying with them?
What is the function of the various songs throughout the play? What do they do?
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