Commentary

As You Like It, as its title asserts, has something to offer every taste. On one level it serves as a stock romantic comedy, with disguised princesses, an unjustly deposed ruler, and a handsome leading couple. But the play also offers food for thought on a traditionally entertaining subject, the assets and drawbacks of country life. And the dedicated student of literature can consider the play's relationship to a favorite Renaissance literary mode, the Pastoral romance, a form of escapist writing with roots in ancient Greece. Further, the play is a sparkling theatrical entertainment, with more songs than any other Shakespearean play and several diverting set pieces: an on-stage wrestling match in 1.2, a procession of singing hunters in 4.2 (traditionally carrying a deer's carcass, though a set of antlers has been generally substituted in more modern times), and Hymen's charming masque in 5.4. 

These features enliven a work whose plotting is strikingly undramatic. After Act 1 establishes the separate banishments of Duke Senior, Orlando, and Rosalind, Acts 2-4, set in Arden, lack striking change. Adam seems near death in 2.3, but we know that the exiled duke's comfortable establishment is near, and we feel only admiration for Orlando's devotion rather than anxiety for Adam's plight. Orlando invades the Duke's banquet, but we know that he will be graciously received, and we are not chilled by any threat of violence. Oliver's tale of peril and salvation offers no thrilling tension, for we know he survived to tell us about it. 

Instead of a plot, the play presents conversations among different combinations of characters. They talk mostly about romantic love, country living, or both. Their remarks weave a shimmering pattern of agreements and contradictions, harmonies and counterpoints, that constitute the substance of Acts 2-3. There emerges from this fabric of ideas an opposition of two points of view: a responsiveness to love and life, represented by Rosalind; and a withdrawal from complexities and commitment, represented by Jaques. The play's climax in Act 5 produces a resolution in favor of the former. Jaques, although no villain, must be defeated if the life-affirming spirit of the lovers is to triumph, for his doctrine of passivity and retreat is ultimately antisocial. 

Shakespeare neatly and subtly presents the opposition of Jaques and the lovers by having first Orlando and then Rosalind dismiss the melancholy courtier from the stage with a rebuke, in 3.2.289 and 4.1.36 respectively, before each of the two great wooing scenes. This is a bold instance of the dominant technique in the play; the development of dramatic tension not through plotting, as we have seen, but by juxtaposing encounters among the characters. For the most part, we are not expected to judge the speakers but rather to enjoy their meetings and gradually appreciate their differences. 

For instance, the pastoral world of the banished duke in the Forest of Arden is described, even before we see it, as one in which the exiles 'fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world' (1.1.118-119), a reference to the golden age of ancient mythology, analogous to Eden in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, once the play's action moves to Arden, this proposition is undermined. The duke's praise of his exiled court's woodland life is followed immediately by an account of Jaques' lament for the wounded deer, which critiques human interference with nature. Jaques' comments also present a cynical, distrustful image of human society, as he 'invectively . . .pierceth / The body of country, city, court' (2.1.58-59). In 2.2 Duke Frederick's villainy is once again displayed, supporting Jaques' dark viewpoint but also reaffirming the essential virtue of the exiled Duke Senior's court. Shakespeare establishes Arden as an ideal, pastoral world in which characters criticize the real one, but then other characters criticize them, both explicitly and by implication. Further, when Rosalind arrives in Arden with Celia and Touchstone in 2.4, their initial response is humorously unenthusiastic, with Rosalind weary in spirit and Touchstone weary in body; the fool comments that 'at home I was in a better place' (2.4.14). Thus we can ponder several points of view without being diverted from the central situation of the drama. 

In 2.5 Amiens sings a song that illustrates the Duke's attitude towards the pastoral life, that those 'who doth ambition shun' (2.5.35) are happy to have no enemies but the weather, but Jaques responds with a comically insulting parody. In 2.7 Jaques' delightfully expressed desire to be a jester like Touchstone, licensed to satirise everyone, provokes a sharp reprirand from the duke for wishing to correct the world's vices when he has sinned himself. Later in the same scene Jaques' position is again rejected. As the melancholy courtier completes his sardonic account of human life with a morbid description of helpless old age, Orlando bears in Adam, whom the duke, who is entirely unaffected by Jaques' speech, treats with reverence. The scene closes with another instance of such subtle contradiction. Amiens sings a song condemning humanity for '. . . ingratitude' and asserting that 'most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly' (2.7.174-193). Just at that moment, the duke's hospitality is enabling Orlando to express his gratitude for Adam's friendship and loyalty. The bases of the pastoral convention—the idealization of rustic life and an accompanying cynicism towards sophisticated society—are espoused, but they are just as persistently contradicted and undercut. 

Most telling in this respect are the play's comparisons of different lovers. The central figures are Rosalind and Orlando. They are flanked by comic variations: the ridiculously conventional Silvius and Phebe on the one hand, and the equally preposterous yet earthy Touchstone and Audrey (with an assist from William) on the other. The lovesick shepherd and the hard-hearted shepherdess who rejects him were standard figures in pastoral literature, and Silvius and Phebe are absurd manifestations of it. Their exaggeration is emphasized by Rosalind's own overstated realism when she advises Phebe, 'Sell when you can, you are not for all markets' (3.5.60). 

Silvius' sentimentality is countered in Touchstone's attitude to Audrey. So far from adoring Audrey, or being in love with love itself, the jester finds only that 'man hath his desires, and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling' (3.3.72-73). His detached and resigned submission to human instincts is ironically opposed to the worship of an ideal woman. Touchstone also provides a foil for Rosalind's love for Orlando. When Silvius' plaintive lament reminds the heroine of her seemingly impossible passion (Orlando not yet having arrived in Arden), Touchstone immediately mocks her by saying that his preposterous love for one Jane Smile led him to kiss 'the cow's dugs that her pretty chopt hands had milked' (2.4.46-47). 

In another repeated theme, different sorts of rustic characters are contrasted. Silvius and Phebe are essentially stereotypical literary lovers, countrified only vaguely by their occupation as shepherds. Audrey and her hapless swain William are typical rustic buffoons, instances of the Shakespearean clown. And Corin is a lifelike peasant, a man who fully understands the realities of extracting a living from the land. In 2.4.73- 84 he frankly discusses his poverty and, by implication, the essential falseness and sentimentality of the pastoral convention. At the same time, he does not envy the courtiers their easier but less honest life, and his exchanges with Touchstone in 3.2.11-83 constitute one of the most telling critiques of the pastoral in the play. The country world holds its own against courtly sophistication, yet its hardships and difficulties are clearly stated.                        

Even the two figures who comment on the activities of the others. Touchstone and Jaques, are pointedly different from each other. They first meet offstage, as we hear in Jaques' enthusiastic report on the 'motley fool' (2.7.13). Touchstone's observations on the human tendency to ripen and then rot appeal greatly to the melancholy courtier. However, the jester ridicules everything and has no philosophy, while Jaques is dedicated to a pessimistic view of life and looks to mockery to 'cleanse the foul body of th'infected world' (2.7.60). His jaded attitude leads him to withdraw from human society at the play's end, whereas Touchstone enters the play's swirl of courtships with enthusiasm, if also with sarcasm. Touchstone eventually joins the 'country copulatives' (5.4.35) and marries, while Jaques departs, declaring himself' for other than for dancing measures' (5.4.192). The contrast reflects the play's two opposing poles, love and withdrawal. 

The play's repeated juxtapositions of ideas and temperaments constitute its overall mood and are perhaps referred to in its title. Each character has an opinion about love and the good life, but then another personality presents a viewpoint that contradicts or modifies it. Each idea is qualified, and each has some merit. In the end, as the multiple marriages in 5.4 suggest, the dominant theme is the unifying power of love. 

Rosalind represents this theme throughout, and perhaps the most telling juxtaposition in the play is that of Rosalind to herself in her disguise as Ganymede. Ganymede insists that Orlando's love is a sickness he can cure. The delightful result is the spectacle of Rosalind, while madly in love with Orlando, telling him that 'love is merely a madness' (3.2.388) and then quite hysterically confiding her love to Celia—'0 coz, coz, coz . . . that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love!' (4.1.195-196). The climax nears in 5.2, when Ganymede's masquerade can no longer suffice. The love between Celia and Oliver is too much for Orlando to witness without pain; he insists that he cannot go on with the pretence that Ganymede is Rosalind. The disguised heroine realises that her lover has outgrown the conventional attitudes she has been teasing him about, and she prepares to resume her true identity. Her turn to magic—reprised in the appearance of the supernatural Hymen in 5.4—is appropriate to the position she has occupied as the prime manipulator of affairs. Disguised as Ganymede, she has been invisible though entirely in control. She returns accompanied by the solemn magic of Hymen's masque, casting a spell of acceptance and reconciliation; evenjaques, despite his withdrawal, blesses the couples with humor and wisdom. 

Hymen's nature is problematic, but whether he is a supernatural being or a costumed human recruited by Rosalind is not as important as his role as a symbol of divine approval for the play's happy ending. This suggestion has been prepared for by various religious references. Some are quite touching evocations of traditional religion, such as Adam's touching prayer, 'He that doth the ravens feed, / Yea providently caters for the sparrow, / Be comfort to my age' (2.3.43-45), and Orlando's equation of 'better days' with times when 'bells have knoli'd to church' (2.7.113-114). Others are more prosaic allusions to biblical episodes. Orlando touches on the parable of the prodigal son in describing his lot under Oliver, in 1.1.37-39; In 2.1.5 Duke Senior likens his exile to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Jaques refers to the plagues of Egypt in 2.5.58. Corin assumes that one may 'find the way to heaven / By doing deeds of hospitality' (2.4.79-80). Duke Frederick is converted by 'an old religious man' (5.4.159), and Rosalind invents an 'old religious uncle' (3.2.336) for Ganymede. The entire episode of Sir Oliver Martext, however ridiculous, raises other issues of churchly doctrine. These references subtly suggest the parallels between Christian ideals of pity and loving-kindness and the play's themes of love and reconciliation.

 

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