As You Like It
As You Like It is most definitely a comedy. More specifically, it's a pastoral comedy. There are some features and conventions that are common in both pastoral literature and Shakespearean comedy so, we've come up with a checklist of some things you should know.
What Makes it Pastoral?
Shepherds. Lots and lots of shepherds: Check. If you think "pastoral" literature involves shepherds traipsing around the countryside living the "simple life," you're absolutely right. After all, the word "pastoral" comes from pastor, which is Latin for "shepherd." In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is chock full of shepherds, like old Corin and Silvius.
Characters from the city or court run away to the country and hang out with shepherds before returning back home: When the play opens, Duke Senior is already living in the Forest of Arden as an exile with his band of "merry men." Soon after Orlando, fearing his brother will kill him, flees to Arden. Rosalind (who gets booted out of court by her wicked uncle) and Celia follow close on his heels. Are you noticing a pattern here? Check.
Pastoral portrays the country (as opposed to the city or court) in an idealized or romantic way: Check. If you've been paying attention, you know life at court is lousy because it's full of treacherous family members and corrupt authority figures, which is why everyone flees to Arden. Despite the extreme weather conditions and dangerous beasts of the Forest of Arden, Duke Senior tells us that it's like a little paradise on earth because: 1) Nobody in Arden is trying to kill him, and 2) Arden is a place of freedom and self-discovery. (See "Setting" for more on this.)
Sometimes, runaway city-slickers pretend to be shepherds and/or members of the opposite sex: Check and check. You did notice that Rosalind pretends to be a boy and then plays a little game of "let's pretend we're going steady" with Orlando, right? Also, Rosalind and Celia like the countryside so much that they also decide to buy a "flock and pasture" so they can live the simple life (2.4.12). The whole point of playing dress-up/make-believe is to indulge in a little fantasy while exploring one's identity. It's sort of like going to theater camp for the summer.
The city-slickers do shepherd-type things, like sing, dance, talk about love, debate life's big questions, and argue about whether or not the simple country life is actually better than city life: Check. In pastoral literature, shepherds are always running around singing, dancing, and debating. (Though, in As You Like It, we never really see anyone herding any actual sheep. That's probably because it's hard, dirty work.) When the exiles from the French court arrive in Arden, they don't waste any time getting their country groove on. There's plenty of singing and everyone practices their dance moves at the big, quadruple wedding celebration. As for debating and philosophizing, there's a whole lot of that going on too. In fact, talking is the activity of choice in As You Like It and everybody's got an opinion about the nature of life, love, and whether or not the country is better than the city.
Social critique: Check. As You Like It critiques the treacherous world of the court and the unfairness of family betrayal. It's also interested in examining human foolishness and the artificiality of love (read more about this stuff in "Themes"). The thing to know about As You Like It is this, though: Even though the play scrutinizes human behavior and social conventions, it's ultimately optimistic and forgiving. As Shakespeare reminds us, we're all guilty of being stupid from time to time but that's what makes us human.
What Makes it a Shakespearean Comedy?
Like we said, As You Like It is also a Shakespearean comedy. Here's why:
Light, humorous tone: Check. As You Like It examines life's big, serious questions but it does so with a light hand and a sense of humor because Shakespeare recognizes the fact that "Foolishness and Folly" are an undeniable part of human nature.
Clever dialogue and witty banter: Check. As You Like It has been described as being more talk than action and we have to agree. If the play were written by any other writer, it could have turned into a real snooze fest. Shakespeare's got a knack, though, for writing characters that engage in witty repartee. Have you seen the way Touchstone goes at it with the other characters? The punning and word play alone are dizzying. If "clever dialogue and witty banter" was an Olympic sport, these characters would definitely medal.
Deception and disguise: Let's see. Our heroine (that would be Rosalind) disguises herself as a boy and convinces everyone in the forest that she's "Ganymede." Not only that but she convinces Orlando that "Ganymede" should pretend to be "Rosalind" so that Orlando can practice his moves. (Did we mention that Oliver deceives Charles into thinking it's a good idea to snap Orlando's neck?) Check.
Mistaken identity: Have you been paying attention? Check.
Love overcomes obstacles: Well...there are a couple of things standing in the way of Rosalind and Orlando's hook-up, but they're not the kind of serious obstacles faced by lovers in Shakespeare's other comedies. (In Twelfth Night, the cross-dressing Viola is in love with a guy who thinks he's in love with another girl. In The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine doesn't want to be married.) So, what's preventing Rosalind and Orlando from getting hitched ASAP? 1) Rosalind is running around disguised as another person, and 2) Ros isn't happy that Orlando thinks that lovers should act like silly stereotypes from 14th-century Italian love poetry. Hmm. This is probably why Rosalind stays in her "Ganymede" disguise longer than necessary and offers to teach Orlando how to be a good boyfriend, wouldn't you say?
Family drama: Check. Everyone who's read Hamlet and King Lear knows that Shakespeare has a thing for bloodthirsty brothers, so we're not surprised when Oliver tries to snuff out his little bro and we're definitely not surprised to learn that Duke Frederick has recently usurped his big brother's title. Still, unlike Hamlet and King Lear, As You Like It is not a tragedy. This means that all this family drama gets resolved when both "bad brothers" decide to change their evil ways.
Multiple plots with twists and turns: Check…sort of. The play has two plots that intersect: Rosalind's flight into the Forest of Arden and Orlando and Oliver's family drama, which conveniently sends Orlando into the forest (and into the arms of Rosalind). Still, most critics agree that As You Like It isn't as "twisty and turny" as Shakespeare's other comedies. That's because most of the play's action goes down at the beginning and the very end. What's in between is mostly talking and philosophical debate.
(Re)unification of families: Check. Like we said earlier, both sets of brothers eventually make nice because Duke Frederick and Oliver suddenly decide that being evil isn't as fun as it used to be. Not only that, but when Orlando marries Rosalind, he also gains a father-in-law (Duke Senior), which fills the big, empty void left by his dead dad. So, he's got that going for him.
Marriage: The big tip-off that you're reading a Shakespearean comedy is that the play ends in one or more marriages (or the promise of marriage). In As You Like It, Shakespeare really outdoes himself because there are four (that's right, four!) nuptials at the end of the play: Rosalind and Orlando; Audrey and Touchstone; Celia and Oliver; Phoebe and Silvius. So, does this must mean that Shakespeare thinks that marriage is the be-all, end-all of human relationships? Not necessarily. Marriage looks like a happily-ever-after for many couples, but the play also happens to be full of references to cuckolds (men who are cheated on by their wives). So, there's definitely some anxiety in the play about what can happen after the "I do's." Go to "Symbolism" and read about deer for more on this.