As You Like It contains two of the most cynical characters in Shakespearean literature: the "melancholy Jaques" (who sees the world as a place of doom and gloom) and the sarcastic and argumentative Touchstone (who is always pointing out how dumb people can be).
So, why the heck are we saying the play is "optimistic"? Well, despite the pessimism of a couple of characters, the play as a whole is pretty forgiving. In As You Like It, Shakespeare acknowledges that men and women can be nasty (like Duke Frederick or Phoebe), hateful (like Oliver), and foolish (like love-struck Silvius), but he also suggests that human beings are essentially good. As for those who aren't? Well, they can be redeemed. (Why else would Shakespeare stage the miraculous and sudden conversions of Duke Frederick and Oliver?)
Now, some people see a breezy title like As You Like It and think, "Gee, Shakespeare doesn't seem to take this play seriously, so why should I?" Call us crazy, but we think that, underneath Shakespeare's seemingly light and airy touch, the play considers some very serious and very big questions. As literary critic Anne Barton says, "it would be a mistake to think of As You Like It only as a fairy tale, a fantasy love and game-playing in the open air. The comedy is essentially serious, concerned to examine the nature of people, emotions, and ideas" (Introduction to the Riverside Edition of As You Like It, 402). In other words, we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss As You Like It as the fluffy pink cotton-candy of Shakespearean drama.
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.
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 chockfull 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 closely 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 (2.4.91). 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.
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 who engage in witty repartee. Have you seen the way Touchstone goes at it with the other characters? The punning and wordplay alone are dizzying. If "clever dialogue and witty banter" were an Olympic sport, these characters would definitely win medals.
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 get married at all.) 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, Imagery, Allegory" and read about deer for more on this.
During the play's epilogue, Rosalind steps on stage and chats up the audience about the play they have just watched: "I charge you," she says, "to like as much of this play as please you." In other words, you can take it or leave it, love it or hate it—a point that Shakespeare reiterates in the title, As You Like It.
As a title, As You Like It also seems like a reference to the endless interpretive possibilities of the play, don't you think? For some, the play is all about the nature of love. For others, it's about the fluidity of gender. Some folks even see it as a play that's all about same-sex desire. Still, for many others, it's about the theatrical nature of life.
The point? How you read the play and what you choose to take away from it is entirely up to you. There's no one right or wrong way to read this play, just like there's no one right or wrong way to look at the world.
P.S. If you think As You Like It is a title with major attitude, check out our take on Twelfth Night, or What You Will.
There's a lot going on at the play's end: four couples get hitched and the exiles decide to return to court. (That's Shakespeare's way of letting us know that social order has been restored and we can all go home and relax.) Not only that, but Rosalind steps out on stage at the end and delivers a rather sassy epilogue. Let's discuss.
Because As You Like It is a Shakespearean comedy, the play's destiny in life is to end with one or more marriages. That's just how it is, folks. So, even though the play has gone out of its way to point out the foolishness of love and has cracked more jokes about cheating wives than we can count, it's still going to give its audience what they expect—a heterosexual hookup (or, in this case, four heterosexual hookups). Read more about this in "Genre."
Life in the Forest of Arden sure has been a lot of fun for Rosalind and company (what with playing dress-up and pretending to be rustic country-folk and all), but before Shakespeare wraps up his play, he lets us know that his exiles will be returning to the French court. (This move, by the way, is typical in "pastoral" literature and you can read more about it by going to "Genre.")
It's not that life in Arden isn't swell. It's just that Arden isn't exactly the real world. (Plus, nobody from the court really knows how to herd sheep, the primary occupation in Arden.) So, when Duke Senior gets his dukedom back and restores everybody else's titles, there's no good reason for anybody to stay behind. The idea is that, after the exiles finish their wedding cake and head back home, they'll make the once-treacherous court a better place because Arden has brought out the best in them. (Read more about this in "Setting.")
Remember when we said Shakespeare marries off his characters and sends them back to court as a way to signal that social order has been restored? Well, it's not exactly that simple. During the epilogue, the actor playing the role of Rosalind steps out onto the stage and delivers a rather interesting speech that calls everything into question.
The last seven lines of the epilogue are what really stand out:
If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
defied not. And, I am sure, as many as have good
beards, or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my
kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
In other words, the actor playing Rosalind is reminding us of a couple of things:
Why does this matter? Well, even though Shakespeare ends the action of the play by marrying off four heterosexual pairs, the epilogue reminds us that, when it comes to physical attraction, the erotic possibilities in the play are endless. Shakespeare is also reminding us that gender roles can be pretty slippery.
Hmm. So maybe Shakespeare isn't as interested in restoring social order as we thought. Check out the similarly provocative ending of Shakespeare's other gender-bending play, Twelfth Night.
The play begins at the French court, but most of As You Like It goes down in the Forest of Arden.
At the court, backstabbing and treachery are the names of the game. This is where the scheming Duke Frederick has usurped his older brother's (Duke Senior's) title and where Oliver encourages a professional wrestler to snap his little brother's neck. You did notice that neck-snapping and bone-crushing are considered entertainment at the Court, right? Enough said.
Since life at court can be pretty dangerous, most of the cast hightails it to the Forest of Arden by Act 2. Because Arden is full of shepherds living the simple life, it's considered a "pastoral" setting. Before we get to the part where we talk about what life in the forest is like, you should know a few things about the significance of the name. As literary critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, the name "Arden" is loaded with meaning (source).
As it turns out, there's an old forest in France called "Ardenne," which makes sense for the play because As You Like It takes place in France. For Shakespeare's 16th-century English audience, the setting of the French Forest of "Ardenne" might have seemed like a dreamy, far-off place with fairy tale qualities. However, there was also a "Forest of Arden" near Shakespeare's hometown in Warwickshire and this may have encouraged the audience to associate the forest in the play with good old England.
Finally, the word "Arden" combines the names of Arcadia (an earthly paradise from classical Greek mythology) and Eden (the Biblical paradise). Gee. How convenient is that? According to Marjorie Garber, because of all these connections, Arden becomes a kind of "repository [...] of earthly paradises from literature, myth, and personal history" (Shakespeare After All 440). OK. We agree with Garber that the name "Arden" makes us associate the play's setting with France, England, Eden, and Arcadia.
Wait a minute! Is Arden really a paradise? Hmm. Let's think about this for a minute. Arden is cold, windy, and full of dangerous animals (like the mama lion who nearly devours Orlando). Plus, if you want a job, your only option is taking care of sheep. (As old Corin reminds us, taking care of smelly, "greasy" sheep is no picnic.) So, what's so great about a place like that? Well, according to Duke Senior, Arden is a harsh environment but that doesn't matter because it's so much better than the fake and treacherous court:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile
I would not change it. (2.1.1-9, 18)
OK. We get it. Even though the weather is seriously lousy, Arden is a place of refuge and freedom, which makes it all worth it. Like most Shakespearean wildernesses (like the woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Prospero's Island in The Tempest), Arden is also place for self-discovery, renewal, and fantasy. Where else could Rosalind dress as a boy and tutor her future husband on how to be a good lover? In the forest, desire rules and characters have the freedom to be and say and do as they please... until it's time to go back to the court, that is.
There's some good news and not-so-good news here, Shmoopsters. The good news is that the plot of As You Like It is relatively easy to follow. (It's not nearly as twisty and turny as some other Shakespearean comedies like, say, Much Ado About Nothing. Plus, it's a lot easier to keep track of characters in As You Like It than in, say, a history play like Richard III.)
The not-so-good news is that As You Like It is the "Chatty Cathy Doll" of Shakespearean drama—meaning, there's far more talk than there is action. So, unless you grew up on tour with the cast and crew of a Renaissance Fair, Shakespeare's language will take some getting used to. Don't worry, though, you will get the hang of it. Our guess is that you'll have a lot of fun discovering some new ways to insult your enemies in Elizabethan English, a la Touchstone. Plus, you can always go to our detailed summary if you get into a jam...
The rule of thumb when it comes to Shakespeare's plays is that the nobility (like Duke Senior) tend to speak in verse (poetry), which is a pretty formal way to talk. The commoners or, "Everyday Joes" (like Audrey), tend to speak just like we do, in regular old prose.
As You Like It breaks some rules. Rosalind (who is obviously a noble) tends to speak a lot of prose, especially when she's talking about love. In fact, over half of As You Like It is written in prose and the rest is written in iambic pentameter verse.
Here are some definitions and specific examples of prose and verse in As You Like It.
Like we said, the noble characters mostly speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter (also called "blank verse"). Don't let the fancy names intimidate you—it's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of iambic pentameter:
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five" and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM
Check out the play's opening lines, where Orlando admits that Rosalind has made him tongue-tied:
what PAssion HANGS these WEIGHTS upON my TONGUE? (1.2.258)
Every second syllable is accented (stressed) so this is classic iambic pentameter.
Like we said, ordinary folks don't talk in a special rhythm—they just talk. (This is especially true of country bumpkin types like Audrey.) Plus, in this play, some noble characters (like Rosalind and Celia) often speak both prose and verse. Here's an example of prose, where Rosalind and Celia talk privately about dreamy Orlando:
Why cousin, why Rosalind—Cupid have mercy, not a word?
Not one to throw at a dog. (1.3.1-2)
Why doesn't Rosalind speak in verse when she chats about Orlando? Probably because our girl Ros is very sensible and wants to keep artifice, formality, and BS to a minimum when she's having a little girl-talk with Celia. Still, that doesn't mean Rosalind can't speak in verse also. When Duke Frederick interrupts Ros and Celia's girl-talk, the two switch from prose to verse, which is a more formal and respectful way for them to talk to the Duke, who is also Celia's dad. (That's kind of like the way you have a different way of talking to friends than parents and teachers.)
As Rosalind decides to flee from Duke Frederick's court to Arden, she knows that rape is a real possibility in the forest, so she decides to cross-dress as a pretty young man named "Ganymede." This works out well for her because:
Even more importantly, Rosalind's "Ganymede" disguise allows Shakespeare to explore gender roles and the possibilities of same-sex desire. Here's how. When Rosalind traipses around the forest disguised as "Ganymede," Phoebe gets all hot and bothered by the saucy "boy" who is actually a girl in drag. (Is Phoebe attracted to the "boy" or to the girl disguised as a boy? We're not exactly sure. Either way, Phoebe's crush on "Ganymede" also prompts us to wonder about cousins Rosalind and Celia, who are very, very close and constantly declare how much they love each other.)
Last, but not least, is the relationship between "Ganymede" and Orlando. When Orlando agrees to pretend that "Ganymede" is Rosalind so he can practice being a good boyfriend, Shakespeare plays around with the dynamics of same-sex attraction. Remember, when Shakespeare's audience saw Orlando's pretend wooing of "Ganymede" on stage, they would have been watching Orlando (played by a male actor) woo a boy actor playing the part of a woman (Rosalind), who was disguised as a boy, who was pretending to be a girl. Has your brain exploded yet?
Oh, and did we mention how the name "Ganymede" was a common term for a young man with an older male lover in Elizabethan England? Did we also mention that, in classical mythology, Jove (a.k.a. Jupiter/Zeus) kidnapped a cute boy named Ganymede and turned him into his official cup-bearer?
That said, it's important to note a few things about the Elizabethan attitude toward same-sex desire. Elizabethans didn't see sexual orientation in black and white terms. While plenty of people were opposed to same-sex couplings, the concept of "homosexual" identity vs. "heterosexual" identity didn't even exist. Nor did it play a role in forming one's identity in the way that sexual orientation does today. In Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England, Stephen Orgel writes the following:
As proliferating studies in the history of sexuality have shown, the binary division between of sexual appetites into normative heterosexual and deviant homosexual is a very recent invention; neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality existed as categories for the Renaissance mind. (59)
P.S. If you want to know how Rosalind's "Ganymede" disguise challenges traditional 16th-century attitudes about gender, go to "Themes: Gender." See you there.
We can hardly turn a page in As You Like It without reading about how someone killed or injured a deer while hunting for a tasty snack. This is understandable given that there aren't any taco trucks, grocery stores, or fast food joints in the Forest of Arden. Still, the number of times we hear about deer (and their "horns") seems excessive, so let's investigate.
In Shakespeare's day, horns and antlers were a common symbol of a "cuckolded" husband, a.k.a. a man whose wife has cheated on him. So, whenever horns come up in a play, we know there's a 99% chance that someone is worried about starring in an upcoming episode of the reality show Cheaters.
Here's an example. When a lord kills a deer in the forest, Jaques says "let's present [the lord] to the Duke [...] And it would do well to set the deer's horns/ upon his head for a branch of victory" (4.2.2). Um, OK. Apparently, putting deer antlers on the lord's head sounds like fun, which is why all his buddies belt out a rowdy song in agreement:
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn;
It was a crest ere thou wast born:
Thy father's father wore it,
And thy father bore it:
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn. (4.2.1)
"Wear[ing] the horn" is a reference to being cuckolded. According to this little tune, it's a common, age-old problem that's plagued generations of men. In other words, the song suggests that every single married man is bound to become a cuckold. According to Touchstone, age and social status don't even matter because all women are cheaters:
As horns are odious, they are
necessary. It is said, 'many a man knows no end of
his goods:' right; many a man has good horns, and
knows no end of them. Well, that is the dowry of
his wife; 'tis none of his own getting. Horns?
Even so. Poor men alone? No, no; (3.3.9)
Gee. Aside from being totally sexist and unfair to women, all this cuckold talk doesn't really make any sense because 1) nobody's been cheated on in the play, and 2) As You Like It is obsessed with marrying off all the couples. Why would a play that steadily works its way toward four marriages crack so many nasty jokes about cuckoldry? It seems like we have a major contradiction here, Shmoopsters. Let us know when you work it out...
We know what you're probably thinking. There's a lot of deer talk in As You Like It and it's not always about sex.
For example, when Jaques goes on and on about a wounded deer he watched crying big, giant tears into the river, it seems to be more about social injustice than cuckoldry. The evidence? Well, Jaques says deer hunters are "usurpers" and "tyrants" who scare the poor animals and kill them on their home turf (2.1.2). Even Duke Senior says he feels bad about killing "the poor dappled fools,/ Being native burghers of this desert city" (2.1.1). The idea here is that the deer are the original citizens ("native burghers") of the forest and the Duke's men have come in and taken over their space. Kind of like the way Duke Frederick usurped his older brother's title and dukedom, right?
(By the way, when someone talks about an animal or an inanimate object as if it has human characteristics, it's called "anthropomorphism.")
Literary scholar Katharine Eisaman Maus says that deer hunting is also associated with "resistance to tyranny" in As You Like It. In Shakespeare's day, the forests of England (and all the deer in them) were the property of the king, which meant that killing the king's deer was a big no-no. Yet, for the poor who couldn't afford to go out and buy food or couldn't grow their own, deer-poaching was a way to put food on the table...and to defy the king.
So, when the exiled Duke Senior hunts in the Forest of Arden, he's associated with outlaw behavior (like poaching deer) and becomes a Robin Hood-type figure who runs around flipping the bird at authority figures – namely, his evil brother, Duke Frederick.
After Orlando rumbles with Charles during the big wrestling scene in Act 1, Scene 2, the characters just can't resist the urge to turn the wrestling match into a metaphor for romance. Rosalind gushes to dreamy Orlando "Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown/ More than your enemies" (1.2.28). (Translation: "I have a crush on you.") A few lines later, Orlando says to himself "O poor Orlando! Thou art overthrown" (1.2.9). What's Orlando been defeated by? Love, of course. This kind of talk continues through the play, and, as silly as it might seem, it actually makes a lot of sense. Falling in love with a crush is pretty exciting (especially for the first time) and the emotion involved can be as dramatic and painful as, well, a wrestling match.
We had a feeling you'd come sniffing around here for the 411 on the Forest of Arden. We talk about it in "Setting," which is where you should head now if you want the details.
Jaques's big "all the world's a stage" speech (a.k.a. "the seven ages of man" speech) is one of the most famous passages in Western literature. If you haven't already read it, check it out below.
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 school-boy, 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 lined,
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 saved, 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. (2.7.9)
Dang. This is a mouthful so, let's break it down into two parts:
When Jaques says "all the world's a stage," he draws our attention to the theatricality of day-to-day living and he also reduces human life to an acting role, which is a pretty cynical thing to do.
Of course, Shakespeare also draws our attention to the fact that "Jaques" really is nothing more than an actor performing a role on a stage. Shakespeare loves reminding his play-going audiences that they're at the theater – he does it in just about all of his plays, including Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew. (Did we mention that Shakespeare's acting company built a theater in 1599 called The Globe…sounds kind of like The World, right?)
In fact, the title character of Macbeth says something nearly identical to Jaques' speech:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (Macbeth 5.5.2)
Because Macbeth has just learned that his wife is dead, there's something profound about his hopelessness. On the other hand, when Jaques says pretty much the same thing, it just seems like a giant cliché being uttered by a poser and a wannabe philosopher. Even though what Jaques says seems to be true (the world often really does seem like a stage), it can be hard to take the speech seriously.
Jaques also breaks down a human life into seven stages:
As it turns out, this isn't a new idea. The whole "ages of man" concept is pretty ancient. (We're talking Aristotle.) As literary critic Anne Barton reminds us, "for all its verbal poise and inventiveness," Jaques's speech "is also a set piece which, for Elizabethans, must have verged on the banal."
You probably noticed that Jaques's little formula is a major overgeneralization of human life. Barton also argues the speech is "generalized and demonstrably untrue." The evidence? As soon as Jaques finishes saying that old age is like a second infancy, Orlando walks in carrying his old servant, Adam. Now, Adam is definitely weak and close to starving after wandering around the forest, but he's not exactly a toothless and blind baby either. As we know, Adam is courageous, honest, loyal, and he's lived a long and rich life. (Read more about this in "Characters.")
Of course you want to know all about the poetry with which Orlando litters the forest. Check out our "Characters: Orlando" for all the juicy details...
In Act 4, Scene 3, Orlando spots a "green and gilded" she-snake wrapped around his treacherous brother Oliver's neck and ready to strike. Orlando's approach frightens the snake away, but then a hungry lioness springs on Oliver and tries to make a meal out of him! (Yep. That's almost as random as the man-eating bear that comes out of nowhere and eats Antigonus in The Winter's Tale.) We know that Oliver has already betrayed his little brother by treating him like garbage after their father's death and now he's come to the forest to turn over Orlando to the evil Duke Frederick. Yet, despite all this, Orlando decides to save his brother's life from the hungry lion and is mortally wounded for his trouble. Aww.
"What's all this snake and lion business about?" you ask.
Well, as any good student of English knows, any time there's a snake, the author is probably making an allusion to what went down in the biblical Garden of Eden when the apple-snacking Eve and Adam fell from God's grace and were expelled from their earthly paradise. So, when Orlando discovers a dangerous snake at his brother's mouth, we're reminded that the world of As You Like It is a fallen one and that human beings (like the backstabbing, snaky Oliver) are completely responsible.
At the same time, however, Shakespeare also suggests that there's some hope for humanity. After all, it's during this same moment that Oliver undergoes a remarkable "conversion." After his little bro saves his life from a hungry mama lion, Oliver decides that he's going to change his ways and become a good person.
We've already pointed out that the snake and the lion are very particularly female. Does this matter? If so, why does this matter? According to literary scholar Katharine Eisaman Maus, "twice, danger is represented in female form." Not only that but "the feminine is represented as both an attraction and a source of danger." So, what do you think? Should we make an issue out of the fact that Oliver and Orlando are nearly killed by a she-snake and then a she-lion? Does this mean the play is nervous about aggressive girls like, say, bossy Rosalind? (If you're leaning toward "yes," check out what we say about Rosalind's "thorny" personality below.)
When Celia tries to cheer up her beloved cousin Rosalind (who has just been booted out of court), she calls her "my sweet Rose,/ My dear Rose" (1.2.3). In case you hadn't noticed, it's pretty easy to shave "Rosalind" down to "Ros," which, if you buy a vowel, brings you to "rose." This makes us think of another Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. (Recall Juliet's famous balcony speech, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet." Also, before Romeo fell for Juliet, he was crushing on a girl named...Rosaline.) Roses seem to have had particular significance to Shakespeare.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare has some fun with the Rosalind/Rose pun. When Touchstone makes fun of Orlando's sappy love poetry, he sings "He that sweetest rose will find/ Must find love's prick and Rosalind" (3.2.13). Translation: Love can be pretty sweet, like a rose, but it can sting too, especially if a girl's got a "thorny" personality. (Yep, Touchstone is totally bagging on Rosalind.) Touchstone is also punning on the word "prick," which even in Shakespeare's day meant 1) thorn and 2) penis. In other words, Touchstone calls attention to the fact that Rosalind is disguised as a young boy, "Ganymede," and is pretending to have a "prick" of her own.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
Most of our main characters start off in rather compromised situations, as prisoners kept by hosts who would rather not have them. In a twist on this traditional stage, the period of unease is further extended when all are basically forced to leave these situations for the unknown. Though they were kept in prisons of a sort, they are now being sent to unknown ills. Still, as Celia comments, this banishment can really be seen as liberation, though initially it's an upset of the relative comfort of their familiar environments.
This process works a little differently in As You Like It than in other comedies. The main deceit of the play relies on the characters not really knowing one other. Rosalind must play at being Rosalind/Ganymede, though one could argue that Orlando learns much more about her when she's Rosalind/Ganymede than he would've if she were just Rosalind the whole time. When she's Rosalind, she swoons with all the usual irrationality of love, but as Rosalind/Ganymede she's free to have the wit and sharpness that she might not have as a lovesick girl. Yet she never loses her feminine side, which peeks through at us when she faints in front of Oliver. Our knowledge of Orlando deepens as well. We see he's not just a lovesick puppy, but can make good on his love, as he does for Adam when he threatens to kill all at the banquet, and again for his brother when he saves him from the lioness.
The game Rosalind is playing is all well and good until she has her revelation as to how much she really feels for Orlando. She meets him tenderly as Rosalind/Ganymede, but they have to consider the sudden love of their brother and "sister," Oliver and Celia. Prompted by this, and hearing of Orlando's sadness at watching his brother marry without having his own love, Rosalind finally resolves to set everything right by revealing herself. Orlando's definitely the guy for her, and it's time to do something about it, instead of just prancing around in disguise.
All the folks in love get married, though Touchstone and Audrey and Silvius and Phoebe are a little more dubious as far as the reality of their romance. Either way, everybody in love gets married. Jaques de Boys rides in with the good news that Duke Frederick has changed his ways, Duke Senior can come back to his kingdom (which will become Orlando's eventually), and Oliver and Celia consequently have an estate to return to.
Initially, Orlando and Rosalind are both uneasy, but they're settled in some way. Orlando knows he'd like to rebel against his brother, but he's not sure how or where he'd go. Rosalind misses her father, but has a warm "home" with her cousin.
After winning the wrestling match, Orlando finds out from the family servant, Adam, that his brother Oliver is plotting his murder. Rosalind too finds her uncle much displeased after the match—he turns her out with very little explanation. Orlando and Adam head to the forest in despair, while Rosalind and Celia see their escape as liberation, not banishment. Unbeknown to each other, Rosalind and Orlando run away to the same forest. Still, it seems all around that old lives and loves must be left behind. We have yet to see whether old lives can be repaired or reconciled within the forest.
Rosalind and Celia keep it together in the forest until Orlando shows up, at which point Rosalind is giddy with the possibility that love (or a big crush) hasn't been lost to her after all. She teases Orlando, while in disguise as Rosalind/Ganymede, and gets him to woo her. She can be rash and terrible at these times, but she also begins to fall in love with Orlando more deeply. This would be great, except there's a strange tension in his courting, mostly because he thinks she's a man.
We thought Orlando was just full of youthful foolishness! Now a strange man arrives with a handkerchief full of Orlando's blood and a loving message for "Rosalind." Anybody's reaction to that would be intense—but Rosalind's is especially telling. Orlando faced immediate danger with immense bravery, forcing Rosalind to react honestly. When she faints, it's not play-acting or affectation—she realizes that Orlando is a man, not a plaything, and most importantly, that he's a man she really cares for.
Rosalind has to come clean to Orlando about her little farce and hopes that he will still love her. (We feel suspense, because we don't know if he will.) She also has to please all the other characters, which won't be easy. She's got to skirt around Phoebe being in love with her, the lack of love between Phoebe and Silvius, and the possibility that Orlando might not accept her because of her systematic lying to him for nearly all the time they've known each other. It seems that whatever way Rosalind resolves this, she'll alienate somebody. (Remember that Audrey and Touchstone and Oliver and Celia are already happy couples, which means the comedy fulfilled its happy couple requisite, so we might not get any more. GASP!)
Thankfully, Rosalind didn't have to resolve anything. She just brought in the goddess of marriage to do it for her. Hymen casually explains everything away, and insists that everyone get married in the next few minutes. Besides, no one can refuse a goddess. Also Jaques, the missing de Boys brother, comes in with some other denouement-y news that the bad Duke Frederick is now good and repentant, and everyone can have their titles and wealth back upon returning to the court.
The play could have easily ended with everyone living happily ever after—but that would undermine the fact that the entire play has been about different ways to live and think about life. Shakespeare couldn't really end with everyone happily in love when half the play was spent mocking romance. While the dancing fools are making a happy spectacle, Jaques's departure is a little reminder that there's more than one way to skin a cat—or end a play. Shakespeare reemphasizes this in the epilogue. Depending on how it's played, the layers of Rosalind's character (and the actor who plays her) can cast a gloss—or a shadow—over the entire experience.
Rosalind and Orlando fall in love, and immediately each must flee into the woods to hide from separate threats on their lives. Neither knows the other is also in the woods.
After finding Orlando's love poems tacked to trees, a cross-dressed Rosalind plays a trick on her man. Act II ends with Orlando unexpectedly saving his brother's life.
Orlando misses Rosalind more than ever. She concocts a scheme to reunite with Orlando—as her female self—and simultaneously make everyone else happy as well.