Study Guide

As You Like It Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


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:

  1. She is "more than common tall" (1.3.18)
  2. She is a very good actress
  3. She gets to experiment with her identity and trick her boyfriend into thinking she's someone else

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.

Deer (a.k.a. Venison)

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.

Deer Horns and Cuckolds

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.

"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;

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...

Deer Hunting and Social Injustice

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.

All the World's a Stage, or The Seven Ages of Man

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.

Dang. This is a mouthful so, let's break it down into two parts:

All the World's a Stage...

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.

The Seven Ages of Man...

Jaques also breaks down a human life into seven stages:

  1. Puking infant
  2. Whining school boy
  3. Young, sighing lover
  4. The soldier
  5. The "justice" or upstanding leader
  6. Silly old man who thinks he's still young ("pantaloon")
  7. Super-old man, toothless, blind, and as helpless as a baby

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.")

Orlando's Cheesy Love Poetry

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...

She-Snakes and She-Lions

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.

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