As You Like It by William Shakespeare Menu
- Historical Context
- Main Characters
- Points to Ponder
- Interesting Facts
- Act 1 Summary
- Act 2 Summary
- Act 3 Summary
- Act 4 Summary
- Act 5 Summary
- Epilogue Summary
Gender-Bending and Transvestism:
In Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed to perform on the stage in England – theater was thought too “immoral” to be appropriate for them. So all the roles in his plays were originally acted by men. Most acting companies, Shakespeare’s included, contained actors with varying specialties (the romantic hero, the sword-fighter, the clown), as well as a number of young boys below fifteen who specialized in playing the roles of women. (Of course, when the boys’ voices dropped lower and they started to grow facial hair, they had to either shift to adult roles or leave the theater for a more respectable profession.)
Remembering this fact makes reading Shakespeare’s plays more interesting, particularly when we’re reading one of his “transvestite comedies” (such as As You Like It). If we bear in mind that the character of Rosalind was actually played by a boy in women’s clothing, then we begin to get a sense of the multiple layers of gender disguise, which Shakespeare’s audience would have witnessed. The boy who played Rosalind was, throughout the play, a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy! (After Rosalind/”Ganymede” asks Orlando to treat “him” as if he were Orlando’s beloved, that young actor would have shifted into being a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl…) This also explains what’s going on in Rosalind’s Epilogue, when the boy actor acknowledges to the audience, for the first and only time, that he is not really a girl after all.
Shakespeare wrote several other famous comedies in which female characters spend long periods of time dressed up as men. Besides As You Like It, this group of comedies includes Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and the somewhat less well-known Two Gentlemen of Verona. The most comparable situation to that of Rosalind is the predicament of Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night – while dressed as a handsome page boy, she falls in love with her handsome employer, while the lovely noblewoman to whom she delivers his letters falls in love with her. But Viola, unlike Rosalind, feel lost and out of control in her situation – she feels that she has lost her identity and become a “monster.” There is no greater contrast than that of Rosalind, who seems to thrive on her new empowerment and enjoy her game of disguises.
Jacques, Gothiness, and the Theory of the Humours:
In the Renaissance, philosophers and physicians were very interested in the theory of the “humors” – an old idea which stated that every person’s personality, as well as his physical type, was dictated by the balance of the four major bodily fluids, or “humors,” in his or her body. Each humor was associated with a physical type and a personality: yellow bile, for instance, was said to dominate in “choleric” people, who were easily angered, while calm or “sanguine” people were dominated by blood. In As You Like It, Jacques is an archetypal representation of the “melancholic” personality – over-endowed with black bile, this kind of person was said to be mopey, depressed, and given to poetry and morbid fantasies. Many readers see in Jacques a sort of character study for Shakespeare’s most famous melancholy character, Hamlet, whom he is thought to have created in the year 1600 – the year after he wrote As You Like It. (In modern productions, Jacques, like Hamlet, is often seen dressed all in black. The idea of the “four humours” still exists, in slightly altered ways, in twenty-first-century culture; a time traveler from the Renaissance would probably look at modern Goths, with their black clothes, pale faces and languishing gestures, and immediately peg them as melancholics.)
Language Games, Meta-Poetry and Semiotic In-Jokes:
As You Like It is one of the many plays in which Shakespeare goes “meta,” making a theme out of language and poetry itself. In Scene 3.2, when the other characters read aloud the poetry that Orlando has been hanging on the trees, Shakespeare was expecting his audiences to recognize the style of the poetry Orlando was writing: it was based on the “Petrarchan” style of love poetry, named for the Italian poet Petrarch, who developed a language of love which poets and lovers all over Europe used for centuries. Orlando’s line-up of metaphors in praise of Rosalind draws on this tradition; the fact that they are very clichéd, as well as weak on meter and rhyme, is ridiculed by Touchstone when calls them “the right butter-woman’s rank to market” – meaning that they are like a line of milk-sellers all lined up as their horses jog into town. Touchstone’s own spoof on Orlando’s work (in Scene 3.2) is a fairly goofy Shakespearean dig at bad sonneteers.
Shakespeare pays close attention in this play to the contrasts between poetry and prose (you may notice that some scenes are spoken in iambic pentameter, and some are not), and he even makes very explicit jokes about the ways in which love poetry can be awful. Celia and Rosalind laugh about the badness of Orlando’s verses in metrical terms (“some of them had more feet than the verse would bear,” as Rosalind says), and later Jacques says nastily – when Orlando walks on stage, in the middle of a prose scene, and greets “Ganymede” in flowery terms – “Nay then, God buy you, and you talk in blank verse”; by which he means he refuses to stick around and hear any more of it.
Still, language is something generally to be celebrated and enjoyed in this play, along with love, the natural world, and the pleasures of disguise. Shakespeare was entering a period in his career when he was at his most proficient at, and interested in, playing with language, and the result is plays of dazzling verbal wit, such as As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet. When Duke Senior says he can find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in every thing,” he is finding a delighted wealth of poetry in the world around him- a sentiment which Orlando, somewhat ironically, echoes and reverses when he starts to literally carve words into the trees.