As You Like It by William Shakespeare Points to Ponder

As You Like It by William Shakespeare Menu

Court vs. Country – The Pastoral:

As You Like It reflects many literary and philosophical themes of Shakespeare’s time. One of the most deep-rooted of these themes is the contrast between the court and the forest, or, more generally, between city and country life. Since most of the poets and writers of Shakespeare’s day lived in the court, or at least near it in the bustling city of London, they spent a lot of time pondering the many dangers and hypocrisies of court life, and puzzling over whether human beings were really better off in a simpler, natural environment. (This attitude makes sense if we remember that the court environment of Shakespeare’s day had been established by Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII – who was well-known for whimsically beheading his wives and anyone else who displeased him. Naturally, most courtiers spent their lives feeling, so to speak, a little edgy.)
This preoccupation led to a literary form called the “pastoral,” which Renaissance English writers based on a classical tradition of Greek and Latin writings, particularly the Eclogues of the great Roman poet Virgil. In pastoral writings, sophisticated characters are placed into an idealistic, simplified, “natural” world, and the characters of shepherds and farmers are used to comment on life in general and the follies of court and city life in particular. (The argument between Corin and Touchstone in Scene 3.1 is a good example of the ongoing Renaissance arguments about whether court or country life was preferable.) As in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the main characters escape the world of the court for a time into a sort of fairyland where they can find their true natures and work out their problems. In As You Like It, this idyllic spot is the forest of Arden, a perfect or “Arcadian” place in which the weather is always good and life is as easy as it was for the legendary Robin Hood. Here, the characters are freed from the burdens of power and of identity, and can remake themselves and their relationships as they please, surrounded by the “simple” shepherds and shepherdesses who make the forest their home.

Clowns, Fools, and Truth-Tellers:

In the Renaissance, the figure of the “clown” or “fool” was an important and paradoxical one. For a playwright like Shakespeare, the “clown” could be the character in his plays who made silly puns, did cartwheels across the stage, and made the uneducated people in the audience laugh even when other characters’ sophisticated wordplay went over their heads. (In this respect, Touchstone, Audrey and even Corin might be considered “clowns” in As You Like It.) For kings and noblemen, however, a court “clown” was not only someone who was paid to wear a colorful costume and do headstands, but also the one person who had the freedom to say whatever he wanted to the powerful people who employed him. (When Jacques asks Duke Senior, in Scene 2.7, to give him the freedom “to speak my mind,” he’s asking for the customary prerogative of a court fool.) The importance of allowing one person to speak the absolute truth – even if it meant discussing out loud the hypocrisy or immorality of a great nobleman – was very significant in the environment of a Renaissance court, where speaking a wrong word could ordinarily get a courtier beheaded.
Shakespeare seems to have been fascinated with clowns, and they feature notably in some of his most interesting plays – including Feste the clown in Twelfth Night, the nameless Clown of King Lear, and even the long-deceased Yorick in Hamlet. As You Like It is unusual because it contains more than one “clown” character. Touchstone and Jacques define two very different types of “court” fool – Touchstone using incessant wordplay and good cheer to distract attention from his own keen intelligence, Jacques bitterly and articulately commenting on the dreariness and folly of everything and everyone around him. As Jacques demonstrates, the “licensed fool” can serve a valuable purpose in telling truths that no one else wants to say out loud; as he also shows us, Shakespeare recognized that sadness and alienation can give the joy of comedy more emotional weight, and that there may be bitterness even in the heart of a clown.

A Little Bit Queer in Arden:

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays in terms of its gender-bending, and sexual-orientation-bending, playfulness. While Renaissance people did not think about “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” in that same ways that we do today, same-sex love certainly existed; it was thought to be prevalent within the all-male theater communities, for one thing, and people like Shakespeare’s famous contemporary Christopher Marlowe were well-known for their flamboyant homosexuality. While there are no such blatantly scandalous rumors surrounding Shakespeare, we don’t know much about his love life after he abandoned his wife and family to pursue his profession in London. We do know that of his 154 famous love sonnets, the first126 of them were addressed not to a woman, but to a beautiful young man, whom Shakespeare seems to have loved dearly. Most critics agree that the subject of such poems as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” was male, but what exactly these passionate poems mean, and what kind of love Shakespeare had for his friend, is a subject of much debate and probably always will be.
Given all this, modern critics have found a lot to chew on in the constantly shifting sexuality of the characters of such plays as As You Like It. First, there is the situation of Rosalind: dressed as a young man, she is referred to as a “pretty youth” by many of the characters, and seems to be regarded as a very girlish sort of boy. Her simultaneous rejection of and flirtation with Phoebe raises the bar: Rosalind seems to be enjoying playing the role of the disdainful lover – and as for Phoebe, what does it mean that she falls in love with a girl dressed as a boy? Orlando’s romantic involvement with “Ganymede” raises even more interesting questions: how do we define a romantic relationship between a young man and (apparently) another young man, who’s behaving like a woman so the two can enact a traditional flirtation and courtship? The name of Rosalind’s alter ego is also extremely provocative -the “Ganymede” of Greek myth was a beautiful boy who was kidnapped by Jupiter, the king of the gods, in order to make him his lover. In Shakespeare’s day, the word was commonly used to refer to young men who engaged in homosexual romances.
Other readers and critics point out the unusually strong relationship between Rosalind and Celia, who follows Rosalind into exile much as wives or lovers traditionally did – as Charles says of them in Scene 1.1, “never two ladies loved as they do.” The closeness of this relationship, which fades into the background as the play progresses and male love interests take over their attention, echoes relationships like that of Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It also suggests – as does that between “Ganymede” and Orlando – the extremely close, largely unresolved male-male relationships which appear in a number of Shakespeare’s plays -Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, for instance, or Sebastian and Antonio in Twelfth Night. Often, in these friendships, one character seems to be jealous or bitter when the other develops an interest in marriage. Celia’s attitude toward Orlando, at least before Oliver shows up, is reminiscent of these relationships.