William Shakespeare takes most of the plot of As You Like It from a popular novel of the period, Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590). What he adds is a dramatic characterization and wit. The play, a splendid comedy on love and life, is compounded of many elements, the whole set to some of Shakespeare’s loveliest poetry. As You Like It more than fulfills the promise of its title. Its characters are, for the most part, wonderfully enamored of love, one another, and themselves. The play has freshness and vitality and, although adapted from an older story full of artifice, suggests a world of spontaneity and life.
As You Like It is often called a pastoral comedy because it employs the conventions of pastoral literature. Beginning in the third century b.c.e. and popular in the late sixteenth century, pastoral literature enabled poets, novelists, and dramatists to contrast the everyday world’s fears, anxieties, disloyalties, uncertainties, and tensions with the imagined, mythical world where peace, longevity, contentment, and fulfillment reigned. Each age develops its own manner of describing lost happiness, far removed from the normal toil of human existence; the pastoral was the dominant vision in the late sixteenth century.
In the pastoral, the mythic, lost world is set in a simple, rural environment, which then becomes the image of all things desirable to honest people. As You Like It is typical of this convention and contains two contrasting worlds: the world of the court and the rural world — in this case the Forest of Arden. The court is inhabited by corrupt men such as Duke Frederick and Oliver. It is not significant that the gentle banished duke, Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia also once resided there. Rather, as the play develops, the court is the natural home of the wicked and ambitious. The audience is not shown the degeneration of Duke Frederick and Oliver; they are naturally wicked, and the court is their proper milieu.
The elder duke, Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia, on the other hand, are naturally good and the forest is their natural milieu. If the court represents elaborate artifice, ambition, avarice, cruelty, and deception, the forest represents openness, tolerance, simplicity, and freedom. Rather than developing complex characters such as Hamlet, who like most humans has good and bad characteristics, pastorals apportion good and bad traits to separate characters, an allocation that imposes a necessary artifice upon the play and colors all actions, from falling in love to hating to helping a brother. A play such as As You Like It does not present natural behavior. On the other hand, by his adroit use of the conventions and artifice, Shakespeare achieves a remarkable exploration of love and its attendant values.
In the opening scene, Orlando, who has been denied an education and kept like an animal by his brother, is seen to be naturally good and decent. Talking to his brother Oliver, Orlando says, “You have train’d me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities. The spirit of my father grows strong in me, and I will no longer endure it: therefore allow me such exercises as may become a gentleman. . . .” Oliver, as naturally wicked as Orlando is naturally decent, says, “for my soul — yet I know not why — hates nothing more than he.” Logic has no necessary place in this world. Love, however, does.
Love is a natural part of the pastoral world. Practically at first glance, Rosalind and Orlando are in love. Shakespeare’s magic in As You Like It is to take the contrived love that is the expected part of the pastoral convention and make of it a deeply felt experience that the audience can understand. Shakespeare manages this not only through the extraordinary beauty of his language but also through the structure of his play.
As You Like It is full of parallel actions. Orlando and Rosalind meet and immediately fall in love. Silvius and Phebe are in love. Touchstone meets Audrey in the forest, and they fall in love. At the end of the play Celia meets the reformed Oliver, and they fall in love just as quickly as Rosalind and Orlando did at the beginning of the play. The love match at the play’s end nicely sets off the love match at the beginning.
Each love pairing serves a particular purpose. The focus of the play is primarily upon the Rosalind-Orlando match. Rosalind is the more interesting of the pair, for while she recognizes the silliness of the lover’s ardor, she is as much a victim as those she scorns. In act 4, while disguised as a boy, she pretends to Orlando that his Rosalind will not have him. He says, “Then . . . I die.” Her response pokes fun at the expiring love: “No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. . . . Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” She can toy with Orlando in her disguise as Ganymede, yet she is completely dominated by her strong passion, which is a part of the love experience. Rosalind’s and Orlando’s passion, however, is more refined than the passion the others experience.
Touchstone, in his quest for Audrey, exemplifies the earthier side of love. He at first wants to marry her out of church so that he can, once he tires of her, claim their marriage is invalid. The kind of love he represents is physical passion. The Phebe-Silvius pairing shows yet another face of love, that of the typical pastoral lover hopelessly in love with a fickle mistress. He sighs on his pillow and breaks off from company, forlornly calling out his mistress’s name. Touchstone’s and Silvius’s kinds of love are extreme versions of qualities in Rosalind’s love. In the comedies Shakespeare often uses this device of apportioning diverse characteristics to multiple characters rather than building one complete character. Without Touchstone, love in the play might have been too sentimental to take seriously. Without Silvius, it might have been too crude. With both, love as exemplified by Rosalind and Orlando becomes a precious balance of substance and nonsense, spirituality and silliness.
Curious things happen in As You Like It. Good men leave the honorable forest to return to the wicked court. Wicked men who enter the forest are converted in their ways. At the end of the play, Oliver, who comes to the Forest of Arden to hunt down his brother Orlando, gives his estate to Orlando and marries Celia, vowing to remain in the forest and live and die a shepherd. Duke Frederick comes to the Forest of Arden in order to kill his brother. Meeting “an old religious man” in the forest, Duke Frederick “was converted/ Both from his enterprise and from the world.” He, too, gives up his estate and his crown to his brother. The forest, the pastoral world, has the power to transform.
Why, then, do the elder duke, Orlando, and Rosalind elect to return to the court, home of wickedness? They do so because As You Like It is ultimately not a fairy tale but an expression of humanly felt experiences. The forest is a cleansing and regenerative experience, a place to which to retire to renew simplicity, honesty, and virtue. It is not, however, a permanent retreat. Good men stained by labor and trouble in their everyday world in the end must participate in that world. If they retreat to the pastoral world to renew themselves, they must return in the end to the community to take on the responsibilities all must face.