The premise of As You Like It and the title itself suggest that the play will be a simple pastoral romance; they further suggest that Shakespeare was pandering to his audience's tastes, giving them what they wanted—not necessarily what he wanted to write. While there is no indication that Shakespeare composed As You Like It in response to an actual request, there is some evidence that such plays were highly popular (and, more to the point, profitable) at the time: Charles Boyce speculates that "the company may have intended to profit from a vogue for romantic tales of outlaws, stimulated by two plays about Robin Hood—by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle—presented by the rival Admiral's Men in 1598" (Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times and More [New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 1990] 41).
However, if that were truly what Shakespeare's audience wanted, they were destined for disappointment. The play is considerably more complex and infinitely more entertaining than the fanciful pastorals of Shakespeare's contemporaries. The Forest of Arden seems idyllic; as Charles says, "They say [Duke Senior] is already in the forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England . . . and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world" (The New Folger Library Shakespeare: As You Like It, eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine [New York: Washington Square Press, 1997], 1.1.113 17). Nevertheless, the "golden world" is undercut by the sarcastic commentary of Jaques and Touchstone. Jaques invents a new verse to a song that includes the words "Here shall he see / Gross fools as he" (2.6.48 55), and Touchstone's instant judgment is "Ay, now am I in Arden. . . When I was at home I was in a better place" (2.4.15 16).
The earlier reference to Robin Hood in the play begs a comparison of the two situations. Duke Senior and his cohorts are notably lacking in the heroism that prevails in many of the Robin Hood legends; the only adventurous thing they do is hunt deer, and even that is placed in a questionable light by Jaques, who accuses Duke Senior and his men of being "mere usurpers, tyrants, and what's worse, / To fright the animals and to kill them up / In their assigned and native dwelling place" (2.2.64 66). Duke Senior does nothing to oppose the tyranny of Duke Frederick, but rather takes the attitude of a child whose favorite toy has been snatched from him and who has been unable to retrieve it: he picks up another toy and declares he likes this one better anyway.
Nor is the forest an entirely merry place; a slight melancholy is the prevailing tone. Certainly Duke Senior and his forest court seem free of human treachery, but they do not live without worry or effort—they must, after all, engage in the serious pursuits of providing food for themselves and protecting themselves from the elements. The exiled Orlando and faithful old Adam become so hungry and weary that Orlando, unsuccessful at hunting, is driven to steal food for them. Duke Senior seems bored, constantly seeking out Jaques for entertainment, and welcomes the entrance of Orlando as a diversion. Even the songs they sing have a bitter edge: "Blow, blow, thou winter wind. / Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude" (2.7.182 84).
The fairy-tale quality of the main plot lines is also tempered by the darker and more serious debate over human nature and the factors which shape it—fortune, nature, and nurture. The first act of As You Like It, set at court, shows us two families, the members of which differ widely in character and temperament. The de Boys family consists of Oliver, Orlando, and Jaques (not to be confused with the melancholy Jaques who is in exile with Duke Senior). We are told that their father, Sir Rowland de Boys, was a man of noble character. Even Duke Frederick, who considered Sir Rowland an enemy (because he was loyal to Duke Senior), admits to Orlando: "The world esteemed thy father honorable" (1.2.220). And Orlando, "proud to be Sir Rowland's son" (1.2.228), rebukes Oliver, "He is thrice a villain that says such a father begot villains" (1.1.57 58).
Nevertheless, Shakespeare makes it clear that the world and families are not quite that simple. It is clear that Sir Rowland did beget at least one villain. While Orlando seems to share his father's noble qualities and Orlando tells us that "report speaks goldenly of" his brother Jaques (1.1.6), Oliver harbors an irrational hatred of Orlando. He treats Orlando like a lowly peasant and "bars him the place of a brother" (1.1.19), refusing him the education of a gentleman and the inheritance Sir Rowland bequeathed him. Worse, when Orlando insists on receiving his inheritance, Oliver plots to kill him. He instructs Charles the wrestler, "I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger" (1.1.143 44). No motive presents itself for this villainy; in this family, heredity alone does not determine a person's nature, nor does nurture. Orlando, despite rough treatment and poor education, is as noble as ever his father was.
The situation with Duke Senior, Duke Frederick, and their daughters is quite similar. Duke Senior has much less force of will than his younger brother, but he has infinitely more kindness and conscience. Indeed, Frederick's conscience is conveniently on leave until the final scene of the play. Rosalind and Celia both possess loyalty, intelligence, and courage, and they love one another dearly despite the respective fall and rise of their fortunes. Duke Frederick, on the other hand, is a paranoid megalomaniac who has usurped his elder brother's estate and is greedily snatching up the "lands and revenues" of those lords who followed Duke Senior (1.1.98 102). He dislikes Rosalind and is overly protective of Celia's position and inheritance (formerly Rosalind's): He tells his daughter, "Her very silence, and her patience / Speak to the people, and they pity her. / Thou art a fool. She robs thee of thy name, / And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous / When she is gone" (1.3.80 86). Consequently, Duke Frederick accuses Rosalind of treason and banishes her from the court. Again, we see that heredity is no guarantee that honor—or villainy—in one family member will be shared by the others.
Pastoral notions of romantic love are also debunked in the play. Shakespeare marches out a veritable army of lovers, each pair serving as a commentary on and contrast to the others. Some come close to our expectations, and others are comically flawed, marring the armor of love with considerable tarnish.
Foremost among the lovers in the play are Rosalind and Orlando; they are the closest to the romantic, pastoral ideal, though they deviate from the pattern. Rosalind spends most of the play disguised as a boy and denouncing the very ideal she represents. Orlando is rendered ridiculous by his abominable poetry, composed in honor of Rosalind and hung upon the shrubs and tree-branches. Nonetheless, they seem to have the soundest footing of all the couples, and we are able to believe their relationship will survive the strain of everyday life. Because they interact more than the other lovers do (albeit when Rosalind is in disguise), their affection progresses beyond mere infatuation. Rosalind goes to her nuptials with eyes wide open to the realities of "for better or worse," and she has done her best, in the guise of Ganymede, to educate Orlando and prepare him for the "worse."
Next on the scale of pastoral romance are Oliver and Celia—the latter still in disguise as Aliena—who are unaware of anything but their mutual attraction. One moment they are unconscious of the other's existence, and the next they fall instantly in love and determine to marry. "They are the very wrath of love," Rosalind says (5.2.41 42), and then suggests that physical attraction is the principal actor at play. Orlando too is skeptical and incredulous, asking his brother, "Is 't possible that on so little acquaintance you should like her? That, but seeing, you should love her? And loving, woo? And wooing, she should grant?" (5.2.1 4).
Also problematic is the courtship of Phoebe and Silvius, who present a comic contrast to the noble shepherds and shepherdesses in other pastoral tales. Like Celia and Oliver, they don't really seem to know each other well; but, in this instance, the cause is not brief acquaintance. In the throes of infatuation, Silvius sees only a pretty face and doesn't notice her shallowness. Phoebe, not content with her unexciting, all-too-familiar suitor, despises Silvius and wishes for what she cannot have, perversely loving the one who spurns her. Indeed, she marries Silvius only by default, after she discovers Ganymede is actually female.
Touchstone, who courts the goatherd Audrey, provides the greatest affront to the pastoral ideal. Audrey, with no wit to speak of, comprehends less than half what Touchstone says to her, and she is ugly to boot, a failing she readily acknowledges: "Well, I am not fair, and therefore I pray the gods make me honest. . . . I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul" (3.3.32 33, 37 38). Touchstone, interested in more carnal matters, would happily forego the marriage ceremony if only Audrey would cling less tightly to her honesty. As he tells Jaques, he doesn't mind being married by the dubious Sir Oliver Martext, because "he is not like to marry me well, and not being well married, it will be a good excuse for me hereafter to leave my wife" (3.3.91 94).
So Shakespeare gives us the flavor of the pastoral, under which lies a substantial dose of realism sweetened with humor. Ultimately, the only element of the play which flouts realism entirely (other than the completeness of Rosalind's disguise) is the resolution to the conflict between Oliver and Orlando, and Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. While it is, presumably, the conclusion we desire—"as you like it"—the mechanism is highly contrived and incredible. Oliver's change of heart is somewhat understandable since it results from Orlando's heroic actions and forgiving nature, but the events which make this reconciliation possible—the successive appearances of the viper and the lioness—are rather too convenient. Likewise, Duke Frederick's sudden and inexplicable conversion by an "old religious man" (5.4.165), upon whom he stumbles en route to the forest, is entirely beyond the realm of belief.
Thus, although the ends are precisely what we wanted, the means leave us feeling less than satisfied; ultimately, these contrivances are anticlimactic and undermine the very happy ending. Also, as fantastic as these events are, they are almost entirely lacking in drama, taking place as they do off stage—Oliver's episode because of troublesome issues of livestock, and Duke Frederick's probably due to the difficulty of playing it convincingly. So we find that a magical, fairy-tale resolution is not precisely what we wanted after all—we find ourselves wishing for just a bit more realism and drama.
The deus ex machina (almost literally—it is, after all, a man of God who makes Frederick see the error of his ways) becomes yet another layer in this unexpectedly complex play. It is, in more ways than we could have imagined, "as you like it." Shakespeare has presented us with the fairy tale and simultaneously reminded us of the true nature of human beings and human life. He has shown us that some wishes are not only flawed but also unsatisfactory: What will make us truly happy, or at the very least content, lies not in the treacherous peaks of romanticism or the dark chasms of cynicism, but somewhere in the vast plains between the two.