For the plot of As You Like It, Shakespeare himself had only to go to the local theatre. Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde was popular in the Elizabethan theatres beginning in 1590 and was a wonderful tale, full of bloody wrestling matches and swashbuckling rescues, of nasty outlaws and the violent deaths of wicked villains. In contrast, when Shakespeare’s version opened in 1599, he had turned Lodge’s strong, masculine story into a fairy tale. Yet Shakespeare’s comic version touches us more deeply because of its elements of reality.
Lodge’s story follows the usual pastoral conventions popular at the time, but Shakespeare includes ironic twists which make the characters more immediate to our own experience. The characters in As You Like It move from the complications of a corrupt court to the surrounding forest in search of freedom. In the forest, they find out who they really are; most are refined in the struggle, but a few are not.
The forest itself is an ideal site for the struggle toward fulfillment. We are told at the beginning of the action that those who are fleeing into the woods from Duke Frederick’s tyranny think of the Forest of Arden (probably the woods in which Shakespeare grew up and named for Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden) as a place where they can “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (1.1.118 19). The displaced Duke Senior is a romantic Robin Hood figure, but he acknowledges that he and his band must eventually meet icy winter winds with a smile: “Sweet are the uses of adversity” (2.1.12), he says. It pains him that deer must be killed for him and his friends to survive, but he intends to endure in the forest until order can be restored in the royal court.
The other main characters are as non-violent as he. In fact, one primary difference in Shakespeare’s version is that he took out the violence. The result is that Rosalind becomes the central character of the play. She is not just a passive Renaissance maiden, waiting to be saved by her swashbuckling suitor. Not only does she take charge of her own wooing, but she is the fulcrum of the action. It is through her understanding and intercession that the complications are resolved. She is caught up in the romance of Orlando’s very bad poetry, while also acknowledging that “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (4.1.106 8). She thoroughly enjoys dressing up as Ganymede to enjoy Orlando’s company, but uses her male disguise to teach him some important qualities of love. Thus, violent action is replaced by realistic introspection. Orlando doesn’t battle his brother with a sword, as Rosader does in Lodge’s version, but wins him over by saving his life. First, however, Orlando debates with himself whether he should risk his own life to do so.
To add to the irony of the play, Shakespeare invents two characters who do not appear at all in Lodge’s version: Touchstone and Jaques. A combination of romantic and realistic, these two fools add to an understanding of the main characters. Jaques, “Monsieur Melancholy,” is so gloomy as to be runny most of the time. However, his best known speech, The Seven Ages of Man, which begins “all the world’s a stage,” ends with man in “second childishness, and mere oblivion, / sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing” (2.7.139 166). The audience, often shaken with the reality of Jaques’s vision, sometimes misses the next contrast. The next person on stage is ancient Adam, servant to Orlando. His presence refutes everything Jaques has just said; Adam is not childish and is not just a burden. He is, instead, loyal and true, and, rather than going into “mere oblivion,” he will be remembered forever for his virtues. Thus the exaggeration of melancholy in Jaques is refuted by the balance of virtuous reality. Jaques’s pessimism is finally beaten by joyous Rosalind. When he asserts that “‘tis good to be sad and say nothing,” she responds, “why then ‘tis good to be a post” (4.1.8 9). She chooses deliberate happiness over superficial stoicism.
The melancholy fool Jaques is often compared to Touchstone, the wise fool. Touchstone’s wit seems light and self-effacing, yet is often biting. A touchstone is a criterion (used in the Renaissance as a test for the purity of gold and silver). As a function in the play, Touchstone becomes a standard of measure for the foolishness of the other characters. He draws humor by looking at the absurdities of the games people play. The irony is that he himself is the most ridiculous character in this work. He who considers himself the most wise, marries Audrey, the goatherd, who in her stupidity is certainly the most innocent. When Touchstone wants more in his wife, he wishes she were “poetical.” Audrey says, “I do not know what ‘poetical’ is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?” He laments, “No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry” (3.3.17 20). His comment underscores the Aristotelian argument for poetry not as a mirror of truth, but of the ideal. By this measure, poetry is in its nature not realistic, but romantic. It gives us a view of what life should be, not what it is. In moving this whole play from Lodge’s prose form into poetic prose, Shakespeare has opened this work to a discussion of the ideal.
Because of this emphasis on ideas, As You Like It is sometimes criticized as having little dramatic tension.
By the very nature of Shakespearean comedies, we know in advance that order will be restored, that the wicked will be punished, and that marriages will follow. Certainly the primary intention is to entertain (this play contains more songs than any other Shakespearean play). Yet each character has met and conquered adversity, or has become inured to it. The wise fool has married, but not well; the melancholy fool has joined the wicked duke in a religious retreat. The wicked brother has been conquered by gratitude and by love for the duke’s daughter. (We know the love is genuine because Celia had been disguised as a simple shepherdess.) Order is restored through the reinstatement of Duke Senior, and all can leave the romance of the forest to return to an improved court.
The fairy-tale quality is particularly strong as Rosalind works her magic on the couples to seal all in happiness. The conclusion is not the exaggerated violence of Lodge, but the exaggerated love of Shakespeare’s romantic ideal, with touches of self-recognition which win us over. We are pleased when the golden Rosalind brings us back to reality by asking for our applause.