Young lovers who pursue their happy destiny in a world seemingly far removed from reality, evil that threatens but never harms, beautiful poetry and charming songs—As You Like It, written during Shakespeare’s middle period, seems to have it all.
In this play an increasingly confident playwright consistently balances gay laughter with notes of seriousness and sadness. Although Touchstone’s wit and Jaques’s melancholy remarks question the nature of love and the value of society, the chief characters in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies are always highborn. Rosalind and Celia typify some of Shakespeare’s most engaging characters: well-balanced young people, usually women, who can live with equal ease in the world of courtly romance or the world of rustic idyll as typified by the Forest of Arden.
This play was first published in the 1623 folio, but was probably written in 1599 or 1600, as it was cited in the Stationer’s Register of August 4, 1600 as being protected from unauthorized publication. The source of As You like It was Thomas Lodge’s pastoral romance, Rosalynde (1590), which in turn was derived from an anonymous fourteenth century poem. Shakespeare refined both of these earlier sources, replacing violence and death found in the earlier versions with romance and poetry in a pastoral setting—replete with innocent shepherds tending their flocks and falling in love with beautiful lasses to whom they write anguished verse.
The play opens and closes with flurries of events. To begin with, we have Oliver’s various attempts to rid himself of his virtuous younger brother, Orlando, then the banishment of Rosalind and then of Orlando himself–but these are simply transparent devices for getting all the major characters away from the familiar world and into the Forest of Arden. Near the end of the play another little explosion of events precipitates four marriages and releases all the exiles from their pastoral life. In between, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to avoid generating suspense. Celia and Oliver, Touchstone and Audrey have agreed to marry almost before we realize what is happening. Rosalind has only to abandon her disguise as Ganymede for Orlando to declare himself, and with equal ease Phebe realizes she must be content with her faithful Silvius.
Shakespeare refuses to legislate or even to take sides in the various rivalries the comedy sets up: between court and country, nature and fortune, youth and age, realism and romanticism, laughter and melancholy. These opposites, the subject of ceaseless debate and meditation, tend to be identified with particular characters, but the comedy as a whole is far more interested in doing justice to the complexity of the argument than in arriving at a correct solution. The idea is that sophisticated people, suddenly made part of a rustic life of which they previously had only the most distant and imperfect knowledge, may discover things obscured or undisclosed in the court.
There are in As You Like It seven songs, including the famous “Blow, blow thou winter wind,” “Under the greenwood tree,” and “It was a lover and his lass.” These three are important to the plot, helping to produce the necessary woodland atmosphere. The songs served to provide a setting on a stage without scenery and surrounded on three sides by the audience.
As we surrender to the spell of Shakespeare’s magic, we too are free for the moment from the conventions and restraints of the real world, and we linger in an enchanted wood to listen to the theorizing of Jaques, the jests of Touchstone, and the laughter of Rosalind. If Shakespeare put little intellectual labor into the construction of the plot, he lavished treasures of genius on the sparkling prose, the lyric verse, and the creation of the ideal lady for this world of fantasy, Rosalind.