Readers and audiences of As You Like It have for centuries greeted the play with delight. In large part, it seems to belong to the culture of those who read and go to see plays—a culture of leisure in which people have time for conversation. The play speaks to lovers of witty verbal exchange because, whatever else the play’s characters may be, they are brilliant conversationalists. The Princesses Rosalind and Celia shine in this respect early in the play, as does Touchstone, the professional Fool or jester, whose function it is to entertain these princesses and others at court. When these three go into exile in the exotic Forest of Arden, where most of the play is set, they find new conversational partners to engage. In the forest, Touchstone immediately becomes an object of fascination for one of the exiled courtiers, Jaques, who finds in the Fool a model of world-weary cynicism. Jaques’ conversation becomes celebration and quotation of Touchstone: “ ’Tis but an hour ago since it was nine, / And after one hour more ’twill be eleven. / And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, / And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.” Yet this disillusioned pair have to share the forest and the conversational stage with a good number of clever idealists, especially the young lovers Rosalind and Orlando, who can sometimes be more than a match for them.
Acknowledging the brilliance of the dialogue, recent critics and scholars have been attending to the play’s shimmering verbal exchanges from perspectives that ground the dialogue in some of the more serious issues of late sixteenth-century England. One of these issues is the practice of primogeniture, the “courtesy of nations,” as the play euphemistically refers to it, according to which property passes directly from the father to his eldest son, leaving younger sons either dependent on their older brother or destitute and desperate. Looked at from the perspective of primogeniture, As You Like It suddenly becomes remarkable for its depiction of intense conflict between pairs of brothers. At the play’s highest social level, Duke Frederick, younger and therefore dependent brother to Duke Senior, has overthrown his older brother and forced him to live homeless in the Forest of Arden. The rivalry between Orlando and his elder brother Oliver is no less bitter, as Oliver seeks a solution to Orlando’s demand for a share of their father’s patrimony by plotting his brother’s death early in the play. Orlando escapes his brother only to come close to death by starvation in his homelessness. Orlando is driven, in turn, to threaten with death the exiled duke and his followers when he encounters them in possession of the food he needs in order to survive. Thus, As You Like It exposes the cost in human suffering that primogeniture entails and shows how primogeniture, in its preservation of property, contradictorily provokes crimes against property.
A second new perspective on the play attends to the issue of crossdressing, a prominent feature in the plot and an equally prominent feature of the theatrical culture in which the play was first performed. Most of Orlando’s courtship of Rosalind takes place while Rosalind is disguised as a man, calling herself “Ganymede.” Rosalind-as-Ganymede persuades Orlando to pretend that Ganymede is his beloved “Rosalind.” In her male disguise, Rosalind takes over prerogatives within the fiction of the play that, in its time, were exclusively male, such as the prerogative of choosing her own mate and directing his courtship of her, prerogatives that would conventionally belong to her father. Rosalind even takes over the play’s epilogue, its formal farewell to the audience, commenting on how unusual it is for the female lead to do so. But, of course, as “she” reveals in her epilogue, “she,” the actor playing Rosalind on the sixteenth-century English stage, is male, as were all the actors who played female roles on the stage of Shakespeare’s time. The complications of gender in this play, where a boy plays a girl playing a boy pretending to be a girl, are today seen as more than an amusing tour de force. Adding weight to the fun of the play’s love games are questions now being asked about the nature of the attraction between/among genders and about female power in a patriarchal world and on a transvestite stage.
It is reassuring to see that our new awareness of the serious social issues of inheritance, poverty, and gender relations in As You Like It does not dilute the joy of reading, performing, or attending a performance of the play. The dialogue remains brilliant and the characters intriguing, and the Forest of Arden remains a place we “willingly could waste [our] time in.”