Numerous oppositions in As You Like It reveal Shakespeare’s partiality toward the pastoral rustic life of Arden forest to life at court. At Duke Frederick’s court, disorder holds sway. The deterioration of political authority is the most obvious form of disorder, for Duke Frederick has unlawfully seized Duke Senior’s kingdom. This political degeneration is compounded by a more personal disorder, since the dukes are also brothers at odds with each other. This conflict is also underscored by the antagonistic relationship of two other brothers at the court, Oliver and Orlando. Arden forest offers a sense of pure, spiritual order in contrast to the corrupt condition of Duke Frederick’s court. Indeed, Duke Senior, who introduces the audience to the forest, immediately establishes the realm as a haven from the court, which he refers to as a place of ‘‘painted pomp’’ and as ‘‘envious’’—that is, a place where people covet what others have—in opposition to the virtual absence of both private property and social position in the wild.
Meanwhile, for those fleeing the court, the journey to the forest is long and difficult; when the characters arrive they are physically exhausted and hungry. The harsh experience of returning to nature acts as a stripping process, however, laying bare the characters’ virtuous natures calloused by court life. Some characters, like Orlando and Rosalind, need little improvement and find in Arden a liberation from the oppression they have endured at court. Others, such as Oliver and Duke Frederick, approach the forest with malicious intent only to undergo a complete spiritual reformation. Arden is thus a morally pure realm whose special curative powers purge and renew the forest dwellers, granting them a self-awareness that they will ultimately use to restore order at court.
Fortune vs. Nature
Closely allied with the opposition of court life and the Forest of Arden is the dichotomy between fortune and nature. Here, ‘‘fortune’’ represents both material gain—achieved through power, birthright, or possessions—and a force that unpredictably determines events. ‘‘Nature,’’ on the other hand, is both the purifying force of Arden and humanity’s fundamental condition stripped of the trappings of wealth, power, and material possessions.
The opposition between fortune and nature is highlighted most in the first act, where the audience finds that fortune has benefited the villainous (Frederick and Oliver) over the virtuous (Duke Senior, Orlando, and Rosalind). Celia suggests that she and Rosalind ‘‘mock the good housewife Fortune from her wheel, that her gifts may henceforth be bestowed equally’’ (1.2.30–2), referring to the fact that the goddess Fortune was historically depicted as blind, sitting on a spherical throne, with one foot on a ball and one hand upon her wheel that determined the fates of everyone. The goddess Nature, meanwhile, was considered to be in control of people’s innate virtues, such as their nobility and wisdom. In this scene, Rosalind and Celia discuss Fortune and Nature at length, musing on the two goddesses’ effects on the world.
Duke Senior is presented as a man who has successfully thwarted Fortune; after his speech praising the rustic over the courtly life, Amiens notes, ‘‘Happy is your Grace / That can translate the stubbornness of fortune / Into so quiet and so sweet a style’’ (18–20). Fortune is mentioned again later by Adam, who, upon fleeing with Orlando, notes, in a rhyming couplet closing a scene, ‘‘Yet fortune cannot recompense me better / Than to die well and not my master’s debtor’’ (2.4.75–6). Nature, meanwhile, is invoked most pointedly when Oliver describes his brother’s rescue of him: ‘‘But kindness, nobler ever than revenge / And nature, stronger than his just occasion, / Made him give battle to the lioness, / Who quickly fell before him’’ (4.3.129–32). Thus, the play’s protagonists by and large manage to overcome the caprices of Fortune by drawing on the assets of Nature.
Time is also contrasted in the court scenes and in the Forest of Arden. At court, time is referred to in specific terms, marked by definite intervals, in most cases in relation to the duke’s threats: he orders Rosalind to leave the court within ten days or she will be executed, and he gives Oliver one year to find Orlando or else his land and possessions will be confiscated. In Arden, however, the meaning of time is less precise. In his first meeting with Jaques, Touchstone provides a slightly whimsical rumination on time; he seems to be remarking on his sense that he is simply rotting away in the uneventful forest. Jaques later offers a disheartened perception of how time passes predictably for all men, as his ‘‘Seven Ages of Man’’ speech illustrates the individual’s passage through life in predetermined stages, ending with the image of man as a pathetically ineffectual and dependent creature.
When Rosalind, posing as Ganymede, first addresses Orlando, she asks him, ‘‘what is ’t o’clock?’’ (3.2.296), and his response is especially meaningful: ‘‘You should ask me, what time o’ day. There’s no clock in the forest’’ (3.2.297–98). Indeed, time in Arden is measured ‘‘in divers paces with divers persons’’ (3.2.304–05), as Rosalind subsequently instructs Orlando; the lover’s constant sighing and groaning, she contends, ought to be as regular as clockwork, while a young maid, a priest, and a thief would all feel time’s passage uniquely. Later on, Rosalind lectures Orlando for not being more punctual, because a true lover would not lose a single moment that he could be spending with his beloved. In general, the sense that time is a subjective, not an objective, quality enhances Arden’s mythical and romantic aspects.
Sexual identity is examined primarily through the character of Rosalind, who disguises herself as a man named Ganymede—a mythological boy whose name was synonymous with beauty and androgyny—to ensure her safe passage to Arden. Though she can discard her male costume when she reaches the forest, Rosalind does not do so until the end of the play. Critics generally agree that she continues to act as Ganymede because the disguise liberates her from the submissive role of a woman. As a man, she is able to take more control of her own life, especially in her courtship with Orlando. In their playacting scenes, Rosalind controls the tactics of courtship in a way that is usually reserved for men, inverting their roles to teach Orlando the meaning of real love rather than love based on his idealized vision of her. An added complexity of Rosalind’s sexual identity is evident if we consider that in Shakespeare’s age, boys played the roles of women in dramas. The playwright takes advantage of this convention in As You Like It to accentuate flexibility in the presentation of gender. As the boy actor who performs as Rosalind must also play Ganymede, who in turn pretends to be Rosalind in the playacting sessions with Orlando, the audience follows the character’s various transformations and can better appreciate the extent to which Rosalind’s presentation of herself as masculine or feminine changes the way the other characters interact with her.
Acting and the Stage
References to acting, role-playing, scenes, and the stage are scattered throughout As You Like It, most prominently in reference to Rosalind’s posing as Ganymede. When first meeting Orlando in the forest, she aims to ‘‘play the knave with him’’ (3.2.293); aside from her own role as a self-confident man, which is overlaid with her role as the fickle ‘‘Rosalind,’’ she has much to say to Orlando about his playing the role of the lover, noting that he lacks the proper disheveled attire and that he is not as punctual as a lover ought to be. At one point she even entreats Celia to conduct a pretend marriage ceremony between herself and Orlando.
Such references to acting would be natural, of course, in the context of a play presented on the spare stage of the Globe Theatre, where boys and men played the parts of the women and, generally speaking, the artifice of the production could not be ignored. However, the passage in which Jaques delivers the ‘‘Seven Ages of Man’’ speech accentuates the theatrical aspect beyond what is found in Shakespeare’s other works. After the arrival of Orlando, who tells of the exhausted Adam, Duke Senior observes, ‘‘This wide and universal theater / Presents more woeful pageants than the scene / Wherein we play in’’ (2.7.137–39). With these remarks, referring to both tragedy and drama, the duke lends gravity to Jaques’s ensuing speech, about which Shakespearean commentators disagree. Some consider that Adam’s consequent arrival is a negation of Jaques’s speech as serious philosophy, in that the elderly man has just completed a substantial journey; on the other hand, Adam only reaches the realm of the duke because he has been carried by Orlando—as if he is indeed in the throes of the ‘‘second childishness’’ (2.7.165) Jaques has just described.
The central theme of Jaques’s speech, that a single man goes through seven stages, or acts, in the course of his lifetime, echoes similar life-stage theories put forth by ancient thinkers, and the opening line, ‘‘All the world’s a stage’’ (2.7.139), was said to adorn the Globe Theatre itself. The speech is rich in detail and imagery, as Jaques paints miniature portraits of each of the stages of man’s life, and as fits his character, he highlights the ridiculous, helpless, or ineffectual aspects of each stage. The baby is ‘‘mewling and puking’’ (144), while the schoolboy whines as he is forced to attend school against his will. The lover’s sentiments are made to seem absurd and extreme, as he sadly sings of ‘‘his mistress’ eyebrow’’ (149), of all possible body parts. The soldier seems to live in isolation from society and friendship, ‘‘full of strange oaths’’ (150), as if belonging to a secret guild, and he is guided by negative, aggressive emotions like jealousy and anger; even when faced with the prospect of death, ‘‘in the cannon’s mouth’’ (153), he still gives priority to his reputation. The justice’s belly is understood to be lined with capon—a castrated rooster, which serves as another symbol of the impotence of living creatures—because judges were often bribed with capons. As a judge, meanwhile, both his physical appearance and his intellectual state—he is ‘‘full of wise saws and modern instances’’ (156), that is, he does not truly think independently—show him to be fulfilling his function in society without much thought or ability. Jaques’s closing descriptions of the pantaloon and of the senile old man offer a vivid picture of every man’s descent into obscurity: the pantaloon finds his body and his voice alike shrinking, while the final stage ‘‘is second childishness and mere oblivion’’ (165). Thus, in Jaques’s view, not only does man pass through a number of predictable stages but also within each stage the depth of his person is no greater than that of a stock character in a play, meriting a psychological description of a few lines at most. Regardless of how Shakespeare meant the ‘‘Seven Ages of Man’’ speech to be interpreted, its insistence that all men are simply following the scripts of their lives—as cowritten by Fortune and Nature—is thought provoking.
The references to acting, roles, and theater in As You Like It may best be interpreted in the context of the play as contrasted with the pastoral life. The characters of As You Like It, coming from the upper echelons of the court, would have been accustomed to civilization’s comforts; while speaking with Corin, Touchstone regrets the absence of certain aspects of that courtly life, namely the abundances of society and food. Other characters function better than Touchstone in the forest milieu in that they are more willing or more able to ‘‘play the roles’’ of forest dwellers. In making frequent reference to the conventions of dramaturgy, Shakespeare assists his urban crowds to lose themselves in the ethereal theater of the Forest of Arden.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007