Shakespeare emphasized the romantic, pastoral aspect of As You Like It by including a significant number of songs and poems. In all, five different songs are performed, more than in any other comedy, while the audience hears three poems read aloud, two of Orlando’s—one of which is then parodied by Touchstone—and one of Phebe’s. In addition, Touchstone offers a few pithy lines upon leaving Sir Oliver MarText, and Hymen’s lines, which are written in rhyming trimeter instead of Shakespeare’s conventional pentameter, have an immediate poetic ring to them. All of these forms of verse are presented in the Forest of Arden, rather than in the court. Meanwhile, more than half of the play is written in prose, aptly contrasting the characters’ offhand everyday discourse with their romantic poetic bursts.
The texts of these songs are generally relevant to the scene in which they appear or to the play as a whole. The fifth scene of the second act seems to exist exclusively as a framework for the first tune, sung by Amiens, which mentions ‘‘the greenwood tree’’ (2.5.1), ‘‘the sweet bird’s throat’’ (2.5.4), and ‘‘winter and rough weather’’ (2.5.7) and helps establish the woodland setting; Jaques’s subsequent partly nonsensical verse, on the other hand, helps establish his nonconformity. The hunters’ effusively masculine song, with its possibly sexual reference to ‘‘the horn, the horn, the lusty horn’’ (4.2.18), also essentially merits its own scene, highlighting the camaraderie and sense of self-determination fostered by hunting for food together.
The song sung by Amiens when Duke Senior welcomes Orlando and Adam, ‘‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’’ (2.7.174–90), merits particular attention. In each verse, Amiens first invokes the severity of nature in wintertime, then offers as a contrast the greater severity of men toward one another. The winter wind is harsh, but it is ‘‘not so unkind / As man’s ingratitude’’ (175–76); the breath of that wind is ‘‘rude’’ (179), but at least it fails to bite, as does the tooth of man. The chorus affirms this trust in nature and mistrust of man, glorifying the ‘‘green holly’’ (180) before stating, ‘‘Most friendship is faining’’—that is, perhaps, both yearning and pretending (‘‘feigning’’)— ‘‘most loving mere folly’’ (181). In the second verse, although the freezing sky stings and warps waters, it is preferred to ‘‘benefits forgot’’ (186) and a ‘‘friend rememb’red not’’ (189). Especially given its location in the play as a whole—at the point when the sorrows of courtly life are being discarded, as food and shelter within the forest have been secured—this song may be interpreted as emblematic of the play as a whole, with its depiction of nature’s rhythms, even when bitter, as preferable to the strife of men.
Marginalization of Plot
The plot of As You Like It is perhaps the least important plot in all of Shakespeare’s plays, at least in terms of the consequences of problematic situations and people’s actions. Indeed, the most negative critical comments have come from scholars who perceive carelessness or even indifference in Shakespeare’s fabrication of the plot. Albert Gilman sums up this dearth in his introduction to the play:
“What is unusual is the extraordinary dispatch with which the plot unfolds. Almost everything that is to happen, happens in the first act… . In the ensuing acts Shakespeare scarcely concerns himself with the troubles that were introduced in the first act. Except for three short scenes we are always in Arden, where the dangers we are chiefly aware of are falling in love or being worsted in a discussion.”
To close out the play, the two villains are abruptly converted from villainy, and the four couples are very speedily wed—Oliver and Celia before the audience has witnessed one private conversation between them.
At certain points, Shakespeare’s offhand treatment of the plot almost escapes attention. When Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, first chances across Orlando in Arden, she says, ‘‘I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him. Do you hear, forester?’’ (3.2.292–94). As the scene moves along, the audience may not even have time to wonder why Rosalind fails to discard her disguise, though nothing is truly preventing her from doing so. Later, when she tries to persuade Orlando to accompany her and be cured of his lovesickness, after expressing mild skepticism that she can do so, he reverses himself and says, ‘‘Now, by the faith of my love, I will’’ (3.2.418). Thus, despite all her previous questioning about the sincerity of Orlando’s love, Rosalind seems to ignore the fact that he follows her for the express purpose of falling out of love with her; if Orlando follows not to fall out of love but because he has already seen through her disguise, the audience is given no indication of that.
Shakespeare’s summary treatment of the play’s action seems above all to reflect that Shakespeare did not intend the plot of the play to be the essence of the play. In effect, limiting plot development allows for the greater development of the characters through casual, unforced, and thus particularly revealing, dialogue. Gilman, in highlighting the primacy of the dialogue and the characters’ relationships in his introduction, playfully asks, ‘‘Who has not looked at his watch during the last act of a well-made plot and sighed to think of the knots still to be untied? We had rather be in Arden where the wicked are converted by fiat and lovers marry in half-dozen lots.’’
With the setting and atmosphere emphasized over the plot of As You Like It, the play depends heavily on imagery, as well as on wordplay introducing that imagery. In her essay ‘‘Image Establishes Atmosphere and Background in the Comedies,’’ Caroline F. E. Spurgeon notes that certain types of comparisons are especially prevalent. Topical similes are those referring to scenes or objects that would have been familiar to the London-based Elizabethan audience. Rosalind’s declaration to Orlando that she would ‘‘weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain’’ (4.1.146–47) may be a reference to a fountain in the Cheapside district featuring a depiction of that goddess. Other topical similes in the text refer to the types of painted canvases that were hung on walls, the whipping treatment that madmen received, and the work of tavern employees. Sturgeon notes that the prominence of such references reflects the fact that Shakespeare was writing for ‘‘a highly sophisticated town audience, which delights in bouts of sparkling wit, … is ever alive to double meanings, and is quick as lightning to seize on and laugh at a local or topical allusion.’’
Similes mentioning animals are also found frequently in the text, more than in any other Shakespearean comedy, further emphasizing the natural world. Orlando compares himself to a doe seeking her fawn; Jaques likens himself to a weasel and to a rooster; and Rosalind compares herself to a cock-pigeon. Fittingly, the character who seems to be most in touch with his animal instincts invokes the images of a number of creatures in explaining to Jaques his intent to marry: ‘‘As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling’’ (3.3.76–9). Other natural objects and forces are likewise often brought to the spectators’ attention. Orlando presents the image of a rotten tree; Touchstone that of fruit ripening and rotting; and Jaques that of rank weeds. Mention of the weather, too, serves to enhance the sense of being outdoors, such as when Hymen utters to Touchstone and Audrey, ‘‘You and you are sure together / As the winter to foul weather’’ (5.4.135–36).
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