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