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As You Like It /

A Modern Perspective: As You Like It

By Susan Snyder

In some ways, As You Like It is as difficult to pin down as its permissive name suggests. Plot provides the usual framework for investigating a play, but here the plot is all huddled into the beginning and the end. For the middle three acts, the normal impetus of dramatic action is more or less left on hold. In the opening act, things happen quickly. Oliver plots against his hated younger brother, Orlando, who wins the wrestling match anyway; Rosalind and Orlando fall in love; Rosalind is banished; Orlando comes to blows with Oliver and runs off to escape his brother’s hostility. At the other end of the play, in the very last scene, the usurper Duke Frederick is converted, repents, and gives up the throne to the rightful duke, Rosalind’s father; and all the young people get married. In between, very little happens, in a plot sense. Oliver, a bad brother like Duke Frederick, has a change of heart and falls in love with Celia. (This “action,” like the repentance and abdication of Duke Frederick himself, is not shown onstage but only related to us.) And in a subplot Rosalind straightens out the cross-wooings of Phoebe and Silvius so that they can be one of the happy couples at the end.

That’s not much for three acts. Compared with most of Shakespeare’s comparable plays, As You Like It noticeably lacks a strong forward thrust. The other comedies have pressing questions: Can Antonio be saved from Shylock (The Merchant of Venice)? Will the mixups created by Oberon’s magic love-juice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream be sorted out? How will the shrew be tamed in the play of that name? Instead of forces like these pressing us onward, what we have in the Forest of Arden is something like “time out” in a basketball game. While the clock is on, the action rushes forward. Then the clock is stopped, and there is a period of time that doesn’t “count.” Urgencies are suspended. Time is out: out of its customary course, displaced from the usual relentless sequence, not pressing on with problems to be solved and deadlines to be met, liberated from its own rules. In Arden, we are told, people “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (1.1.117–18): in Arden, freed from the court imperative to “sweat . . . for promotion” (2.3.61), one can enjoy moments as they happen without any sense of waste. Time in As You Like It is, as Helen Gardner says, “unmeasured”: rather than events pushing us forward, we get more a sense of space, “a space in which to work things out.”1

Space in the more literal sense, geography, plays its part in this suspension of urgency. The Forest of Arden is somewhere other, a “world elsewhere”: part of the dukedom, presumably, but beyond the courtly sphere of influence. It is rural rather than urban or courtly, though its pastoral nature has more to do with literary tradition than with real country life.2 Silvius and Phoebe are pure pastoral artifice, invoking a long-established literary convention of lovelorn swains and disdainful shepherdesses by their names as well as their situation. The forest itself is not an ordinary woodland, harboring as it does not only deer and gilded snakes but palm trees and a lioness. Even the sheep are peculiar, when you come to think of it. Sheep eat grass, which is not plentiful in forests. But what is a pastoral without sheep, however improbable they may be in practical terms?

The landscape created by the play’s dialogue is a kind of composite literary wilderness, it seems, a construction of the mind. It is appropriate, then, that Arden is a place to test out poses and hypotheses: to take on a different role or position in a playful, temporary way to see how it feels or find out what can be learned from a perspective that is not your habitual one. Time-out in a game means, as in Arden, discussion rather than action. It is also an opportunity for substitutions: A, who has been central before, comes back to sit on the sidelines for a while, and B, who has been an onlooker, takes on a new role in the action. The analogy breaks down at this point because, in a game, stepping into the new role means abandoning the former one. You can’t be both participating in the game-action and watching from the sidelines. In As You Like It, though, new roles expand characters as they add the roles onto their usual selves. Duke Senior is still the ruler while he plays Robin Hood in the forest. Touchstone the Fool struts around among the yokels as a courtier while still being the witty commentator—that is, the Fool. Jaques the complainer aspires to Touchstone’s role himself (“O, that I were a fool! / I am ambitious for a motley coat”: 2.7.43–44)—but he keeps on complaining. Most of all, Rosalind remains the woman in love while also entering into her acquired persona of the scoffing boy Ganymede, who jeers at love and lovers.

Role-playing and debating stand in for dramatic complications in the central section of As You Like It. The typical “action” is a discussion—an unresolved discussion with no winner or loser. This part of the play is made up of conversational encounters as one pair after another meets, talks, separates: Rosalind-Orlando, Orlando-Jaques, Jaques-Touchstone, Touchstone-Corin, Rosalind-Touchstone, Phoebe-Silvius, Corin-Silvius, and so on. Talking about love, talking about time, talking about country life. To every proposition, there is a counterview. Amiens sings of the joys of life in the forest, and then Jaques sings his own contrary verse of the same song to show what fools he and his friends are for leaving the civilized comforts of the court. Rosalind reads Orlando’s courtly love poem:

From the east to western Ind

No jewel is like Rosalind.

Her worth being mounted on the wind,

Through all the world bears Rosalind.


But, after more such couplets, Touchstone, bored with this idealizing love, carries on in the same rhythm and rhyme scheme to stress the more earthy side of wooing and mating:

If the cat will after kind,

So be sure will Rosalind.

Wintered garments must be lined;

So must slender Rosalind.


In these debates, there is no victor. We may sometimes think that one speaker has the better of it—Orlando in this same scene, for example, seems to best Jaques both in his witty putdown and in the values he espouses (lines 258–98)—but such advantages have no consequences for the action. As in the more even exchanges, each speaker has his say, and they pass on to other things: “Farewell, good Signior Love. . . . Adieu, good Monsieur Melancholy” (lines 295–98). In a pinch, a single character can carry on a debate with himself. When Touchstone is asked how he likes the shepherd’s life, he manages to be pro and con simultaneously:

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a

good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it

is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very

well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile

life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me

well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is

tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my

humor well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it

goes much against my stomach. (3.2.13–21)

The debate may not be posed as a debate at all, but emerge from simple juxtaposition. In the first Arden scene, Duke Senior paints an idyllic picture of life in the forest: away from the pomp and envy of the court, nature supplies all they need.

  And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

  Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

  Sermons in stones, and good in everything.


How pleasant, how benign. But almost in the next breath the Duke has to acknowledge that their living off nature is hard on the deer they kill for food. And one of his fellow hunters then tells very graphically of seeing a wounded deer die in anguish, cut off from the herd. Life in harmony with nature looks more Darwinian from the perspective of the suffering deer. And how natural is it, anyway? Duke Senior cannot describe what is good about their existence in the wild without referring to civilized products and practices like sermons and books. As soon as we enter it, the forest is represented as an imaginative construction—imagined by civilized people who hear sermons and read books.

In all these exchanges—between Amiens and Jaques, Orlando and Touchstone, Touchstone the courtier and Touchstone the pastoralist, even Duke Senior and the deer—the point seems to be not which is right and which is wrong, but the dual view itself: the rhythm in which a single, limiting perspective is qualified/expanded/countered by another based on a different “truth.”3 Even the most celebrated speech in the play, Jaques’ summing up of human life that begins “All the world’s a stage” (2.7.146–73), is not left unqualified. In his bravura performance Jaques demonstrates to his audience how all men enact one standard role after another through their lives, from the infant mewling and puking, to the decrepit old man in his second childhood. Summarized in this reductive way, the entire human journey is pointless and arbitrary, especially since no stage brings with it any joy or satisfaction. The schoolboy isn’t seen as empowered by learning new things, but only resisting instruction. The lover’s sighs and woeful ballads don’t win him his lady. Any fame the soldier wins for facing danger is discounted as “the bubble reputation.” In Jaques’ gloomy vision, we move through a series of stances imposed on us by the passage of time, with no say in the matter and no rewards along the way. But much later in the play, Jaques’ sour view of things is forcefully countered by the pages’ song “It was a lover and his lass” (5.3.16–39). This cheerful, energetic lyric does not seek to deny that “life is but a flower”: time passes quickly, the blooming season is short. But the song’s answering exhortation is to make the most of each season, especially spring—the mating time. There is fulfillment for those who seize the day.

  And therefore take the present time,

   With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,

  For love is crownèd with the prime,

   In springtime, the only pretty ring time.


Versions of love also play off one another—romantic and cynical, equal and hierarchical, spiritual and animal. Rosalind as Ganymede, like Touchstone, encloses opposites in her double self and displays them, almost simultaneously, to the bemused Orlando. But there is some danger in all this. Multiplying perspectives without any clear priority or strong direction can be liberating. Yet it can also destabilize, erasing fixed meaning and denying any resolution that allows us to conclude one phase in order to move on to the next. Intellectual sparring can become a substitute for getting on with life, in that it holds real action, including sexual consummation, at a remove. When Oliver and Celia fall in love and immediately move toward marriage, Orlando becomes impatient with the game he is playing with Ganymede-pretending-to-be-Rosalind. Perhaps this realization that he “can live no longer by thinking” (5.2.53) is exactly the effect intended by the disguised Rosalind when she describes so forcefully to Orlando the sudden mutual desire of Oliver and Celia, their close relatives and peers.4 In any case, each hears the signal to rejoin real time.

As we would expect, it is Rosalind who achieves this resolution; more surprisingly, she announces she will do it by magic. “I can do strange things,” she says. “I have, since I was three year old, conversed with a magician, most profound in his art. . . . I am a magician” (5.2.62–65, 75). Why this elaborate appeal to supernatural powers, we wonder, since to bring this devious courtship to conclusion on the level of plot, she need only reveal her true identity? Perhaps the insistent gesture toward magic is a way of reaching to another level, quite beyond the endlessly repeated exchanges and qualifications—a transcendence felt to be necessary to resolve the “action” of Arden, because there is really no logical end to deconstructive games. Without some deus-ex-machina intervention, they could go on forever. So, by “magic” of some undefined sort, Rosalind undoes the spell of Arden and pairs up the couples, including herself in one of them. Since this disentangling and settling is so clearly her work, we are made to feel that the sudden appearance at the play’s close of Hymen, the Roman god of marriage who “bar[s] confusion” and “make[s] conclusion” (5.4.130–31), is somehow her doing as well. This supernatural visitation also signals the end of suspended time and the return of the forest visitors to the court, and not merely because these final ceremonies are interrupted by news that the usurper has abdicated and left the way open for the exiles’ return. In the forest we have seen a couple of “dry runs” toward marriage: Celia pretends to be a priest marrying Orlando with Rosalind-Ganymede-Rosalind (4.1.129–48), and Touchstone enlists Sir Oliver Martext to join him to Audrey with only the trees for a temple and only the beasts for witnesses (3.3.40–107). But the play-wedding breaks down in laughter—Celia “cannot say the words,” and Rosalind wants to say more than her assigned ones. Touchstone’s woodland nuptials are interrupted by Jaques, who points out their irregularity: Sir Oliver may know the words somewhat better than Celia, but he omits the counseling of bride and groom on “what marriage is” that begins the traditional ceremony, as well as the calling of the banns that should precede it—in short, the all-important social dimension of marriage. Hymen, however, is “god of every town” (5.4.151). The settled marital commitment that he represents has to do not with the unstructured casual engagements of the forest but with civilized society, which is founded on the ordered relation of wedlock. Of all the forest expatriates, only Jaques goes on standing aside, withholding commitment. He joins the converted Duke Frederick in order to take up yet another pose, that of intellectual hermit, and presumably go on posturing and deflating the posturings of others.

The Arden interlude is “time out,” not only from exigencies of plot-action, but also from the power relations inherent in the usual social structure (usual in the court of the early scenes and in the world of Shakespeare’s audience as well). This normative society is hierarchical, vesting power in the senior male: the father, and then the eldest brother, who under the law of primogeniture inherited all the father’s power and wealth. Women and younger brothers were subordinate. But not in the Forest of Arden.

For instance, paternal control of marriage, which was a given in the everyday social order and is a powerful normative force that most Shakespearean comic plots have to reckon with, is simply a non-issue here. Rosalind and Celia choose their husbands on their own, and neither one gives much thought to her father’s wishes when she agrees to marry. Rosalind’s father is nearby, but she does not seek sanction from him for her choice, a choice that is itself a violation of social hierarchies in that she is a princess and Orlando merely a gentleman. While she does set up Duke Senior to give her to her husband, the ritual is quite opposite to the usual arranged marriage. The daughter has done the arranging, and the father simply ratifies her choice. When Rosalind finally reveals herself in woman’s clothes to Duke Senior, she sounds a note of daughterly duty: “To you I give myself, for I am yours.” But then she turns to Orlando and repeats the same words: “To you I give myself, for I am yours.” We get the impression that she is choosing her father as well as her husband. “I’ll have no father, if you be not he. / I’ll have no husband, if you be not he” (5.4.120–21, 126–27). In this world of upended hierarchies, the only candidate for marriage who does ask for permission is Oliver, who asks his brother—his younger brother.

Which brings us to that other prominent feature of social hierarchy, primogeniture. In economic terms, this system of inheritance settling everything on the eldest son functioned to keep an estate intact by denying any share in it to younger children. But what then happened to those younger sons, caught between their good birth and their lack of the income needed to sustain a gentleman’s life? Primogeniture could create enormous inequalities between siblings, turning the brother-brother relationship into one like that of father-child, or even of master-servant. It was the heir’s moral responsibility to settle his brothers in appropriate positions, but if he didn’t do so, they had no recourse.5 Oliver in As You Like It, eldest of the three sons of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, does right by the middle brother, sending him to be educated, but he keeps the youngest one untrained, in a servile condition. Why? Oliver wonders that himself. After sending Orlando into a potentially fatal fight with the Duke’s wrestler, he says in soliloquy,

                                         I hope I shall see an

end of him, for my soul—yet I know not why—

hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle, never

schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all

sorts enchantingly beloved, and indeed so much in

the heart of the world, and especially of my own

people, . . . that I am altogether



What to Oliver is a contradiction—I hate him, yet he is full of good qualities and admired by everyone—sounds to the audience more like psychological cause and effect: I hate him because he puts me in the shade. Not for nothing is this society called “the envious court” (2.1.4); the same resentment of another’s good also shapes the play’s other fraternal relationship. In the ducal family it was the younger son who usurped the dukedom held by his elder brother. While Frederick has seized power some time before the play opens and there is no direct discussion of his motives for it, we can see traces of an abiding envy of his brother when he banishes his niece Rosalind, not for anything she has done but for what she is: her father’s daughter. Frederick defends his arbitrary cruelty by assuring Celia that Rosalind’s popularity diminishes Celia: “She robs thee of thy name, / And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous / When she is gone” (1.3.83–86). Since his daughter has no such feelings, we suspect that Duke Frederick is projecting onto Celia his own envy of his elder brother, as he repeats his act against Duke Senior by banishing Rosalind.

With primogeniture as with marital choice and class divisions, the play seems to resist the status quo on various fronts, enacting the wish to choose one’s marriage partner freely and to measure the worth of men independent of any conferred superiority. But the dramatic outcome is carefully balanced. An across-the-board challenge to primogeniture, especially on the state level, would strike at the foundations of social order. To be sure, younger brother Orlando does come out on top of elder brother Oliver. But Duke Senior (emphasize the word senior) is restored to rightful rule. And in approving his daughter’s choice of a non-noble younger son as husband, he also makes Orlando heir to the dukedom. The father-duke thus accepts Rosalind’s independent selection of her own husband but at the same time makes sure that the ruler who succeeds him will be male and erases the class difference by elevating Orlando’s rank. Anarchic wishes are acted out and satisfied, but contained.

“Time out” does not mean that a whole social system can be cast permanently into anarchy. At the very end of the play, the actor who plays Rosalind stands alone onstage to deliver the epilogue. It is a position of power, and the speaker accentuates how unusual it is by starting out, “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue.” It was not the fashion, either, in Shakespeare’s time to see a lady as autonomous and powerful as Rosalind has been in this play. But we should bear in mind that Shakespeare’s Rosalind was played by a male actor. This epilogue functions, like any of Shakespeare’s epilogues, to effect a transition from the fictional world of the play to the real world in which the spectators live. Proceeding with this transition, the Rosalind-actor continues, “If I were a woman. . . .” But he is no longer a woman, and the woman has lost her special power. “Time out” is over, and the game goes on.

  1. Helen Gardner, “As You Like It,” in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “As You Like It” (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 60.
  2. The pastoral convention in literature, which As You Like It both incorporates and interrogates, pictures shepherds in an idealized version of country life, sometimes tending sheep but mainly engaged in amorous courtship and creating songs.
  3. My discussion of pluralism and qualification in As You Like It is to some extent a development of Harold Jenkins’ observation: “One must not say that Shakespeare never judges, but one judgment is always being modified by another. Opposite views may contradict one another, but of course they do not cancel out. Instead they add up to an all-embracing view far larger and more satisfying than any one of them in itself” (“As You Like It,” Shakespeare Survey 8 [1955], 45).
  4. Mario DiGangi, “Queering the Shakespearean Family,” Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 284.
  5. Primogeniture and fraternal relations are examined in depth by Louis Adrian Montrose in “ ‘The place of a brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 28–54.