As You Like It has begun performances and has already garnered rave reviews. To tell you a little bit more about this timeless play, Folger Resident Dramaturg Michele Osherow shares her views on how it embodies love in all its ludicrous glory.
As You Like It is a favorite among contemporary audiences. It’s a play designed to please. There’s an abundance of songs, quotable bits, a wrestling match, a winged love-God, clever word-play, and a happily-ever-after final scene. And then there’s Rosalind, recognized by scholar James Shapiro as “Shakespeare’s most beloved heroine.”
“If,” as characters claim, “there be truth in sight” there is much to recommend Rosalind, not least of which is the truth she’s unafraid to tell. She speaks her heart outright. Within minutes of meeting Orlando she gives him a chain from around her neck and confesses herself “overthrown.” The girl wastes no time. It’s not just Rosalind’s investment in love that we admire, but also her determination that she and Orlando love wisely and love well. She debunks romantic myth in favor of a love for “Fridays and Saturdays and all.” That Rosalind exposes love as “a madness” grounded in deceit while she herself goes incognito as Ganymede, underscores her aptitude for comedy and courage. Here is another of Shakespeare’s plays in which truth is revealed through feigning—a nod to the art of theatre.
Rosalind-as-Ganymede’s attempts to flaunt love’s mundanity only adds to the zany depiction of romantic love in this play. It is impossible to separate romance from the ridiculous. Silvius claims folly is a kind of litmus test for love; nothing on stage contradicts him. As much as Shakespeare’s plot drives the coupling of Rosalind and Orlando, along with the yoking together of “country copulatives,” romantic love does not, in and of itself, prove vital. Ganymede puts it best: “men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
And yet, because characters’ lives are at stake in court and country, the play throws into sharp relief relationships on which lives depend. Friendships in As You Like It are life-sustaining, fierce and unchanging. We see and hear of friends’ sacrifices from the start: old Adam abandons security for Orlando’s sake; “loving lords” follow the ousted Duke to the Forest of Arden. No sooner does the play indicate ties that bind then we see them being tested. When Rosalind is banished by her uncle, Celia rallies instantly: “do not seek …/ To bear your griefs yourself and leave me out.” Such commitment among friends spans differences of gender, class, age, and origin.
It’s in Arden where characters most intensely confront difference and their response is inspiring. Upon arrival in the forest, Rosalind sees a stranger’s misery and better comprehends her own. Touchstone’s instinct to lord it over woodland yokels is squelched by Corin’s natural philosophy. The ability to spot humanity in others is best modeled by Duke Senior. He addresses his co-mates as “brothers in exile” and extends that fellowship to new acquaintances, putting their needs before his own. “Thou seest,” he tells his comrades, “we are not all alone unhappy.”
That there is unhappiness in Arden is important; anyone can afford generosity in Paradise. But the unhappiness to which the Duke refers is mollified by community. Duke Senior discusses sorrow and its remedy. It is in response to the Duke that Jacques philosophizes on man’s “seven ages” beginning famously with “All the world’s a stage…” His remarks compel our own participation in dual communities: one is the theater; the other is humankind.
Rosalind moves seamlessly between the two, taking on the role of Ganymede with more than modest skill. It’s hard to say when she’d have dropped the curtain on her performance. Orlando tires of it before she does, claiming he can “live no longer by thinking.” Arden is a world of Rosalind’s imagining; her imagination leads to liberty, to action. Before the play’s end, she’ll direct the behavior of lovers, a father, a cousin and one god of marriage. She’s made a world as she likes it and charges us, among other things, to do the same.