As You Like It: A Bromance Between Women

The poster for the 1936 film adaptation of "As You Like It", starring Sir Lawrence Olivier.

The poster for the 1936 film adaptation of “As You Like It”, starring Sir Lawrence Olivier.

I’m not generally a fan of the comedies that have been attributed to Shakespeare.  I simply do not find them entertaining.  I’m more often drawn to sombre tales plighted with melancholy, so I tend more often to enjoy the tragedies among the plays attributed to Shakespeare.  That does not mean they are without merit, simply that I do not enjoy them as much.  As You Like It is a great case and point as it manages to offer an array of commentary on the performative nature of gender, while demonstrating that the homosocial friendships shared between women are on no less than parity terms with those in the masculine realm and that, in fact, they often serve as a more effective template of virtues like loyalty than their male counterparts.

 

The wrestling scene from "As You Like It", as painted by Francis Hayman".

The wrestling scene from “As You Like It”, as painted by Francis Hayman”.

It is perhaps important to take note of the title.  It is not As I Like It, but rather As You Like It.  The author seems to be making a suggestion in the title.  This is not a work that the author necessarily identifies with, but rather one that the author assumes the audience will identify with (though the two aren’t mutually exclusive).  It seems to suggest that the work is one meant to appeal to the masses, or perhaps the base, which does not always bode well for the quality of the work.  Comedies were expected to end in marriages, and this work certainly seems to fulfill that expectation.  In fact, it might be considered a hyper-comedy as it ends with no less than four marriages!  The more the merrier, right?  Sure.  Ironically enough, though, the play is also noted for birthing the phrase “too much of a good thing”.  The irony is replete.  It seems there is more than a little bit of an element of satire slipped in here, one that lampoons the comedy genre of the time.

 

 

An illustration of Audrey from "As You Like It".

An illustration of Audrey from “As You Like It”.

The story is not particularly interesting.  As is the case with most comedies, a love absolutely devoid of any substance is the focus of the play.  A young nobleman named Orlando and young noblewoman named Rosalind fall in love with each other after she watches him wrestle and shares a conversation with him that is less than five minutes in time.  Rosalind, whose father is the rightful Duke was deposed by his younger brother Frederick, while Orlando is abused by his older brother: Oliver.  The two lovers separately leave for the Forest of Arden.  Since this is a comedy it is only fitting that some sort of cross-dressing take place, and so Rosalind dresses the part of a boy.  The oppressive progeny of the play realize the error of their ways and all propriety is restored and four weddings conclude the play.   While Orlando and Rosalund get married, so to do Oliver and Rosalind’s cousin Celia, who have conveniently fall in love.  The marriage turns the two cousins into sisters.  And two other couples make their way to the alter into the climax.

 

Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind in the 2006 film adaptation of "As You Like It".

Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind in the 2006 film adaptation of “As You Like It”.

For me, the merit though lies in two aspects of the play: an ecocritical reading and a feminist reading.  In regards to the ecocritical reading, the location of the plot plays an interesting role.  All the troubles of the play take place in duchy, the domain of the Duke.  It is a town, or city.  It represents the constructed human world.  In it there is turmoil.  The Duke who inherited the domain finds himself deposed by his brother, whilst Orlando finds his brother Oliver does not honour their father’s will as he does not provide Orlando with a proper education.  We see human jealousy and greed poison the environment.  These problems though are all resolved in the forest, in a natural setting that is devoid on human constructs.  It seems to be an attack on Hobbes’ assertion that humanity is in a natural state of war.  Hobbes believed that only when there is a ruler in place can there be peace: a man who instils all with fear and compels them to be peaceful.  This is not that case though.  In the realm where a Duke is in charge, there is no peace.  One Duke is deposed, and people within the community still fail to follow laws (Oliver does not honour his father’s will).  In the forest though, where there are no human constructs, only a natural state of being, these issues are all resolved.  Oliver and Orlando find peace with one another, as do the Duke and his brother.  This seems also to be an attack on patrilineality in that Oliver is clearly not a morally upstanding character, yet he is rewarded through patrilineality.  The fact that the original Duke is proven to be more morally upstanding though suggests that patrilineality can work. The two situation juxtaposed together suggests that such rules are arbitrary.  They can work well, or they can fail, and therefore are useless.

 

The beautiful Romola Garai who portrayed Celia in the 2006 film adaptation of "As You Like It".

The beautiful Romola Garai who portrayed Celia in the 2006 film adaptation of “As You Like It”.

The most interesting character of the play from an ecocritical perspective is Jaques, who is also the man to voice the famous line: “All the world’s a stage”.  Early in the play his disgust as a deer being killed is discussed.  He seems to recognize humanity’s cruelty to the natural world and empathizes with the animal.  In the end of the play, while the others plan to return to the duchy, he decides to stay in the forest, with the natural world.   Both these instances seem to suggest an interpretation that the natural world is superior to the world of human constructs, or at the very least that there is something to learn from the natural world that cannot be learned from the world of human constructs.  William Hazlitt describes him as “the prince of philosophical idler; his only passion is thought; he sets no value upon anything but as it serves as food for reflection”.  This seems to be true to, but it can be problematic since philosophy is often regard as a human construct, but since the philosopher of this play finds more value in the natural world, it seems fair to suggest that this still works in an ecocritical context and the philosopher sees his greatest teacher not as a human, but as the natural world.  His bitterness seems to be the result of his travels in the world and is a product of the human realm.

 

An illustration of Celia from "As You Like It".

An illustration of Celia from “As You Like It”.

As for comparing the human realm and natural realm, there is of course the famous discourse between Touchstone and Corin which compares courtly life to country life, the conclusion of which can be read in several ways.  Touchstone suggests Corin’s manners are rude, but Corin notes that “those that are good manners at the court, are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court” (3.2.21-22).  There are a few gems in this exchange as well.

 

From a feminist perspective there are several elements that seem to work, though calling the work “feminist” can be somewhat anachronistic since the word did not exist at the time.  The tag “proto-feminist” may be more fitting.  In the era we see that loyalty attributed to the ‘masculine’ realm.  Such loyalty is mirrored in the women of the play.  Rosalind’s father has been deposed as the Duke by his brother.  Several members of the court follow the deposed Duke into the Forest Of Arden, maintaining loyalty to the deposed Duke.  Rosalind, though loyal to her father, is perhaps more loyal to her cousin Celia and is permitted to remain at court.  Once she is exiled though, Celia demonstrates a loyalty equal to the men of the play as she imposes a self-exile upon herself, following Rosalind into the forest and announcing that if Rosalind “be a traitor” (1.3.70) then she is as well.  Celia concludes that the two were “coupled and inseparable (1.3.74).  Even Charles, a wrestler at court, notes that “never [had] two ladies loved as they do” (1.1.108-109).  This, though ostensibly laudatory, is an underhanded compliment as Charles does not include the love shared between men in the comparison.  Nevertheless, the loyalty displayed by Rosalind and Celia proves equal to the loyalty displayed both by the members of court who followed the deposed Duke to the Forest Of Arden, and Adam, who follows Orlando to the forest as well when Orlando departs to find Rosalind.

 

 

Hulk Hogan would be my first choice as "Charles" the court wrestler if I were casting a film adaptation of "As You Like It".

Hulk Hogan would be my first choice as “Charles” the court wrestler if I were casting a film adaptation of “As You Like It”.

Rosalind decides to disguise herself as a boy.  Her reason? “Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold” (1.3.108) and that the two maids will be in “danger” (1.3.106) should they travel as women.  We see here the assumption that the male realm is lacking restraint.  The feminine realm is raised above the masculine realm here in that it displays more restraint. What is perhaps most interesting is that while Rosalind is dressed as a boy, she manages to earn the affection of a shepherdess named Phebe, despite the fact that a male shepherd, Silvius, has expressed his love for Phebe.  Phebe though, when presented with the male and female form, subconsciously prefers the female form over the male form, demonstrating that the female form can be the more beautiful of the two.  This is especially interesting in an Elizabethan context when the male form and love for men was considered greater than the love for women.  Phebe even engages in the tradition of the blazon, cataloguing the features she deems as beautiful in Rosalind (who she thinks to be a man named Ganymede).  It is not the masculine clothes that Phebe is attracted to, but rather “the pretty redness in [her] lip” (3.5.120) and “the constant red and mingled damask” (3.5.122) of her cheek.  Such features were attributed to females in a plethora of sonnets from the era.  Phebe even announces that she will take on the role of the poet by writing what is in her mind and heart (3.5.134-135).  By adopting the voice of poetry and pursuing a man romantically, Phebe adopts roles that were assigned to the ‘masculine’ realm demonstrating a female character who embraces social androgyny and one who also uplifts the female form over the male form. It is perhaps important to note that in the era there were only male actors performing on stage, so there is an interpretation that can negate this reading since all the figures were male, but in looking at the dialogue, the author seems to be listing feminine attributes specifically.

 

A poster from the 2006 film adaptation of "As You Like It" staring Bryce Dallas Howard.

A poster from the 2006 film adaptation of “As You Like It” staring Bryce Dallas Howard.

The work overall does have its merits.  It can be read as a satire of clichéd comedies, it can be read as an ecocritical work and it can be read as a proto-feminist work.  And it can be an entertaining narrative for those who enjoy comedies.  For me, the critical reading is far more interesting than the narrative, and the only character that I find engaging is Jaques, but it is certainly a play that warrants a critical reading and a place in the canon.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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