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Introduction to As You Like It

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Introduction:

The Play:

As You Like It was probably first performed in 1599 in the newly-opened ‘Globe Theatre. It’s next performance was probably for King James in 1603. There is then a gap of 120 years until it is played again, when Charles Johnson produced a comedy, substantially based on ‘As You Like It‘ but containing material from the other comedies. From then on, throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the play has been popular with audiences and producers.

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Context:

The Admiral’s Men at the Rose had just put on two very popular plays about Robin Hood at ‘the Rose’, so perhaps ‘As You Like It‘ was an attempt by The Globe to meet the demand for plays about Forest Outlaws. Shakespeare’s main source for the plot was Lodge’s ‘Rosalynde’, written in 1586-7, though a major element of the plot, Rosalind’s proposed love-cure for Orlando, comes from Lyly’s verse play ‘The Woman in the Moon’.

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The Plot:

As You Like It‘ is one of Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies and roughly follows their plot structure: young adults fall in love but are prevented by the interference of the older generation from getting married. They escape into ‘Nature’ where a series of adventures finally allow them to come together in marriage. This structure applies notably to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As You Like It‘, ‘Twelfth Night’ and even perhaps to ‘The Tempest’.

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Of course, within this outline plot structure, Shakespeare creates very different plays. Where ‘Twelfth Night’ perhaps shows the difficulties the major roles have in loving, ‘As You Like It‘ shows various characters ‘in love’.

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With such a theme there is a risk of the play becoming a little sweet and cloying. Rosalind’s wit and clear-sighted understanding of the vagaries of love, and perhaps Jaques’ melancholy, are key to preventing that happening.

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The play starts with a divided kingdom. Duke Senior has been overthrown by his younger brother, Duke Frederick, and has gone into exile in the Forest of Arden. He has left his daughter, Rosalind, with her cousin Celia in the care of Duke Frederick.

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Rosalind falls in love with a wrestler, Orlando, who is the discontented younger brother of Oliver. Orlando defeats Duke Frederick’s wrestler Charles in a challenge.

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Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind, and she, disguised as a man, and Celia decide to run away together to The Forest of Arden to find Duke Senior. They take with them Duke Frederick’s fool, Touchstone.

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Oliver tries to kill his brother Orlando so Orlando also leaves for the forest with a faithful family retainer, Adam.

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In the forest, Duke Senior and his followers are enjoying the simple life and are amused by Jaques, a rather melancholic moraliser. Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone arrive in the Forest and soon make friends with Corin, a shepherd who helps them find a place to stay on the edge of the Forest. Orlando and Adam also arrive, and Orlando interrupts a feast of Duke Senior’s and demands food for Adam. Soon he and Adam are living with Duke Senior and his followers.

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Orlando, in love with Rosalind, hangs rather poor love verses in the forest in praise of her. She and Celia find them and soon meet the poet in the Forest. Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede, a man) decides to cure Orlando of his love-sickness by pretending to be Rosalind, so that he can make love to Rosalind. They have a mock wedding, and Rosalind / Ganymede educates Orlando into the reality of love.

In the meantime, Touchstone has fallen in lust with Audrey, a shepherdess in the Forest, and Rosalind has met another shepherd, Silvius, who is desperately in love with Phebe. She scorns his love and quickly falls in love with Ganymede / Rosalind.

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Shakespeare waves a magic wand, and all is resolved in multiple marriages, blessed by Hymen, at Duke Senior’s encampment.

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The play has the most music & songs in it of any of Shakespeare’s plays, mostly traditional English Folk-songs.

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There is one thing about the play which makes me curious, and that is the number of references to deer. Of course the play is mostly in a forest, and deer live in the forest, so it may be no more than that. However it seems likely that the deer have some symbolic significance in the play. I have been unable to find any convincing research on the topic, and have failed to come up with a reasonable explanation myself. In my own production (an outdoors, promenade, performance in wooded land), deer (or children dressed as deer), played a significant part in the play.

 

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C21 Performance considerations:

The play doesn’t seem to require any particular modifications to work for a modern audience. The key issue is to avoid descending into cloying sweetness. The key to avoiding this is to select a Rosalind who can keep the edge in Rosalind’s speeches to Orlando, and similarly with Jaques. They are the key characters who introduce a bit of edge into the play.

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There is a certain unbelievability in the retreat to the forest and the simple life of Duke Senior, his followers, Rosalind and Celia, and Orlando and eventually his brother Oliver. This can be overcome by moving the play to the 60s / 70s and playing it in a hippy setting, and even changing (or adding) the songs to hippy songs from Bob Dylan, and others.

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The hippy era does have afinities with the play:

a revolting younger generation
A search for the simple life
lots of good ‘folk’ music

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The risk of such a setting is that you replace the cloying sweetness, with cloying nostalgia from an audience of ageing hippies who usually insist on singing along with the songs.

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