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A scene by scene summary in modern prose.
'Of this play the fable is wild and pleasing', wrote Samuel Johnson of As You Like It.1 The play in performance has sometimes veered towards the 'wild' side, appearing a dangerously subversive work that exposes the instability of traditional values. At other moments it has been simply 'pleasing', a stalwart demonstration of conventional social mores; this aspect prompted George Bernard Shaw to accuse Shakespeare of 'exploit[ing] the fondness of the British Public for sham moralizing and stage "philosophy".'2 The play's ability to encompass these extremes tells an interesting story about changing cultural and theatrical practices. Tracing the history of As You Like It in the theatre and on film shows the extent to which a playscript is an evolving document that can be radically shaped in performance. Directors, actors, and venues are obviously central to this shaping process, and the current incarnation of As You Like It bears the imprint of various theatrical figures and general alterations in styles and playing places. Perhaps even more significant in following how the play has been evoked is a consideration of the wide and shifting context of social codes, gender norms, and attitudes towards the arts, especially theatre. The production history of As You Like It affords us a focused view of major social, political, and aesthetic changes over the past four centuries.
At the same time, the performance history of As You Like It testifies to the particular artistic poise of this comedy, written in 1600 when Shakespeare was at the height of his powers. A mode of refreshment and regeneration, Shakespearean comedy does not merely entertain by providing diversion, but seeks to accommodate viewers to the world in which they live. Towards this end, As You Like It addresses and seeks to manage a number of tensions of social life, and achieves success through its 'power to express conflict and order it in art'.3 Its formal balance does not eradicate the importance of the play's historical context, however. Because As You Like It seeks to order specifically social ills, it draws on and develops changing conceptions of how people relate to one another, individually and in groups. In other words, the interrelation of diachronic (the chronological history of the play in performance) and synchronic (the form and attributes of the playscript) forces has produced the meaningful history of As You Like It on stage and screen.
Peculiarities of the play as a performance piece
As You Like It is not a heavily plotted play; indeed, its 'plot barely exists',4 and most significant action occurs in the first act, with the subsequent four acts constructed primarily of encounters between paired characters.5 Formally, the play balances court against country, underlining this structural comparison through the oscillation of settings in Acts 2 and 3. Within individual scenes, on stage spectators repeatedly add a layer of commentary to the observed action, mitigating the dominance of any particular perspective.
Prose heavily outweighs verse in this extremely conversational play, and one result is an emphasis on character rather than poetic structure. Although Jaques was a favourite part during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Rosalind's character has usually dominated the play's stage history. Her romp in the Forest of Arden disguised as Ganymede is the play's best-known feature, and the cross-gendered disguise raises questions of dramatic style and intention. Since it is generally agreed that Rosalind's turn as Ganymede cannot be presented altogether realistically, the play does not enable or easily allow a mimetic style of performance. As You Like It offers a particularly striking example of a playscript that foregrounds its own fictional status, repeatedly undermining any sense of dramatic mimesis.
All of Shakespeare's comedies in which female characters don male disguise participate in the exploration of gender, but only in As You Like It does the girl masquerading as a youth take the further step of pretending to be a girl. This third level of performativity (actor as Rosalind as Ganymede as 'Rosalind') complicates the relationship between the actor's body and the presented character. As a result, not only do the particular signs of masculinity and femininity come into play, but the very nature of gender may be scrutinised.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a further dimension of metatheatricality existed in relation to Rosalind, created in part by conventions of staging (the absence of dramatic mimesis) and in part by the theatrical culture. Much as spectators today go to the cinema to watch the latest vehicle of their favourite star, these earlier audiences went to the theatre to see Dora Jordan, or Helena Faucit, or Ada Rehan. The character portrayed - in this case, Rosalind - was largely the occasion for the famed actress's appearance. An observer of Dora Jordan wrote in 1791:
there is more in her person and natural manners than in her acting. Her merit lies out of her part. The words set down by the author she does not repeat with greater propriety of tone, emphasis, or gesture, than others. But she has of these, certain peculiarities . . . such as take strong hold of the affections, at least of the male part of her audience.6
A century later, a critic made a similar comment about the crowd gathered at Stratford to see Mary Anderson as Rosalind:
There was one question that preoccupied all minds: How would the prudish Mary manage with her legs? It was the prospect of seeing the new Rosalind's nether limbs that was responsible for the excited rush for seats on the part of the public. (Bat, 1 Sept. 1885)
(Bat, 1 Sept. 1885)When Shaw reported finding Ada Rehan 'irresistible', even though he was 'bound to insist that [she] has as yet created nothing but Ada Rehan', he was, in a sense, repeating an old line about the part.7 Actresses created personae for themselves, so that the final link in the circuit whereby viewers watched the actor-as-Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind was invariably -as Dora Jordan, or -as Ada Rehan.
Within the play's fiction, connections between bodies, gender, and erotic desire are also explored. Among the questions raised by Rosalind's run as Ganymede is that of her lover Orlando's desire: whether he is attracted to the youth Ganymede, the girl Rosalind beneath the disguise, or both, is something every performance must decide. On the surface, Shakespeare has created in the courtship scenes of 3.3 and 4.1 the spectacle of two males flirting rather heavily with one another. In early modern theatres, the male-male surface attraction of Orlando and Ganymede corresponded to the male-male performance by two boy actors. The likelihood that viewers are meant to notice this homoerotic element in the play is increased by the inclusion of Phoebe's sudden attraction to Ganymede. For if Phoebe is judged to have fallen for the 'boy' Ganymede, it becomes much more difficult to suppose Orlando to have responded to the 'girl' beneath Ganymede's disguise. As You Like It thus acknowledges the mercurial nature of sexuality. Some productions have found this acknowledgment sophisticated and liberating, while others have sought to hide it behind a façade of conventional norms.
For modern readers, gender may be the most obvious of the play's inquiries into the status of 'reality', but it is by no means the only one. The cultural construction of violence is another of its preoccupations. The staged wrestling match of 1.2 and Duke Frederick's apparent cruelty to Oliver in 3.1 reverberate in Arden through Jaques's concern about hunting. Likewise, Jaques's melancholy may be presented as a pose or as a deep-seated emotional tendency; interpretive decisions on this point involve the issue of 'natural' emotion versus learned styles of affective behaviour and display. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jaques's part was customarily shorn of its satiric edge, producing a benign, jaded, and sometimes pompous character. Hermann Vezin's Jaques prompted a reviewer to ask: 'Is Jacques a profound philosopher, as stage usage represents him, or is he, as the duke describes him, a libertine, who, satiated with excess of the world's enjoyments, has taken to decry and contemn them, and parades as stoicism what is but Epicureanism out-wearied?' (Theatre, 1 Apr. 1880). The extent to which Jaques functions as a counterpart to Touchstone also requires consideration.
The Forest of Arden itself challenges easy boundaries between reality and fantasy. In the broadest sense Arden is a version of pastoral simply by virtue of its rural setting.8 The presence of contemplative and lovelorn shepherds and the featured debate on the relative merits of country and court life both indicate that Shakespeare is using pastoral in its more precisely literary form. Yet he works some complex changes on the tradition: rather than evoking on stage the idealised descriptions of classical pastoral, As You Like It offers down-to-earth country figures and treats them as if they were ideal. In the process, Shakespeare mocks the literary ideal as well as the rural folk. Through this process the pastoral convention is itself exposed as hollow, contributing to the play's multifaceted inquiry into the nature of reality. Corin's explanation of the economic realities of rural life - he does not own his sheepcote and cannot afford to buy it from the absentee landlord who has put it up for sale (2.4.73-82) - is scarcely Arcadian, and his plodding resistance to Touchstone's witty relativism in their debate on country and court manners threatens to undo the rhetorical form. Shakespeare is alert to class issues - exposing, for instance, the contrast between the jester-clown Touchstone and the rustic-clown William in 5.1 - whereas traditional pastoral would level or ignore such social distinctions. As Empson defined it, pastoral consists of making 'simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language'.9 If As You Like It expresses supposedly universal truths, it also raises doubts about them.
Furthermore, a play so concerned with property ownership has an inherently political edge, blunted through much of the English stage history by sentimental evocations of native scenery but often a factor in foreign productions. Over the years, productions of As You Like It have served as a kind of cultural barometer, indicating changing constructions of gender, romance, and social order.
There is a disappointing dearth of reliable records for the play's performance before 1740. A few indications about performance practice are embedded in the script: the absence of scenery, necessitating verbal establishment of place ('Well, this is the Forest of Arden' (2.4.11)), the easy delight in gender play produced by the dizzying layering of personae as the boy actor plays Rosalind-playing-Ganymede-playing-Rosalind, the ability of the theatrical space to accommodate a violent spectacle such as wrestling, and the liminal status of the actor delivering the Epilogue.
Through inference based on available information, we can fill in the picture a bit further, even if this chapter of the play's production history must remain less specific than later ones. First, the 'staying entry' in the Stationers' Register on 4 August 1600, together with the apparent reference to the new Globe theatre in Jaques's speech beginning 'All the world's a stage' (2.7.139), have been used to date the play's first performance soon after the Chamberlain's Men moved to the Globe in 1599. As You Like It may well have been Shakespeare's first play written for performance in the new venue.10
The part of Touchstone appears to have been written (or revised) to capitalise on the talents of Robert Armin, who joined the company in 1599. Armin's skill in mimicry and satire, his singing ability, and his diminutive physique suited a reserved and intellectual type of fool. The company's previous clown, Will Kemp, with his robust physical presence and talent for dancing, seems to be ridiculed in As You Like It in the character of William, whose name is repeated three times during Touchstone's encounter with him in 5.1, pointing out 'the contrast between the departed company clown . . . and the new fool/clown'.11 As Gurr notes, Kemp often adopted 'the persona of the cunning country clown coming to town', whereas 'Touchstone is the reverse, a court jester who turns himself into a country clown.'12
T.W. Baldwin speculates on the following assignment of parts, assuming that the Chamberlain's Men performed the play in 1600: Richard Burbage as Orlando, Henry Condell as Oliver, John Heminges as Duke Senior, Richard Cowley as William, Shakespeare as Adam, Thomas Pope as Jaques, and Armin as Touchstone.13 The tradition that Shakespeare himself took the part of Adam seems to have originated in the eighteenth century and cannot be authenticated.14
Especially disappointing is the absence of information about the boy who played Rosalind. He was evidently an extremely skilled actor, for he played the female part given the most lines of any Shakespeare created - Rosalind's 668 lines outstrip even Cleopatra's.15 Significantly, much of the time the actor was in the Ganymede persona. Rosalind's relatively restrained manner in Act 1 may give evidence that the part was written for an actor not entirely comfortable within a feminine role; the exuberance Rosalind shows upon adopting the Ganymede disguise registers the actor's relief at stepping out of drag.
The name 'Ganymede' was associated in early modern England with a catamite, a young male lover or prostitute.16 By staging a flirtation between Ganymede and Orlando, As You Like It forces to the surface the element of the Renaissance theatre that most outraged anti-theatrical polemicists: titillating spectacles performed by men. For a male actor simply to put on woman's clothing as an assumed role was one thing; the series of disguises involved in Rosalind's part was quite another, because the resulting vertigo of performed roles undoes the stability of firm gender identity.17 Stephen Gosson's warning in 1579 that theatre 'effeminates' the mind registers the erosion of inviolable masculinity effected by the subversive questioning of a play like As You Like It.18
In theatres lacking elaborate props and settings, and without controlled lighting, where the players were quite close to spectators, illusionism could only go so far. In both public and private venues, Andrew Gurr remarks, 'awareness of the illusion as illusion was . . . much closer to the surface all the time' than in theatres with proscenium stages.19 If the actor's performance of Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind in one sense undermined the physical basis of sexual identity and suggested the performative aspect of gender, in another way it was simply a bravura display of layered theatrical roles. Although theatrical cross-dressing was risqué, it was also widely accepted as entertainment.
Still in the realm of inference and possibility is the tantalising tradition of a performance of As You Like It before King James at Wilton in December 1603. The established facts are these: an outbreak of plague had closed the theatres in the autumn of 1603, and the newly patented King's Men were on tour in the provinces; the court was installed at Wilton House during the late autumn, and payment is recorded to 'John Henyngs one of his Ma
Several even less substantiated rumours exist,23 but no performances of As You Like It in the seventeenth century can be verified.
Charles Johnson's 'Love in a Forest'
When As You Like It returned to the theatre in the early eighteenth century, both the stage and the auditorium were strikingly changed. Unlike the thrust stage of early modern public playhouses, typical Restoration theatres featured a proscenium arch that framed the stage and masked the machinery for sets along its sides. This framing, together with painted relief scenes, contributed to an illusion of depth. The apron or fore-stage extending beyond the proscenium arch supplied an additional, flexible playing space, where actors were in close proximity to viewers. In these intimate, candlelit theatres housing 500 to 800 people, interaction between the players and their typically responsive viewers was energetic.24 The development of As You Like It as a vehicle for great actresses was directly related to these physical conditions.
Charles Johnson's 1723 adaptation at Drury Lane was the first recorded staging of As You Like It. Love in a Forest played six nights and was well received: 'there was as numerous an Audience as has for this great while been seen; not only the Boxes, Pit and Galleries, but the Stage too being crowded with Spectators'.25 The adaptation may have been inspired by contemporary political issues involving hunting rights. George I had issued a proclamation in 1720 referring to the rebellious behaviour of a group known as the Blacks (because they disguised themselves by darkening their faces, as Celia does in As You Like It) who hid in the forest, traditionally the king's property, and hunted by night, challenging royal authority. Eventually their behaviour led to the Black Act of 1723, which 'made it a felony to enter a forest under disguise or with a blackened face and to hunt, wound, or steal deer'. Johnson, known to believe 'theatre should support the government', evidently found in Shakespeare's play's band of exiled forest-dwellers an opportunity for commentary on current events.26 As You Like It associates freedom with the forest and tyranny with the court, and Johnson strives to break down this opposition, extending the Whig notion of liberty into the countryside to suggest that the establishment afforded freedoms of its own. He emphasises the legitimacy of the banished duke whom he renamed Alberto (lines about 'Mechanicks and Labourers in Handicraft' abandoning their occupations to follow 'their exil'd Sovereign' are inserted into Charles's account of Duke Senior's exiled court in Arden) and exaggerates the contrast between the virtuous Orlando and his treacherous brother Oliver (who kills himself, 'convicted of most foul Designs').27 Of course, both Alberto and Orlando regain power at the end of the play. And Johnson added an invented Epilogue that contrasts the tedium experienced by 'dull Souls' in the country with the 'circulating Pleasures of the Town' where 'regular and virtuous Laws' prevail.28 Johnson uses the play to 'justify the Hanoverian government's intervention in the forests' by disarming the opposition's affiliation with the countryside29 and suggesting that government policies actually encourage freedom.
The printed text also includes an enthusiastic dedication to the 'Worshipful Society of Free-Masons', begging their 'Protection' and allowing that 'your Society hath Enemies'.30 Although the Freemasons had previously been associated with Jacobitism, they were at this juncture newly legitimised as a Whig institution,31 so theirs was a cause Johnson wished to support. He may have been a member himself: the Daily Courant advertised the 15 January performance as 'For the Benefit of the Author, a Free Mason'.32
Johnson 'save[s] Shakespeare from vulgarity by excising virtually all its characters beneath the rank of courtier'.33 In this streamlined version of As You Like It, Touchstone, Corin, Audrey, Phoebe, and Sir Oliver Martext have all vanished; Silvius has lost his erotomania and gained only a few of Corin's lines. Johnson also has corrected an offence against refined taste by making Charles 'the Duke's Fencer and Master of his Academy', rather than a rough wrestler. Orlando and Charles engage in a fencing match ('trial by rapier'), complete with lines lifted from Richard II. Touchstone's riff on the seven degrees of the lie is decorously replaced with the Pyramus and Thisbe play from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Some lines from Twelfth Night also creep in, and Jaques and Orlando joke about marriage in material borrowed from Much Ado About Nothing.
Jaques, in fact, has been pretty thoroughly overhauled, perhaps because Colley Cibber, a Whig like Johnson, took the part and 'padded' it for his own glorification.34 He appropriates 1 Lord's speeches in 2.1 and replaces Oliver as Celia's lover. Her proximity inspires a 'Tingling' in his blood, and he quickly asks her to marry him. Why were these changes made? Just as Nahum Tate's improved version of King Lear reveals discordant elements in that play, so Johnson's revision points to tensions intrinsic to the design of As You Like It. Several of the alterations would be repeated: Jaques, rather than 1 Lord, describes his own melancholic behaviour through the eighteenth century and often in the nineteenth. A note in the 1774 Bell's acting edition explains that the lines are more properly assigned to Jaques because 'they afford an affecting useful lesson to human nature, and exhibit fine poetic painting'.35 As an educated philosopher, Jaques demands a level of dignity that his melancholic excesses may jeopardise. Allowing him to speak for himself on first introduction alleviates, to some extent, his status as an object of our mirth and Duke Senior's interest, although it does risk turning him into a 'vain coxcomb'36 who is too much in love with his own supposed sentiments. The romantic pairing of Jaques and Celia also would recur, although far less frequently. Over a century later George Sand introduced the revision in her translated version of the play, Comme il vous plaira. Jaques's melancholic departure interrupts the comic conclusion of As You Like It; smoothing over this rough edge allows the play to accord more fully with a romantic design. Love in a Forest also handily dispenses with Oliver's unlikely conversion by having the second de Boys brother, renamed Robert, report the suicide of villainous Oliver.
These may seem shocking alterations by an author who 'presume[s] to weed the beautiful Parterre',37 but it was an age of 'improved' Shakespeare, not one of textual accuracy. From our perspective, perhaps the most important thing about Johnson's adaptation was its fostering attention to one of Shakespeare's more complex and delicate comedies, long neglected in the theatre, or as Johnson put it in his Prologue, 'to give the Stage, from Shakespear one Play more'.38 Although Love in a Forest leaves the impression more of pastiche than of political statement, it is significant that As You Like It, associated in the late twentieth century with liberal social values, would have so early a start in its conservative career. By affiliating Shakespeare's play with established rule, Love in a Forest anticipates the way that As You Like It served as a propaganda piece to display traditional social values in the nineteenth century.
Eighteenth century: romping actresses and the struggle for decorum
With the London theatre scene thriving in the first half of the eighteenth century, the two main houses, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, relied largely on revivals of familiar plays. Interest in Shakespeare was complicated by theatrical politics: the two patent houses held exclusive rights to perform 'legitimate', traditional drama, but faced with increased competition from new houses and other forms of entertainment such as pantomime and opera, they also wished to supplement their familiar offerings. Passage of the Licensing Act of 1737 re-established the patent houses' monopolies.
An unadapted version of As You Like It opened at Drury Lane on 20 December 1740. Met with 'extraordinary applause', the play was presented a total of twenty-eight times during the season.39 The first of three long-dormant Shakespearean comedies to be revived at Drury Lane during the 1740-1 season (the others were The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), the success of the production helped to expand the repertory.40 Indeed, some go so far as to attribute the entire mid-eighteenth-century 'Shakespearian revival with which Garrick alone has so often been credited' to Hannah Pritchard's success in As You Like It.41 During this pivotal season (mid-December to the end of March), 'there were only six acting nights without a Shakespearean production at one of the three houses [Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Goodman's Fields, which opened in 1740]'.42 As You Like It was itself catapulted into the position of a favourite piece on the London stage, with productions at one of the major theatres nearly every year for the next decade, and regularly thereafter.
|List of Illustrations|
|The Play's Date||1|
|Names and Places||38|
|The Play in Performance||50|
|'Your very, very Rosalind'||81|
|Abbreviations and References||88|
|As You Like It||93|
|Appendix A: Wit||229|
|Appendix B: The Songs||232|
Posted October 14, 2001
As You Like It has many qualities to attract readers and audiences. Rosalind is one of the great heroines of all romantic literature. The play has more outstanding speeches than almost any other that has ever been written. Astonishing plot complications are quickly resolved in the simplest possible way, reflecting a playwright¿s tour de force. The Forest of Arden appears as a character in creating a magical atmosphere whereby all perceptions change, and all are healed. Right wins out, especially in drawing on good character . . . even from formerly badly behaving people. And for those who love marriages, this book has one of the most impressive ceremonies of all time in literature. Humans have never looked nobler in the end than in this play. Yet the play also abounds with some of the greatest lines of Shakespeare¿s fools that cause all of us to see that humility is more called for than pride or ambition. Certainly, As You Like It will make you feel the presence of an unmatched genius, that should inspire even the most arrogant to feel humbled in the Bard¿s presence. My recommendation is that you first see a performance (whether in person, or on a recording). If that¿s not possible, try for an audio. Many outstanding actors have been taped. After you have the sights and sounds of the play firmly in mind, then read the play. You¿ll find that your earlier experiences will unlock more of the play¿s depths, imagery and pleasures for you. Where in life is being true to your word very important? How can you improve your life by being more reliable in this way? Donald Mitchell, co-author of The 2,000 Percent Solution and The Irresistible Growth Enterprise
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Posted April 18, 2014
I love this play. I read it with a Shakespeare class in college. We sat for a few hours and read thorugh the whole thing out loud and it was the best time I've ever had. If you're a fan of Shakespeare and good comedy, this is the play for you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 22, 2011
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