As you like it seems to have been written about 1599, a little after Much Ado About Nothing, and is therefore the second of the cluster of Shakespeare's three joyous comedies.
In this second comedy, much of the action takes place in an idealized pastoral setting, something very popular in the period. The plot Shakespeare obtained from a pastoral romance, Rosalynd, published in 1590 by the English poet Thomas Lodge, and unproved it beyond measure.
… eat husks with them. ..
The story opens with Orlando and the old servant, Adam, onstage. Orlando is the youngest of three sons. His dead father has left him but a small sum for himself and has placed his bringing up in charge of the oldest brother, Oliver.
Though Oliver supports the middle brother in school, he is (for some reason Shakespeare does not bother to explain) a jealous tyrant to his youngest brother, keeping him deliberately in idleness and penury. When Oliver comes onstage, young Orlando says to him bitterly:
Shall I keep your hogs and eat husks with them?
What prodi gal portion have I spent that
I should come to such penury?
– Act I, scene i, lines 36-38
This is a reference to the famous parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of St. Luke (see page II-368).
… the old Duke…
The two brothers nearly come to blows and Orlando demands the small sum coming to him so that he might leave. Oliver agrees, with ill grace, but it is in his mind to be rid of Orlando forever and without paying him any money either.
Charles, a wrestler at the court of the Duke, is there to speak to Oliver, and it is this wrestler who is to be the means whereby Oliver will carry out his plan. Charles, asked after court news, says:
There's no news at the court, sir, but the old news.
That is, the old Duke is banished by his younger brother,
the new Duke …
– Act I, scene i, lines 96-98
Who these dukes might be, and over what region they might rule, Shakespeare does not say and, certainly, does not care. In Lodge's pastoral romance, the dead father of the young hero was called Sir John of Bordeaux. That would make the scene the southwestern section of France. And indeed, the wrestler (here called Charles) is, in the source romance, serving at the court of Torismund, King of France. There was once a Toris-mund, who ruled the Germanic tribe of the Visigoths in 451, and that tribe did, indeed, control at that time southwestern France.
In Shakespeare's version, the father of Oliver and Orlando is Rowland de Boys. "Rowland" is a form of "Roland" and that name is best known as that of a Frankish warrior who died at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778, which was fought in the Pyrenees about 130 miles south of Bordeaux. This is reminiscent of the time and place of Torismund.
That, however, is as far as it goes. The King of France is changed by Shakespeare into a Duke who is not further characterized or even named. (He is called Duke Senior in the play.) The usurping younger brother is named Frederick.
… the Forest of Arden …
Charles goes on to say of the exiled Duke:
They say he is already in the Forest of Arden,
and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England.
They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day,
and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.
– Act I, scene i, lines 111-15
If we imagine a French setting, the Forest of Arden would be the wooded region of Ardennes, straddling the modern boundary between France and southern Belgium. There is, however, an actual Forest of Arden just north of Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, and the dramatist must surely have had this at least partly in mind.
In the Forest of Arden, Duke Senior and his men are living the life of happy outlaws, in the midst of nature, eating the game they capture and not having a care in the world. This is the bucolic bliss that is conventional in pastorals, for it is common for people trapped in the hurly-burly of the crowded haunts of men to imagine (wrongly) that there is some special delight in a simple life that existed in the "good old days."
This vain imagining even made its way into many mythologies. The early Greek poet Hesiod pictured the human race as having degenerated through successive ages, each worse than the one before. The first period was the "golden age," in which men lived without care, eating acorns, honey, and milk, free of hunger and pain; to these men death was only a falling asleep. It is to this that Charles refers as "the golden world."
To the English audience, the best-known example of happy outlaws in the forest was that of Robin Hood and his band of merry men. He was originally a peasant outlaw fighting against the Norman overlords, but with time he was polished up and made more acceptable to the aristocracy. By Shakespeare's time he had been transmuted into a Norman nobleman, Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, who was unjustly dispossessed and outlawed. The resemblance between this version of Robin Hood and the case of Duke Senior makes Charles's reference a natural one.
… the little wit. ..
Charles has come to warn Oliver that it is rumored his youngest brother, Orlando, will try to wrestle him. Charles gives troubled warning that he will be forced to hurt Orlando. Oliver, however, callously urges Charles to kill Orlando rather than merely hurt him.
The scene then shifts to the court, where we find the two charming young cousins, Rosalind and Celia. Rosalind is the daughter of the exiled Duke, and Celia the daughter of the usurping one. Rosalind is kept at court, despite her father's exile, because Celia loves her so.
Celia endeavors to keep her cousin cheerful and in this is helped by the court fool, who is named Touchstone. This is a particularly significant name, for a touchstone is a hard, flinty rock upon which a soft metal like gold will leave a rubbed-off mark if drawn across it. Pure gold and gold alloyed with varying amounts of copper can be used to make reference marks of different shades of yellow, orange, and red. If an unknown gold alloy is then rubbed across the touchstone, the mark it leaves, when compared with the standards, will reveal the amount of the copper content. As a result, "touchstone" has come to mean any criterion or standard against which the qualities of something may be tested.
To have a fool named Touchstone, then, is to indicate that it is by the encounter with the wit of a fool that the wisdom of a man may be judged.
Thus, when cautioned about the too great freedom of his remarks, Touchstone says to the girls:
The more pity that fools may not speak
wisely what wise men do foolishly.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 83-84
To this, Celia responds:
By my troth, thou sayest true, for since the little wit
that fools have was silenced, the little foolery
that wise men have makes a great show.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 85-87
This remark has nothing to do with anything in the play and it would seem that Shakespeare was seizing the opportunity to make a cutting reference to some contemporary event. The satiric writing of Elizabethan times had grown more and more scurrilous until those jabbed at by it managed to push the government into banning such satires on June 1, 1599. Censorship, nevertheless, is almost invariably a greater evil than those it tries to cure, and Shakespeare expresses his disapproval of it here.
… is humorous
The young ladies learn of the wrestling matches and of the apparent invincibility of Charles. Orlando is now there to take his turn at the wrestling, and both girls, but especially Rosalind, are greatly taken with his youth and good looks.
All try to persuade Orlando not to wrestle, but he insists, and to everyone's surprise throws Charles and badly hurts him. Duke Frederick wants to know the young victor's name and is put out to find he is a son of Sir Rowland de Boys, an old enemy of his.
Later a courtier comes back to warn Orlando to leave quickly:
… such is now the Duke's condition
That he misconsters [misconstrues] all that you have done.
The Duke is humorous.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 254-56
The word "humorous" refers to the humors (or body fluids) of the old Greek physicians (see page I-582), which were supposed to control the temperament. To say the Duke is "humorous" is to say that he is a creature of moods and his present mood, apparently, is a dangerous one.
… call me Ganymede
The Duke is moody indeed, for he turns against Rosalind also. Having kept her at court ever since her father was exiled, he now bids her leave at once on pain of death, and insists on it despite Celia's wild protests.
After the Duke stalks offstage, Celia insists that she will flee with Rosalind and that together they will seek Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden. Rosalind is disturbed at the thought of two girls wandering through the wilderness and she suggests that she, at least, dress as a man (Shakespeare's favorite device in his romances).
Rosalind even takes a name for herself in her guise as man, saying to Celia:
7'J/ have no worse a name than Jove's own page,
And therefore look you call me Ganymede.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 122-23
Ganymede, in the Greek myths, was a beautiful Trojan prince (see page I-67) with whom Jupiter (Zeus) fell in love. Since Ganymede was the object of homosexual love, the name is appropriate for a young man who, being really a young lady, is bound to look and behave like an effeminate.
Celia also chooses a new name, saying to Rosalind that it will be
Something that hath a reference to my state:
No longer Celia, but Aliena.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 125-26
"Aliena" is Lathi and is a feminine form of the word meaning "stranger." Celia has become alienated from her father.
The two girls decide to take Touchstone with them, and leave.
… the penalty of Adam
In the second act the scene shifts to the Forest of Arden, where Duke Senior is contentedly lecturing his followers on the advantages of the simple life:
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam;
– Act II, scene i, line 5
For his sin in eating the forbidden fruit, Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, where food was always at hand, and was condemned to work for his bread: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Genesis 3:19). Here in the Forest of Arden, however, Duke Senior and his men are living on the bounty of the earth and the Garden of Eden (another version of Charles the wrestler's "golden world") is returned.
… like the toad…
Duke Senior finds that the cruel fate of exile has turned to good, and says:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
– Act II, scene i, lines 12-14
Toads are ugly indeed, though beneficial (rather than venomous) insofar as they eat insects and help keep the numbers of those creatures under control. There existed a legend, however, that there were stony concretions in toads' heads that could be used to warn against the presence of poison if set in a ring. They did so by changing color. Such a "toad-stone" was also thought to reduce the pain and decrease the swelling that followed the bite or sting of a poisonous animal. Needless to say, despite Shakespeare, there is no such thing as a toadstone.
… caters for the sparrow
But if Duke Senior is contented, poor Orlando certainly is not. Having been warned away from court, he arrives back home only to discover that his oldest brother, Oliver, plans to kill him outright. The warning is brought to Orlando by old Adam, who urges him to leave and offers him his own life savings of five hundred crowns. Adam (who, according to tradition, was played on the stage by Shakespeare himself) says:
Take that, and he that doth the ravens feed,
Yea, providently caters for the sparrow,
Be comfort to my age.
– Act II, scene iii, lines 43-45
This is a reference to Jesus' statements "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?" (Luke 12:6) and "Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them" (Luke 12:24).
But Orlando will not abandon old Adam and together they leave home and wander off toward the forest, as earlier Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone had done.
… the first-born of Egypt
Not everyone in Arden is enamored of the life. One of the Duke Senior's entourage is Jaques, whose affectation it is to be melancholy and to be cynical about everything. He sneers at a beautiful song sung by his fellow courtier Amiens, then says:
I'll go sleep, if I can; if I cannot,
I'll rail against all the first born of Egypt.
– Act II, scene v, lines 54-55
A possible meaning for Jaques' remark rests in the fact that the firstborn of Egypt were the victims of the tenth plague brought down upon them by God through Moses. "And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle" (Exodus 12:29).
It was after this climactic visitation that the Hebrew slaves were finally allowed to leave the country and to make their way into the wilderness. It could be that Jaques is using the phrase "all the first-born of Egypt" to symbolize the events that led to the exile of Duke Senior, and it is this against which he intends to rail.
… the lean and slippered pantaloon
Orlando suddenly bursts in on Duke Senior, Jaques, and the others in wild desperation. Old Adam is too weak with hunger to go farther and Orlando demands food with sword drawn.
Duke Senior speaks to him gently, and Orlando, realizing he is with friends, goes off to get Adam. When the Duke uses this event to show that there are more tragic scenes on earth than their own, Jaques falls to moralizing on the general uselessness of life and of man's pilgrimage in it. Life, he says, is in seven stages that end in nothing. By the sixth, man is well advanced in age:
… The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose…
– Act II, scene vii, lines 157-59
In Shakespeare's time there had arisen the custom in Italy of having traveling bands of actors give plays in different towns. These bands developed stock characters in standard masks and costumes, and one of the most popular of the stock characters was called Pantaleone.
The name means "all lion," signifying great bravery (and is Pantaloon in its English version). Naturally it would seem funny to have "all lion," a lecherous, miserly coward, always being outwitted by the young lovers. His characteristic appearance was sufficiently well known to make it unnecessary for Jaques to do more than mention the name.
Pantaloon was always dressed in baggy trousers, by the way, which came to be called pantaloons in their turn, or, for short, "pants."
Atalanta's better part
The pastoral life in the Forest of Arden now engulfs our various characters. Touchstone matches wits with the shepherd, Corin, and easily wins. Orlando, with time now to think of the love he has conceived for Rosalind on the occasion of his wrestling match, writes verses concerning her and hangs them on the trees in approved pastoral fashion.
Rosalind in her disguise as Ganymede finds them. Celia finds them too and is reading one which describes Rosalind as made up of:
Helen's cheek, but not her heart,
Cleopatra's majesty, A talanta's better part,
Sad Lucretia's modesty.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 145-48
Three of these four ladies are subjects of Shakespearean plays or poems: Helen in Troilus and Cressida, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Lucretia in The Rape of Lucrece.
As for Atalanta, she was a beautiful girl whose hand was sought by many but who had vowed to live a virgin. She therefore insisted that no one marry her unless he beat her in a foot race and that if he was himself beaten his head was to be chopped off. This frightened many, and the few who risked the race were beaten by the fleet-footed Atalanta and were killed.
Finally, a youth named Hippomenes prayed to Aphrodite and was given three golden apples. He raced Atalanta and each time she began to forge ahead he threw one of the golden apples before her. Being a woman, each time she paused to pick it up and, thanks to the time she lost, Hippomenes won.
The reference in the poem, then, is that Rosalind has Atalanta's "better part," the beauty which drew so many to court her, but not the cruelty which killed those who wooed and failed to beat her. Atalanta was a byword for fleetness. Thus, later on Jaques speaks scornfully of Orlando's retorts to his own ill-natured remarks, saying:
You have a nimble wit. I think
'twas made of Atalanta''s heels.
– Act HI, scene ii, lines 273-74
… an Irish rat …
Rosalind is very pleased at all this, but affects indifference, saying:
I was never so berhymed since
Pythagoras' time that I was an Irish rat. ..
– Act III, scene ii, lines 175-76
It was Pythagoras' doctrine of the transmigration of souls (see page I-535) that is here being referred to. By it, Rosalind's soul might once have inhabited the body of an Irish rat.
But what has that to do with rhyming? Well, the Celtic bards of Wales and Ireland were past masters at weaving curses into their improvised poetry. They could use such deadly verses to kill rats and other vermin. Therefore an Irish rat would be most "berhymed."
… Gargantua's mouth…
But Celia knows who has written the verses and finally reveals that it is none other than Orlando. The excited Rosalind instantly demands to know everything about it and him and wants all the answers immediately. To which Celia, laughing, says:
You must borrow me Gargantua's mouth first.. .
– Act III, scene ii, line 223
Gargantua was a giant of folklore, who was apparently first famous for his enormous appetite, since the name comes from garganta, which is Spanish for gullet. He became best known as a character in a famous satire named for him by the French humorist Frangois Rabelais. That book was first published in 1535.
… Jove's tree …
Celia says she saw Orlando under an oak tree and Rosalind says:
It may well be called Jove's tree
when it drops forth such fruit.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 234-35
The oak tree is sacred to Jupiter. Indeed, the most ancient oracle in Greece was an oak tree in Dodona, in Epirus, two hundred miles northwest of Athens. Plates and other objects of brass were suspended from the branches and these struck together when the wind blew. The sounds were then interpreted by the priests of the shrine and were delivered as oracles.
Rosalind, in her boy's disguise, manages to find Orlando and cleverly persuades him that if he is to be a truly good lover, he must practice. She offers to play Rosalind and allow nun to woo her in that fashion. (It may possibly have given Shakespeare pleasure to present scenes that were so vividly homosexual and yet done in such a way as to be inoffensive.)
… honest Ovid…
Touchstone also has fallen in love, and with a goat-herding girl named Audrey. He says to her:
/ am here with thee and thy goats,
as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid,
was among the Goths.
– Act III, scene iii, lines 6-8
Ovid had fallen into disgrace with the Emperor Augustus (see page I-389) perhaps because his erotic books spoiled Augustus' efforts to improve the morals of Rome, or because the poet assisted Augustus' dissolute granddaughter, Julia, in some particularly disgraceful intrigue.
Ovid was therefore exiled to the Black Sea town of Tomi (the present-day port of Constanta in Romania). It was far in the backwoods, among a rustic and backward peasantry, eight hundred miles from Rome. Ovid spent the last nine years of his life there, sending a stream of weepy, self-pitying letters to his family at Rome hoping they would persuade the Emperor to remit the punishment. He never did.
The inhabitants of Tomi were not Goths, but two centuries later the Goths (a Germanic tribe from the Baltic) had reached the Danube River. Tomi was therefore "among the Goths" in anticipation.
Not only does Touchstone pun on "goats" and "Goths," but he also calls Ovid capricious, a word which is derived from the Lathi caper, meaning goat.
Dead shepherd.. .
Still another set of lovers is Silvius and Phebe, the conventional shepherd and shepherdess of pastoral tales. In this case, Silvius is desperately in love with Phebe, but Phebe answers only with scorn.
Rosalind (as Ganymede) undertakes to right matters by scolding Phebe for being so cruel. She only makes matters worse, however, for to Rosalind's horror, Phebe is attracted to her at once in her boy's disguise. When Rosalind leaves, Phebe sighs:
Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
"Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?"
– Act III, scene v, lines 81-82
The line is a quotation from the poem Hero and Leander written by Christopher Marlowe. The poem was published in 1598, a year or so before As You Like It was written, but Marlowe himself had been killed in a tavern brawl in 1593 at the age of twenty-nine. Hence the reference to the "dead shepherd."
… his brains dashed out. ..
Orlando, as agreed, courts Rosalind in her disguise of Ganymede, pretending (and he thinks it is only pretense) that she is Rosalind. Rosalind deliberately eggs him on to avowals of love by pretending great cynicism in the matter. She scouts the notion that lovers would die if refused, saying:
Troilus had his brains dashed out
with a Grecian club;
yet he did what he could to die before,
– Act IV, scene i, lines 92-94
Troilus, having been betrayed by his love (see page I-119), had ample reason to die of that, if men could. Yet he managed to live long enough to be killed in battle. Actually, though, he was killed by Achilles' spear and not by anyone's club.
Rosalind also sneers at the Hero and Leander tale (see page I-466), saying of Leander:
… he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont,
and being taken with the cramp, was drowned;
and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it
was "Hero of Sestos."
– Act IV, scene i, lines 97-100
… Caesar's thrasonical brag…
Now Orlando's older brother, Oliver, enters the picture again. Duke Frederick, suspecting that his daughter and her cousin had run off with Orlando, orders Oliver to find his brother on pain of his own death.
In the forest, Oliver, sleeping, is threatened by a lioness. Orlando comes upon his brother and the beast and is tempted to leave Oliver to his fate. He cannot bring himself to do this, however, so he attacks the lioness and Oliver, awaking, witnesses the rescue. The older brother repents his earlier wickedness and is a changed character from this moment.
He meets Celia and Ganymede and tells his story. He and Celia immediately fall in love. Rosalind/Ganymede later tells this to Orlando, saying:
There was never anything so sudden
but the fight of two rams and Caesar's thrasonical brag
of "I came, saw, and overcame."
– Act V, scene ii, lines 29-31
Caesar's deliberately brief report of his battle in Asia Minor in 47 B.C. (see page II-64) was intended to display a soldierly character, since military men were supposed to be men of action and not of words. There is nevertheless a certain affectation in the way in which Caesar sought the fewest syllables.
Rosalind's characterization of it as a "thrasonical brag" makes use of too many syllables, on the other hand. "Thrasonical" means "bragging." The word comes from Thraso, a bragging soldier in The Eunuch, a play by the Roman dramatist Terence. That in turn comes from a Greek word meaning "overbold," which we may be sure Thraso pretended to be but was not.
Hymen from heaven…
Now Rosalind begins to arrange everything. She makes Phebe promise to marry Silvius if it turns out she really cannot have "Ganymede." She then retires and returns in her natural woman's guise, led by none other than Hymen, the god of marriage (see page I-55), who says:
Good Duke, receive thy daughter;
Hymen from heaven brought her,
– Act V, scene iv, lines 111-12
The characters now pair off: Orlando with Rosalind, Oliver with Celia, Silvius with Phebe, and Touchstone with Audrey.
Only one thing is left to make everything right and that is supplied by the sudden appearance of Orlando's remaining brother, the one in the middle. He brings the news that Duke Frederick, leading a large army against Duke Senior, has met an old hermit and has been converted to the religious life. Duke Senior may thus consider himself restored to his title, and all ends happily.