William Shakespeare's As You Like It is a pastoral comedy written in 1599 or early 1600.
The play is set in a duchy in France, but most of the action takes place in a location called the Forest of Arden. Frederick has usurped the Duchy and exiled his elder brother, Duke Senior. The Duke's daughter Rosalind has been permitted to remain at court because she is the closest friend and cousin of Frederick's only child, Celia. Orlando, a young gentleman of the kingdom who has fallen in love at first sight of Rosalind, is forced to flee his home after being persecuted by his elder brother, Oliver. Frederick becomes angry and banishes Rosalind from court. Celia and Rosalind decide to flee together accompanied by the jester Touchstone, with Rosalind disguised as a young man.
Rosalind, now disguised as Ganymede ("Jove's own page"), and Celia, now disguised as Aliena (Latin for "stranger"), arrive in the Arcadian Forest of Arden, where the exiled Duke now lives with some supporters, including "the melancholy Jaques", who is introduced to us weeping over the slaughter of a deer. "Ganymede" and "Aliena" do not immediately encounter the Duke and his companions, as they meet up with Corin, an impoverished tenant, and offer to buy his master's rude cottage.
Orlando and his servant Adam, meanwhile, find the Duke and his men and are soon living with them and posting simplistic love poems for Rosalind on the trees. Rosalind, also in love with Orlando, meets him as Ganymede and pretends to counsel him to cure him of being in love. Ganymede says he will take Rosalind's place and he and Orlando can act out their relationship.
Meanwhile, the shepherdess Phoebe, with whom Silvius is in love, has fallen in love with Ganymede, though Ganymede continually shows that he is not interested in Phoebe. The cynical Touchstone has also made an amorous advance on the dull-witted goatherd girl Audrey, and attempts to marry her before his plans are thwarted by the intrusive Jaques.
Finally, Silvius, Phoebe, Ganymede, and Orlando are brought together in an argument with each other over who will get whom. Ganymede says he will solve the problem, having Orlando promise to marry Rosalind, and Phoebe promise to marry Silvius if she cannot marry Ganymede. The next day, Ganymede reveals himself as Rosalind, and since women are not allowed to marry women, Phoebe ends up with Silvius.
Orlando sees Oliver in the forest and rescues him from a lioness, causing Oliver to repent for mistreating Orlando. Oliver meets Aliena (Celia's false identity) and falls in love with her, and they agree to marry. Orlando and Rosalind, Oliver and Celia, Silvius and Pheobe, and Touchstone and Audrey all are married in the final scene, after which they discover that Frederick has also repented, deciding to restore his legitimate brother to the dukedom and adopt a religious life.
- Duke Senior - in banishment and in the forest
- Duke Frederick - Duke Senior's younger brother and usurper
- Amiens - attending lord
- Jaques - attending lord
- Oliver - eldest son of Sir Rowland de Boys
- Jaques de Boys - second son of Sir Rowland de Boys
- Orlando - youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys
- Le Beau - a courtier attending on Duke Frederick
- Charles - a wrestler at court
- Adam - an old servant to Sir Rowland de Boys
- Dennis - a servant to Oliver
- Touchstone - a court fool
- Sir Oliver Martext - a country curate
- Corin & Silvius - shepherds
- William - a country fellow
- Hymen - god of marriage
- Rosalind - daughter of Duke Senior
- Celia - daughter of Duke Frederick
- Phebe - a shepherdess
- Audrey - a country wench
Through comedy and tragedy Shakespeare reveals the vast expanses and profound depths of the character of life. For him they are not separate worlds of drama and romance, but poles of a continuum. Helene Gardner writes, Generalization about the essential distinction between tragedy and comedy is called in question, when we turn to Shakespeare, by the inclusiveness of his vision of life. Though the characters differ in stature and power, and the events vary in weight and significance, the movements of life in all Shakespeare’s plays are governed by the same universal principles which move events in our own lives. Through myriad images Shakespeare portrays not only the character of man and society but the character of life itself.
A.C. Bradley observes that Shakespeare almost alone among the poets seems to create in somewhat the same manner as Nature. His portrayal of the minutest details of human character and life is true to life and it is just because he is truthful in these smaller things that in greater things we trust him absolutely never to pervert the truth for the sake of some doctrine or purpose of his own.
Sri Aurobindo confirms this view in his description of Shakespeare’s creative process. Life itself takes hold of him in order to recreate itself in his image, and he sits within himself at its heart and pours out from its impulse a throng of beings as real in the world he creates as men are in this other world... It is this sheer creative Ananda of the life-spirit which is Shakespeare... He is not primarily an artist, a poetical thinker or anything else of the kind, but a great vital creator and intensely, though within marked limits, a seer of life.
The difference between comedy and tragedy, success and failure, good fortune and catastrophe often seems to turn on a seemingly chance event. The fall of Desdemona’s handkerchief is the seal on her death. The attack of the pirate ship saves Hamlet from execution in England and carries him back to Denmark. Goneril’s letter to Edmund falls into Albany’s hands and exposes their evil designs. In All’s Well that Ends Well, Helene’s pilgrimage to win back Bertram succeeds on the basis of her chance meeting with the mother of a virgin whom Bertram is courting. In Merchant of Venice, Bassanio’s marriage to Portia depends on his choice of the correct casket where all other suitors have failed. In Twelfth Night, Sebastian comes by chance to Olivia’s house where he is accosted by Sir Andrew mistaking him for Viola. He ends up reuniting with his sister and marrying Olivia.
Time is another crucial determinant. Often a split second or brief interval is the difference between life and death. In this small but all important gap of time, the character of life is revealed most clearly. Macduff arrived at Macbeth’s castle moments after Duncan’s murder. Emilia returned to Desdemona’s compartment too late to save her. Edmund’s confession came too late to prevent Cordelia’s death. In Twelfth Night, Captain Antonio arrived just in time to save Viola from Sir Andrew. In As You Like It, Orlando came in time to save Oliver from the serpent which was winding around his neck.
Out of context, these events would appear as a very thin and frail fabric to build great comedy and tragedy upon, were it not for the fact that they are true to a deeper level of causality in life. Suzanne Langer has called comedy an image of life triumphing over chance. It may be otherwise stated that in comedy the seemingly chance events of life move in favour of a positive resolution, whereas in tragedy they seem to conspire toward disaster. Helene Gardner observes that comedy is full of purposes mistook, not “falling on the inventor’s head” but luckily misfiring altogether. In comedy, as often happens in life, people are mercifully saved from being as wicked as they meant to be. 
Time as well as chance events are expressive of another set of determinants, another level of causality in the wider plane of life. The critical gap between human action and its results depends on the response of the environing life and expresses the character of life in the given circumstances. Where the response is positive, good intentions are supported and evil ones blunted. Where it is negative, the reverse is true. Shakespeare’s genius lay not merely in his profound insight into the workings of human character and nature, but perhaps even more in his perception of the character of life.
A striking example of the relationship between comedy and tragedy is the similarity of plot in King Lear and As You Like It. Lear’s two elder daughters deprive him of all his kingly trappings and cast him out onto the stormy heath where the banished Kent comes in disguise to serve him. Edmund plots to capture his brother Edgar’s title with the result that Edgar too is forced to run away to the heath for safety. Lear, Kent, Edgar, Gloucester and The Fool roam in the wilderness and face the harsh conditions of physical nature. In As You Like It, Frederick usurps his elder brother’s title and exiles him to the forest. Oliver deprives his younger brother Orlando of his rightful share of the inheritance and later plots his murder, forcing Orlando to flee to the forest with his servant Adam where they join Senior with his lords, Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone living in nature.
The similarity is not confined merely to plot. The same themes and sometimes nearly the same words occur in both plays. For example, Lear’s response to the stormy elements compares and contrasts with Senior’s opening lines.
Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow...
Spit, fire; spout, rain.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
a poor, infirm, weak and despis’d old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. (Lear III, ii, 1, 14-24)
Senior: Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The season’s difference; as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; there are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am’. (AYLI, II, i, 3-11)
The theme of ingratitude so powerfully expressed by Lear in
Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend. (Lear I, iv, 259)
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to ‘t? (Lear III, iv, 14-16)
is echoed in the song sung at Senior’s camp in the forest.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude; (AYLI, II, vii, 174-6)
Jacque and Lear use the same image of life as a stage.
Jacque: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players; (AYLI, II, vii, 139-40)
Lear: When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools. (Lear, IV, vi, 183-4)
Helene Gardner observes At times Arden seems a place where the same bitter lessons can be learnt as Lear has learned in his place of exile, the blasted heath. But despite their close similarities, the lessons of the heath and the forest are really quite different. The outcome of each story depends on the character of the individuals involved, the consciousness of the society in which they live, and the response of life to that character and consciousness. The complex relationship between the two plays suggests that Shakespeare was not merely dealing with imaginary themes and impossible happenings, but rather trying to give expressions to circumstances and experiences very real to his vision of life.
The general atmosphere in As You Like It is one of harmony, morality, goodness and loyalty. Duke Senior is a gentle, mild, good man exiled to the forest by his ambitious younger brother Frederick. Senior responds to the situation with calm, philosophic stoicism rather than hatred or despair. He is accompanied in exile by four other lords who voluntarily renounce their property and follow Senior to the forest out of loyalty to their Duke. The following lines precede the passage quoted earlier.
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court? (AYLI, II, i, 1-4)
And thus our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it. (AYLI, II, i, 15-18)
Senior’s goodness is not supported by strength. He loses the throne to a stronger man who desires it more than he and who lacks the culture of restraint. Senior rather enjoys the quiet life of the forest away from the intrigues of the court. The loyalty of the four lords as well as Senior’s own temperament reflect the cultural attainments of a society which remains unruffled even at loss of power and worldly possessions.
Orlando’s rebellion against his older brother Oliver is a further indication of the atmosphere and an expression of a fundamental law of life. There is no event in life which occurs in isolation or is self-contained. Each act has its result and leads to further acts. When a group of similar or related acts occur in close sequence we speak of a movement in life. A movement may continue and perpetuate itself by repetition in time or extension to other areas or other persons. The latter appears to us as a subplot such as we see here in the confrontation of Orlando and Oliver and in the Gloucester subplot of King Lear. Or the movement may continue as a reaction to, or a reversal of, the original direction, such as we see in Macbeth and Hamlet, where the force released finally turns back on the initiator. Or it may extend itself in one direction and reverse itself in another. Each man responds according to his character and circumstances. In any case the movement continues.
The subplots in life are an expression of the hierarchy in nature, revealing the universal aspect of action. There is never just one subplot, but many smaller reflections in nature of each major event or vibration such as the movement of infatuation leading to marriage which inspires the four couples in Arden. The details of each subplot reveal both the common bases and the differences of character and circumstance. In very broad life movements the appearance of precise repetition is often blurred by the multitude of contributing factors, while in smaller, more localised instances, the extension may be almost an exact reproduction or a close parallel. Lear disowns his youngest daughter and exiles her, only to be disowned and exiled by his elder daughters. Claudius employs poison to kill his brother, the old King Hamlet, and further attempts to employ it against young Hamlet. In repeating the act he succeeds in killing not only Hamlet but Laertes, Gertrude and himself as well. Much of what is called irony is simply the working of this life principle.
Orlando’s act of rebellion against his elder brother who is in power, is a repetition of Frederick’s rebellion against his elder brother Senior. But unlike Frederick, Orlando possesses a naturally good character supported by the strength which is lacking in Senior. He is motivated by a desire for the inheritance bequeathed to him by his father but denied him by Oliver out of the latter’s selfishness, jealousy, and greed. Oliver resented the natural nobility in his younger brother and attempted to stifle or conceal it by refusing Orlando any education or social training though he had nothing material to gain by doing so. Orlando’s rebellion is not only a continuation of the moment initiated by Frederick but also one which tends to negate the power of Frederick’s initial act. Frederick’s is an act against the social consciousness and is motivated by ambition whereas Orlando’s is an act of a good man asserting his right to fair treatment in keeping with the values of the society. At the level of social consciousness, Orlando’s rebellion is actually opposed to Frederick’s usurpation. The proximity in time of the two events, or at least of Orlando’s assertion against Oliver and Charles’ report to Oliver that Frederick has seized power, is an indication of a close relationship between these events, for simultaneity is one index of relationship. Simultaneity can express both positive and negative connections. Positively, the day Hamlet was born Denmark attained supremacy over Norway and maintained it until the moment of his death when Fortinbras was elected to rule. Negatively, Othello’s elopement with Desdemona coincided with the threat by the Turkish fleet which carried them both away from Venice, never to return.
It is primarily the supportive atmosphere of culture expressed in the characters of Senior, Rosalind, Orlando, and such minor persons as the servant Adam, Touchstone, and the lords, which prevents Frederick’s plot from ending in tragedy. The bonds of filial loyalty are transgressed by Frederick and Oliver, but the deeper bonds of emotional relationship remain intact; for the immediate result of their acts is a virtual outburst of infatuation and mutual attraction among the lovers in subsequent scenes culminating in the marriage of the four couples, the reuniting of Rosalind and Senior, and renunciation and reversal of their earlier acts by Oliver and Frederick.
In contrast to Senior, Lear is a powerful, passionate man who is moved by pride and anger to reject the love of his youngest daughter and put all his power in the hands of two elder ones who possess not merely an absence of culture but a positive inclination to acts of cruelty and evil. Lear and Cordelia take active initiative in their own undoing which is one reason for the tragic consequences. In a brief moment Lear banishes Cordelia and Kent from his life, the two people really devoted to him. In the next, he bestows all his power and property on Goneril, Regan and their husbands. For Lear it is complete renunciation: renunciation of power, security and social position; renunciation of true family ties and affection; renunciation of human fellowship, goodwill, and service. These three represent all that supports, nourishes, strengthens, and fulfills life. With them resides the potential for great social happiness and cultured living. Without them human life is primitive, barbarian, empty. By rejecting them, a thing Senior never did, Lear abandons the encrusting protection they afford to each man at his own level and puts himself in direct contact with forces of universal life and nature.
Cordelia possesses the same pride and obstinacy found in her father, only her emotions are purer, more cultured, and refined than his. Her refusal to make public protestations of her love for Lear arise from that pride and vanity. Her refusal is a violent blow to her father which has in it an element of unconcious and unintentional cruelty. Her allegiance to truth has a touch of self-righteousness and arrogance. Cordelia’s assertion against her father in the court is the starting point for all the evil and suffering that follow.
But equally decisive as the initiatives taken by Lear and Cordelia, is the general lack of a supportive positive atmosphere to protect them from their own misdeeds. King Lear depicts a far less developed society than the one portrayed in As You Like It. What could have been a small family quarrel which is easily mended after the heat of the moment, becomes, instead, the occasion for the eruption of powerful forces of evil and destruction. The loyalty of Kent and The Fool is heroic as is that of the servant who seeks to defend Gloucester from Cornwall. But, the general social consciousness is less organised and cohesive and, therefore, more vulnerable to the intrusion of other influences. Goneril and Regan’s betrayal of their father arises not from ambition as does Frederick’s or even the baser motive of jealousy which moves Oliver. It is pure meanness and joy in cruelty which inspires them. Gloucester is too meek to offer the kind of loyal support which the four lords extend to Senior until it is too late for him to be of real help.
The immediate result of Lear’s rejection of Cordelia and her exile is his own rejection by Goneril and Regan and his exile into the stormy heath. The same movement repeats in Edmund’s betrayal of his brother and father and Gloucester’s rejection of Edgar based on Edmund’s devious plot. Not only are the bonds of family loyalty broken but even the deep emotional bonds between father and child. Edgar too is forced out onto the heath in hiding. The atmosphere of evil released by Goneril’s cruelty quickly spreads to Edmund, Cornwall and Oswald. Once evil has been activated, they all respond to the vibration, and at least initially, life supports them.
In As You Like It it is the force of Frederick’s ambition and Oliver’s jealousy within the social context that moves the action, whereas in King Lear it is an eruption of destructive forces of evil that rise from the depths of nature and threaten to destroy the society. Yet the mechanism by which evil is finally defeated in King Lear closely parallels the restoration of justice in As You Like It, because, regardless of the intensity or direction of the forces involved, life follows the same laws at all levels of its expression. These principles can be seen in the subsequent events which move towards resolution.
Oliver tries to employ Charles, the Duke’s wrestler, to eliminate Orlando, but his plot is undermined by the concern both Charles and Frederick express for Orlando’s safety prior to the match. In fact, Charles has come to warn Oliver of the danger to Orlando if he joins the combat.
I am given to understand that your younger brother, Orlando, hath a disposition to
come in disguis’d against me to try a fall...
Your brother is but young and tender; and, for your love, I would loathe to foil him,
as I must, for my own honour, if he come in;
therefore out of my love to you,
I came hither to acquaint you withal, that
either you might stay him from his intendment,
or brook such disgrace well as he shall run into, in that it is a thing of his own search,
and altogether against my will. (AYLI, I, 112-122)
Charles’ sympathy expresses his natural affiliation to the goodness in Orlando. Even after Oliver convinces Charles that his brother is bad, Charles is weakened by his prior concern and an unconscious perception of Orlando’s goodness.
Frederick also expresses concern for Orlando and sends Celia and Rosalind to convince him not to fight.
In pity of the challenger’s youth I would fain dissuade him, but he will not be entreated.
Speak to him, ladies; see if you can move him. (AYLI, I, ii. 143-5)
Such an act would not be possible if Frederick were essentially evil or moved by powerful forces of evil which instinctively recognise their allies and enemies. As a result of his act, Rosalind and Orlando meet and fall in love, Orlando is strengthened by her support, and he easily defeats Charles. As Lear unknowingly supports the evil designs of Goneril and Regan at his own expense, Frederick’s support to Orlando is a key to his own reversal. The Duke learns too late that Orlando is the son of Sir Rowland de Boys who Frederick regarded as his enemy. Frederick -- to use Bradley’s phrase in reference to Goneril and Regan -- lacks the undivided energy of the beast. Having taken power by violating laws of conscience and society, he allows conscience to express here to the detriment of his sovereignty. Later his conscience rises to fully reverse his act of usurpation. More than his victory over the Duke’s wrestler, it is Orlando’s meeting and falling in love with Rosalind that undermines Frederick’s position by allying Orlando’s consciousness with Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior. When Orlando and Oliver first came to blows, it was the servant Adam who tried to calm them down and save Oliver from harm. Oliver responded by calling him old dog. After Charles lost the match, Oliver decides on another plan against Orlando. It is the offended Adam who reveals the plot to Orlando and urges him to escape.
Hath heard your praises; and this night he means
To burn the lodging where you use to lie,
and you within it. (AYLI, II, iii, 19, 22-4)
Adam offers his life savings to help Orlando escape and wants to accompany him. Adam’s support not only comes in time to save Orlando but actually takes Orlando to Arden where he will find Rosalind. Adam’s loyalty, and more important, the effectivity of his loyalty as compared with the heroic deeds of the servant in King Lear who challenged Cornwall and mortally wounded him at the loss of his own life but could not prevent the horrible blinding of Gloucester, expresses the extent to which goodness is entrenched in the society. Oliver’s plot is never put into action. Had he even attempted an act so much in violation of the bonds between brothers, it is unlikely that Orlando could have later come to his rescue. As it happened, somehow Oliver has allowed news of the plot to reach Adam suggesting something ‘moral’ in himself which sought to cancel it.
Frederick has exiled Senior but allowed Senior’s daughter Rosalind to remain at court. Frederick says he retained her for Celia’s sake, but Celia says differently.
Celia: I did not then intreat to have her stay;
It was your pleasure, and your own remorse;
I was too young that time to value her,
But now I know her. If she be a traitor,
Why so am I: we still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable. (AYLI, I, iii, 65-72)
It is very likely that Celia is right. It was Frederick’s own remorse that made him detain Rosalind, another expression of his conscience which sought to protect Orlando from Charles. Frederick did not realise at that time the danger to his rule of retaining her, for Rosalind has not only won the heart of his daughter but the hearts of the people as well. By the time he recognises the danger, it is too late.
Duke F: She is too subtle for thee; and her smoothness,
Her very silence and patience,
Speak to the people, and they pity her. (AYLI, I, iii, 73-5)
Frederick orders Rosalind’s banishment and discovers the extent of Celia’s commitment to her cousin.
Celia: Pronounce that sentence then, on me, my liege,
I cannot live out of her company. (AYLI, I, iii, 81-2)
Much earlier Celia promised to return Rosalind’s rightful inheritance.
Celia: You know my father hath no child but I, nor none is like to have;
and, truly, when he dies thou shalt be his heir; for what he hath taken away from
thy father perforce, I will render thee again in affection. (AYLI, I, ii, 14-19)
The continued presence of Senior’s daughter at the court after her father’s exile and Celia’s decision to go into exile along with Rosalind act to undermine Frederick’s position. Frederick tries to break the link between himself and Senior represented by Rosalind by sending her away, but he underestimates the positive bonds between Celia and Rosalind. The love shared by the two girls is greater than Celia’s loyalty to her father when he has violated the conventions of morality. As a result Frederick loses his daughter.
So also, Oliver’s plot to burn Orlando not only fails but backfires. By the time Orlando and Adam leave for the forest, Rosalind disguised as Ganymede, Celia, and Touchstone have already arrived in Arden. In an incident which illustrates how errors and false conclusions can not only become important factors but also accidental expressions of foreknowledge in life, one of Celia’s chambermaids reports hearing the two girls praising Orlando and confidently concludes that they have run away with him. Acting on an ignorant attendant’s report, Frederick summons Oliver and confiscates his property and gives him a year to return with Orlando. Oliver’s plea and Frederick’s response are interesting.
Oli: O that your Highness knew my heart in this!
I never loved my brother in my life.
Duke F: More villain thou.
Frederick’s reply reveals his own feelings of guilt for what he has done to Senior. The division within himself between ambition and conscience indicates he will not retain power long. In Hamlet, the same division was present in Claudius. Though he could not bring himself to renounce power, it weakened him sufficiently to enable his defeat. In fact, in the prayer scene when Claudius contemplates the sinfulness of his acts, he is completely vulnerable. His momentary weakness attracts Hamlet who chances to find him just at the moment but, because of his own internal division, refuses to act. In King Lear the great power of the evil characters arises because there is no internal division in their nature. Goneril, Regan and Edmund act mercilessly with a complete absence of hesitation or regret. Only Edmund takes any initiative to do good by revealing the execution plot against Lear and Cordelia. But he is able to do so only after Goneril and Regan are dead and their bodies have been brought before him. Only then the evil influence of their consciousness leaves him and he shows a capacity for human response. Frederick’s act of confiscating Oliver’s property, Oliver being the older brother, is a repetition of his earlier usurpation of his own older brother’s property. By punishing Oliver, he casts away from himself the one pillar of support for his own immorality. This act foreshadows his own renunciation later. So much is good entrenched in the society, that even Frederick who has committed an equally great or worse sin, despises Oliver for hating Orlando. The atmosphere is too positive for any strong negative initiative to succeed. Oliver’s plot results in his own exile. The moment Orlando rebeled against Oliver’s treatment of him, life set in motion Oliver’s undoing. Oliver’s only strength was Orlando's passive acceptance of his fate born of gentleness, goodness and culture. Frederick, too, keeps power out of the gentle goodness of Celia, Rosalind, Senior and the lords who do not rebel against his acts. When Celia leaves him, he loses the strength which issues from the goodwill of family.
In King Lear, despite the frightening freedom with which the characters of evil pursue their aims, a closer look at the events and results of action will reveal the natural limitations in which evil functions and the fact that its primary capacity is for self-destruction, though it may at the same time induce considerable suffering on others. On almost every occasion that evil forces take an active initiative, the result is a setback for their cause. Cornwall blinds Gloucester but loses his life in the process. Oswald attempts to kill Gloucester and is killed by Edgar. Goneril plots Albany’s murder in a letter to Edmund, and that letter leads to the death of Edmund, Regan and herself. Acts in life succeed in the measure the initiator has the strength of consciousness required in relation to others who are effected and in relation to the general atmosphere which may either support or oppose the act. In both King Lear and As You Like It the negative forces exceed in their acts the limits sanctioned by their strength. As a result their initiatives fall back in themselves.
As Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone enter Arden they come upon Silvius and Corin engaged in talk of love. The forest which Oliver finds a place of grave danger, proves a land of romance for these three. They arrange to buy Corin’s master’s house and Corin offers them service. The bonds of affection between Rosalind and Celia are greater than fear. That love leads them to safety and to love. The chance finding of the house foreshadows the return of Senior’s kingdom. Orlando and Adam also enter Arden. Leaving Adam to rest, Orlando goes in search of food and charges into the camp of Duke Senior and his lords. Not only does he find food but his father’s close friend as well. The friendship between Duke Senior and Rowland de Boys now comes to the support of Orlando and strengthens Senior’s position as well. His chance meeting with the Duke foreshadows his later marriage to Rosalind.
Rosalind and Celia discover Orlando’s passionate love poems pinned to every tree. Soon after, Orlando enters and meets Rosalind disguised as Ganymede. The strength of mutual affection brings them together. Rosalind enjoys witnessing Orlando’s love from the safety of her disguise. On two occasions she makes him promise to return by a given time and on both occasions Orlando is late. The first time he is detained by the Duke, the second time by his encounter with Oliver. Despite Rosalind’s trick, the equal strength of their affection expresses. She too must suffer the anxiety of separation and is denied the security of superior strength.
Oliver too has entered the forest in exile. Orlando discovers him sleeping under a tree with a serpent winding around his neck. Orlando chases away the serpent and then combats a lioness which was waiting in the bushes for Oliver to awake. Oliver’s venomous nature attracted the venomous snake. He escapes because something in him was ready to change. The snake withdraws on seeing Orlando who saves Oliver out of his natural goodwill. Had the atmosphere been negative, even then Oliver would be angry or jealous. But here Oliver repents his previous mistreatment of Orlando and is really grateful. Life has made Oliver weak and dependent on Orlando’s goodness and strength for his survival where earlier Orlando was dependent on Oliver’s social obligation to feed and educate him. To attain anything in life, an effort is necessary. Orlando’s battle with the lion and display of strength earns him the title which Oliver renounces. Earlier Oliver refused Orlando his rightful inheritance in money. Now Oliver ends up relinquishing his own rightful inheritance, the title, to Orlando. Oliver paid with interest for refusing Orlando what was due him in an atmosphere that did not support his refusal.
Love in the forest is not merely a theme but a movement of life. It is not love of personalities but a vibration of attraction and infatuation at first sight for the opposite sex, sometimes for the same sex as in Phebe’s love for Ganymede. The movement begins when Rosalind speaks of love to Celia on the lawn of the palace.
Ros: Let me see; what think you of falling in love?
(AYLI, I, ii, 22)
Moments Later Touchstone enters calling the girls to the wrestling match where they meet Orlando. After the match, Rosalind confides in Celia about her love for Orlando.
Cel: Is it possible, on such a sudden, you should fall into so strong a liking with old Sir Rowland’s youngest son?
(AYLI, I, iii, 27)
Life responds immediately with the entry of Frederick who orders Rosalind’s exile, almost as if she were being despatched to meet Orlando in the forest. As Celia and Rosalind enter Arden they first see Silvius lost in love. Soon after they find Orlando’s poems and meet him.
The movement of love finds different expression in each of the characters. Phoebe rebuff’s Silvius’ constant approaches and is infatuated by Ganymede who insults her. She tries to employ Silvius as an instrument to woo Ganymede for herself, but Silvius’ heart can only serve its own desires. Phebe’s plan backfires and she ends up marrying Silvius.
The vibration touches Audrey and Touchstone too, even though theirs is a more mundane affair. Harold Jenkins observes that Touchstone represents the animal condition in which the desire in man is primary over the object of desire, the beloved. The same character is present to some extent in all the affairs. But the atmosphere is so positively moral, even in the forest, that even Touchstone and Audrey seek to sanctify their affair by marriage. Touchstone is positively related in consciousness to the movement of love and, indeed, acts as its ‘touch-stone’.
In contrast, Jacques’ consciousness of melancholy is the antithesis of the movement of attraction. Jenkins observes that Jacques’ attempt to the forward the nuptials of Touchstone and Audrey severs only to postpone them. Jacques tries to infect Orlando with his melancholy but Orlando rejects it with mocking jests as does Rosalind. Jacques is virtually repelled by the intensity of the movement and leaves the scene each time the lovers meet. In the final scene, Jacques leaves to join Frederick before the wedding ceremony takes place. Jacques possesses the critical intellect that finds a greater and nobler expression in Hamlet. He sees through the facades and appearances of life and love and rejects them, but in place of any higher vision, he establishes an outlook of cynicism and melancholy. Jacques is a total misfit in this world of romance but his presence presages further stages in its social development. Rosalind’s capacity to laugh at love even while she is caught up in it is another indication of the birth of an awareness which extends beyond that of the romantic world.
In carrying news to Ganymede of Orlando’s injury in fighting the lioness, Oliver meets Celia and they fall in love. Celia’s love for Rosalind leads her to choose Orlando’s brother. In Oliver she has a man who shares her father’s selfishness. On meeting Celia, Oliver renounces his title and before their wedding can be performed, Frederick renounces the title he took from Senior. In a strongly moral atmosphere, Celia’s marriage to an undeserving Oliver cancels the sanction for Frederick’s rule. The moment Celia chooses him, her own claims to the throne are cancelled by Frederick’s act.
Characteristically, the news of Frederick’s renunciation is brought by Orlando’s brother, Jacques de Boys. Frederick had assembled a great army to march to the forest to kill Senior and all those who had joined him. On the way he was converted by an old religious man, bequeathing his crown and title to Senior and restoring the property of all those in exile. The power of the friendship between Senior and Sir Rowland expresses as the news coming from Rowland’s son. Without intending it, all three of Sir Rowland’s sons have helped Senior to regain his throne. Even Oliver is instrumental in fulfilling his father’s loyalty to Senior, for Oliver’s plot against Orlando is the beginning of Frederick’s undoing. Fredrick comes to accept voluntarily the resignation which he had earlier forced on Senior. He has matured into culture by inflicting his negative side on others and outgrowing it through the loss of his brother and daughter.
The marriage of Orlando and Rosalind coincides with Senior’s return to power and is the chief cause for it. They are both very positive characters who possess goodness along with buoyant strength and resilience. Fear and smallness are foreign to their characters. They embody in themselves the best of the society and are agents for its perpetuation. So long as Rosalind is living in the court away from her father, Frederick is strong and Senior is in lonely exile. When Frederick drives her away to Arden, he loses Celia and undermines his own position. So long as Orlando submits to Oliver’s abuses without protest, Oliver is strong. The moment he rebels, everything goes wrong for Oliver until he repents and renounces his title. As Oliver’s marriage to Celia cancels the sanction for Frederick’s rule, Orlando’s marriage to Rosalind supports the return of power to Senior.
The pattern of interaction between character, action, and the results of action reveals the importance of a crucial indeterminant which is variously called providence, chance, fate, etc. What appears as chance at the level of physical action is an expression of another dimension of causality in the plane of life. Shakespeare possessed an intuitive insight into this realm and into the role of individual character and social consciousness as points of expression of the wider character of life.
This article is based on a study of Shakespeare's four tragedies by The Mother's Service Society, Pondicherry, India.
- Helene Gardner, As You Like It, from More Talking of Shakespeare, Edited by John Garret, New York, 1959, p. 22.
- A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, London, 1965, p. 1968.
- Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 195.
- Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry, Pondicherry, 1972, p. 71.
- Gardner, As You Like It, p. 22.
- Gardner, As You Like It, p. 25.
- Harold Jenkins, As You Like It, Shakespeare Survey, 1955, VIII, p. 45.