William Shakespeare: as You Like It, a Pastoral Comedy

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As You Like It is a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1599 or early 1600 and first published in the First Folio, 1623. The play's first performance is uncertain, though a performance at Wilton House in 1603 has been suggested as a possibility. As You Like It follows its heroine Rosalind as she flees persecution in her uncle's court, accompanied by her cousin Celia and Touchstone the court jester, to find safety and eventually love in the Forest of Arden. Historically, critical response has varied, with some critics finding the work of lesser quality than other Shakespearean works and some finding the play a work of great merit.

Shakespeare's themes are often expressed in terms of oppositions, such as the conflicting values associated with fair and foul in Macbeth. As You Like It is no exception. Running throughout As You Like It is a tension of antithesis between the natural (that which is free, spontaneous, and wholesome) and the artificial (that which is constrained, calculated, and unnatural). The clash between these two ways of life is seen on several levels: (1) social: in the values associated with civilized society (the court or a great country estate) compared with the value of simple living (the open pastures and the forest encampment); (2) familial: in the strife that sets brother against brother and parent against child; and (3) personal: in the contrast between courtships that are based upon genuine emotion (Orlando and Rosalind) and those that are based on formal conventions (Silvius and Phebe). These various levels are not kept distinct in the play, however, and disorder in one area is likely to parallel disorder in another. The first scene of the play introduces us to organized life on a country estate. Here the close ties that should unite brothers have been perverted. The unnaturalness of the situation is made clear in Orlando's opening speech. He has been kept from his modest patrimony, his gentle birth has been undermined, and he speaks of "mutiny" and "servitude." Oliver's brutal treatment of the faithful servant Adam, whom he addresses as an "old dog," shows that the disorder affects other members of the household as well. In the same scene we learn of an earlier, parallel perversion of normal family life, but here the roles are reversed, with the young men's father, a younger brother abusing his older brother. The wrestler, Charles, reports that "the old Duke is banished by his younger brother, the new Duke." On the social level, the corruption of the great estate is matched by the debasement of court life.

But in opposition to these sinister currents, we witness a strong element of harmony between relations: Celia loves her cousin Rosalind so much that she will follow her into exile or else stay behind with her and die. And we learn too of a harmonious social order established by the banished Duke Senior and his "merry men" in the Forest of Arden. Thus the opposition between court and country, the natural and the artificial, is established at the outset of the play.

In Act I, Scene 2, the corruptions of court life are overtly shown; there is little subtlety here. For example, the clown speaks jestingly of a knight without honor who has nevertheless prospered under Frederick, the reigning duke. Not long afterwards, Orlando, who has just won the wrestling match, is denied the honor due him for his triumph because his father, whom "the world esteem'd . . . honourable," was the usurper's enemy. The natural values subverted in the earlier scenes find glowing representation in Act II, Scene 1 — that is, "painted pomp," "the envious court," and "public haunt" give way to the uncomplicated rewards of a life close to trees and running brooks. Here, the banished Duke Senior and his "co-mates and brothers in exile" find their existence "sweet." But to achieve full contentment they have had to adjust themselves to the natural hardships of their...
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