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As You Like It 1: Love

Updated: Feb 13

A seven part series on As You Like It.




LOVE

‘Whoever loved that loved not a first sight’ – Phebe: As You Like It (3.4)

The above line happens just after the shepherdess, Phebe, has met Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise) and is smitten with him/her. It is not, however, an original line by Shakespeare but lifted from Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander which was first published in 1598. Nonetheless, it encapsulates one of the main themes of Shakespeare’s As You Like It that involves not just one pair of lovers but four pairs of lovers; giving a hint that Shakespeare is perhaps subverting in a comic way the romantic and sentimental aspects of the form known as ‘pastoral’.

Whilst the exact date As You Like It was first written and performed is unknown, nonetheless, it is one Shakespeare’s later romantic Elizabethan comedies. Based on internal and external evidence it was probably first performed anywhere between 1598 and 1601; and more than likely at the newly built Globe Theatre. Subsequently, it sits amongst other comedies performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at this time, which includes Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Night, as well as Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour.

As You Like It was never published in ‘quarto’ form; the only publication was in the First Folio (1623), which remains the definitive text. It has been called a ‘pastoral’ comedy; mainly because most to the dramatic action is set in ‘The Forest of Arden’ and contains characters, such as shepherds and shepherdesses, which are characteristic of the ‘pastoral’ form. However, as will be discussed later, in many ways Shakespeare’s play is a subversion of the ‘pastoral’; ‘The Forest of Arden’ is not necessarily some idealised idyllic country place but is full of dangers, a ‘desert’ full of snakes and lions, and in which most of the character go a little mad – not too dissimilar to the kind of madness found when one goes ‘Into the Woods’ as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The madness in As You Like It takes numerous forms. Generally, however, it centres on romantic love, which is the main subject in all of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan comedies beginning with The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c.1589). There are many classical influences on this type of romantic love; the most potent being Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid’s Metamorphoses had been available in Latin for centuries. In 1567 Arthur Golding published his English translation, which is the version that Shakespeare and Marlowe would have known and used. Essentially Ovid’s Metamorphoses is about transformations. Love can take many forms (love of wealth, body, heart, mind, power) and transforms people, changing them from one thing into another, good and/or bad. This is true in As You Like It, in which metamorphic romantic love is full of issues associated with gender, disguise, identity, and liberty.

In As You Like It (or, What You Will) Shakespeare pushes the romantic coupling to an extreme. There a four romantic couples, more than any other in Shakespeare’s plays – Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Phebe and Silvius, Touchstone and Audrey – all of whom get married on-stage with the sudden appearance of the god Hymen at the end of the play. Ridiculous? Absurd? Yes – and delightfully so.

All these couples are subject to the joy and pangs associated with ‘love at first sight’. This is an idealised romantic trope that Shakespeare tends to subvert and satirise. It is serious stuff for the lovers but to observers, such as Jaques (as well as an audience), it is rather delightfully silly. The comic joy, fun, and silliness in As You Like It is evident in the respective couples, notably Rosalind and Orlando (with Rosalind disguised as a boy, ‘Ganymede’). It is also evident in the heightened language. One of influences of this rather strange ‘forest of Arden’ is to make everyone speak in hyperbole, exaggerated and heightened verbosity.

Is this so strange? No – not really. We have all experienced this kind of heightened verbosity when excited, and particularly so when in love.

There is a kind of obsession in this love-sick madness; Germaine Greer, an expert on Shakespeare, in her seminal work The Female Eunuch, identifies and defines ‘love’ as an ‘obsession’. However, unlike Romeo and Juliet as well as Anthony and Cleopatra, where this type of obsessional love-sick madness ends in tragic deaths, in As You Like It all ends happily – with a wacky bit of ‘deus ex machina’ with Hymen who appears to ‘end this confusion’ and in which everyone of stage suddenly goes through one final transformation, one final joyous and celebratory metamorphoses – it is ‘As We Like It’ and ‘What We Will’. Thank heaven!

Tony Knight

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