Shakespeare’s early play “As You Like It” may on the surface appear strictly a romance. The entire performance is dominated by passionate, sometimes strange, relationships between men and women, most notably Rosalind and Orlando, Silvius and Phoebe, Touchstone and Audrey, and briefly Celia and Oliver, and all of the dramatic entanglements thereof. Upon closer inspection, however, it is apparent that the play’s theme of love in fact pokes fun at many of the stereotypical ideas of European courtly love with which Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar. Lovesickness, emotional torment, and the pursuit of a lover stand out as dominant themes within such early poetry and literature. Such works would likely have been penned hundreds of years prior to “As You Like It.” Shakespeare takes each of these elements and overdramatizes them as only he can do, thereby granting “As You Like It” a unique comedic element similar to modern day parodies.
Orlando, suffering under the weight of his lovesickness, runs in Act III, Scene ii through the forest of Ardenne (a fictional forest with elements of the fantastical that resemble the world of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where characters seem to fall quickly and senselessly in and out of love), hanging sappy love poems for Rosalind on the trees. Here Orlando appears less a rash, sound-minded man and more a lovesick schoolboy who has abandoned all reason to win the heart of his one true love.
In accordance with Fourteenth Century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca’s romantic love model (English: Petrarchan), Orlando’s poetry idolizes Rosalind and elevates her to a platform of perfection that she could not possibly reach. Through the words of the melancholy Jacques, Shakespeare offers his commentary on Orlando’s actions and, indirectly, on such lovers universal: “The worst fault you have is to be in love,” (III.ii.257). After all, Orlando admits in one of his poems that he would gladly “live and die [as Rosalind’s] slave,” (III.ii.141), a notion which not only appears unrealistic, unconvincing and altogether ridiculous, but one which is even criticized by Rosalind herself. This criticism only furthers the plays comedic aspect as the pursued lover humorously mocks the efforts of the pursuing lover.
Rosalind’s response to Orlando’s poems speaks not only to the emotional depth and complexity of her character, but to the play’s ability to present simultaneously such senseless infatuation and romantic devotion as both a strength and a weakness. Even Rosalind, with all of her ambition, intelligence, and inner strength cannot ultimately resist the beauty of Orlando’s love poetry, although she is careful to note its lousy composition (III.ii.151-152, 154-156).
Shakespeare further mocks and spoofs the notion of courtly love by depicting the simple-minded and uneducated shepherd Silvius as a tortured lover, an illustration which no doubt resonated with his audience as especially humorous. Much like Orlando, Silvius too acts in accordance with the Petrarchan love model which Shakespeare mocks. In his desperate (and over exaggerated) pursuit of Phoebe’s attention, Silvius implores his love, beseeching her to notice his “wounds invisible/ That love’s keen arrows make” (III.v.31-32). These rather poetic lines, bearing both a unique metaphor and use of personification, ironically are spoken by the very person the reader least expects. Not only is it humorous that the simpleton shepherd employs the use of strikingly poetic vocabulary, but his request is ridiculously unrealistic. How could one visually notice something that is “invisible”?
His request for Phoebe’s attention is, additionally, oddly self-contradicting, as it implies that, if he so desires, he could free himself from the bond of love to which he is imprisoned, thereby healing his so-called “wounds.” This would serve to remove him completely from the Petrarchan love model to which Orlando also belongs. And, perhaps, his words imply that any wound inflicted or suffered during the course of romance universal may be healed as well.
Of all the characters in “As You Like It,” only the heroine Rosalind, often considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, is fully cognizant of both the absurdity of love and the delights of love and able to revel in both. Only Rosalind can mock, criticize, scrutinize, analyze, and enjoy love and the act of falling in love, as is clearly evidenced by her relationship with Orlando. “She is clearly the only character in the play who has throughout an intelligent, erotic, and fully anchored sense of love, and it becomes her task in the play to try to educate others out of their false notions of love, especially those notions which suggest that the real business of love is adopting an inflated Petrarchan language and the appropriate attitude that goes with it,” (Johnston).
Only through Rosalind is Shakespeare truly able to present his opinion of the ideal balance of both versions of love. While Rosalind chooses to enjoy her passionate involvement with and romantic feelings for Orlando (even under her disguise as Ganymede), she does not allow such feelings to transform her into a senseless, swooning, silly woman (as would be stereotypical of a female character in early European courtly love literature). In fact, she emerges as one who is able to see past the dream-like qualities of such love and to criticize this love from a realistic point of view, as she does in response to Orlando’s claim that he will “die” without her love and companionship, in Act IV, Scene i.
“No, faith; die by attorney. The poor world is almost
Six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any
man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. […]
Men have died from time to time, and
worms have eaten them, but not for love” (IV.i.81-83; 91-92).
In perhaps the most profound, insightful, and perceptive lines in the entire play, Rosalind here evokes the imagery of several famous and mythological Greek heroes and lovers of ancient literature in order that she might condemn such love as purely fictional and unrealistic. In fact, she suggests that men are more likely to have their “brains dashed out with a Grecian club” (IV.i.84) than they are to die under the torment of romantic and relational heartache. It is clear from her relationship with Orlando that Rosalind believes in the reality of love. However, she rejects the tragic, lovesick characteristics of standard romance and instead chooses to embrace a love that can survive in her reality.
As a play, “As You Like” it tends to reject, poke fun at and often criticize the notion of early European courtly love and even asserts that love itself is more an emotional state of happiness experienced by the individual than it is a social process to be carried out with proper etiquette, cheesy mannerisms, and rehearsed dialogue. Time and again Shakespeare criticizes and parodies the oft-esteemed idea of the tormented lover who is content to take pleasure in his own lovesick suffering. Love, for Shakespeare, is truly something to experienced “as you like it.”
1. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus.
The Norton Shakespeare Comedies . London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
2. Johnston, Ian. “Variations on a Theme of Love: An Introduction to As You Like It”. Vancouver Island University. February 2, 2010 .