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An analysis of the play by William Shakespeare

The following essay is reprinted from Shakespeare's Comedy of As You Like It. Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company, 1905.


As You Like It was first printed, so far as we know, in the folio of 1623. The earliest notice of it by name is found in the Registers of the Stationers' Company, on a leaf which does not belong to the regular records, but contains miscellaneous entries, notes, etc. Between two of these, the one dated in May, 1600, and the other in June, 1603, occurs the following memorandum:

  • As you like yt / a booke
  • Henry the ffift / a booke
  • Every man in his humour / a booke
  • The commedie of muche A doo about nothing / a booke
to be staied

All these "books" are stated to be "my lord chamberlens menns plaies," which confirms the opinion that the entry refers to the year 1600. Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were duly licensed (the former on the 14th and the latter on the 23rd of August) and published that year; and it is not likely that the plays would have been "staied" after the publication of two of them. The prohibition was probably removed soon after it was recorded; and the clerk may not have considered it worth the formality of a note in the body of the register.

On the other hand, As You Like It is not mentioned by Meres in his enumeration of Shakespeare's plays in Palladis Tamia, which was published in September, 1598; and it contains a quotation (iii. 5. 80) from Marlowe's Hero and Leander, the earliest known edition of which appeared in the same year. It may therefore be reasonably concluded, as nearly all the commentators agree, that As You Like It was written between September, 1598, and August, 1600; probably in the year 1599.


Shakespeare was chiefly indebted for the story of the play to a novel by Thomas Lodge, published in 1590 under the title of "Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, found after his death in his Cell at Silexedra, bequeathed to Philautus sonnes noursed up with their father in England, Fetcht from the Canaries by T.L., gent., Imprinted by T. Orwin for T.G. and John Busbue, 1590." This book was reprinted in 1592, and eight editions are known to have appeared before 1643.

Lodge took some of the main incidents of his novel from The Cokes Tales of Gamelyn, which is found in a few of the later manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, but which the best editors of that poet believe to be the production of another writer.


"The sweetest and happiest of Shakespeare's comedies," as a genial and appreciative critic calls it! It is one of that group of plays written at about the same time--probably in immediate succession, though we cannot say in what order--which another critic terms "the three sunny or sweet-time comedies," the others being Much Ado and Twelfth Night. For myself, I like to think of it as the first of the three, written when the author had just completed the series of English historical plays (not counting Henry VIII, which came ten or more years later), and perhaps as a rest for his imagination--the recreation that is gained by taking up a wholly different kind of literary work. The poet escaped for a season from camps and courts, and took a delightful vacation in the Forest of Arden. History was for the time forgotten, and free scope was given to imagination amid the scenes of a purely ideal life--an Arcadia where they "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world." The result is a pastoral drama in which we have almost unbroken sunshine, no more of shadow being introduced than serves to give variety to the scene. It is not the shadow that forebodes the coming of night or of tempest, but rather like that of the passing summer cloud, or like that of the green canopy of a pleasant wood, falling, flecked with sunlight sifted through the leaves, upon the velvet sward below. No one suffers seriously or for any great length of time. The banished Duke is only the happier for his exile, and exults in his freedom from the artificial restraints of the court; and in the end he is restored to his rank and position. His banishment has proved only a summer vacation, a rural "outing," and we cannot doubt that he enjoyed his dukedom all the more for his brief exemption from its formalities and responsibilities. In like manner Rosalind, Celia, and the rest, who are made temporarily uncomfortable by the banishment of the Duke and other causes, soon forget their troubles in the forest, and are all happy at last.

Some careful critic has found fault with Rosalind because she goes to seek her father in the forest, and then apparently forgets all about him after she gets there. But this is only another illustration of the careless, free-and-easy character of the play. Nobody could be long anxious in that Forest of Arden. No matter what cares and troubles one brought thither, these soon vanished and were forgotten in the enchanted atmosphere. Things might not be entirely to one's mind at first, but one felt that they must soon become "as you like it."

And this reminds me of the dispute as to the origin and significance of the title of the play. It may have been suggested, as some have supposed, by the preface to Lodge's novel of Rosalynde, to which the poet was indebted for his plot. Lodge says to his readers concerning the novel, "If you like it, so," -- that is, "so be it," or "well and good." The German critic Tieck fancied that the title was meant as a reply to Ben Jonson's criticisms on the loose and irregular style of Shakespeare's comedy. Ben was a scholar, and believed in the classical rules for dramatic composition. The free-and-easy methods of his brother playwright were rank heterodoxy in his eyes, and he could not help sometimes expressing his righteous horror at them. In the preface to Cynthia's Revels he had said of his own play, "'T is good, and if you like it you may;" and Tieck believed that this suggested to Shakespeare the title for As You Like It; as if he had said, "Well, here is another of my careless comedies: take it as you like it." But it does not seem to me at all probable that Shakespeare would select the name for a play solely or mainly to indulge in a little hit at another author--and a hit that would not be readily understood without an explanation.

Whatever may have suggested the title--and, as I have said, it may have been Lodge's preface--I have no doubt that it was adopted as fitly expressing the tone and temper of the play. This is the view of another German critic, Ulrici, who, in summing up his argument, says: "In fact all [the characters] do exactly what and as they please.... Each looks upon and shapes life as it pleases him or her.... It is the poetic reflex of a life as you like it, light and smooth in its flow, unencumbered by serious tasks, free from the fetters of definite objects and from intentions difficult to execute; an amusing play of caprice, of imagination, and of wavering sensations and feelings."

Charles Lamb called Love's Labour's Lost "the comedy of leisure"; but as Verplanck remarks, "he might have given the title in a higher sense to As You Like It, where the pervading feeling is that of a refined and tasteful, yet simple and unaffected, throwing-off of the stiff 'lendings' of artificial society." For myself, I would call it the summer vacation comedy. As I have said, I believe that it was such an "outing" to Shakespeare himself, weary with long tarrying in camps and courts, glad to escape from the company of kings and queens and take to the woods for a thoroughly unconventional holiday. It was like a midsummer dream of his early life in Warwickshire, where there was also a Forest of Arden, with no lions and serpents such as Lodge found in the Continental forest, but, as Drayton tells us, with "sweet nightingales" that

"sit and sing
Amongst the dainty, dew-impearlèd flowers."

It was probably this charming play which Milton had in mind when he referred to the poet in L'Allegro:--

"Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warbles his native wood-notes wild;"

a characterization which foolish critics who do not understand its limited application, and its appropriateness in the mouth of the Cheerful Man, have denounced as inadequate.

As I have intimated, Shakespeare is not responsible for the lions in the Forest of Arden; nor is he for other absurdities of the same character, all of which he copies from Lodge. The latter tells us of the dangers from wild beasts to which Rosalynde and Alinda (Celia) are exposed in their journey through the forest; but the banished Duke and his companions do not appear to suffer from these ravenous creatures, and the sheep-farms in the region seem to be secure from their attacks. No lion or other "fearful wild-fowl" is hear of until the beast is wanted for the episode of the rescue of Oliver by his generous brother; nor does any such animal "turn up" again in the course of the play. Shakespeare takes the geography and zoology of the scene as he finds them in the novel, just as in The Winter's Tale he adopts the impossible sea-coast of Bohemia from Greene. He was always indifferent to the minor anachronisms and incongruities of the stories he dramatized, so long as they did not interfere with more important matters. Whether he knew that they were anachronisms and incongruities we may not be able to decide in every instance, but in some cases we may be sure that he did know it; as when he makes Menenius in Coriolanus speak of the "holy churchyard," or Antony talk of coming to "bury" Caesar, when his body is burned the next hour. It was the habit, not only of the novelists and dramatists of Shakespeare's day, but even of the translators of classical authors, to use the conventional ideas of their own age instead of those which properly belonged to the period they were dealing with. Thus a translator of Plautus introduces potatoes among Roman dishes, and talks of constables, Bedlam fools, and claret--all of these being deliberate substitutions of modern persons and things for the ancient, the names of which would have been unintelligible to any but scholastic readers.

Aside from its geography and zoology, the story of As You Like It, like many of Shakespeare's plots, is a tissue of improbabilities. We might go so far as to say, with Professor Barrett Wendell, that it is "childish and absurd"; and yet, as he adds, "it has been for three hundred years the groundwork of perhaps the most constantly delightful and popular comedy in the English language." This is partly due to the subtle influence of the "charmèd air" of that Forest of Arden, in which we forget to be critical. We can sympathize with the poet Campbell, who, when he first detected some of the incongruities in this play, after having been blind to them for many years, shut his eyes to the faults because of his love for the comedy--and love, as he said, is "wilfully blind." "Away with your best-proved improbabilities when the heart has been touched and the fancy fascinated!" But it was not the scene and the atmosphere alone that made him--that make us--love the play, but the fact that the leading characters are not mere puppets, as we might expect them to be in so crude a story, but living men and women. We cannot help loving them, and following their experiences with the keenest interest and sympathy.

Shakespeare's characters, indeed, become so real to us that we keep up our interest in them after the curtain has fallen upon their fortunes. We speculate concerning their subsequent behavior and welfare, and dispute about there probable fate. We even enjoy going back of the beginning of the drama, as Mary Cowden-Clarke has done in her Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines. The questions suggested by the unwritten history of these shadowy folk, these phantoms of a poet's brain, whom we have seen for an hour or two on the stage, have a perennial fascination. We can never settle them, but we never tire of pondering and discussing them.

The metre of As You Like It is that of Shakespeare's best period in that respect. In his earliest plays the verse, though often exquisitely modulated, is sometimes laboured and formal. He had not then mastered the art of concealing the art. In his last plays, on the other hand, he seems to feel a certain contempt for the rules of versification, and refused to be restrained by them. There are long passages in The Tempest and The Winter's Tale which, if we heard them read without knowing their source, we might take as plain prose. At the same time it must be admitted that some of the poet's finest versification is to be found here and there in these late plays.

But in As You Like It, as in other plays of the same period,--about the middle of the poet's career as a writer--we have the utmost perfection of blank verse; at once finished and flowing, artistically musical, yet seeming to "sing itself." -- the art of the accomplished minstrel, while it impresses us as the artlessness of the lark or the nightingale.

This play also contains what, to my thinking, is the best example of musical variation in repeating the same thought or sentiment to be found anywhere in Shakespeare. It is where (ii. 7) Orlando, in his address to the Duke, says:--

"If ever you have look'd on better days,
If ever been where bells have knoll'd to church,
If ever sat at any good man's feast,
If ever from your eyelids wip'd a tear,
And know what 't is to pity and be pitied," etc.

It would seem that this could hardly be altered without marring it; but, faultless as it is, Shakespeare shows that he can repeat it "with a difference," yet with no diminution of its beauty or its music. The Duke replies:--

"True is it that we have seen better days,
And have with holy bell been knoll'd to church,
And sat at good men's feasts, and wip'd our eyes
Of drops that sacred pity hath engender'd," etc.

Every statement is varied, while the leading words are retained; and the variation is like that of some exquisite theme in music, repeated, yet not the same, but as sweet as before. One finds scattered examples of this fine modulation of melodious verse in the plays and poems, but no one that equals this.

This play is also a good illustration of Shakespeare's art in the management of dramatic time. Only two of his plays, The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, observe the "unities of time and place," which require that the time of the action represented shall not exceed a single day, or to localities so near that the persons concerned can pass from one to another within the day. In most of Shakespeare's plays the time of the action covers several days, months, or years; and the localities are often widely separated--England and France, Bohemia and Sicily, etc.

But though Shakespeare thus ignores the classical law concerning time, he follows what may be called an artistic law of his own in dealing with time, which was not recognized by any of the critics until the nineteenth century; and then, as often happens with important discoveries, two men detected it independently at the same time. In November, 1849, Professor John Wilson ("Christopher North") announced this law in Blackwood's Magazine as "an astounding discovery," illustrating it minutely by an analysis of Macbeth and Othello; and the Rev. N.J. Halpin, during the same month, published an essay on Dramatic Unities in Shakespeare, illustrating the same law by an analysis of The Merchant of Venice. There could be no question that the two men had been working independently, and had reached identical results.

The law may be briefly stated thus: Shakespeare uses two kinds of time in the plays: one fast, corresponding to the brief time required for the action on the stage; the other slow, corresponding to the longer time necessary for the actual succession of events represented. The law has been aptly and more concisely designated as "Shakespeare's two clocks," one of which goes fast while the other goes slow.

Apparently this manner of dealing with dramatic time was original with Shakespeare; at least, it was used by him in all his plays (except the two I have mentioned in which the unity of time is observed), and in all the details of their action, while it seldom, if ever, appears in the works of other dramatists.

In As You Like It the two kinds of time are very easily recognized, and it is for this reason that I refer to the subject in connection with this play.

When the banishment of the old Duke is first mentioned, we infer that it occurred very recently. Oliver, though a gentleman living near the court, has not heard of it until Charles the wrestler tells him about it, and Charles himself seems to have only an imperfect knowledge of the main facts. "Where will the old Duke live?" Oliver asks. "They say," replies Charles, "he is already in the Forest of Arden," etc. There are reasons for this "fast time" here, which a careful student or reader will have no difficulty discovering.

"Slow time" appears very soon afterward. In Scene 3, when the new Duke is banishing Rosalind, he says, in reply to the protest of Celia, that it was for her sake that the daughter was not exiled with the father. Celia replies:--

I did not then entreat 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."

This certainly throws the banishment of the old Duke several years back into the past. Note also his own speech at the opening of the second act:--

"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?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam.
The season's difference," etc.

Clearly he and his friends have been in the forest long enough to get used to life there, and to experience "the seasons' difference" -- the winter as well as the summer.

I need not continue this analysis further in the play. The reader will find it a profitable exercise to follow it out for himself.

  • Rosalind - A character study from Shakespeare's As You Like It.
  • As You Like It - A short story adapted from the play.

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