As You Like It by William Shakespeare
As You Like It is one of those plays which has been recommended to me many times, but I had never got round to reading. Since this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it seemed as good a time as any to get stuck into some of his works I’ve never read before, and As You Like It was always at the top of that list. It stood out to me because whenever people recommended it to me, they always commented on how much they thought I would enjoy it rather than it just being a classic Shakespeare play to read. Having read it, I can definitely see why that was the case: this is a play with great female characters, strong themes of friendship, and the comedy does not come from embarrassing or awkward situations.
As You Like It is a pastoral play, with the majority of the action taking place in the Forest of Ardenne. After the exile from court of Rosalind’s father by her uncle, and facing her own exile, Rosalind and her cousin Celia disguise themselves and run away to the nearby forest; they are gradually joined by a host of other characters, as one by one all the characters find their paths leading to Ardenne.
I’ve heard many times that Rosalind is considered one of Shakespeare’s best and most developed female characters, so I was particularly interested to see her character. I can definitely see why she has such a high appreciation from scholars: she is the driving force behind the majority of the developments which lead the narrative towards its resolution. There is a definite subversion of the traditional gender roles as the narrative primarily follows Rosalind and Celia as they journey into the forest; I’m struggling to think of many other Shakespeare plays that are set primarily from a female character’s point of view. This subversion is made explicitly clear in the Epilogue of the play, a speech usually delivered by a male character, as Rosalind takes the opportunity to address the audience as herself and not in her male disguise. She even states ‘It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue’ (Epilogue, line 1), before delivering a speech full of humour and bathos.
Although the play ends with the primary characters matched up, the most important relationship in the narrative is clearly the deep friendship between Rosalind and Celia. The audience hears about this friendship before seeing it in practice, as Charles relates that Rosalind has not been exiled with her father because of the childhood friendship between the two girls. In the midst of political turmoil, danger, and romance, it is their friendship which shines through, enduring everything that the world of the Court and the Forest of Ardenne throws at Rosalind and Celia.
As is typical of Shakespeare’s comedies, the resolution is almost ridiculously swift in comparison to the previous five acts of build-up. That is, of course, to be expected when you are interacting with a text of this genre, but there were definitely a few parts of the narrative I wished the audience could have seen in more detail. My big thought when I had finished reading was ‘but how did Celia and Oliver come to fall in love?’ That particular romance feels a little too much like a convenient way to box all the primary characters into relationships, especially since the two characters interact very little throughout the play. I have never seen an adaptation of As You Like It, but I would be very interested to see the different ways in which those adapting the play would handle this aspect. I imagine it is a side-narrative which could easily be orchestrated in the background.
Overall, this is a play I would definitely recommend. It is an engaging, lively play, with characters who undergo significant growth throughout the narrative; its flaws are more flaws of the genre than of the writing or narrative. My favourite Shakespeare comedy has always been Much Ado About Nothing, and my favourite character Beatrice; I don’t think As You Like It can match the emotional attachment I have to Much Ado About Nothing, but it has gone straight up into my list of favourite Shakespeare plays, with Rosalind and Celia into my favourite Shakespeare characters. This will definitely be a play I reread again and again, and I am already looking into adaptations I can watch.