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As You Like It | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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As You Like It | Context


Gender Roles and Elizabethan Drama

Under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, drama and the arts in general flourished. Much of the theater produced had a broad appeal for all parts of society. Unsurprisingly, the plays were often bawdy and sensational. Portrayals of loose morality, ungodly opinions, and unsavory characters drew criticism from the Church of England. In response, new laws pushed the theaters outside the city limits of London. In addition, acting was viewed as unseemly for women and in fact was illegal. Because of this female roles were played on stage by young boys.

Gender roles were a common subject in the plays produced. Many of the stereotypes of women of the era were not flattering. Even married women were seen as licentious or easily seduced, hence the constant, uncomfortable jokes about horns and cuckolding in Shakespeare's works. Chastity until marriage was an absolute must, and women were to be kept in line by the men in their lives, first by their fathers and then by their husbands. In As You Like It the character of Rosalind alludes to this custom when, in Act 5, Scene 4, she first gives herself to her father and then to Orlando, both times using the line, "To you I give myself, for I am yours."

Shakespeare frequently flouts traditional gender roles in his works, however, and As You Like It is a prime example. Rosalind's cross-dressing disguise as Ganymede allows her far more freedom in speech and action than a woman would typically exhibit during the Elizabethan era. Her choice of "Jove's own page" as an alter ego is also rather titillating; the mythological Ganymede was not only a page but also a lover of the Roman god Jove. This choice lends overtones of homoeroticism to the character, especially when Orlando woos Rosalind in her guise as a man.

Court Life

The lives of nobles at court were vastly different from those of the average merchant, villager, or farmer. Social rank dictated life at court; the higher one's rank, the more power one had and the greater one's entourage would be. Queen Elizabeth, for example, had a court of about 1,000 people who attended on her and cultivated her favor. If a courtier fell out of favor with his patron—or if the patron suffered a reversal of fortune—the courtier's rank and fortunes could quickly fall.

This social hierarchy is illustrated in As You Like It through the two sets of brothers. When Duke Frederick banishes his brother, Duke Senior's attendant lords retire with him to exile in the country (although in this case they do so voluntarily out of loyalty to Duke Senior). And though Oliver holds power over his brother Orlando, Duke Frederick holds power over Oliver. Duke Frederick confiscates his lands and wealth in a single breath in Act 3, Scene 1. This hierarchy of power was a constant in court life, and courtiers were continually jockeying for position. The courts were seen as a place of whispered rumors, intrigue, flattery, and bribery. Strict social etiquette was required, and courtiers were expected to dress fashionably.

Primogeniture and Inheritance

Elizabethan England upheld the custom of primogeniture or the right of inheritance belonging to the first born. This custom settled an entire estate onto the firstborn son of a family, rather than dividing the wealth and lands among siblings. Wills often made provisions for younger sons and daughters, and eldest sons who inherited an estate were generally expected to provide for their siblings. However, as demonstrated in As You Like It, this didn't always happen. Orlando's diminished status is due entirely to Oliver's decision not to support him as expected. Oliver does not provide for Orlando's education, and according to Orlando, "His horses are bred better" and "I, his brother, gain nothing under him but growth" (Act 1, Scene 1). In contrast Oliver has sent their other brother, Jaques, to school; it is clear that he deliberately snubs Orlando by not providing him with the benefits of inheritance.

Inspirations for the Play

As with much of his work, Shakespeare drew inspiration for As You Like It from already published popular literature and other sources. His main source was the romance Rosalynde (1590), authored by English physician Thomas Lodge. Shakespeare adopted most of his characters from this work, the major events of the plot, and also its pastoral elements. Pastoral literature, quite popular at the time, focused on the pleasant country life of shepherds. It often featured romantic love and included elements of verse or song. Lodge's Rosalynde was itself inspired by an earlier work, "The Tale of Gamelyn" (author unknown). In that tale Gamelyn is denied his inheritance from his scheming older brother, Johan, and escapes to safety in the forest with his servant Adam.

Stories of Robin Hood were also popular in Shakespeare's day, and he doesn't miss the opportunity to plant references to them in this play. Duke Senior and his men are directly compared to Robin Hood in Act 1, Scene 1, where Charles points out that "he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England." Another example is Amiens's song in Act 2, Scene 5, which begins with the line "Under the greenwood tree," an allusion to earlier Robin Hood ballads that would have been familiar to the audience.

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