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As You Like It | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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As You Like It | Themes


Love and Marriage

Love in many forms is explored throughout the play, whether it be romantic love, familial love, or the love between friends. The focus on romantic love and marriage is clear, though, as the reader follows the ups and downs of four couples on their way to the altar.

Family bonds (or lack thereof) are presented in the first scene of the play, with the lack of brotherly love between Oliver and Orlando causing friction that may lead to an explosion. The dukes, too, have fallen out with each other; the politics of the court have overshadowed the natural love that one would expect to exist between brothers.

These sets of brothers contrast with Celia and Rosalind, who are as close as sisters even though they are only cousins. In Act 1, Scene 2 Celia cautions Rosalind that though she may "make sport" with men—in other words, to flirt and amuse herself—that she should "love no man in good earnest" nor behave in any way that could damage her reputation. Rosalind seems on board with this until she suddenly falls for Orlando, leaving Celia both astonished and disturbed. For their entire lives the women have focused their love on one another. Celia many times states her deep love for Rosalind, who now has shifted her focus from sisterly love to romantic love. Celia takes jabs at this new love and at Orlando, questioning whether his love is true and subtly trying to influence her cousin against the match. Her tune changes abruptly, of course, when she meets Oliver and becomes engaged before her cousin does. Perhaps Celia sees the writing on the wall: now that the women are no longer children, the era of sisterly love is giving way to adulthood and marriage.

The two other couples reveal different sides of love and marriage, beyond "love at first sight" and the courtly love of Rosalind and Orlando. For Touchstone and Audrey, their hasty marriage is a practical means of having sex in a respectable manner. Even a bad marriage is better than being alone to Touchstone, and for Audrey it establishes her position in society as "an honest woman" rather than a "slut." Phoebe and Silvius's marriage is also practical, but it is not based on physical desire. Silvius's patient, enduring adoration of Phoebe at last wears her down even if it doesn't quite bowl her over, and she accepts the match as, perhaps, the best she is going to get, so she decides to make do with it and be happy.

There is love between friends in the play, too, as demonstrated by Duke Senior and his attendant lords. While the lords have followed Duke Senior into exile as a gesture of loyalty, they would likely not have given up their wealth and lands if they did not also love Duke Senior.

Loyalty and Disloyalty

The theme of loyalty is present throughout the play. Duke Frederick's lords are extremely loyal to him; they have given up their wealth and position in polite society to follow him into the rustic forest. Celia proves her loyalty to Rosalind by voluntarily accompanying her into exile. The aged servant Adam was once loyal to Sir Rowland de Boys and is now loyal to his son Orlando, offering the young man his life savings and helping him flee to safety. Orlando remains loyal to his deceased father, declaring that he is proud to be Sir Rowland's son and wouldn't give that up even to become Duke Frederick's heir. Even Silvius is loyal to Phoebe despite how disdainfully she treats him. Oliver, in contrast to these characters, has been disloyal to his father's memory by not honoring his wishes regarding Orlando's education and keeping.

Court versus Country

The differences between life at court and life in the country are explored by various characters. While life at court may be glamorous and more comfortable, the country offers a certain freedom of lifestyle that is not possible within the hierarchy and social rules of the court. Duke Senior speaks of how life at court is "painted pomp" (Act 2, Scene 1), and that the wild, wind-whipped woods are "more free from peril than the envious court," where gossip and intrigue are the norm. People mix more freely in the country, unlike at the court, with exiled nobles rubbing elbows with lowly shepherds. The standard of living is similar for everyone in the forest, too; Duke Senior and his party have to hunt for their food, just like anyone else. At court, though, the rich nobles call the shots and live well, while servants like Adam and even nobly born younger brothers like Orlando must often live in relative poverty.

Touchstone mockingly debates which is better: he likes the solitude of the country but finds the privacy vile; the fields please him but are tedious compared to the court; the "spare life" suits him, but "as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach" (Act 3, Scene 2). He looks down on Corin because the shepherd hasn't learned "good manners" at the court, to which Corin blithely replies, "Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at the court." As with the other themes, Shakespeare doesn't give a definitive answer on which is better; he leaves the reader to decide.

Disguises and Concealment

Some of the key characters take on disguises or conceal themselves in order to act freely or to accomplish what needs to be done. Celia and Rosalind adopt disguises to ensure their anonymity and safety in travel, with Rosalind going so far as to pose as a man. Orlando enters the wrestling competition anonymously since wrestling was seen as a sport for commoners, rather than the nobles. These disguises allow them to do things they normally wouldn't be able to do. For Rosalind in particular, her disguise as Ganymede gives her leeway to speak more freely and to act more boldly than she otherwise might as a woman of the time. It also enables her to draw upon reserves of strength, such as when they arrive, exhausted, at the Forest of Arden: "I could find in my heart to disgrace my man's apparel and to cry like a woman, but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat. Therefore courage, good Aliena," she reassures her cousin.

On several occasions characters conceal themselves in order to eavesdrop or spy on others. This behavior is a keen reminder that they come from the courtly world, where knowledge is power and where people may need to watch their backs for unexpected danger or betrayals. Adam eavesdrops as Oliver and Orlando argue at the play's opening, and Orlando later learns that his brother plans to kill him because Adam overhears Oliver plotting. Celia and Rosalind conceal themselves to spy on Orlando in the forest before Rosalind steps forward as Ganymede to speak with him. Meanwhile, Jaques eavesdrops on Touchstone and Audrey for mere amusement or curiosity as they discuss the nature of love; he is thus conveniently at hand to intercede when Sir Oliver Martext appears to marry the couple.

Disguises are also present in the way Shakespeare draws attention to the fact that the audience is viewing a play. The actors are normal people disguised in costumes in order to put on a pretend world for the viewers. This is evident in Jaques's famous speech in Act 2, Scene 7, when he states that "All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players," and again during the epilogue, in which Rosalind reminds the audience that she is actually a male actor (as was the custom of the time) playing a woman pretending to be a man. Thus the lines of fantasy and reality are blurred across the play, making the viewer reflect on that which is disguised and those appearances that are true.

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