3 Characters

Comedy invites us to take delight in people’s unexpectedness. Accordingly, the characters in As You Like It display a foible or three. Chief among these is their capacity to fall instantly in love. Some love forever. Others cheerfully fall out of love or swap lovers—it depends on what the plot needs to bring about a happy ending (see Story chapter).

Rosalind and Orlando aren’t the only lovers in As You Like It but they carry much of the play’s meaning.


Figure 7. Rosalind, As You Like It (1856) by Henry Nelson O’Neil. Oil on panel. Public domain

As You Like It gives a lot of space to philosophy, i.e., wisdom, including insights into life’s losses and disappointments. Shakespeare endorses Rosalind, in dialogue with Celia, Orlando, Jaques, Silvius and Phoebe, as the truth-speaking philosopher of As You Like It.

Concerning standard morality, always upheld in Shakespeare’s plays, Rosalind is right to claim the assumed mannish virtue of courage for herself (Act 1, scene 3, lines 125-129). She and Celia are mutually loyal. When Celia leaves the safety of her home to accompany Rosalind on unknown adventures, she says: “thou and I are one” (Act 1, scene 3, line 103). This instance of brave female friendship must have appealed to the women in Shakespeare’s audiences, as it still does today.

Rosalind, however, is much more than virtuous. She has multiple selves that go beyond her disguise as the boy Ganymede

Rosalind is witty, voluble, educated and imaginative; spirited and energetic; a woman who faints at the sight of her lover’s blood; an imperious shepherd; a powerful magician who arranges the marriages at the end of the play; and a saucy boy who returns to speak the epilogue (Dusinberre 9-10).

Here are some further options to consider:

  1. Rosalind is Cinderella—when the play opens she has been robbed of the inheritance that her birth entitles her to. Duke Frederick unjustly drives her into exile.
  2. She is cheerful in adversity and affectionate to her friend. Her first line is “Dear Celia, I show more mirth than I am mistress of…” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 2-3).
  3. She is philosophical, as in her discussion of Fortune and Nature (Act 1, scene 2, lines 40-55).
  4. She is witty, as in her dialogues with Touchstone and Le Beau in the opening scene and later with Orlando.
  5. Rosalind is compassionate—she tries to persuade Orlando not to risk his life in the wrestling match.
  6. Rosalind falls in love with Orlando at first sight. She is generous and loyal in her affections; PLUS (of course) all the world loves a lover.
  7. She is resourceful and strong in overcoming adversity, for example when she and Celia disguise themselves and flee Frederick’s court.
  8. She is creative when disguised as Ganymede. This is the Rosalind who most delights audiences of As You Like It.
  9. For all her strength and intelligence, Rosalind remains feminine according to Elizabethan definitions. Comically, she faints when Oliver gives her Orlando’s napkin, bloodied from his fight with the lioness (Act 4, scene 3, line 157).
  10. Rosalind is Shakespeare’s master of ceremonies; she is a magician who guides As You Like It to its happy ending.

Dusinberre defends the view that As You Like It questions assumptions about social roles. She writes (58): “Rosalind and Orlando are instruments for making such assumptions visible and therefore available for criticism and change.” Dusinberre points out that the challenge to privileges of primogeniture[1] is not expunged by Oliver’s reinstatement as the heir, any more than “Rosalind’s gender subversion is cancelled out by her return to women’s clothes.”

At the end of the play, Hymen leads in Rosalind and Celia in women’s clothes (Act 5, scene 4, line 112). This single action instantly solves plot complications for both audiences—the actors on stage and the watchers in the theatre. The concluding music and dance embody the restoration of harmony for all at the end of As You Like It.

In closing the play, Rosalind begins to speak as her newly married self, but partway through reverts to being what she has been throughout, a saucy boy actor, speaking of his role as Rosalind from outside it: “if I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me” (lines 17-18).

Despite this reversion to masculine gender, Rosalind seems to have been the first woman character in the Elizabethan theatre to speak an epilogue. At this point in the history of theatre and the West, Shakespeare’s revelation of the extent to which gender is a choice and a performance is surely noteworthy and courageous.

Explore the Text

Rosalind offers a philosophical and moral presence that maintains balance throughout ‘As You Like It‘.  True or false?


Like Rosalind, Orlando is a Cinderella figure. Like Cinderella, he is the unloved youngest of three siblings. When As You Like It opens, Orlando, like Rosalind, is suffering the consequences of unjustified dispossession. As compensation for not inheriting land, the younger sons of Elizabethan gentry were educated for professions. After completing a degree at Oxford or Cambridge, they might become army or navy officers or lawyers, or they could pursue a career in the church.

BUT … following the death of their father, Sir Rowland de Boys, Oliver has refused to educate Orlando for any of these alternatives, and has kept him working on his estate as a farm hand. It says a lot about the ideology of class that Orlando has nevertheless retained the speech style and attitudes belonging to his rank. Shakespeare, whose livelihood and even safety depended on the approval and to some extent the patronage of the Queen and her court, does not call into question the special abilities supposedly conferred by noble birth.

Contrast with a later classic literary work: If you’ve read Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights, you’ll remember that Heathcliff makes Hareton Earnshaw, the rightful heir to the estate, labour as a farm hand. Heathcliff does this as revenge for his lost love and as a means of shutting Hareton out of his inheritance. Uneducated, Hareton is a rough, downtrodden and unrefined young man. In As You Like It Oliver has tried to do the same to Orlando, but it hasn’t worked. Elizabethans believed, or pretended to believe, that nobility of birth could not be altered by circumstances. Those who were born noble, stayed noble.

Explore the Text

You can watch the 1936 film of As You Like It, starring Laurence Olivier as Orlando and Elisabeth Bergner as Rosalind (copies might be found in your local library). This was the first time a play by Shakespeare had been made into a sound film. In this image advertising the film, Orlando towers over Rosalind/ Ganymede protectively, and she looks down modestly.

How true is this to Shakespeare’s script?

Figure 8. As You Like It (1936).  Held in multiple libraries. All rights reserved


In being idealised, Orlando is like Rosalind. However, when we first meet him he is full of complaints about his brother’s unjust treatment. This introduces us, the audience, to Orlando-as-aspiring-victim. He upbraids his brother, defeats him in a wrestle, and demands the money willed to him by their father. The opening scene of As You Like It therefore belongs to the world of labour and commerce, a world that present-day audiences, like the Elizabethans, know only too well.

Act 1, scene 1 ends with Oliver plotting with the wrestler Charles to murder Orlando, thus saving for himself the thousand crowns due to Orlando as his inheritance. Oliver hints that he will reward Charles with money: “I thank thee for thy love to me which,/thou shalt find I will most kindly requite” (lines 135-136); and (ominously): “I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger” (lines 143-144). Act 1, scene 1 is scripted entirely in prose. Money, inheritance and property, not love, motivate the characters.

When we next meet Orlando, Rosalind and Celia try to persuade him not to wrestle Charles. Although Orlando still speaks prose, his language has transformed from commercial to chivalrous. While Rosalind and Celia are trying to persuade Orlando not to wrestle Charles, Rosalind and Orlando fall in love. The idea of love at first sight was in the air while Shakespeare was writing and (later) taking part in the first performances of As You Like It. In Hero and Leander, a poem published in 1598, his fellow poet Christopher Marlowe had written: “Where both deliberate, the love is slight/Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” (Sestiad I, lines 174-75).

So As You Like It uses love at first sight as a trope (or poetic convention) that was popular with Shakespeare’s audiences. (It’s still popular!) Orlando in love transforms into a character who differs from Orlando the excluded heir. His virtues of chivalry, compassion and generosity are apparent when:

  1. He offers to fight Duke Senior’s courtiers to save Adam from starvation. This demonstrates his gratitude and willingness to set rank aside. He’s ‘valiant’ here (Act 2, scene 7, lines 92-176) and later, when…
  2. He saves Oliver from the lioness (Act 4, scene 3, lines 95-165).
  3. Lists by other characters shape Orlando’s virtues as ideals for young men to aspire to:

    OLIVER: Yet he’s gentle,
    never schooled, and yet learned, full of noble device, of all
    sorts enchantingly beloved, (Act 1, scene 2, lines   163-165);

    ADAM: Why are you virtuous? Why do people love you?
    And wherefore are you gentle strong, and valiant? (Act 2, scene 3, lines 5-6)

    OLIVER: But kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
    And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
    Made him give battle to the lioness…  (Act 4, scene 3, lines 135-137)

Orlando carries much of the moral teaching of As You Like It, as in his list of aphorisms—sententiae,. or condensed teachings—which Duke Senior repeats and approves, beginning “If ever you have looked on better days” (Act 2, scene 7, lines 118-125). Orlando’s virtues are a backdrop to his characterisation as a lover. As a lover he displays extravagance and folly and becomes a highly romantic comic character. As a lover, he suffers the pain of a love that seems to be out of reach. As a lover, he rejoices in his love’s consummation.

Explore the Text

What assumptions about gender influence notions of virtue in As You Like It?

ORLANDO.  I beseech you, punish me not with your hard
thoughts, wherein I confess me much guilty to deny
so fair and excellent ladies anything. But let your
fair eyes and gentle wishes go with me to my trial,
wherein if I be foiled, there is but one shamed that
was never gracious, if killed but one dead that is
willing to be so. I shall do my friends no wrong, for
I have none to lament me; the world no injury, for
in it I have nothing. Only in the world I fill up a
place which may be better supplied when I have left it empty.  (Act 1, scene 2, lines 176-186)


  1. What parts of this speech present Orlando as a ‘courtly lover’, i.e. as one who is the servant of ladies like Rosalind and Celia?
  2. What kinds of excellence does Orlando ascribe to Rosalind and Celia?
  3. What parts of this speech devalue Orlando’s rank?
  4. How do these devaluations contrast with assertions in Orlando’s argument with Oliver in Scene 1?
  5. What parts of this speech devalue Orlando’s life?
  6. How does this speech suggest Orlando’s unhappiness?
  7. What reasons does Orlando have to be unhappy?
  8. How seriously should the audience take Orlando’s devaluing of himself?
  9. How many repeated sentence structures can you find in this speech?

 Getting it Together: Rosalind and Orlando

Orlando’s subjection to the extravagant madness of love expresses itself suddenly but appropriately in Act 3, scene 2 when the action shifts from a sunny day to a moonlit night. Orlando runs through the forest, affixing his funny and awful love poems on the trees. The audience discovers the true horribleness of these verses when Rosalind, Touchstone and Celia unpin samples and read them aloud.  Discussing their find with Celia, Rosalind (who has now found out that Orlando is in the forest) laments her boy disguise in a speech that wonderfully combines pathos with comedy: “Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose!” She follows this with an outpouring of questions to Celia at a speed that no living human could answer (Act 3, scene 2, lines 223-235). Orlando and Rosalind’s love dialogues follow. They are an important part of Shakespeare’s philosophical thinking in As You Like It.


In As You Like It Jaques and Touchstone have a lot in common:

  1. Both have pretensions of being philosophers. Jaques is philosopher-in-chief and Touchstone is his apprentice. Whenever they meet, Jaques approves Touchstone’s philosophical efforts.
  2. Both are would-be satirists. They take on the job of alerting characters and the audience to what they regard as failings in society and in human behaviour.
  3. The other characters mostly don’t take Jaques and Touchstone seriously. Touchstone after all is a professional clown, while Jaques’ gloom and aggressive bad manners make him the odd-man-out in a comedy.
  4. Jaques’ and Touchstone’s names encourage audiences and readers not to take them seriously: ‘jakes’ is an Elizabethan word for toilet, while ‘stone’ is Elizabethan slang for testicle (use your imagination!).
  5. For early audiences both Jaques and Touchstone are undermined as mentors by being subject to lust-inordinate sexual desire, regarded in Shakespeare’s time as a deadly sin.

How might we interpret the similarities between Jaques and Touchstone repeatedly referred to in As You Like It? One option is that Jaques is as much a fool as Touchstone. The irony is that he just doesn’t know it! Jaques’ serious self-regard is the funniest thing about him.

Shakespeare intended Jaques as a type character, i.e., a model of a particular kind of person and world view. The 1st Lord exiled with Duke Senior points out in the first forest scene, even before Jaques has come on stage (Act 2, scene 1), that his personality is unbalanced: he is weighed down by too much “melancholy” (line 41). Medieval and Elizabethan medical theory attributed this condition to an excess of “black bile,” one of the four humours. Humours were fluids that, according to their balance or imbalance, determined a person’s character. Significantly, Jaques is the only character in As You Like It who admits to not liking music (see Act 2, scene 7, lines 5-7Act 4, scene 2, lines 9-10). Jaques takes himself seriously, but other characters often ignore or disagree with him.

The problem with interpreting Jaques is that despite being undermined by his name, his (past?) lustful life and what modern people would diagnose as his chronic depression, Jaques raises issues that were important to Shakespeare’s audiences. Moreover, he raises some issues that are important to humans in general. If the thesis (central proposition) of As You Like It is enjoying a life of happiness and freedom safe from the courts of the powerful, Jaques is a spokesman for the ‘anti-thesis.’ He doesn’t believe that happiness or freedom are possible for humans.

Jacques and…

A. Deer Hunting

Duke Senior opens Act 2 with the suggestion that the exiles should “kill us some venison” (scene 1, line 21). In response, the 1st Lord reports Jaques’ view that in killing and wounding forest animals for food Duke Senior does more wrong than his brother Frederick has done in banishing him. Humans have always hunted, for food and pleasure, and hunting is still a popular pastime. Queen Elizabeth and especially King James, who both probably watched early performances of As You Like It [see the discussion of Context], were, like many members of their courts, passionate hunters. To such an audience, Jaques’ condemnation of hunting must have seemed extreme and absurd.

The 1st Lord continues by describing how Jaques proceeded to moralise his sighting of a wounded deer “into a thousand similes”: the deer’s weeping into a stream is like wealthy people who make other wealthy people their heirs in the hope that the latter will reciprocate and die first; the deer’s aloneness is like that of unhappy humans, who want to avoid company; the indifference of other deer to the wounded deer’s suffering is like wealthy people’s indifference to the suffering of “poor and bankrupt citizens.” The 1st Lord expects all his hearers, i.e. the exiled court and the audience in the theatre, to respond to these comparisons as laughable.

painting shows Jaques lying by a stream near the stag in As You Like It Act Two Scene 1
Figure 9. Jacques and the Wounded Stag: As You Like It, Act III, Scene I (1790) by William Hodges (1744-1769). Oil on canvas. Public Domain.

How are modern audiences likely to react?

B. Courtly Good Manners

It’s a sign of Jaques’ importance in As You Like It that his reputation precedes him in these descriptions by Duke Senior and the 1st Lord.  Jaques first enters in person in Act 2, scene 5. Here his antagonist is Amiens, the exiled court’s sweet singer. The song “Under the greenwood tree” finds happiness in the court’s exiled state, but Jacques criticises a) the courtesy of saying  “thank you,” b) Duke Senior as “disreputable,” and c) Amiens’ praise of a forest life free from ambition and greed.

C. Cleansing ‘the Infected World’: Act 2, scene 7, lines 12-64

Here is a list of Jaques’ opinions, derived, as he says (lines 12-34), from Touchstone, the fool he happened to meet in the forest:

  • Humans are at the mercy of Fortune, who has no mercy.
  • We humans are victims of time. Our only lasting value is as a source of good stories:

    JACQUES. And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
    And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,
    And thereby hangs a tale. (lines 27-29)

  • All young and beautiful women are vain (lines 38-39).
  • Fools like Touchstone wisely expose the foolishness of others, and Jaques would like to take on this task, and to work a cure:

    JACQUES. Give me leave
    To speak my mind, and I will through and through
    Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world
    If they will patiently receive my medicine. (lines 60-63)

Jaques’ assumption of moral superiority—his view of himself as the curer of the world’s evils—is undercut by Duke Senior (lines 66-71), who deploys metaphors of venereal disease and vomit to reveal Jaques’ lustful past. Jaques’ reply is not very clear, and the editors Brissenden and Dusinberre offer different interpretations. What is clear is that Jaques deflects the conversation into satire of an irrelevant target the sumptuous dressing of middle-class London wives.

D. The Seven Ages of Man,Act 2, scene 7, lines 146-173

The most famous speech in As You Like It is inspired by the hunger and weakness of Orlando’s old companion Adam, whose name suggests he is a representative human being.

William Shakespeare- ‘Benedict Cumberbatch 7 Ages of Man’ [2:00 mins]:

Because it often appears as an excerpt in poetry anthologies and school textbooks, and recently in the titles of books and chapters, Jaques’ ‘Seven Ages’ speech is all that many people know of As You Like It. Jaques tends to be mistaken for a wise philosopher who sums up truly the brevity and unhappiness of human life. Therefore it’s vital for our understanding that this speech should be watched or read in relation to Jaques’ role in the rest of the play.

Do you see Jacques’ depiction of seven ages as a fair summing up of human experience? Does he leave anything out?

E. Jaques versus Orlando on Love, Act 3, scene 2, lines 258-298

The short speeches in this exchange are like hits in a game of tennis. Orlando refuses to join Jacques in “rail[ing] against our mistress the world, and all our misery” (line 281-283).

  1. Where does Orlando admit that he has faults himself—something Jaques would never do?
  2. Find the lines where Orlando affirms the supreme value of the love he feels for Rosalind.
  3. Which is the winner in this battle of wits—”Signor Love” or “Monsieur Melancholy”?

F. The Wedding That Isn’t, Act 3, scene 3, lines 1-97

Touchstone, Audrey and Jacques and Oliver in the Forest of Arden at the wedding that is called off
Figure 10. Act 3, Scene 3 (late 18th century or 19th century) by Francis Philip Stephanoff (1788-1860). Watercolour. Public Domain.

In the next scene, Jaques comments on another pair of lovers, Touchstone and Audrey. Jaques’ asides to the audience, and later to Touchstone when he offers to give away Audrey, are condescending, though he continues to acknowledge Touchstone’s intelligence: “a material fool,” he says (line 28), meaning ‘a fool full of good sense.’ By pointing out that Sir Oliver Martext isn’t worthy to celebrate the marriage of “a man of breeding” (line 75), Jaques persuades Touchstone to abandon the ceremony. He leads Touchstone away to “counsel” him (line 85). Touchstone and Jaques are both shown as “humours” in this scene, which makes fun of the folly of both. Sir Oliver’s parting judgment is that they are “fantastical knaves” (Act 3, Scene 3, lines 106-107).

G. Jaques versus Rosalind on Melancholy, Act 4, scene 1, lines 1-34

In Act 4, Scene 1 Jaques claims to love his melancholy “better than laughing” (line 4). Rosalind seeks to cure him by applying the ancient Greek ideal of the “golden mean”: “Those that are in extremity of either [i.e. of melancholy or of laughter] are abominable fellows” (Act 3, scene 5, lines 5-7).

Blinded as always by taking himself too seriously–Shakespeare is inviting us to laugh at the human propensity to be pompous– Jaques then claims that his melancholy is unique—not the melancholy of a scholar, a musician, a courtier, a soldier, a lawyer, a lady or a lover, but “a melancholy of mine own/compounded of many simples/extracted from many objects”(lines 15-16). Most of these “simples” (medicinal herbs) derive, Jaques says, from his experiences as a traveller. Rosalind responds by doubting the benefits of travel: “I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad,” she says (lines 25-26). Given the logic of this argument, and Rosalind’s status in As You Like It as wise and rational, this passage supports the conclusion that Shakespeare did not travel out of England.

Although he himself speaks in blank verse in the Seven Ages speech, Jaques leaves, he says, because Orlando and Rosalind are planning to speak in blank verse. (Except for Orlando’s greeting at line 28, they don’t!)

H. Jaques and the Hunters,Act 4, scene 2, lines 1-19

Everyone in this scene equates deer horns with cuckold’s horns. A cuckold is a husband whose wife has been sexually unfaithful. Going on the multitudinous references to cuckolds in their plays, Elizabethans must have found this idea hilarious. Jaques encourages the 1st Lord, as the deer’s killer, to wear the horns, and the others jokingly praise his achievement in a song. Given Jaques’ views on the immorality of hunting (see above), and his surely exaggerated comparison of the successful hunter with “a Roman conqueror,” he is again an (unsuccessful) satirist in this scene.

I. Jaques, Master of Ceremonies, Act 5, scene 4

As master of ceremonies- a role that matches his pomposity, Jaques introduces Touchstone to the Duke’s forest court. He approves:

  • Touchstone’s satire of his own lust for the unprepossessing Audrey
  • the insincerities of court ceremony
  • the rules for courting a lady
  • and (at length) the prescriptions for duelling and for ‘giving the lie.’

Hymen’s song immediately following announces the restoration of harmony to heaven, as four earthly couples “take hands” in marriage: “Wedding is great Juno’s crown”(line 136; in Roman mythology, Juno is Jupiter’s wife, and the goddess of marriage). Jaques de Boys, brother to Orlando and Orsino, announces Duke Frederick’s abdication and adoption of a monastic life. Jaques says that he will join him— “out of these convertites [renunciants]/There is much matter to be heard and learned” (lines 179-180). Jaques then commits the four couples to each other. Still, master of ceremonies, Jaques’ assessments of all the lovers (lines 181-88) seem correct and insightful—has he learned something? However, his line as he departs to the ‘abandoned cave’ is true to his characterisation throughout As You Like It: “I am for other than for dancing measures” (line 188).

What Jaques opposes in As You Like It is the beauty, spontaneity, and lyricism of life. His melancholia has made him a killjoy. Jaques is the antithesis to the comedy’s thesis of life’s inherent love and joy, realised and celebrated in the lovers’ unions in the finale. Jaques’ presence at their weddings, countering his earlier arguments and attitude, makes the joy theme stronger by their defeat.

Jaques’ characterisation makes the point that it’s relatively easy to be a critic of everything, but this is destructive. More importantly, it’s untrue to reality. McFarland finds tendencies to tragedy in As You Like It. He writes that this comedy “involves the first major assault of the forces of bitterness and alienation upon the pastoral vision of Shakespeare” (101). I don’t agree with McFarland’s opinion, but, based on your reading of As You Like It, what do you think?

  1. To avoid the division of noble estates, the law of primogeniture meant that on the father’s death, the eldest son inherited the title, lands and possessions. Girls inherited only if they had no brothers


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