2 Story

A Fairy Tale For Grown-Ups

The good news for audiences and readers is that in As You Like It most of the story happens in Act 1, in a few episodes at the beginning of Act 2, and happenings near the ends of Acts 4 and 5. The plot is full of romance features, sometimes referred to as motifs. In some respects, As You Like It is a fairy tale for grown-ups.

Early on, speeches by minor characters, Charles the wrestler, the courtier Le Beau and the old retainer Adam help audiences to keep up. They explain situations and plot developments.

 Act 1

Orlando (Cinderella) was the youngest of three sons of Sir Rowland de Boys. His eldest brother, Oliver (wicked stepsister/brother), inherited all his father’s wealth and property: “I never loved my brother in my life” (Act 3, scene 1, line 14). Oliver has provided no education and has brought Orlando up as a farm labourer. When the play opens Orlando has had enough. He will take the thousand crowns that his father left him in his will, and set out to seek his fortune. Oliver does not want to part with a thousand crowns. He plots with the champion wrestler, Charles, to murder his brother in a match.

Frederick (wicked stepmother/father) has usurped the power and possessions of his older brother, Duke Senior, the rightful duke. Duke Senior (fairy godmother) has fled and “is already in the forest of Arden, and many merry men with him, and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (Act 1, scene 1, lines 109-113; English legend—’Robin Hood’—plus Greek myth—’golden world’).

Celia, Frederick’s daughter (nice, not wicked stepsister) is the best friend of her cousin Rosalind (Cinderella). Both girls are staying at Duke Frederick’s court.

The Wrestling Match

Against everyone’s expectation, Orlando defeats Charles. Rosalind and Orlando, two young people whose guardians are absent or have failed them, fall in love.

The Flight to the Forest

Frederick now wants to murder Orlando. He gives Rosalind ten days to leave his court under pain of death. After gathering their jewels and wealth, Celia and Rosalind flee, together with Touchstone the jester, who leaves out of loyalty to Celia: ‘He’ll go along o’er the wide world with me’ (Act 1, scene 3, line 139). The girls disguise themselves as brother and sister, shepherd and shepherdess, Ganymede and Aliena. Their goal, Celia says, is ‘To seek my uncle in the forest of Arden’ (Act 1, scene 3, line 113).

When Orlando arrives home (Act 2, scene 2), Adam warns him that Oliver is planning to murder him. Taking with them Adam’s savings of 500 crowns, Orlando and Adam flee. They intend to make a humble life together, to find “some settled low content” (Act 2, scene 3, line 69).

See excerpts from all the Royal Shakespeare productions of As You Like It here.

Acts 2-4

By Act 2 most of the young characters in Act 1 have moved to the Forest of Arden. For Elizabethans ‘forest’ included grazing lands “in the skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat” (Act 3, scene 2, lines 342-343). The audience can now focus on what Helen Gardner calls the ‘soul’ of As You Like It. Shakespeare locates what Bloom calls his ‘invention of the human’ mostly in the forest.

Courtships are the main subject of this middle section. The young characters interact, sometimes with inappropriate partners, at other times with appropriate partners whom they do not recognise or do not accept.

The couples are:

  • William a countryman, in love with Audrey, a goatherd.
  • Touchstone, a court jester, in lust with Audrey.
  • Silvius, a shepherd, in love with Phoebe, a shepherdess.
  • Phoebe in love with Ganymede, who is Rosalind disguised as a shepherd.
  • Orlando in love with Rosalind, who as Ganymede instructs Orlando in how to court Rosalind.

In this middle section, the courtships are interrupted only by the adventures of Oliver, sent by Duke Frederick to kill or capture Orlando (Act 3, scene 1).

Painting of Silvius and Phoebe standing together in a wood. Silvius, pleading, looks at Phoebe who is turned away from him.
Figure 6. Silvius and Phoebe (1872) by John Pettie (1839-1893). Oil on canvas. Public domain

Act 5 

In Act 5 the confusions among the lovers are resolved. William seems not unhappy to leave Audrey after Touchstone threatens him with horrible forms of death (Act 5, scene 1). His cheerful? relieved? ironic? departing line (60) is “God rest you merry, sir.” Rosalind reports that Celia and Oliver have fallen in love at first sight (Act 5, scene 2, lines 28-39). Rosalind’s discarding of her disguise unravels Orlando’s and Phoebe’s mistaking her as Ganymede. Phoebe can’t marry a girl and therefore accepts the faithful Silvius.

Oliver’s fairy-tale transformation from a would-be murderer into a faithful brother and loving husband is equalled by Frederick’s unlikely conversion. Frederick has mobilised an army intending to destroy the exiled Duke Senior and his forest court. On ‘the skirts of the wild wood’ he meets by chance ‘an old religious man.’ Frederick immediately repents, retires from worldly life, and returns the dukedom to his brother. I wish all invasive wars could be so quickly settled!

The plot is not Shakespeare’s main interest in As You Like It. Or perhaps we should see Frederick’s conversion as serendipitous—confirmation that life sometimes brings about a happy ending against the odds? Frederick’s conversion story is narrated in blank verse by Jaques de Boys, the middle brother, who enters the play at the last moment to organise the happy ending (Act 5, scene 4 lines 156-171).

Assisted by ‘magician’ Shakespeare and Jaques de Boys’ explanatory postscript, ‘magician’ Rosalind (Act 5, scene 2, lines 54-70 and 78) finally straightens out all the confusion.

The point of the plot is not to be believable but to be unbelievable, in both the multiple confusions and the final unlikely restoration of a complex order. The audience delights in both.

Comedy is an image of life triumphing over chance … it embodies in symbolic form our sense of happiness in feeling that we can meet and master the changes and chances of life as it confronts us (Gardner 61). There are many unbelievable aspects of As You Like It. Do you think this is related to the fact the play is about youth and young people?

The Pleasures of the Story

1. Complexity

Most modern people enjoy working out whodunnit. In an era when many could not read and printed books were expensive, keeping up with a plot involving twenty-two named characters plus extras was a way for audiences at all levels of literacy to enjoy performances on stage.

2. Neatness

Beginning in Act 2, the question in an audience’s mind is: ‘How will these love entanglements be sorted out?’

As You Like It triumphantly solves the complications by the single action of Rosalind and Celia appearing as themselves in the wedding masque (Act 5, scene 4, lines 103-141). Such neat solutions are the essence of comic plays. Hymen, the God of weddings, underlines the symmetry that results:

Here’s eight that must take hands
To join in Hymen’s band (lines 133-134)

3. Comic Situations

Beginning at Act 2, the plot is the basis for many comic exchanges, such as Touchstone’s courtship of Audrey, Sir Oliver Martext’s attempt to marry them (Act 3, scene 3), and (centrally) the disguised Rosalind’s profound and witty encounters with Orlando.

4. On Stage Action

Examples are the wrestling match in Act 1; Rosalind’s and Celia’s disguises; the weariness of Celia and Adam near the end of their journeys to Arden in Act 2; and Orlando’s attack on the Duke’s party (Act 2, scene 7, lines 91-124).

5. Entertainment by Poetry

The poetry of love and philosophy in As You Like It has stood the test of time. By contrast, Orlando’s bad, funny poems in praise of Rosalind are a send-up of the contemporary courtly genre of love poetry.  Act 5, scene 2, lines 85-130, where the lovers take turns to express their longing, and Jaques’ blessings on each couple in Act 5, scene 4, lines 136-141 are tragicomic examples of symmetrical dialogue.

6. Entertainment by Spectacle, Costumes, and (Beginning in the 18th Century) Sets

An example is the masque of Hymen, celebrating the solving of confusion, the restoration of right order and a happy future for everyone (almost).

7. Entertainment by Music and Song

Music enters As You Like It in the forest, and never leaves it. Six songs are prescribed in the Folio text, and at least three are often still performed. They are ‘Under the greenwood tree’ (Act 2, scene 5, line 1), ‘Blow, blow thou winter wind’ (Act 2, scene 7, line 182); and ‘It was a lover and his lass’ (Act 5, scene 3, line 16.).

Watch a lovely rendition of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ (with introduction) by Musicians of the Old Post Road [3:49 mins]:

The best-known song in Shakespeare’s plays is “It was a Lover and his Lass”, which two ‘pages’ (boy singers brought in for the purpose) perform in Act 5, scene 3 of As You Like It. This happens shortly before all the characters’ confused affections are sorted out in the climax. The music, composed by Thomas Morley but based on popular tradition, was probably used in the first performances of As You Like It.  The version below by Szabo Music is a lovely recent performance of the song. It’s the essence of romance in As You Like It, reminding us that youth and young love are fleeting.

Watch the song here [2:28 mins]:

[Lyrics transcript PDF]



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