top of page

As You Like It


As You Like It illustrates a mature Shakespeare more confident in his handling of comedic plots and willing to take risks in duplication (or quadruplication of couples in this play), and with character types. We meet for the first time, for example, the serious fool Touchstone, dressed in motely and decanting on society’s ills. This figure was likely scripted for a particular actor named Robert Armin. We also encounter another theatrical type, the malcontent. Jacques is a satirist and he is bitingly annoyed at how even in the Forest of Arden one can carry social vices to this mystical green world. Written around 1600, As You Like It is often grouped with Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. Nonetheless, the play is distinct in many ways—here we have conflict that stems from relationships, and so many relationships must be broken or only partially healed for the heterosexual pairings at the end of the play to take place. We have not only male-male desire (supposed, at least, in Ganymede and Orlando’s relationship), but also female-female desire (Phoebe, unaware that Ganymede is indeed a woman). We also have the entangled issue of brothers, and the Cain and Abel story is referenced continually, not least by the emblematic figure of the servant Adam.

Our frame for this play is a complex one, revolving around the terms gender, sex, and sexuality. It’s incredibly difficult to get at because early modern gender and sexuality differed in terminology and ideology from our own moment. We have to be careful with our use of words here, and work to historicize an early modern understanding of not only men and women, but also in-between categories such as the effeminate man (Ganymede) and the fool (Touchstone). To begin, we have boy actors playing women who then must pose as men. In fleeing from the court to the Forest of Arden, Rosalind determines that “Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold” (1.3.108), or, as women they might be subject to physical violence from men if they are unattended by a man. There is playfulness in their determined disguises: Rosalind will pose as Ganymede, while Celia will muddy her complexion and appear as a lower-class woman named Aliena.

Rosalind:         Were it not better,

                        Because that I am more than common tall,

                        That I did suit me all points like a man?

                        A gallant curtal ax upon my thigh,

                        A boar spear in my hand, and—in my heart

                        Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will—

                        We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,

                        As many other mannish cowards have

                        That do outface it with their semblances.

Celia:               What shall I call thee when thou art a man?

Rosalind:         I’ll have no worse a name than Jove’s own page,

                        And therefore look you call me Ganymede. (1.3.112-123).

Despite her language of “swashing and a martial outside,” Rosalind will posture as a young man, or an effeminate man who does not possess all the signifiers traditionally associated with masculinity. And even in this moment of imagination, Rosalind acknowledges the interior: whatever her clothes will make her, her heart will be an entirely different matter. Rosalind’s crossdressing furnishes much matter for jokes about the supposed roles that clothing prescribes. As they walk wearily in the Forest, Ganymede/Rosalind jests: “I could find it 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” (2.4.4-7).

            So how did Shakespeare’s contemporaries understand the category of biological sex, gender, and sexual desire? In some ways, asking this as a single question suggests a false sense of comparison between the three categories. Of course, biological sex refers to the physical characteristics of the body, including genitalia and secondary characteristics such as facial hair. But the early moderns held a different conception of the different bodies, namely one inherited from the physician Galen and others that largely argued for a one-sex model. In this version (which was not the only one nor did it go uncontested), women were inferior versions of men, their anatomical parts remaining inside the body but mirroring the external genitalia of a man. Both sexes were thought to ejaculate during sex, with the female ejaculation providing a seed that was just as necessary as the male seed for conception. To cite Stephen Orgel’s summary of the issue:

Both male and female seeds are present in every foetus. A foetus becomes male rather than female if the male seed is dominant and generates enough heat to press the genital organs outwards - that is, if the foetus is stronger, strength being conceived as heat.

In this version of anatomical history, we all begin as female, and masculinity is a development out of and away from femininity; the female is an incomplete male. The medical literature from classical times onwards confirms the theory by recording various examples of women completing the physiological process and, under the pressure of some great stress or excitement, turning into men. The most famous of the early modern accounts, often cited, describes a shepherd named Germain Garnier, who had been a woman named Marie until the age of 15, when, as she was chasing her pigs, her genitals turned inside out, transforming her into a man. Garnier was still alive in Montaigne's time; when Montaigne visited his town, Garnier was away, but he questioned the townspeople about the man and made him an exemplary case in his essay Of the Power of the Imagination. He had no doubt about the authenticity of the transformation and observes that 'this sort of accident is frequently met with'. (Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare, Sexuality, and Gender,” in The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare).

Of course, in this homologous model, the transformation only works one way. Nonetheless, men were thought susceptible to becoming not physically women, but more woman-like, or effeminate. Uxorious feelings or excessive lust could render a man more womanly, thus a monstrous de-formation that early modern conduct manuals and other tracts on masculine behavior cautioned against. Thus one had to maintain one’s masculinity or femininity. While we tend to think of biological sex as relatively fixed (that is, unless altered through medicine or surgery), for the early moderns it was constantly under surveillance.

            That surveillance was particularly fraught when concerned with the matter of clothing. If one’s masculinity was under threat from behaviors, clothing constituted a potential deviant behavior that could shape the body in specific ways. As the example of Germain Garnier suggests, clothing was transformative, literally shaping the body and of course signifying to others what gender one performed. Thus, the ironies inherent in Rosalind’s frequent references to her doublet and hose, and the worry that nonetheless she will not perform her new gender adequately. Nonetheless, by posing specifically as Ganymede, Jove’s cupbearer and a byword for a young alluring boy, Rosalind is modifying the expectations for performing a different gender. She can be more effeminate because she is signaling as such through her behavior. However, such signaling too had limits, and when Rosalind later faints at the sight of a bloody handkerchief, she has given up the ruse.

The age of marital consent in Shakespeare’s England was 14 for males and 12 for females. We tend to forget that many of Shakespeare’s lovers are prepubescent or quite young indeed. The young male, retaining elements of boyishness, was an object of desire for both men and women and thus Ganymede’s effeminate nature is potentially erotic for Orlando and Phoebe. In occupying this indeterminate position as the effeminate or simply young boy, Rosalind is able to interact with and identify the foibles of both men and women.


So I want us to use this frame of early modern sex, gender, and sexuality to think about the play’s many relationships. We see in this play for the first time the relationship between siblings really played out: we witnessed some of this in Richard III, but As You Like It probes the problematic and often violent relationship between brothers, a relationship furthered by the idea of primogeniture, in which the eldest sons inherits land and money from the father and the younger sons are left to depend on employment or the charity of the elder brother. Orlando’s accusation to Oliver highlights the tensions in such a system:

I know you are my eldest brother, and in the gentle condition of blood you should so know me. The courtesy of nations allows you my better, in that you are the firstborn, but the same tradition takes not away my blood, were there twenty brothers betwixt us. I have as much of my father in me as you, albeit I confess your coming before me is nearer to his reverence. (1.1.43-49).

We will witness this disaffection with one’s place in the familial line later in King Lear. But it is notable that Shakespeare is also exposing the violence inherent in such a scheme in a comedy. Oliver’s response, after all, is to strike Orlando for this speech, calling him “boy” (1.1.50). As he later tells Charles the Wrestler, “I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger” (1.1.138-139).

            With Shakespeare’s strategy of duplication at full force in this play, we also learn of Duke Senior and Duke Frederick’s quarrel. As Charles the wrestler explains,

There’s no news at the court, sir, but the old news: that is, the old Duke is banished by his younger brother the new Duke, and three or four loving lords have put themselves into voluntary exile with him, whose lands and revenues enrich the new Duke; therefore he gives them good leave to wander. (1.1.95-100).

At the macrocosmic level, political affairs have been disrupted because of a quarrel between two brothers. But of course in this instance it is the younger brother who is the villain, overturning the proscribed social and political mores to gain power and, importantly, “revenues.”

            The language of inheritance flits throughout this narrative to point to the question of whether bonds of blood then render children, brothers, and other relationships suspect. As the Duke Frederick accuses Rosalind: “Thou art thy father’s daughter. There’s enough” (1.3.56).

Rosalind and Celia, however, share a much different bond. Perhaps this is Shakespeare’s commentary on the potential harmonies that can exist between women. It’s as if this is the before-image of Hermia and Helena, in which we can access to a type of feminine companionship that does not partake of the violence of brotherly relations. Rosalind, we learn has remained at court despite the exile of her father. She stays, however, because of the love Celia has for her:

For the Duke’s daughter, her cousin, so loves her, being ever from their cradles bred together, that she would have followed her exile or have died to stay behind her. She is at the court and no less bellowed of her uncle than his own daughter, and never two ladies loved as they do. (1.1.103-108).

Le Beau also comments on their relationship, noting that their “loves / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (1.2.266-267). But their closeness is precisely what irks Duke Frederick—Celia must constantly be compared to Rosalind if they remain together. Celia, however, does not care about this comparison, so long as she is able to stay with her cousin. There does seem to be an imbalance in their relationship, however, for Celia appears to adore Rosalind, while Rosalind is more independent. Let’s look at their first exchange and tell me if you see what I’m noticing here:

Celia:               Herein I see thou lov’st me not with the full weight that I love thee. If my uncle, thy banished father, had banished thy uncle, the Duke my father, so thou hadst been still with me, I could have taught my love to take thy father for mine. So wouldst thou, if the truth of thy love to me were so righteously tempered as mind is to thee.

Rosalind:         Well, I will forget the condition of my estate to rejoice in yours.

Celia:               You know my father hath no child but I, nor none is like to have. And truly, when he dies thou shalt be his heir, for what he hath taken away from thy father perforce I will render thee again in affection. By mine honor, I will, and when I break that oath, let me turn monster. Therefore, my sweet Rose, my dear Rose, be merry.

Rosalind:         From henceforth I will, coz, and devise sports. Let me see, what think you of falling in love?

Celia:               Marry, I prithee, do, to make sport withal. But love no man in earnest, nor no further in sport neither than with safety of a pure blush thou mayst in honor come off again. (1.2.7-28).

Celia promises to reward Rosalind once her father dies, and there is a naivete in Celia that the two women will always be together to share in the inheritance. When Rosalind mentions love, Celia warns against fully falling in love with a man. Celia will continually point to her bond with Rosalind, as when she claims to her father:

            If she be a traitor,

            Why, so am I. We still have slept together,

            Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together,

            And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans

            Still we went coupled and inseparable (1.3.70-74).

So “inseparable” are they, that Celia is the one who devises the initial plan to flee the court together. She insists upon maintaining this bond. At this point, we should be suspicious, if only because we are in a comedy, and a comedy requires heterosexual pairing at the end of the play (unless your name is Antonio). Nonetheless, there is something admirable and pure in Celia’s enthusiasm for her cousin, which could be read as a lesbian attraction. Even if not read that way, others and Celia herself often point to the demonstrable bond that the two women share. Thus Celia’s protest that she must join Rosalind has a ring of earnest desire to share in her cousin’s misfortunes, so long as the two, “like Junos’ swans” remain tied together (note how in that image, the swans are reined together by a physical tie). In protest to Rosalind that she too has been banished, Celia exclaims:

            No, hath not? Rosalind lacks then the love

            Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one.

            Shall we be sundered? Shall we part, sweet girl?

            No, let my father seek another heir.

            Therefore devise with me how we may fly,

            Whither to go, and what to bear with us.

            And do not seek to take your change upon you,

            To bear your griefs yourself and leave me out;

            For, by this heaven, how at our sorrows pale,

            Say what thou canst, I’ll go along with thee. (1.3.94-103).


Pastoral is the land of freedom from the vices of city life, highly idealized and a way to imagine a utopia. But as we shall see, such utopias are impossible, and Shakespeare will poke holes in the idea that such a land of merry men can be sustainable. We learn that Duke Senior and his fellows, including the acerbic Jaques, adopt a specifically English fantasy:

They say 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. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world. (1.1.110-114).

Combining traditions here—folk English hero and the Ovidian golden world—Shakespeare is initially presenting the escape to the Forest of Arden as a magical recharge of the social energies festering at court. And in part the Forest does work that way: it is a space of re-education, of realigning individuals to prepare them for healthy relationships and political/social roles. But it is also one that others make into what they will: it would threaten two unattended beautiful young ladies, but is also a site for Duke Senior to moralize his present reversal of fortune:

            Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,

            Hath not old custom made this life more sweet

            Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods

            More free from peril than the envious court?

            Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,

            The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang

            And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,

            Which when it bites and blows upon my body

            Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say

            “This is no flattery; these are counselors

            That feeling persuade me what I am.”

            Sweet are the uses of adversity,

            Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

            Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

            And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

            Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

            Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (2.1.1-17).

We soon learn, however, that this idealization requires the violence of the hunt to sustain the Duke and his companions. The melancholic and bitter Jacques acknowledges the usurpation within the Forest of Arden itself, and he descants on the Duke’s tendency to idealize his setting.

            Orlando must be taught how to love in the Forest, and the clever Rosalind as Ganymede is his instructor. It is as if only in the safety of a male-male companionship can Orlando adopt the realism that Rosalind requires for a lover. In love he is naïve, as we witness in his inability to speak to Rosalind after the wrestling match: “What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue? / I cannot speak to her, yet she urged conference. / O poor Orlando, thou art overthrown!” (1.2.248-250).

The Fool

Touchstone is a fool, meaning that he has a certain license to speak the truth. As he observes, “The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly” (1.2.83-84). In other words, under Duke Frederick, his usual freedom to pry into the follies of others has been curtailed. He is a courtly fool, meaning that his style relies on wit and humor more than on the physical humor of the “natural fool.” Jaques is charmed by Touchstone’s foolery and wishes for a motely suit of his own. He demands the liberty that the fool possesses:

            I must have liberty

            Withal, as large a charter as the wind,

            To blow on whom I please, for so fools have.

            And they that are most galled with my folly,

            They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?

            The “why” is plain as way to parish church:

            He that a fool doth very wisely hit

            Doth very foolishly, although he smart,

            Not to seem senseless of the bob. If not,

            The wise man’s folly is anatomized

            Even by the squand’ring glances of the fool.

            Invest me in my motley; 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. (2.7.45-61).

The fool can identify the follies of others in a distinct way that others cannot. Likening the fool to the physician, Jaques believes that such foolish honesty would act as a purge to the corrupted world.

            This is the context for Jaques’ famous speech on the artifice of human posturing. I know we’ve already looked at the speech early in the semester, but now I want us to return to it in its fuller context. Recall too that despite Jaques’ negative assessment of human posturing, we have just witnessed the pure love between Adam and Orlando, which suggests an alternative narrative to the one Jaques presents:

            All the world’s a stage,

            And all the men and women merely players.

            They have their exits and their entrances,

            And one man in his time plays many parts,

            His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

            Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

            Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

            And shining morning face, creeping like snail

            Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

            Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

            Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

            Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

            Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel,

            Seeking the bubble reputation

            Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

            In fair round belly with good capon lined,

            With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

            Full of wise saws and modern instances;

            And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

            Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

            With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

            His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

            For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

            Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

            And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

            That ends this strange, eventful history,

            Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

            Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (2.7.138-165).

Orlando and Adam enter at this moment, and no one comments on Jaques’ speech. It feels like a set-piece, meant to be quotable but not necessarily contributing to the plot. Given that he now desires a suit of motely and to become a fool, perhaps we should read this speech from that frame: Jaques is practicing how to be a sharp commentator on human follies. One of those follies, as the play repeatedly points to, is how one presents oneself through manner and clothing.

bottom of page