“All the world’s a stage”, declaims the melancholy Jacques in 2.7 of “As You Like It” – and “all the men and women merely players”. Other than Hamlet, there are few characters in Shakespeare’s plays more drawn to acting – to playing – than Rosalind, the central character in this play and (in terms of lines) the most prominent female character in Shakespeare.
What part is she playing? At first she has her work cut out simply to survive. Her father Duke Senior has lost his dukedom, usurped by his younger brother Frederick, and been banished from his own Court to the forest, to cope as best he may. Initially Rosalind is permitted to remain at Court as best friend of her cousin Celia, but her grace-and-favour status doesn’t last, and soon she’s exiled too.
It’s when she falls in love with Orlando – a fellow exile from the world of the Court – and he with her, that Rosalind’s dramatic talents are required. If they’re going to love one another, she reasons – and she hopes they do and will – let them do so properly and realistically, with none of the wide-eyed fairy-tale sentimentalism of bad poetry. To teach him this lesson, Ganymede volunteers to play the part of Rosalind, the better to show Orlando how to love. So when Orlando (denounced by Rosalind as a “fancy-monger”) says that without her, he will die, she can put him right: “men have died from time to time”, says Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind, “but not for love”.
Rosalind and Orlando are not the only lovers in “As You Like It” – far from it. In practice the play comprises four weddings (though no funeral), ending with an avalanche of nuptial bliss that takes in all manner of relationships. There is Silvius and Phoebe, for example – the male rather too devoted, the woman too detached; there is Touchstone and Audrey, a mismatch not even Touchstone thinks will last; and there is Celia and Oliver, love at first sight, as impulsive as it is improbable.
These various relationships lend context to the romance that develops between Rosalind and Orlando. And because these two are refugees from the world of the Court, liberated by the freedoms the forest affords, they personify a contrast between the petty ambitions and cruelties of the urban world and the redeeming romanticism of nature. The forest isn’t quite the winner, since life returns to the Court at the end of the play, but it has been the catalyst for romance and the backdrop to a stage on which, paradoxically, Rosalind and Orlando have been free to play themselves.
Scene by Scene
ACT ONE SCENE ONE
Orlando complains he has been let down by his brother Oliver, who refuses to pay for his education.
Oliver strikes him, provoking Orlando to take him by the throat and complain about his treatment.
Oliver has inherited the majority of their dead father’s estate, but will release Orlando’s pittance.
News comes from the Court that the old Duke has been usurped by his younger brother and exiled.
But his daughter Rosalind will stay at Court to be with her cousin the new Duke’s daughter Celia.
But Charles the Court wrestler has a problem: it seems he is slated to fight Orlando tomorrow.
He tells Oliver he will injure him, but is warned that Orlando is “villainous” and must be beaten.
Oliver laments that his brother is popular with “my own people” but “this wrestler shall clear all”.
ACT ONE SCENE TWO
Celia promises Rosalind, when her usurping father dies, she will make sure the throne reverts to her.
Wrestling is announced, though Celia and Rosalind fear for the safety of one of the combatants.
They try to persuade him to withdraw, but Orlando insists he has nothing to lose by risking his life.
Orlando beats Charles easily, though Duke Frederick denounces his late father as “still mine enemy”.
But Rosalind reveals that her father, the exiled Duke Senior, loved Orlando’s father “as his soul”.
Rosalind gives Orlando her necklace, leaving him tongue-tied and emotionally “overthrown”.
ACT ONE SCENE THREE
Rosalind confesses that, even though he didn’t speak to her, she has fallen in love with Orlando.
Frederick arrives to tell Rosalind she is banished from his court for being “thy father’s daughter”.
He criticises her for her “very silence and her patience” – Celia will be better off without her.
But Celia “cannot live out of her company” and decides to share her fate: exile or execution.
They agree to disguise themselves as man and woman, to recruit the fool, and head for Arden.
ACT TWO SCENE ONE
Rosalind’s father Duke Senior relishes his exile in the forest, compared to his old life at Court.
He is attracted to the prospect of eating venison, yet the deer have every right to live here too.
The First Lord reports that melancholy Jacques reached the same conclusion about killing the deer.
Duke Senior says he would enjoy meeting with Jacques as arguing with him is something “I love”.
ACT TWO SCENE TWO
Duke Frederick discovers that Celia, Rosalind and the Fool Touchstone have disappeared from Court.
He links their absence to Orlando, and decides that Oliver will be tasked with solving the problem.
ACT TWO SCENE THREE
Orlando goes home to find the servant Adam knows about his wrestling triumph at the Duke’s Court.
Adam warns him that his brother intends to burn down the lodging where Orlando normally sleeps.
Orlando is unsure where to go, but Adam volunteers to accompany him with the money he’s saved.
Adam reveals he has lived there over sixty years, but he’s ready to leave to share Adam’s fortunes.
ACT TWO SCENE FOUR
Disguised as man and woman, Rosalind and Celia overhear two shepherds discussing their love lives.
Young Silvius believes he is the only person ever to have suffered the trials of unrequited affection.
He gets impatient with old Corin’s experience and advice, and arrogantly abandons him in the forest.
Rosalind and Celia discover Corin has a cottage for sale, and as Celia says “I like this place”, they buy.
ACT TWO SCENE FIVE
Amiens and Jacques sing about the joys and challenges of life in the forest compared to life at Court.
ACT TWO SCENE SIX
Orlando and Adam are struggling to survive but Orlando promises to protect and look after Adam.
ACT TWO SCENE SEVEN
Jacques is pleased to have met “a fool” in the forest, and recites some of his insights for Duke Senior.
Jacques claims he’d like to play the role of the fool, and asks “give me leave / To speak my mind”.
But Duke Senior believes Jacques is too melancholy for the part and guilty of the things he criticises.
Orlando arrives and starts to threaten the party as they feast, but is invited to join in and eat his fill.
He asks to go and bring Adam to the feast, and is told “we will nothing waste till you return”.
Jacques gives his opinions on the seven ages of man, concluding with the privations of the last age.
Orlando arrives with Adam to be welcomed by Duke Senior, who assures him he “lov’d your father”.
ACT THREE SCENE ONE
When Oliver admits he has been unable to locate his brother Orlando, his property is confiscated.
Duke Frederick threatens Oliver that the confiscation will be permanent if Orlando is not located.
ACT THREE SCENE TWO
Orlando is pinning his poems for Rosalind on trees in the forest, so as to broadcast his love for her.
Meanwhile, Touchstone tells Corin that if he has never been at Court he is missing out on life.
But Corin responds that what is appropriate to life at Court doesn’t necessarily help in the country.
Corin adds his life is self-contained, but Touchstone replies he depends on “the copulation of cattle”.
Corin introduces Rosalind as “Master Ganymede”, and describes her as Celia’s (or Aliena’s) brother.
Rosalind comes across Orlando’s doggerel pinned to a tree, and Touchstone ridicules the verse.
Celia arrives with another poem, comparing Rosalind to Cleopatra and promising to “die her slave”.
After lengthy teasing, Celia reveals that the poet is Orlando, leaving Rosalind confused and excited.
Jacques tells Orlando he disapproves of him pinning love poems to trees or carved in their bark.
He believes that to be in love is Orlando’s “worst fault”, and they agree to differ and to depart.
Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, joined by Celia, engages Orlando in witty conversation about time.
But even when he admits he is responsible for the forest poems, she does not believe he is in love.
She says she can cure him of his love-madness by pretending to be a woman for him to court.
She will call herself Rosalind, she says, and he must come daily to her cottage to court her.
ACT THREE SCENE THREE
Touchstone is to marry the goatherd Audrey, though she doesn’t understand much of what he says.
Audrey admits she is “not fair” though she claims to be honest enough for Touchstone to marry her.
When Martext arrives to marry them, Jacques reveals he has been eavesdropping, and will assist.
Touchstone has doubts about whether he will be properly married, but sees advantages in that.
ACT THREE SCENE FOUR
When Orlando fails to turn up to meet with Rosalind, she compares him to the betraying Judas.
But Celia observes that lovers’ promises, for all Orlando’s “brave” verses, are of little value.
Corin arrives to invite the two women to watch a romantic encounter between Silvius and Phoebe.
ACT THREE SCENE FIVE
Silvius begs Phoebe not to hurt him with rejection but it’s clear she is not interested in him.
She taunts him for suggesting that her eyes can wound him: where is the wound? she asks.
Rosalind dressed as Ganymede intervenes to scold Phoebe for her hard-hearted way with Silvius.
She tells Phoebe that she is unworthy of Silvius, saying he is “a thousand times a properer man”.
But Phoebe is immediately attracted to Rosalind / Ganymede, having fallen in love “with my anger”.
Rosalind and Celia leave Phoebe alone to tell Silvius that “Thy company … / … I will endure”.
But she is keener on Ganymede, “a pretty youth” who she means to write a letter to “straight”.
ACT FOUR SCENE ONE
Rosalind (as Ganymede) rebukes Jacques for his melancholy, though Jacques defends himself.
He says his melancholy is not that of scholars or musicians but uniquely his, a “humorous sadness”.
Orlando is reprimanded by Rosalind for being late, though she admits she is “in a holiday humour”.
Orlando has to imagine Ganymede is Rosalind and “woo me”. At first, he is to be denied a kiss.
Next he is rebuked for exaggeration, claiming that if he cannot win the woman’s heart, “I will die”.
Next she will train him in “a more coming-on disposition”, and Orlando quickly agrees to marry her.
Rosalind encourages Celia to act as priest and marry them in a mock wedding ceremony.
Ganymede admits he’d be a challenging husband, but Orlando asks if Rosalind would be the same.
Rosalind “will do as I do”, says Ganymede – but Orlando has to leave, for dinner with the Duke.
He promises to be no more than two hours away and she pledges she will hold him to his promise.
When Orlando leaves, Rosalind confesses to Aliena “I cannot be out of the sight of Orlando”.
ACT FOUR SCENE TWO
A Lord has killed a deer, and heading for the Duke’s feast, they discuss who is to wear the horns.
ACT FOUR SCENE THREE
Silvius brings Phoebe’s letter to Ganymede, which he reads before accusing him of having written it.
Ganymede observes that no woman could have composed a letter so “boisterous” and “cruel”.
But when Ganymede reads it out, the letter is full of praise, implying that Ganymede is godlike.
Ganymede tells Silvius (“If you be a true lover”) to tell Phoebe to love him or “I will never have her”.
Now Oliver appears looking for a certain cottage and recognises its owners in Ganymede and Aliena.
Oliver delivers Orlando’s greetings, before revealing a bloody handkerchief and an explanation.
Sleeping in the forest, threatened by a snake and a “hungry lioness”, he was rescued by his brother.
Orlando saved his brother but suffered a flesh-wound and fainted, so he cannot keep his pledge.
Ganymede faints to Oliver’s surprise – “You lack a man’s heart” – but Rosalind recovers her poise.
ACT FIVE SCENE ONE
Audrey feels Martext was qualified to marry her to Touchstone, in spite of Jacques’s view of him.
They encounter William, who confesses he “do love this maid”, but admits that he is not learned.
Touchstone drives William away with numerous threats, then is called to “Our master and mistress”.
ACT FIVE SCENE TWO
Oliver is to marry Aliena and will turn over his goods to Orlando so as to remain living in the forest.
Rosalind explains to Orlando how Oliver and Celia fell in love – “no sooner look’d but they lov’d”.
Orlando says it will be “bitter” to watch his brother marrying Celia, but Rosalind has a solution.
She has known a magician since she was three, who can arrange that he’ll marry Rosalind tomorrow.
Phoebe rebukes Rosalind for reading her letter aloud, but Rosalind tells her to marry her shepherd.
Phoebe, Silvius and Orlando all declare their love desires, but Rosalind has love “for no woman”.
Rosalind promises all concerned that they will be satisfied, and arranges to meet them tomorrow.
ACT FIVE SCENE THREE
Touchstone and Audrey, anticipating their marriage next day, are serenaded by two pages.
Touchstone is not impressed by the song, though the two pages defend their performance of it.
ACT FIVE SCENE FOUR
Rosalind (still as Ganymede) confirms with Duke Senior that he will permit her to marry Orlando.
Orlando, Phoebe and Silvius also all agree to their various marriages if Rosalind can be located.
Duke Senior remarks to Orlando that Ganymede is similar to his own daughter, and Orlando agrees.
Touchstone and Audrey arrive, intending to “swear and to forswear, according as marriage binds”.
Touchstone reflects on his debating techniques, concluding that “If” is useful way to keep the peace.
Rosalind reappears before her father and Orlando, but tells Phoebe she will “ne’er wed woman”.
Amid rejoicing at the prospect of four weddings, Duke Frederick’s second son has news to convey.
His father regrets his past crimes, restores his kingdom to his brother, and has entered
Rosalind persuades the audience that, if they like the opposite sex, they should also enjoy the play.
At the start of the play Frederick has usurped and exiled his older brother Duke Senior (though the latter’s daughter Rosalind has not been banished). This plot line anticipates a similar usurping which lies at the bottom of other plays by Shakespeare – for example, “The Tempest”. There too, an older brother has been levered out of a position of authority by a younger – in that case Prospero by Antonio. As an older brother himself (the oldest of four boys), Shakespeare may have had private reasons for developing and re-using this plot line. One can only wonder.
Around half of Shakespeare’s plays are concerned in one way or another with a transfer of power. “As You Like It” is among these, opening with evidence of feuds in two households: in 1.1, the death of a father (Sir Rowland de Boys) means the older brother inheriting more or less everything – a system known as primogeniture – leaving little or nothing for younger siblings like Orlando. In 1.2, a coup against Duke Senior by his younger brother Duke Frederick leaves their respective daughters (Rosalind and Celia) conspiring how to right the wrongs the coup has caused. In contrast to the competitive young men in 1.1, the young women in 1.2 choose to co-operate to put things right.
When in 1.3 Rosalind is banished from Duke Frederick’s Court, she decides to head to the Forest of Arden and Celia resolves to join her. So they will leave behind the order and comfort of the Court, its urban setting and its modern ways of doing things, and disappear into the timeless world of the forest. In doing so they’ll tread a path often taken in Shakespeare – from the stressful but civilised human world, with its ambition, cruelty and greed, to the restorative natural world, where human divisions and tensions may be seen in proportion. So the first act of the play establishes at least two important binary oppositions: between the way men operate and the way women act; and between the world of human pettiness on one side and on the other, the natural world.
When Duke Frederick discovers that his daughter and her cousin have disappeared, he learns too that Touchstone is nowhere to be seen. Described by the Second Lord as a “roynish clown”, and by Rosalind as “The clownish fool”, Touchstone is the court jester, a position which allows him to comment freely on what is happening around him without offending his superiors. The role of the clown or fool in Shakespeare’s plays was initially performed by Will Kempe, regarded as the most popular and accomplished clown of his time. But he seems to have fallen out with the Chamberlain’s Men around the end of the 1590s, and been replaced by Robert Armin, a more thoughtful actor, for whom parts like the gravedigger on “Hamlet” were devised.
The disappearance of Celia from Duke Frederick’s Palace after he has banished her cousin Rosalind will remind students of Shakespeare of the many daughters in his plays who have been gated or grounded by their fathers and yet made good their escape. Examples include Jessica in “The Merchant of Venice”, Imogen in “Cymbeline” and Silvia in “Two Gentlemen of Verona”. Numerous other daughters prove, like Celia, difficult to keep tabs on, including Desdemona in “Othello” and – famously – Juliet in pursuing her romance with Romeo behind her father’s back. Shakespeare, working in London, some three or four days’ travel from his home and family in Stratford, had two daughters.
It bears repeating that women did not participate on stage in Shakespeare’s theatre: no fault of his, but actors in Elizabethan England were male, and there were no exceptions till the gender bar was lifted in the next century. It is thought that Shakespeare’s company had two actors particularly effective at playing the opposite sex – Shakespeare’s plays around this time tend to have two main female parts. So Rosalind is being played by one of these young men: then she decides to disguise herself as Ganymede, and the gender rules are being blurred; and then Ganymede volunteers (for Orlando’s benefit) to role-play the part of a female, a young man to be courted. By this stage, a boy is playing a girl playing a boy pretending to be a girl. The system disallows girls from performing on stage, but Shakespeare’s bending of the rule suggests strongly he has no faith in it – a further reminder that among Shakespeare’s many virtues, prominent was courage.
Act Three presents two contrasting romances: first the love affair of Touchstone to Audrey, in which the idealism of the Court and its quite unrealistic vision of the countryside meets its logical conclusion in the intellectually-challenged goatherd (“I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul” etc). Between the educated Touchstone with his wit and wordplay and the ill-educated peasant girl, there is no common ground, no meeting of minds – though they head off to marry nonetheless. By contrast, Phoebe has no time for Silvius, in particular pouring scorn on his inflated metaphors of love, pointing out that though he believes her “eyes are murderers”, he is not able in practice to show “the wound mine eye hath made in thee”. Romantic talk of this type is nonsense, she implies, before she falls head over heels herself with the scornful Ganymede.
When Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede in 3.5, she celebrates the occasion with an appropriate quotation – “Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” – drawn from a poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Is the reader to conclude that Phoebe is an enthusiastic consumer of contemporary poetry? Probably not. There appear to be a number of private jokes in this play, and this seems to be one of them.
Rosalind has adopted the disguise of Ganymede, and now Ganymede will disguise himself as Rosalind – all for the purpose of training Orlando as a partner and role-playing the male in love. Her goal is to ensure that his aspirations in this area of life are grounded in reality: don’t be over-enthusiastic, she tells him at first, and (refusing him a kiss) be ready to beg, even to grovel. Moreover, avoid exaggerating when in love, and finally, keep to your commitments, avoiding the temptation to be (as many men are) “April when they woo, December when they wed”. Having digested this manifesto for candour and common sense in love, Orlando leaves to meet the Duke after accepting a final condition: keep your promises.
When Rosalind calls on Celia to act as priest and marry Orlando and herself, Shakespeare is careful what responses he allows Orlando to give in answering the key question: “Will you, Orlando, have to wife this Rosalind?” Marriage is a sacrament and such ceremonies were not permitted to be played out in the Elizabethan theatre (compare with “Romeo and Juliet”, where the marriage takes place off-stage), so Orlando answers not “I do” but “I will”. In doing so he sets in train the sequence of events that leads to marriage – strictly, this is the betrothal stage, the making of promises that precedes engagement – while at the same time abiding by the letter of the law.
Students of “Romeo and Juliet”, incidentally, may wonder at the coincidence which brings the name of Rosalind to the fore in the context of romance. In the earlier play, Rosaline is the elusive young woman for whom Romeo pines at the start of the play before his affections are engaged by Juliet. She does not appear in the play except to be spoken of, but in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, written like “Romeo and Juliet” around five years earlier than “As You Like It”, a third Rosaline appears, once again in a romantic context.
Oliver’s appearance in 4.2 comes as a contrast to his last appearance, in 3.1, when under pressure from Duke Frederick, he claims “I never loved my brother in my life”. Now he is in his brother’s debt for having saved his life. In the meanwhile, he has undergone something of a transformation, describing himself now as “A wretched ragged man, o’ergrown with hair”: quite a decline from his status as the oldest son and heir of Sir Rowland de Boys. It may be that the forest, to which he was despatched and exiled by Duke Frederick, has changed him. Or it may be that being the victim of injustice rather than the source of it has given him pause. Either way he is almost unrecognisable from the character we encountered in 1.1.
When Oliver suddenly falls in love with Aliena in Act Five, Shakespeare is revisiting with some relish a theme he has explored before: love at first sight. Rosalind explains the episode to Orlando by drawing a parallel with Julius Caesar’s summary of his military adventures – I came, I saw, I conquered – and adds that “your brother and my sister no sooner met but they look’d; [and] no sooner look’d than they lov’d”. Readers will recall that Romeo and Juliet have a similar experience on the fateful occasion of their first encounter, and that when Puck administers the “love drug” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to the sleeping Titania, she wakes up and falls instantly in love with Bottom disguised as a donkey. Love at first sight, with all its potential for mischief-making and indeed drama, is also the theme in “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, a play Shakespeare co-authored late in his career.
The action of “As You Like It” is punctuated with four memorable songs that add to the narrative and give the play something of the character of a musical – according to one recent Shakespeare critic, the first musical on the English stage. From “Under the Greenwood Tree” in 2.5 to “It was a Lover and his Lass” in 5.3, these songs reflect an optimistic view of rural life and the redeeming qualities of the natural world. The songs serve as a reminder that music in Shakespeare’s day was nowhere near as pervasive as it is today, and opportunities to hear accomplished singers and musicians would have been limited.
The play closes with an Epilogue, in which Elizabethan conventions governing gender and sexuality are once again to be challenged. Rosalind (as herself, not as Ganymede, nor as Ganymede-playing-Rosalind) encourages women to “like as much of this play as please you”, and charges men to enjoy it too. For a female character to deliver the Epilogue in Elizabethan theatre was unusual – but of course, Rosalind is really just a young man. Which makes his / her closing remarks, inviting the more attractive men in the audience to share a kiss, a surprising (and maybe even stimulating) way to end.
Who’s Who / Characters
The dominant character of the play. Forced by circumstances to think on her feet and rely on her wits, she reveals initially a gift for friendship with Celia and subsequently an intuition for love and romance that brings out the best in Orlando. Her resourcefulness in adversity gives her the central role, whether rebuking Silvius for his hopeless romantic attachment to Phoebe or spotting that Phoebe’s devotion to her may be driven by “mine anger” – or training Orlando to love realistically in their mutual interests. She is light-hearted and high-spirited despite the challenges of her position, with a lightness of touch she retains to the end with her flirtatious teasing of the audience in the Epilogue.
- Give the name of the court wrestler defeated by Orlando in Act One.
- How does Duke Frederick describe Orlando’s late father after the wrestling match is concluded?
- What love token does Rosalind give Orlando after the wrestling match?
- Give the name of the forest they escape to at the end of Act One.
- Who accompanies Rosalind and Celia on their journey to the forest?
- How long has Adam been a servant working for Orlando’s family?
- Give the name of the young shepherd who won’t listen to Corin’s advice.
- Whose property does Duke Frederick confiscate after the failure to locate Orlando?
- When Phoebe falls for Ganymede, what does Rosalind think is the draw?
- Which wild animal does Oliver say attacked Orlando in the forest?
As a general rule, upper-class or otherwise powerful characters in Shakespeare speak in verse, while those at the bottom of society speak in prose. Yet from her opening speech to Celia in 1.2 (“Dear Celia, I show more mirth than I am mistress of …”) to her closing remarks in the Epilogue (“It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue …”), Rosalind’s drive and energy are most often and most effectively conveyed in prose.
True, she is given verse to speak from time to time (“My father lov’d Sir Rowland as his soul”, she recalls in 1.3, “And all the world was of my father’s mind”), but even her love scenes with Orlando (3.2 for example) are ostentatiously conveyed in prose – a striking contrast to Silvius’s interaction with Phoebe for example. Rosalind liberates herself from all kinds of inhibitions throughout the play, linguistic (and class) conventions among them: a further feature of her appeal.