Sunday, June 20, 2010

Discussion: As You Like It

The play: As You Like It

The plot tweet: Evil duke usurps throne and banishes whole court to Arden. Rosalind dresses as boy for no apparent reason, woos Orlando. Giant group wedding.

My favorite line: "Ay, now am I in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place, but travelers must be content." (Touchstone)


I have a little crush on Harold Bloom, perhaps the most prominent contemporary Shakespeare critic, and I often read his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human when I'm thinking about a play. He offers high praise for As You Like It, and he writes that Rosalind is "the most remarkable and persuasive representation of a woman in all of Western literature," putting her on par with Hamlet and Falstaff.


I'll grant you, As You Like It has some of the most famous Bard quotes, and it offers plenty of fodder for criticism. Rosalind seems like a friendly gal, and Arden seems like a nice place to spend one's banishment. But, here's the thing: Try as I might, I just can't get excited about Rosalind or the play in general. I don't know why. I must be wrong, because dear old Harold (and apparently everyone else) is madly in love with this play.

What is it, exactly, that is so appealing about Rosalind? She's not the only female character to dress as a boy; she's not the only one who is smart and witty. She does direct her own fate, and the fate of several other lovers in the play, and Shakespeare must have liked her very much to feature her in the epilogue. But, to put her on the same level as great characters like Hamlet and Falstaff? That is far over-stating the case.

Am I the only one who feels this way? If you're head over heels for Rosalind, please do tell me why.

One thing that does interest me about this place is the subjectivity of perception. The characters all perceive the forest differently, based on what they want and expect to see. Rosalind discusses the many differing perspectives of the passage of time, and Touchstone describes how his perception of forest life differs based on his mood. And, of course, the play presents many different perceptions of what love should be and how lovers should behave. In Midsummer, we saw a group of characters who could not trust their eyes; here, similarly, we have a group of characters whose perceptions change based on their situations and moods.

When discussing this play, critics often talk about the idea of reinventing the self: Rosalind reinvents herself as a boy, for example, and the banished duke reinvents himself as a merry forester. And yet, at the end, Duke Senior returns to the court, and Rosalind returns to a more conventional female role as daughter and wife. In fact, the only characters who sustain their new invention of self are the villains -- the usurping duke and Orlando's older brother. So, just as I don't care much for Rosalind, I can't accept that self-invention is the main theme of this play. If so, that doesn't say much for our ability to change.

Reading the complete works of Shakespeare is a learning experience, and I know most people feel differently about this play. I am willing to be persuaded. So, tell me: What do you like about the play? What is so darn appealing about Rosalind? As she would say, "come, woo me, woo me."


  1. I'm afraid I have to admit I agree with you. It is, I think, a beautifully written play - but on the whole I don't find it that compelling. It has a great deal of charm and wit - but pretty much people get things twisted up and then un-twist them, end of story.
    Rosalind is undoubtedly smart, quick-witted and very appealing - but for a great female character... give me Portia, or Beatrice, or Lady Macbeth...

  2. I read Twelfth Night first, and fell in love with Viola. Reading As You Like It, I had to wonder how Rosalind different from Viola. Not sure yet. They're both wonderful but Twelfth Night is about comedy, As You Like It is about much else.

    I will grant Rosalind a massive wit, to Viola's wisdom. But maybe in Rosalind the two qualities are conflated so that I only see one, and maybe that's what makes her so well-loved.

  3. I think Rosalind's wisdom and wit can come across differently based on the production. I recently saw a performance in which she wasn't much better than a silly, flustered schoolgirl, but I've also seen her played as completely in charge, confident and aware. Still, Jay, I have to agree with you. I'd take Beatrice any day.