One of William Shakespeare's more accessible plays, As You Like It is a delightful romantic comedy that tickles audiences' hearts as much today as it did in Elizabethan England. The play's themes and characters cross conventional boundaries of gender, morality, and class. In fact, central to As You Like It is a celebration of conflict, contrast, and contradiction. The trappings of courtly life are pitted against the peaceful simplicity of the pastoral; the ideals of romantic love and courtship stand starkly removed from the realities of marriage. As You Like It contains many moments of family feuding, as the play opens with a double usurpation. After Sir Rowland DeBois dies, his estate was bequeathed to his eldest son, Oliver, as was the custom of the day. Oliver's selfish refusal to treat his younger brother Orlando with the respect he deserves causes much strife within the family that leads to a wrestling match and to the eventual banishment of Orlando to the forest. From the very beginning, As You Like It captures the audience's attention with farce and folly, suspense and sobriety. A relatively short play, As You Like It is full of action and never fails to engage the reader with colorful characters that enmesh in a game of disguise and hidden identity, laying the groundwork for a grand matchmaking scheme that continues no matter what the consequences.
For most of the characters in As You Like It, love is a grand sport with wins, losses, and draws. In fact, in the very first Act, Celia tells her cousin and best friend Rosalind, "Marry, I pr'ythee, do, to make sport withal," (I, ii, 22). Rosalind, the female protagonist and daughter of the banished Duke Senior, also agrees that falling in love is akin to a game. These two women embark on a journey of deception that proves that they taken this definition of love to heart and put it into practice. Act One, scene two is replete with double entendres comparing love to sport because of the immanent wrestling match between a disguised Orlando and Charles, the court wrestler. The court jester, Touchstone chides Rosalind and Celia: "Thus men may grow wiser every day! It is the first time / that ever I heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies," (I, ii, 109). Celia and Rosalind have a morbid fascination with the wrestling match, just as they both have a morbid fascination with the game of matchmaking.
The central theme of disguise makes its way into this early scene in the play, too. Orlando, Oliver's younger brother and surprise victor in the wrestling match, fights under a false identity. The wrestling scene therefore contains elements of disguise and of excitement, which both continue throughout the play. Moreover, the figure of Touchstone the Jester adds the necessary color and confusion that also characterizes As You Like It.
Knowing he is in grave danger following his unexpected victory against Charles, Orlando flees to the Forest of Ardenne, where the exiled Duke Senior lives with a troop of devoted men. Adding to the action, Duke Frederick unexpectedly banishes Rosalind from the court. Celia insists on fleeing with her and the two young women take Touchstone with them. This unlikely party becomes even more physically outlandish when the two girls don disguises: Rosalind cross-dresses and takes on the name of Ganymede. Celia dresses like a common shepherdess and names herself Aliena. Here begins the twisted plot of hidden identities, in which "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players," (II, vii, 138-139).
Rosalind and Celia begin a complicated mind game, flirting with members of both sexes and tempting disaster. While the motives behind Rosalind's reticence to reveal her true identity immediately upon seeing Orlando in the forest for the first time are unclear, it is possible that she does so to ascertain the true nature of his character. Ironically, it is through deception and disguise that many of the characters discover their true loves and desires. However, Orlando's victory in the wrestling match against Charles foreshadows the victory that Rosalind and Celia will experience at the end of their grand matchmaking scheme.
Disguised as Ganymede, Rosalind approaches Orlando for the first time in the Forest of Ardenne. In spite of her self-acknowledged affection for Orlando, Rosalind belittles his professed love for her and acts as a fickle lover would. Her plan is to seduce him while dressed as a man. She tells the seemingly unwitting Orlando: "I would cure you if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cot and woo me," (III, ii, 381-382). Rosalind knows that if she stripped off her disguise she could fall into her lover's arms; however, she does not want the game of love to end so easily. Instead, Rosalind chooses to torment her lover in an endless game that carries the play to its climax and finale. Moreover, Rosalind's cross-dressing and frank erotic talks with Orlando add an element of homoeroticism that further doses As You Like It with magical color and fantasy.
Rosalind does not stop her games here, but instead she can't resist interfering in the affairs of others. Paralleling Orlando's profession of undying love for Rosalind, Silvius emerges as a love-struck man with an unrequited love for Phebe. Rosalind, still disguised as Ganymede, sees this couple as fair game for her meddling. Criticizing Phebe, however, brings an unexpected result: Phebe falls in love with Ganymede. Phebe tells Ganymede, "I would rather hear you chide than this man woo," (III, v, 67). It seems the harsher Ganymede's comments, the deeper Phebe falls in love. Rosalind admits to Phebe, "I am falser than vows made in wine," but the latter refuses to listen. Playing matchmaker becomes increasingly more complicated as the play progresses, ensnaring the audience in a suspenseful romantic game.
Rosalind's continued charade with Orlando makes her fall truly in love with her suitor, as if seeing him through the eyes of a man she is more able to appreciate her feelings. Her true emotions emerge when she feels scoffed at Orlando's tardiness and proceeds to engage him in the seductive farce: "But come, now I / will be your Rosalind in a more coming-on disposition," (IV, i, 91-92). Furthermore, by criticizing the unrealistic nature of Orlando's sappy version of romantic love, Rosalind comes to the conclusion that her feelings for Orlando are genuine. Rosalind needs to hide behind her mask in order to own her true feelings and her true identity as a woman. Celia berates her cousin and friend at the end of Act IV, scene I: "You have simply misus'd our sex in your love-prate," (IV, i, 167). Rosalind apparently enjoys the power she has acquired in assuming the disguise of a man; it offers her the opportunity to role-play that she could never experience as herself. Rosalind acts as matchmaker for herself and for other couples in As You Like It.
The play's flow of events and action never ceases. As Ganymede, Rosalind proceeds to intervene further in the unlikely romance between Silvius and Phebe. Doing so belies her true identity, but Rosalind cloaks her true intentions well. She tells Silvius, upon his presenting her with the letter from Phebe, "Her love is not the hare that I do hunt," (IV, iii, 18). Aware that her plan is at risk of going dangerously awry, Rosalind as Ganymede relays a message to the smitten Phebe: Ganymede will not love Phebe unless Phebe will agree to love Silvius. "if she love me, I charge her to love thee," (IV, iii, 70).
The first sign that the game is coming to a close is Rosalind's reaction to the bloody napkin. First, Celia leaks the true identity of Ganymede…