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As You Like It

by: William Shakespeare

Study Questions

1

By putting on male clothes and adopting a masculine swagger, Rosalind easily passes as a man throughout the better part of the play. What does her behavior suggest about gender? Does the play imply that notions of gender are fixed or fluid? Explain.

Rosalind’s behavior suggests that she knows better than anyone else that her society makes different demands of men and women. For instance, she knows that, when dressed as Ganymede, she is forbidden from crying over a perceived slight from Orlando. Likewise, something as simple as a “doublet and hose”—her male disguise—stops her from celebrating the discovery that Orlando has authored love poems in her honor (III.ii.200201). Indeed, as the clothes make the man, they also make the woman act like one. To Elizabethans, the fundamental divide between the sexes may have been as much a matter of external expressions of behavior and clothing as of anatomy. On one hand, this conception made gender a much more fluid notion than it is to many modern audiences. Codes of behavior were more a matter of mimicry than a function of chromosomal makeup, which Rosalind shows as she plays a swaggering young man imitating a woman.

On the other hand, this fluidity caused a great deal of anxiety among Elizabethans, who, in the end, wanted very much to believe that the categories that organized their world were stable. Thus, they insisted that certain behaviors and customs were established by one’s sex. Women might pretend to be men for a brief and entertaining moment, but they must, in the end, behave like women. Rosalind eases the anxieties surrounding her very deft performance by reverting, time and again, to the behaviors expected of her as a woman: to the Elizabethan mind, she would be a much more troubling character if she did not faint at the sight of Orlando’s blood. Although gender proves to be completely undefined in the Forest of Ardenne, everyone is returned to his or her supposedly proper place by the final act. Indeed, nowhere is the anxiety over gender--swapping quelled more than in the Epilogue, where the actor playing Rosalind, who is herself so talented at role-playing, unveils himself as an actor, thereby promising that with his bow comes an end to subversion and a return to the established social order.

2

Discuss As You Like It as an example of pastoral literature. What features of the pastoral mode lend themselves to social criticism? What, if anything, does Shakespeare’s play criticize?

Pastoral literature primarily establishes a contrast between life in the city and life in the country, and suggests that the intense concerns of court life can be rectified by a brief foray into nature. The neat and convenient division between town and country allows characters the distance required to contemplate, criticize, and reform city life. As You Like It certainly acknowledges this convention: urban life, as governed by the likes of Duke Frederick and Oliver, is plagued with injustices, and the Forest of Ardenne allows Duke Senior, Rosalind, Orlando, and the rest not only to escape oppression but to build the foundation of a more loving and just society. But Shakespeare does not content himself with criticizing the court and romanticizing the country. Instead, he trains a careful—and comic—eye on the entire pastoral tradition. Although Shakespeare’s urban sophisticates find solace in Ardenne and manage to heal the wounds inflicted on them by vengeful dukes and unfair customs, the green world they encounter is not a paradise, peopled as it is with the likes of Silvius and Audrey. The former is blinded by love, the latter by her own dim wits, and neither is insightful enough to lead the exiles toward a completely redeemed life.

3

Throughout the play, we find numerous allusions to cuckoldry. In a play that celebrates love and ends with four marriages, what purpose might these allusions serve?

In Act IV, scene ii, Jaques and Duke Senior’s loyal followers decorate a hunter with his slain deer and sing a song meant to calm any anxieties men might feel regarding unfaithful wives. All men, the song says, have suffered the indignity of wearing the cuckold’s horns—the symbol of having an adulterous wife—and so it is no indignity: “Take thou no scorn to wear the horn” (IV.ii.14). Frequent mentions of cuckoldry were not uncommon on the Elizabethan stage. There are several reasons for these references. Of course, they spoke to an anxiety not uncommon in any patriarchal society—namely, that women’s sexual appetites could not be controlled, thereby potentially undermining the entire social order. In As You Like It, the frequent mention of cuckoldry contributes to the play’s investment in disabusing its characters and its audience of the untenable nature of the perfect romance. Although Touchstone’s words are considerably cruder than Rosalind’s, the clown’s insistence that “[a]s horns are odious, they are necessary” serves much the same purpose as his mistress’s reminder to Orlando that women change for the worse once they are married: it reminds the lovers that real love, because it is obtainable and human, is far from perfect (III.iii.42).