As many scholars have noted, As You Like It isn’t a particularly plot-driven play. After establishing the basic groundwork in the opening act, the next three acts unfold more through conversation than event. The play’s middle acts have the function of developing and maintaining various tensions between characters and key concepts, but very little actually happens—at least in the dramatic sense. It isn’t until the final act that major plot events return to the stage and allow the play to move toward its satisfying conclusion. As this very general outline of As You Like It suggests, the most effective way to analyze the play as a whole may be to consider how its plot-heavy sections (acts 1 and 5) function in relation to the relatively plotless middle section (acts 2–4).

Attending to acts 1 and 5 can help us to sketch an outline of what we might call the play’s macrostructure. Briefly stated, the play’s macrostructure involves city folk spending time in the country, which eventually enables them to return to the city as better versions of themselves, rejuvenated and transformed.

Act 1 establishes the limitations, frustrations, and forms of violence that are associated with urban life, and which collectively serve as the play’s inciting incidents. Most egregious is the recent act of usurpation, in which Duke Frederick has deposed his own brother, Duke Senior. In another example of how city life pits brother against brother, we have Oliver and Orlando, who are, respectively, the eldest and youngest sons of the recently deceased nobleman Sir Rowland de Boys. Due to the convention of primogeniture, all of Sir Rowland’s land went to his eldest son, Oliver. Though born first, Oliver lacks the natural intelligence and charm of his youngest brother. In his jealousy, Oliver acts spitefully toward Orlando, denying him an education and eventually conspiring to end his life. Rosalind also experiences the cruelty of city life. For one thing, her father, Duke Senior, has been banished. Not long after that, Duke Frederick, who has allowed her to remain at court due to her close friendship with his daughter, decides on a whim to banish her from the realm as well.

Taken together, these examples reflect the harsh realities of city life—politically unstable, hampered by petty jealousies, and full of arbitrary vengefulness. By the end of act 1, both Orlando and Rosalind have a target on their backs, and they flee to the safety of the nearby Forest of Arden. It is there that they will encounter numerous shepherds as well as the various nobles who, in their loyalty to the ousted Duke Senior, have joined him in his forest exile. After three acts in which Orlando and Rosalind get increasingly tangled up in the complexities of romantic love and sexual desire, they arrive at act 5 having grown into more mature and reasonable people. Likewise, the two chief villains of act 1—Duke Frederick and Oliver—have undergone a transformation. Both come to the forest with murderous intent, but upon entering Arden they each experience a sudden change of heart. These events enable act 5 to climax with a suite of weddings. Rejuvenated by love, our newlyweds are ready to return to a new and better life in the city. There, Duke Senior will be reinstated, and Orlando, now married to Rosalind, will become the rightful duke’s official heir.

The macrostructure of As You Like It is important for the way it establishes the play’s investment in the pastoral literary tradition, which posits simplicity of rural life as therapeutic for anxious city-dwellers. This structure also demonstrates the extent to which city and country depend on one another to ensure balance. By contrast, if acts 1 and 5 establish a general emphasis on balance, then the rising action of the play’s three middle acts works out the rather messy dynamics that are required to arrive at such a balance.

Acts 2–4 take place in the heart of Arden, a forest that symbolically marries Arcadia, the idealized pastoral landscape of classical antiquity, with the biblical paradise of Eden. Arden is essentially a place of fantasy, where the norms of society—including class status and gender identity—may be temporarily suspended. Under such conditions, the usual certainties are upended, which allows for experimentation and—inevitably—confusion. It is this suspension that allows Rosalind to assume the male identity of Ganymede. It also allows Orlando, now safe from his vengeful brother, to abandon himself fully to the throes of his newfound love.

The protagonists’ experience in Arden is organized through several oppositions that prove very tricky to reconcile. Key oppositions in the forest include nature versus fortune, reason versus mindlessness, youth versus experience, and nature versus nurture. These and other oppositions play out in relation to what’s perhaps the most central tension of all: that between realistic and idealistic versions of romantic love. Across numerous dialogues with rustic shepherds, witty fools, and foolish wits, competing ideas about love and sexual desire come into amusing conflict with one another. At the center of it all is Rosalind, the one who shows herself most capable of both enjoying the delights of love while judiciously criticizing its more foolish extremes. Through Rosalind’s careful tutelage, Orlando and others eventually arrive at a more balanced perspective on matters of life and love. As the play’s great mediator of opposites, Rosalind is also a gifted matchmaker, and she cunningly organizes the forest’s various lovers into the most appropriate love matches.

Whereas acts 1 and 5 establish the basic opposition between the city and the country, acts 2–4 playfully examine many of the aesthetic, social, political, and philosophical matters that characterize the pastoral tradition. Taken together, this structure demonstrates the messy emotional and intellectual labor necessary to arrive at a healthy, balanced perspective on life and love.