Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
As You Like It spoofs many of the conventions
of poetry and literature dealing with love, such as the idea that
love is a disease that brings suffering and torment to the lover,
or the assumption that the male lover is the slave or servant of
his mistress. These ideas are central features of the courtly love
tradition, which greatly influenced European literature for hundreds
of years before Shakespeare’s time. In As You Like It, characters
lament the suffering caused by their love, but these laments are
all unconvincing and ridiculous. While Orlando’s metrically incompetent
poems conform to the notion that he should “live and die [Rosalind’s]
slave,” these sentiments are roundly ridiculed (III.ii.
Celia speaks to the curative powers of love in her introductory scene
with Rosalind, in which she implores her cousin to allow “the full
weight” of her love to push aside Rosalind’s unhappy thoughts (I.ii.
In Act II, scene vii, Jaques philosophizes on the stages
of human life: man passes from infancy into boyhood; becomes a lover,
a soldier, and a wise civic leader; and then, year by year, becomes
a bit more foolish until he is returned to his “second childishness
and mere oblivion” (II.vii.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare dispenses with the time--consuming and often hard-won processes involved in change. The characters do not struggle to become more pliant—their changes are instantaneous. Oliver, for instance, learns to love both his brother Orlando and a disguised Celia within moments of setting foot in the forest. Furthermore, the vengeful and ambitious Duke Frederick abandons all thoughts of fratricide after a single conversation with a religious old man. Certainly, these transformations have much to do with the restorative, almost magical effects of life in the forest, but the consequences of the changes also matter in the real world: the government that rules the French duchy, for example, will be more just under the rightful ruler Duke Senior, while the class structures inherent in court life promise to be somewhat less rigid after the courtiers sojourn in the forest. These social reforms are a clear improvement and result from the more private reforms of the play’s characters. As You Like It not only insists that people can and do change, but also celebrates their ability to change for the better.
Pastoral literature thrives on the contrast between life
in the city and life in the country. Often, it suggests that the
oppressions of the city can be remedied by a trip into the country’s
therapeutic woods and fields, and that a person’s sense of balance
and rightness can be restored by conversations with uncorrupted
shepherds and shepherdesses. This type of restoration, in turn,
enables one to return to the city a better person, capable of making
the most of urban life. Although Shakespeare tests the bounds of
these conventions—his shepherdess Audrey, for instance, is neither
articulate nor pure—he begins As You Like It by
establishing the city/country dichotomy on which the pastoral mood
depends. In Act I, scene i, Orlando rails against the injustices
of life with Oliver and complains that he “know[s] no wise remedy
how to avoid it” (I.i.