A Cheshire Smile:

Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies


A Cheshire Smile Contents

About the Authors 


Chapter 3


As You Like It,

Reconsidered as Formal Comedy




As You Like It is a work within which realistic motivation is so lacking that the very lack becomes a central feature of its artistic design. We can always jump to the quick conclusion that lack of motivation for stage action equals bad dramatic art. When the artist we are thus criticizing is Shakespeare, we should learn to be a little more careful in our quick judgments.


There are at least three major discussions that need to take place for a proper appreciation of humor and comedy in As You Like It. The first is a discussion focused on articulating a hard-and-fast general definition of formal comedy—comedy as a form of drama like tragedy is a form of drama—and attempting at least a very general application of that formula to Shakespeare’s specific achievement in As You Like It.


The second is a discussion of humor for what it really is, which for us is actually very complex because a very great many things can be seen as independent ways of making us feel risible enjoyment.  Put in simplest form, humor really isn’t a singular concept. It is a very wide range of related concepts that make us laugh or at least make us smile inwardly.


For thousands of years, criticism has proceeded on the assumption that every five-year-old knows what humor is.  Criticism has been right that every five-year-old thinks he or she knows what humor is, but a great deal of what everyone thinks about humor is demonstrably false. We need for this study a chapter-length attempt to have everyone on a reasonably sensible page for understanding artistic humor issues.


The third topic is a discussion of what humor is doing—and it is doing a very great deal—along side what comedy is doing in that great artistic achievement, As You Like It





So our focus will remain on As You Like It for quite some time. Please be patient, we will get to other comedies, other humor personalities, and other humor textures once the literary critical ideas for doing so have been reasonably presented. 


For now, perhaps there is consolation in recognizing that, historically, criticism has been divided into two largely independent continents, the continent of literary criticism—the realm for considering aesthetic and other questions of literature in general—and the continent of practical criticism involved in the appreciation and analysis of single works. Such a distinction seems to make perfect sense and to aid thinking. In fact, when we have a stupendously great artist like Shakespeare sharing his art with us, we are foolish not to use his specific accomplishments to refine whatever our preliminary abstract formulations about literature. And if we have great ideas about art and literature that have been increasingly polished by abstract thinkers, it is a real loss if we do not apply those to a great artistic work to see what additional polishing can accomplish. 


From Aristotle, one of the most basic of abstract thoughts about literature is that literature is comprised of many distinct genres—with the additional possibility of works that fit no genre. 


We start from there.


Recalling the evident lack of motivation in As you Like It, it is fairly obvious that all artistic achievement is based in a series of conscious choices. Any one choice in and of itself is only that. Only when many, many choices have been made and carefully executed together do we finally find a whole artistic work to emerge. As critical audience to artistic work, we largely reverse the artistic process of the artist.  We start by perceiving pieces rather at hazard.  Eventually, we perceive the work as a whole, and only then are we in some position to go back through the work, analyzing the choices that added up to the whole and to the effect of the whole.


Someone having watched a performance of As You Like It, or having finished reading it, has some sense of it as an artistic whole. It is not at all unlikely that on even cursory critical contemplation, such a spectator or reader would recognize the strong lack of motivation which Shakespeare repeatedly chose in his design.





Even in this short description of preliminary critical response, we are laying important groundwork for our definition of comedy. Comedy is the result of artistic endeavor. As such, any comedy is an artistic whole. And that whole is comprised of many parts chosen by the artist.  Many choices taken together produce a design. One kind of design will concern us in particular, the kind of design that we call pattern.


One of the great maxims of practical criticism is that nothing can be highly significant in a work of literature if it is only presented once. But as soon as something is presented twice, a good critic has to notice and to start trying to explain why that repeated something is part of the design.


So repetition is the sine qua non of pattern. Something that never repeats is unpatterned. As soon as it begins to repeat, an art work has pattern. This is the simplest meaning of patterning. Classical music composition presents us with a more complex form of patterning, theme and variation patterning, in which the repetition is not exact but rather develops from the original statement. Careful analysis of theme and variation patterning, however, always reveals that there is some ultimate kernel which is repeated.  For literary analysis, we might want to change the name of the game slightly.  Instead of the complex form of patterning being theme and variation, in literature, the complex form of patterning often seems to be theme and disguise.


Whether we are talking about variation or disguise, the artistic motivation for either is that simple patterning, simple repetition, is boring.


The boredom of repetition thus becomes one horn of an artistic dilemma, the other being that something artistic needs to be repeated in order to be significant. Very strongly among artistic choices leading to a whole work of art then are artistic choices about how much repetition the audience will tolerate and how much variation or disguise is necessary to entertain the audience rather than to bore the audience.


Pattern consists of repetitive aspects of design, and typically in artistic products, pattern is somewhat varied or disguised in order, if nothing else, to avoid being boring.





One other aspect of patterning needs to be emphasized.  Patterning, since it demands repetition, also demands interstitial differences placed between the repetitions. Put more simply, a red shirt is just that, a red shirt, and has no pattern. But if our shirt has a red stripe followed by a green stripe and then another red stripe, our shirt has pattern—it has a repetition—and the repetition is only possible because there is something else in between the two repeated items.


So underlying our definition of comedy we have two premises: 1) comedy is an artistic product, the result of a series of choices making a whole, and 2) the whole is a design the most important aspect of which is repetition or patterning.


Let’s check this off against As You Like It and its lack of motivation. In Act I, scene 1, Orlando is complaining to Adam about his poor treatment at the hands of his brother, Oliver. Reasons are adduced why this is a very unnatural state of affairs. Nothing in the scene explains or gives motivation to Oliver’s unnatural policy.


In the last scene of the play, Orlando’s other brother announces to the court in exile that Duke Fredrick has been converted, has renounced the dukedom, and is entering a monastery. There is nothing in this announcement that at all explains the motivation for any of the Duke’s acts other than that the three occur sequentially to one another. Moreover, we should be surprised that Orlando’s brother is at all present to announce anything at all. And we may even be further surprised that he has the same name, Jacques, as one of the characters already on-stage.


In short, from beginning to end of As You Like It, we find lack of motivation. In between Acts I and V, there is other material—Charles trying to kill Orlando, Orlando besting Charles, Orlando receiving a hero’s ovation from Rosalind—which are reasonably prepared for and motivated. These intervening elements are like the green stripe that alternates with the red. It is “other,” and because of that otherness and only because there is otherness can we say that there is repetition or pattern.


So when we say that lack of motivation is epidemic in As You Like It, we are not saying that every act is unmotivated. We are saying that unmotivated acts repeat with enormous frequency in As You Like It, interspersed, however, with other material, much of which shows a routine sense of motivation.





In literary art, patterning is a very strong source of artistic meaning. The fact of repetition makes us take notice. And the notice we take is the meaning we ascribe to the pattern.


Again, let us exemplify the point with lack of motivation in As You Like It. Upon critical reflection, the audience member recognizes that much of the action presented in As You Like It is also presented as unmotivated.  What is one to make of this pattern?


As already said, one can make of it that Shakespeare is a great dolt at writing drama.  Let us not pursue that line of thought. 


Perhaps the most obvious thing to think is that Shakespeare meant it—he meant to write with a pattern of unmotivated action.  Everything about the Shakespeare canon suggests that it is the most consciously designed and meant literary art of its time and perhaps of any time.


So can we flesh that out?  What was it that Shakespeare meant?  This is often taken as a biographical question, but it shouldn’t be.  It is a question of textual integrity: in light of the whole design of the artistic work, what can this repetition mean?


At a minimum, we think it highly suggests that the world of As You Like It is to be seen as a world where motivation is of little or no importance, and particularly that the centrally important realities are likely to be unmotivated realities.  What undermined Duke Senior’s government?  What prompted Duke Frederick’s usurpation?  What attracts Rosalind to Orlando or Orlando to Rosalind?  What motivates the timing of Duke Frederick’s banishment of Rosalind with all its likelihood of Frederick’s losing a daughter?  What motivates Oliver’s hatred for Orlando despite evident solicitude for his second brother?  What prompts Adam to save Orlando with his life’s savings?  Why does Rosalind continue in men’s garb in the forest?  How do Aliana (Celia) and Oliver meet, much less why do they fall in love?  What prompts Duke Frederick’s conversion?





The Shakespeare who contrives intricate motivation in Comedy of Errors could easily contrive to give us plausible answers for these.  He chooses not to.  The primary conclusion to draw is that he chooses not to because he chooses to present us with a world where the most crucial acts are characteristically poorly understood, acts that, if they have motivation, are certainly impossible to predict. Lack of motivation is patterned into As You Like It.


With this introduction to patterning, we can move to a formal definition of comedy:


The comedic form is the form of on-going success or survival.  Formal comedy is the representation of life patterned to demonstrate or assert a faith in human survival.


Thus far, we have a formal definition, not really of plot or action but of design.  It is a formal definition nevertheless.  Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics highlights the need not only to formally define but also to consider the dynamis or power of a literary genre.  The power of comedy is to prompt celebration, in the technical sense of contemplative remembrance.


Comedy forces us to confront the faith that life is meant for survival and success, not just for decay and death or for muddling through in some agnostic displacement activity to avoid consideration of what life is about. Ultimately, every member of the audience has a right to come out of that contemplation with his or her own emotional response to both the faith in success and survival generally and to the faith in success and/or survival specific to the particular comedy.


Given comedy’s long-term record in box-office receipts, it should be evident that the dynamis of comedy, the enforced celebration of ongoing success and/or survival, is of enormous importance in human affairs.


In between considering a general dynamis for all comedy and the specific dynamis of an individual comedy, there is a middle layer of analysis both for comedic form and comedic dynamis.  Comedy comes in many sub-forms. 




As the Ulean definition of genres, including comedy, emphasizes, some comedy is focused on one central figure. But other types of comedy find this kind of analysis a procrustean bed.  This is true particularly for Shakespeare’s comedies with their multiple plots and multiple fascinating characters.  In such comedies, it is often better to think of social comedy, that is, a comedy which demonstrates the success or survival not of an individual but of a society as a whole.  As You Like It, despite the rather titanic figure of Rosalind, is best analyzed as a social comedy.


With the definition of comedy just given, the high repetition of unmotivated or flimsily-motivated actions in As You Like It can be quickly focused.  If comedy celebrates success and survival, a particular comedy celebrates a particular success or survival.  The particularity of an individual comedy is quite typically closely related to the kinds of threats to success and survival which the comedy is willing to consider.


In real life, most of us are highly threatened by surprise.  When things happen that “come out of the blue,” not only our calculations but also our plans, dreams, and prudential patterns of action are thrown into a cocked hat. We are left to improvise, to equivocate, to temporize, even  to prevaricate, to wait for some light at the end of the tunnel.


It is this kind of world that Shakespeare postulates in As You Like It: a world in which plans, dreams, and prudential patterns of action are thrown into a cocked hat; a world in which the most sympathetic characters are left to improvise, to equivocate, to temporize to wait for light. In As You Like It, the amount of non-motivation and flimsy motivation is extraordinary.  And that, of course, will make any success or survival extraordinary.


The question why Rosalind does not discard men’s “weeds” when the reason for using them has disappeared has a stronger answer than might appear if we were not considering it within comedic definition.  Rosalind inhabits a world where motivation is impenetrable and unpredictable in itself and in its consequences.  She is forced to improvise, to equivocate, to wait for light.  She put on men’s apparel for a very sound reason, to protect her and Celia in their journey to the forest.  She doesn’t take men’s apparel off, not because she has some great design but rather because she doesn’t have the basis for design.  Perhaps the forest has as many dangers as the highway.  Perhaps her male disguise and Celia’s name change will be just as important for survival in the forest. So she equivocates, and so Orlando finds her as Ganymede, just as Celia equivocates, eventually to be found by Oliver as Aliana.





Symbolically, Rosalind’s actions move from clearly motivated prevarication as a maiden in distress, to temporizing equivocation as she herself gets acclimatized in the new world of Arden, and finally to assertive direction as “chance” allows her to centrally resolve multiple romantic alliances and misalliances.  And what is therein symbolized is a strategy for success in a world with impenetrable motivation.


If As You Like It were Rosalind’s comedy, we would have moved far along the path of defining its comedic pattern. But As You Like It is not heroine comedy; it doesn’t just center on Rosalind.  It is social comedy, and the question finally is not whether Rosalind is destined to survive and succeed but whether the Arden community is destined to survive and succeed.


Since we intend to provide an overview of both comedic form and its relationship to humor patterning in a number of plays, we leave the reader to work out many of the details.  But in general, the Arden community is, like Rosalind in men’s garb, prevaricating.  Duke Senior is spending his enforced exile finding the value in exile. The young noblemen who could not find it in their hearts to act as accomplices to the new, usurping duke, have joined Duke Senior in exile, but they too are prevaricating, waiting for some light to dawn, and writing poetry, developing their artistic selves while they wait for political light.


Jacques finds the unsettled state of the world to fit well with his philosophical melancholy and gravitates naturally to the forest as the best vantage point from which to pursue his idées fixes.  In that sense, Jacques is the exceptional figure, the man for whom chaotic lack of motivation allows decisive forward movement (into the forest.)  As the play ends, he is outside the social comedic resolution, having found his natural state before the play opens and having no interest in the marriages, festivities, and dance that for others symbolize a return to positive action.


Orlando, too, equivocates.  He has evidently been equivocating for years under his brother’s malignant governance. As we meet him at the opening curtain, he is working himself up to take some action, and in the following scene, we see him burst into ill-considered action of upbraiding his brother. If he weren’t so sturdily built and roughly trained, it might have been the death of him.





Orlando is starting to lose what flimsy motivation he’s had when Rosalind presents him with the laurels of victory.  He falls instantly in love—an act whose motivation even he can’t find in himself—and from there immediately falls speechless.  The need to escape again rescues him, forcing him into action, and the critical needs of his benefactor, Adam, continue to force him to heedless action in raiding the Duke’s sylvan dining room.


The duke’s unexpected graciousness ends Orlando’s active phase.  He too becomes a poet in waiting, populating the forest with poem-trees to Rosalind.  And after meeting Ganymede, Orlando switches displacement activities in favor of conversation with Ganymede and accompanying thoughts of love.  His announcement in Act V, scene 2, “I can live no longer by thinking,” as Marjorie Garber has argued (464), is the final piece needed for Rosalind to come dominantly to the fore. Presumably with his marriage, Orlando returns to a world of active decision rather than of thinking prevarication.


Touchstone and Audrey have moved back into a mode of action somewhat earlier and at a more earthy level than the rest of society and force themselves into the new active culture of weddings which Rosalind has fashioned at the festive denouement. Phoebe and William are carried along in the rush and may not have personal impetus to move beyond what Rosalind has provided for them.  Prevarication’s essential goal is survival, and sometimes survival implies little more than successful prevarication.  Social comedic survival based in equivocation and even prevarication may not lift all ships, but it may raise some pretty odd ones. 


We’ve focused on the pattern of flimsy-to-non-existent motivation thus far in our sense of As You Like It’s comedy. Not to notice that pattern is not to notice some of the most jarringly obvious aspects of the play. To treat these aspects as prima facie blunders rather than to attempt to fit them to the play’s generic proclivities simply results in blind criticism.


There are, however, many other aspects to the comedic patterning of As You Like It.  We mention some of these briefly to show their relationship to comedic design, leaving the finer details to be worked out by others.





Closely related to the pattern of lack of motivation in As You Like It is the presence of extraordinary personalities throughout.  Touchstone, Jacques, and Rosalind have all been household names for unique characters for centuries.  Duke Senior, however, is also a very improbable character, a ruler so self-controlled that he sees nothing but good in exile in the forest and so self-controlled that he suffers the indignity of Orlando’s uncouth invasion of his dinner table.  Moreover, he is a man who can contemplate his venison from the deer’s point of view and converse with easy dignity both with Touchstone and with Jacques—and how many of us could claim such poise for ourselves?


And certainly both Audrey and Phoebe are magnificent cameos of divergent backwoods belles.


As social comedy, As You Like It, with the exception of Jacques, manages to fashion a social success and survival.  Any of these highly unusual characters would be unlikely to meet in a lifetime.  In As You Like It, they are not only met but reconciled in a firm social denouement.  We could say this is all a matter of chance.  And Shakespeare’s age we know loved to speak of chance, often in the same breath that it spoke of fate and looked to its astrology tables.


It is, therefore, useful to digress for a moment on chance, which after all comes up a great deal in Shakespearean comedy. If I throw a coin once and get heads, I attribute it to chance and think nothing more about it.  If I toss ten coins and they all come up heads, I notice it, still call it chance, and mention it to three acquaintances in the succeeding 48 hours.  After all, if I took statistics, I know that the chance of ten heads in a row is one chance in 2 to the tenth, roughly a thousand-to-one shot.


But if I toss twenty coins and they all come up heads, I start looking for some trick and the trickster behind it. No one, after all, should blithely cite chance on a million-to-one shot.  Citing chance in such circumstances is just plain stupid.  One of the great arguments for the Quantitative Reasoning initiative currently animating American higher education under the aegis of the National Science Foundation and many others is precisely that college-educated folk have sadly learned to blithely treat one-in-a-billion circumstances with a ho-hum sense that anything is after all possible by chance.





A similar line of thinking repeatedly occurs in Shakespeare’s comedies.  Shakespeare stretches things to the limit, notably chance. What are the chances of finding a Touchstone in life?  Maybe one in a thousand—after all he is a court fool, of which there were enough for him not to be wholly unique.


What are the chances of finding a melancholy philosopher á là Jacques, especially one who can’t spot the great foolishnesses of a great deal of his philosophy and the conventional clichés in a good deal of the rest? Perhaps one in 10,000.


What are the chances of a matchmaker supreme á là Rosalind?  Perhaps again 1 in some thousands or tens of thousands?  And what are the chances of a self-controlled and gracious duke who so thoroughly lives up to his title, Your Grace?  Realistically, this may be as unusual as any of the others.


Add to these the quirky character of Oliver and the quirkier behavior of Frederick, usurping and exiling his brother, adopting his niece, banishing his niece, determining to exterminate his brother, undergoing conversion and setting out for monastic repentance.  The annals of European history would be hard pressed to find a single analog.


We can, of course, call it all chance and luck and fate. We can say it is all fiction and thus all highly improbable anyway.  Or we can say, entirely without direct evidence from the play that the Forest of Arden is just a magical place that brings out the totally exceptional in everybody. 


But those of us who’ve taken statistics, who don’t quote chance for every billion-to-one and trillion-to-one occurrence, are likely to want some better answer.


And the answer seems to be that for all this unique character to also end in social-success comedy, luck and chance are totally insufficient answers.  Moreover, for that social comedic success, everything finally depends on Duke Frederick’s conversion, and conversion in Christian theology has always required a miracle of God.  We don’t find God; He chooses us.





The symbolism in Frederick is fairly patent.  He becomes his name, the Ruler of Peace, when he is called to conversion, as Saul became Paul, “the humble,” when he was called on the road to Damascus.  The social comedy of As You Like It by this line of reasoning based in the total improbability of so many exceptional characters successful together is Providential comedy. 


In a world forced to the stasis of prevarication, new direction and success come from utterly improbable convergences.  This isn’t just bad writing or bad plotting made somewhat better by interesting debate, clever repartee, and a new definition of drama as non-action.  Instead it is patterned comedy and artistic meaning forcefully derived from that pattern.


Let us then look briefly at two more aspects of patterning in As You Like It. First, As You Like It is an enormously talkative play. Rosalind talks, Celia quibbles, the good duke catalogs the good of a bad situation, Touchstone fools around, Jacques maunders through philosophical melancholy, Orlando writes atrocious poetry, Corin rusticates. Dramatic scripts, it goes without saying, are made of words, but the words of As You Like It are wordier words, words more divorced from action, decision, and practical direction.


We have already suggested that As You Like It is a comedy of equivocation and prevarication. Words and thoughts, the thinking Orland finally can no longer live with, are the stuff of As You Like It, its equivocations, its prevarications.


And finally, let us mention—to show that patterning takes place at all kinds of levels—that the pattern of As You Like It is also intensely concerned with food. Orlando’s opening speech talks about his feeding like that of cattle.  Philosophical discussion in Arden finds its subject in the deer for dinner. Orlando enters a topsy-turvy world when he invades the dining room of men he assumes to be savages and finds that it is he who is uncouth and savage. (Topsy-turvy is yet another pattern strongly present through the play, as in a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl.) And, of course, the play ends with marriage, celebration, and feasting.





Shakespeare’s emphasis on food fits well both with a comedy of equivocating and temporizing and with Providential comedy.  Give us today our daily bread.  It doesn’t say anything about tomorrow, but it gets us through today.  And if we get to tomorrow, then we have survived.  And if the world we’re talking about is fundamentally topsy-turvy most of the time and in most of our affairs, it is good if our sustenance is provided while we try to get our heads on straight.


There’s always more to say about a Shakespearean comedic pattern.  But the idea of a food-appreciating, topsy-turvy and motivationally-challenged, social-survival-through-wordy-prevarication, Providential comedy is an interesting first sketch of what Shakespeare meant by As You Like It.


Earlier in the chapter we asserted that the dynamis of comedy is an enforced celebration of faith in human survival.  In As You Like It, we are forced to celebrate the idea that social survival is possible even for totally exceptional characters in a topsy-turvy, motivationally-opaque universe through Providential care and practical prevarication until something better comes along. 


Celebration is contemplative reflection. Celebrations often center on food and merriment, the kind of thing that Shakespeare is master of as “festive comedy.”[i]  We often adopt the conventional and false idea that celebration is always joyous. Many people are not particularly joyous celebrating their thirtieth birthday, and fewer are joyous in celebrating their decadal birthdays thereafter. That fact doesn’t negate the celebration. For Shakespeare’s generation, As You Like It may have been just as they liked it, just the kind of comedy they could appreciate celebrating about their world. Perhaps instead, it was a kind of comedy that reflected The World as They Found It, and thus As You Like It was particularly acute at celebrating a faith they found necessary to exercise. 


You, too, dear reader, are entitled to your own final reaction to this enforced celebration.  Perhaps for you too, it is As You Like It. Or perhaps, in the final analysis, it is Not As You Like It. 


Either way, the pattern of choices in artistic construction remains.





But before moving on to humor, if you haven’t liked the pattern we have described so far, perhaps it is best to consider one more, rather subtle aspect of As You Like It’s pattern.  The play is about surviving in a chaotic world fractured by one duke usurping another.  All the news, as Shakespeare points out early on in the voice of Charles, is the new news of the new duke (I, i, 100 ff.).  We could very well ask what kind of duke dominates this play. 


Throughout his comedies and histories, Shakespeare provides many interesting and vibrant pictures, some mere cameos, of the nobility. There is, for example, the cameo of the foppish lord in 1 Henry IV who tries to get ransomable prisoners out of Hotspur. In Twelfth Night, we find a love-errant duke creating headaches for his court as he mopes about love and disregards his responsibilities as the head of a perennially endangered state. In Comedy of Errors, we have a figurehead duke, who seems at least in the early parts of the play to have no more freedom to act than to quote and unthinkingly execute the laws. The duke in Measure for Measure, in contrast, is a head of state, a puissant duke, if nevertheless one who needs to absent himself to rectify some of the balances of the state.


So what kind of duke is at the center of As You Like It’s world and action?  Without trying to provide a fully-defended answer here, let us suggest that the duke in question is, as in Measure for Measure, a puissant duke. He isn’t a fop or a figurehead.  He is the chief of state. We never, for example, hear of the king of France expressing the least involvement in maintaining Duke Senior or in supplanting him with Duke Frederick (Perhaps this partially explains why so much criticism seems to want to put the Forest of Arden in northern Warwickshire rather than in France.) In the 16th century, a duke whose affairs are so outside royal notice is not an inconsequential duke but someone like the Duke of Burgundy, a power unto himself. 


Ultimately, we have to add this aspect of patterning to the others that result in comedic meaning. This isn’t just a topsy-turvy, unmotivated world that threatens survival. It is a world of great men and a world concerned with the destiny of principalities. Does the recognition of this highly serious background to the comedy of As You Like It help in appreciating it as comedic art?





Something like four years after As You Like It was first produced, Elizabeth I of England died. Throughout her reign, she had kept the world guessing.  Would she marry into the Spanish royal house and return England to Catholicism?  Would she marry into the royal house of France and return England to Catholicism?  Would she find some Protestant prince, perhaps in the Netherlands or in Germany?  Would she let her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, live, and thus return England by yet another route to Catholicism?  In the end, she died; her councilors came forth from the death chamber and avowed that she had willed England to Mary’s son, James of Scotland. There was some reason to hope that James would leave the English religious settlement unchanged.  Two generations later, the final disappointment of that hope led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


These historical stories are all superlatively rehearsed in volumes of Elizabethan histories rather than in paragraphs. Our point in the brief synopsis here is simply to point out that the comedic world of As You Like It and the faith in the possibility of success and survival through equivocation and prevarication to go with it is symbolically very like the England Shakespeare’s audience was living in.


It was certainly a world of great stakes. It was a world where the monarch herself was accustomed to endless prevarication and equivocation and where the real intentions and meanings of political events might be impenetrable even to later ages of historical scholars.  It was a world where some chance occurrence—the Queen contracting smallpox, for example, as she, in fact, did—might change the entire direction of world history. It was a world where one’s religion itself could be one’s undoing or one’s salvation politically. It was a world where even the highest of court favorites, men like the Earl of Leicester, could spend years prevaricating, waiting for the right convergence of remote possibilities to get what they considered success.  In such a world, the comedic design of As You Like It and its dynamis for celebrating faith in the possibility of success-and-survival-through-waiting-it-out was bound to have substantial attraction.


For many, even this great parallel between As You Like It and the Elizabethan times in which Shakespeare took it up may still not be enough.  For many, the final reaction to the play will still be that it is Not As They Like It. Nevertheless, perhaps because the times in which they lived had sensitized them to the play’s comedic design, Elizabethan audiences clearly felt the play, like its source, Lodge’s Rosalynde, was very much As They Liked It.




[i]  See C.L. Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy for a thorough discussion of this concept. [Return to text.]







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