Though the play is consistently one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies, scholars have long disputed over its merits. George Bernard Shaw complained that As You Like It is lacking in the high artistry of which Shakespeare was capable. Shaw liked to think that Shakespeare wrote the play as a mere crowdpleaser, and signalled his own middling opinion of the work by calling it As You Like It—as if the playwright did not agree. Tolstoy objected to the immorality of the characters and Touchstone's constant clowning. Other critics have found great literary value in the work. Harold Bloom has written that Rosalind is among Shakespeare's greatest and most fully realised female characters.
The elaborate gender reversals in the story are of particular interest to modern critics interested in gender studies. Through four acts of the play, Rosalind, who in Shakespeare's day would have been played by a boy, finds it necessary to disguise herself as a boy, whereupon the rustic Phebe, also played by a boy, becomes infatuated with this "Ganymede", a name with homoerotic overtones. In fact, the epilogue, spoken by Rosalind to the audience, states rather explicitly that she (or at least the actor playing her) is not a woman. In several scenes, "Ganymede" impersonates Rosalind so a boy actor would have been playing a girl disguised as a boy impersonating a girl.
Arden is the name of a forest located close to Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, but Shakespeare probably had in mind the French Arden Wood, featured in Orlando Innamorato, especially since the two Orlando epics, Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso, have other connections with the play. In the Orlando mythos, Arden Wood is the location of Merlin's Fountain, a magic fountain causing anyone who drinks from it to fall out of love. The Oxford Shakespeare edition rationalises the confusion between the two Ardens by assuming that "Arden" is an anglicisation of the forested Ardennes region of France, where Lodge set his tale) and alters the spelling to reflect this. Other editions keep Shakespeare's "Arden" spelling, since it can be argued that the pastoral mode depicts a fantastical world in which geographical details are irrelevant. The Arden edition of Shakespeare makes the suggestion that the name "Arden" comes from a combination of the classical region of Arcadia and the biblical garden of Eden, as there is a strong interplay of classical and Christian belief systems and philosophies within the play. Arden was also the maiden name of Shakespeare's mother and her family home is located within the Forest of Arden.
Love is the central theme of As You Like It, like other romantic comedies of Shakespeare. Following the tradition of a romantic comedy, As You Like It is a tale of love manifested in its varied forms. In many of the love-stories, it is love at first sight. This principle of "love at first sight" is seen in the love-stories of Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, as well as Phebe and Ganymede. The love-story of Audrey and Touchstone is a parody of romantic love. Another form of love is between women, as in Rosalind and Celia's deep bond.
Gender poses as one of the play's integral themes. While disguised as Ganymede, Rosalind also presents a calculated perception of affection that is "disruptive of [the] social norms" and "independent of conventional gender signs" that dictate women's behavior as irrational. In her book As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women, Penny Gay analyzes Rosalind's character in the framework of these gender conventions that ascribe femininity with qualities such as "graciousness, warmth ... [and] tenderness". However, Rosalind's demanding tone in her expression of emotions towards Orlando contradicts these conventions. Her disobedience to these features of femininity proves a "deconstruction of gender roles", since Rosalind believes that "the wiser [the woman is], the waywarder" she is. By claiming that women who are wild are smarter than those who are not, Rosalind refutes the perception of women as passive in their pursuit of men.
Usurpation and injustice
Usurpation and injustice are significant themes of this play. The new Duke Frederick usurps his older brother Duke Senior, while Oliver parallels this behavior by treating his younger brother Orlando so ungenerously as to compel him to seek his fortune elsewhere. Both Duke Senior and Orlando take refuge in the forest, where justice is restored "through nature".
The play highlights the theme of usurpation and injustice on the property of others. However, it ends happily with reconciliation and forgiveness. Duke Frederick is converted by a hermit and he restores the dukedom to Duke Senior who, in his turn, restores the forest to the deer. Oliver also undergoes a change of heart and learns to love Orlando. Thus, the play ends on a note of rejoicing and merry-making.
Court life and country life
Most of the play is a celebration of life in the country. The inhabitants of Duke Frederick's court suffer the perils of arbitrary injustice and even threats of death; the courtiers who followed the old duke into forced exile in the "desert city" of the forest are, by contrast, experiencing liberty but at the expense of some easily borne discomfort. (Act II, i). A passage between Touchstone, the court jester, and shepherd Corin establishes the contentment to be found in country life, compared with the perfumed, mannered life at court. (Act III, I). At the end of the play the usurping duke and the exiled courtier Jaques both elect to remain within the forest.
University of Wisconsin professor Richard Knowles, the editor of the 1977 New Variorum edition of this play, in his article "Myth and Type in As You Like It", pointed out that the play contains mythological references in particular to Eden and to Hercules.
Music and songs
As You Like It is known as a musical comedy because of the number of songs in the play. There are more songs in it than in any other play of Shakespeare. These songs and music are incorporated in the action that takes place in the forest of Arden, as shown below:
- "Under the Greenwood tree": It summarises the views of Duke Senior on the advantages of country life over the amenities of the court. Amiens sings this song.
- "Blow, blow, thou winter wind": This song is sung by Amiens. It states that physical suffering caused by frost and winter winds is preferable to the inner suffering caused by man's ingratitude.
- "What shall he have that killed the deer": It is another song which adds a lively spectacle and some forest-colouring to contrast with love-talk in the adjoining scenes. it highlights the pastoral atmosphere.
- "It was a lover and his lass": It serves as a prelude to the wedding ceremony. It praises spring time and is intended to announce the rebirth of nature and the theme of moral regeneration in human life.
Use of prose
Shakespeare uses prose for about 55% of the text, with the remainder in verse. Shaw explains that as used here the prose, "brief [and] sure", drives the meaning and is part of the play's appeal, whereas some of its verse he regards only as ornament. The dramatic convention of the time required the courtly characters to use verse, and the country characters prose, but in As You Like It this convention is deliberately overturned. For example, Rosalind, although the daughter of a Duke and thinking and behaving in high poetic style, actually speaks in prose as this is the "natural and suitable" way of expressing the directness of her character, and the love scenes between Rosalind and Orlando are in prose (III, ii, 277). In a deliberate contrast, Silvius describes his love for Phebe in verse (II, iv, 20). As a mood of a character changes, he or she may change from one form of expression to the other in mid-scene. In a metafictional touch, Jaques cuts off a prose dialogue with Rosalind because Orlando enters, using verse: "Nay then, God be wi' you, an you talk in blank verse" (IV, i, 29). The defiance of convention is continued when the epilogue is given in prose.
All the world's a stage
Act II, Scene VII, features one of Shakespeare's most famous monologues, spoken by Jaques, which begins:
All the world's a stage And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts
The arresting imagery and figures of speech in the monologue develop the central metaphor: a person's lifespan is a play in seven acts. These acts, or "seven ages", begin with "the infant/Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms" and work through six further vivid verbal sketches, culminating in "second childishness and mere oblivion,/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything".
The main theme of pastoral comedy is love in all its guises in a rustic setting, the genuine love embodied by Rosalind contrasted with the sentimentalised affectations of Orlando, and the improbable happenings that set the urban courtiers wandering to find exile, solace or freedom in a woodland setting are no more unrealistic than the string of chance encounters in the forest which provoke witty banter and which require no subtleties of plotting and character development. The main action of the first act is no more than a wrestling match, and the action throughout is often interrupted by a song. At the end, Hymen himself arrives to bless the wedding festivities.
William Shakespeare's play As You Like It clearly falls into the Pastoral Romance genre; but Shakespeare does not merely use the genre, he develops it. Shakespeare also used the Pastoral genre in As You Like It to 'cast a critical eye on social practices that produce injustice and unhappiness, and to make fun of anti-social, foolish and self-destructive behaviour', most obviously through the theme of love, culminating in a rejection of the notion of the traditional Petrarchan lovers.
The stock characters in conventional situations were familiar material for Shakespeare and his audience; it is the light repartee and the breadth of the subjects that provide opportunities for wit that put a fresh stamp on the proceedings. At the centre the optimism of Rosalind is contrasted with the misogynistic melancholy of Jaques. Shakespeare would take up some of the themes more seriously later: the usurper Duke and the Duke in exile provide themes for Measure for Measure and The Tempest.
The play, turning upon chance encounters in the forest and several entangled love affairs in a serene pastoral setting, has been found, by many directors, to be especially effective staged outdoors in a park or similar site.