As in other comedies written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, As You Like It celebrates a brave woman who pursues her own destiny in defiance of cultural norms. Like Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind dresses as a man in order to outsmart the patriarchal obstacles of her world. At the start of the play, we learn that her father, the good Duke Senior, has been usurped by his rotten brother, Frederick, and has fled into “voluntary exile” before the play’s opening. This makes the court of Duke Frederick a dangerous place for Rosalind. And indeed, her uncle considers her a political threat and banishes her. Rosalind preempts her expulsion by venturing into exile with her best friend, Celia. Both adopt disguises: Rosalind cross-dresses as Ganymede and Celia refashions herself as Aliena– an alias that foreshadows their imminent status as aliens or strangers. Celia is Duke Frederick’s daughter, so her loyalty to Rosalind and flight from her father’s court constitute acts of defiance. Accompanied by the court jester, the friends flee to the Forest of Arden. The forest is a typical destination for Shakespeare’s comedies. As in a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest magnifies and distorts the problems of civilization to comic proportions only to resolve them for the protagonists’ reentry into the normal world at play’s end. Rosalind’s time in the forest will allow her to explore the politics of Elizabethan gender roles and the limits of her desire for Orlando.
Orlando is a resident of Duke Fredrick’s court when the play opens. Despite his noble pedigree, his older brother, Oliver, has denied him a gentleman’s education and has treated him no better than an animal. Early in the play, Orlando meets Rosalind at a wrestling match held to entertain the court. Orlando triumphs over Duke Frederick’s champion, and Rosalind rewards him with a chain to wear around his neck, which seals their love at first sight. They are parted shortly thereafter—seemingly forever—as Rosalind is exiled by the Duke. At the same time, Orlando is warned by his trusty servant that his no-good brother Oliver is plotting against him, so Orlando flees the court as well.
In the Forest of Arden, Rosalind encounters Orlando again, but now she is disguised as the young scholar Ganymede, and Orlando is lovesick—in his words, “love-shaked”—for the woman he thinks he has lost. A desperate Orlando has taken to carving Rosalind’s name on the trees of the forest and festooning them with love poetry in her honor: “There is a man haunts the forest that abuses our young plants with carving ‘Rosalind’ on their barks; hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies on brambles; all forsooth, deifying the name of Rosalind.” Rosalind-as-Ganymede attempts to cure Orlando of his love sickness, but the cure is worse than the disease because she subjects Orlando to a therapeutic charade in which Orlando must pretend that Ganymede is Rosalind, and woo him as if he were his lady love. And worse, Ganymede’s medicine amounts to imitating all of the worst behavior ascribed to women in the era—shallow, peevish, deceptive, and unfaithful. This perverse therapy culminates in a mock wedding between Ganymede and Orlando.
Here is what a spectator sees at the ludicrous ceremony: Orlando marries Rosalind-as-Ganymede-pretending-to-be-Rosalind. Yes, this is weird, but perhaps not too strange for a culture used to seeing boys playing girls on stage. Laughs aside, the idea behind the pretend wedding is a homeopathic one and part of Rosalind/Ganymede’s cure. If Orlando is willing to marry Ganymede despite his outrageous characterization of women, then perhaps this roleplay can inoculate the inevitable genuine marriage between Rosalind and Orlando against misogyny and masculine insecurity.
All the world’s a stage
Rosalind, Celia, and Orlando are not alone in the forest. Coincidentally, that’s where Rosalind’s father and his loyal men have been hiding out since Duke Senior’s usurpation by Frederick. There, they eke out livings as hunters and merry outlaws. The play will of course reunite Rosalind with her father in time for him to give her hand in marriage to Orlando.
The forest is also home to rustic shepherds. The clash between courtiers and country folk provides a lot of the play’s laughs and much of the play’s comic romance. The presence of shepherds is also a constant reminder throughout most of the play that the principal characters on stage are outsiders, exiles, and aliens. In fact, the radical change in status—or role—for the lords and ladies in the forest is what prompts Jaques, a lord in Duke Senior’s retinue, to recite the most famous lines of the play: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”
This synopsis sums up Shakespeare's classic comedy. The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival will of course be adapting it to modern audiences and, to some extent, modern concerns. To get a sense of some of these innovations and reimaginings, head over to our blog, which will be updated with posts about this show as it is performed throughout the summer.