- Purchase/rental options available:
SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 277-295
[Access article in PDF]
As You Like It, Rosalynde, and Mutuality
Over the years, critics have noted a variety of thematic oppositions in As You Like It: fortune versus nature, country versus court, a view of time "as the medium of decay" versus time "as the medium of fulfillment," "contrary notions of identity," "the conspicuous narrative artifice of the opening scenes" versus the "equally prominent theatrical artifice in the forest scenes," two different "manipulative modes," and, most recently, the concerns of a "generally privileged audience" versus "the concerns of wage laborers, servants, and clowns." 1 Even the play's title seems to refer to an opposition between audience and author, leading George Bernard Shaw, for one, to read it as a "snub" of the audience's taste: here is what you, the spectators, like (but I, the playwright, do not). 2 Are the oppositions placed in a kind of balance by the end of the play (at least in the character of Rosalind), dissolved by the play's skeptical treatment of seemingly clear-cut distinctions, or are they necessarily partial and constrained gestures toward recognizing the value of what might have seemed to Shakespeare and his audience to be culturally subversive attitudes? 3 It all appears to hinge on whether we think Shakespearean comedy creates harmony among discordant elements, acts like a solvent on social constructions of difference, or serves to contain (though not always completely) the threats to the dominant social and cultural order its characters might sometimes express or embody.
None of these formulations, however, addresses what I would argue is the most important aspect of drama: the dynamic nature of the relationship between audience and play, spectator [End Page 277] and actor. A performance in a theater, after all, is a mutual experience--not necessarily an equal one on both sides, but one in which two different groups respond to each other as the play unfolds. A responsive audience will help actors perform better. Good acting will help an audience become better involved in what they are watching. Whether As You Like It received applause at the Globe depended on the skill of the actors to produce enjoyment for the audience, and the enjoyment of the audience rewarded the skill of the actors.
Applauding the actors also meant, of course, that the audience was participating in any number of theatrical conventions, not just the convention that applause expresses the pleasure one has received from a performance, but also such basic conventions as boys playing female roles, commoners playing dukes, and the same stage serving as court and as forest. It is currently fashionable to treat any awareness within a work of its foundational conventions as automatically reflecting deep skepticism about their status and value. But to note the conventional aspects of a human activity may merely be to record its very nature. Just as theatrical performances rely on conventions to be successful, so too do certain social performances--marriage, for instance. To the mutual relationship between actor and audience, I suggest, As You Like It parallels the mutual relationship between lovers, a relationship which, if it is to end with the couple getting married, similarly depends on conventions being accepted and experiences being shared, especially in Tudor and Stuart England, when "from contact to contract, from good liking to final agreement, most couples passed through a recognizable series of steps." 4 The play, in other words, and, as we shall see, in marked contrast to Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde (1590), its main source, establishes connections between past mutual interactions and future mutual outcomes: Rosalind and Orlando's liking for each other leads to their becoming man and wife; our liking for the play and its players leads to our applause at the conclusion of the performance.
One way to connect the past to the future is through the use of narratives, which bring the past into the present so that characters (and audiences) can respond to it. Shakespearean drama typically includes many reports of off...