As You Like It: Is Love Real? Learning and Laughing at this and other Big Questions
How could a very old play about an imaginary forest where shepherds and shepherdesses tend their flocks, sing of love, and write poems on trees have anything to say about our lives in the 21st century?
Plenty, as I and my students repeatedly found—because this play, As You Like It, was written by the magnificent William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human heart shows as full and rich today as ever it did when As You Like It was first performed in 1599.
One reason I love this play so much is that it tells us something so many of us modern cynics need to hear today:
Love is real. Yes, it may be complicated, twisted, and strange–but ultimately, love is good, and can truly be long-lasting.
Here’s another good message in this play:
Simplifying your life, taking it right down to the basics even for a short while, can help you gain self-knowledge and regenerate your soul.
Not that Love, or Anything, is Simple. . .
Of course neither message is presented as just that simple. As You Like It may be high on love, but also illustrates its negative aspects.
For one thing, love is not as nearly so “romantic” as poems and romance novels often describe it. People get mixed up, mistaking obsession, lust, or ambition for love. We call all kinds of relationships “love” that, in truth, really aren’t. And not all loves are going to last.
As You Like It also shows that a “simple” life in the country—living rough and leaving a “small footprint,” as we might call it today–isn’t always that simple, or even very pleasant. However, life in the sophisticated city doesn’t always offer the best life either.
For one thing, civilization isn’t always that civilized. “Civilized” people can treat each other with savagery. The best people struggle to keep their positions in society as the worst people strike out from behind false smiles.
Yet when all is said and done in Shakespeare’s comedy, after many witty dialogues by the characters and much laughter from the audience, As You Like It ends with some clear messages:
- Though some folk are corrupt and selfish, there are good people in the world.
- A simple country life, for all its hardships, has valuable lessons to teach.
- Urban civilization, for all its corruptions, can also enrich people’s characters.
- And. . . True Love, despite its complexities, is very much worth pursuing.
As You Like It: Part Parody
It’s doubly fun and interesting that Shakespeare conveys these, and many other themes and ideas, through engaging in a a re-mix of another popular work: Thomas Lodge’s pastoral fiction Rosalynde. According to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, “Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy (first published 1590) is best known today as the major source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but its own success is apparent from its numerous reprintings.” As You Like It, coming along nine years after Rosalynde’s first printing, is both homage to and parody of Lodge’s pastoral fiction.
Shakespeare’s play follows many of the conventions popularized by Lodge’s work and other Renaissance pastoral romances, in which well-born ladies and gentlemen leave their sophisticated lives at court to wander an idyllic forest and countryside among simple shepherds and shepherdesses. (“Pastoral” means “country.”) In traditional pastoral, these fictional lads and lasses have little to do but discourse of love and woo one another from morning to night. Thus, Lodge’s work is lively and enchanting. Shakespeare’s version of the pastoral in As You Like It, however, is as gritty, real, and elemental as it is charming and sweet.
Though funny and very entertaining, As You Like It goes well beyond Lodge’s Rosalynde in presenting a balanced view of the elemental questions about life and love. Let’s take a closer look at As You Like It.