At the outset, we encounter Orlando, an English spelling of the French hero named Roland (of Chanson de Roland, or the “Song of Roland”, the great French heroic poem from the reign of Charlemagne) bemoaning his state of affairs to the family servant Adam in an orchard. The setting is far from the court in a country estate, and news of the court does not come well -the old Duke Ferdinand is banished by his younger brother and has taken up in the forest of Arden with a band of merry men like Robin Hood. The new Duke Frederick has claimed the lands of the Duke Ferdinand’s loyalists so he lets them wander. The time period is unknown, it is perhaps a-temporal, though through textual evidence we can conclude the setting takes place after Robin Hood during a time in which France and England live well together in a mythic context, devoid of Christian allegory but rife with allusions to classical antiquity.
As with other Shakespearean plays, Shakespeare steals much of the story from another playwright, in this case Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde. In Lodge’s play, the setting of the opening scene is explicitly in an apple orchard.
A good play to compare with As You Like It is King Lear. Consider that at the opening of King Lear we are concerned with the perpetuation of the perfect regime. King Lear has united the kingdoms and is attempting to divide his kingdom in a way that is fitting for the future, to ensure a lasting regime. His enemies are subdued and two of his daughters are set to be married to noblemen, and he decides to divide the kingdom unequally between his daughters, with preference given to his chosen daughter, Cordelia. However, the much-discussed “love-test” to which he subjects his daughters fails and Lear is left to the extremities of his kingdom, seeking out the nature of men and kings. However, in As You Like It, we find that the patriarch has already died -Rowland de Boys (or “of the woods”) and, according to the youngest son, Orlando, Oliver, the eldest brother, is giving all of the fruits of their father’s bequest to Jacques, the middle son, while Orlando receives no education. Curiously, Orlando identifies education with “profit” and “gain” -has Jacques “profited” from his education? To what extent might he be worse for his education? His character only appears in Act 5, scene 4. While King Lear is a tragedy about the retreat of a court into nature, As You Like It is a flattering pastoral comedy of the same kind.
However, Orlando desires his portion of the inheritance in order to become a “gentleman” and Oliver bitterly relents, giving Orlando “some part of [the] will” (1.1, 70-75), only after Orlando has physically grabbed Oliver by the throat. Orlando is not afraid to use force if necessary. He is not merely concerned with profit for its own sake, but Orlando is also more physically fit than his brother, capable of overtaking him rather than persuading him. Enter the wrestler Charles who informs Oliver that Orlando plans to come in disguise to challenge Charles, for he would not have been old enough to compete, and Oliver commands Charles take down Orlando in the wrestling match, because Orlando is a “villain”. In private confession, Oliver states that he hates nothing more than Orlando, though he doesn’t know why. We are exposed to Oliver’s resentment for his brother by acknowledging that he is “gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved…” (1.1, 155-160). Yet still he would like to kill his brother in his rage, and resents his natural talents and favorability. As Orlando’s name suggests, he is chivalric or gentlemanly by nature.
Shakespeare is a classical writer, devoted to holding up a mirror to nature rather than providing a kind of salvation for mankind to relive its “estate” or the burdens of life, unlike the project other moderns like Francis Bacon or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic followers. He exposes nobility, baseness, villainy, and heroism for the audience to consider, as pure contemplation is one of the highest Aristotelian virtues. One can make the argument that Shakespeare has a civilizing effect on his audience, as the goal of identifying a common virtue and a common vice is also the highest end of civilization.
We meet Rosalind (“beautiful rose” or rosa linda in Spanish), daughter of the banished Duke Ferdinand, as she lugubriously laments her “estate” to her cousin Celia (meaning “heavenly”) who is the daughter of the usurping Duke Frederick. She tries to tell Rosalind that she must love Duke Frederick for he will include Rosalind in his estate. In order to reverse her melancholy state, Rosalind decides to “devise sports” such “falling in love”. Celia advises Rosalind not to love a man “in good earnest” (2.1, 50-60). Instead Celia advises that they mock the blind lady Fortune, who does not distribute fate equally, to which Rosalind disagrees and claims that she refers to Nature rather than Fortune. Fortune gives gifts of the world, while Nature is organic.
Touchstone enters (a smooth rock used to test whether a rock is of quality gold or silver), but they are distracted discussing the merits of fools until Le Beau,a courtier, tells them that they are missing much of the sport but can still catch the end. Le Beau points to three able bodies brothers who were killed or left with broken ribs at the hands of Charles. Touchstone says it is hardly a sport for ladies but Rosalind asks that they watch the violent and dangerous sport. When she first sees Orlando, she notices how he is too “young” but he also looks “successfully”. Upon speaking to the ladies, Orlando says he has no friends and nothing in the world, so his death would not be a loss in the match. Charles taunts Orlando, and Orlando throws Charles, knocking him out or possibly killing him, either way rendering him incapacitated. Astonished, Duke Frederick asks who Orlando is, to which he responds that he is the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys. Dismayed, Duke Frederick (the usurping Duke) notes that the “world esteemed thy father honorable” but Duke Frederick still found hime an “enemy” (1.2, 214-215).
Neither Duke Frederick nor Oliver recognize natural greatness, meritocratic values. Both resent those who are excellent and successful because of prejudices or past transgressions. Is Shakespeare showing us the character of the tyrant?
An argument can be made that the moment Rosalind and Orlando find love is when she places her necklace round his neck and he claims “my better parts are all thrown down, and that which here stands up is but a quintain (a dummy wooden post used in jousting), a mere lifeless block” -the first of many connections between wrestling and falling in love. At the same moment Rosalind claims that her ‘pride fell with her fortunes’ and that he has ‘overthrown more than his enemies’.
To make mention of the many homoerotic undertones of the play, the love between Rosalind and Celia (who is taller) are described as unique. For example, their loves are described by Le Beau, the courtier, as “dearer than the natural bonds of sisters”.
Le Beau warns Orlando of the usurping Duke Frederick’s intent to be rid him and also his jealous wrath towards Rosalind due to the people’s praise of her virtues and their pity for the loss of her father. Le Beau bids Orlando farewell: “hereafter in a better world than this I shall desire more love and knowledge of you” (1.2, 273-274).
The final scene of Act I opens with Celia trying to reason away Rosalind’s affection and Rosalind swooning madly over Orlando.
Suddenly, Duke Frederick enters in a fury and demands that Rosalind leave his court. If she is not gone in 10 days, she shall be put to death. Rosalind asks once what she has done, and the Duke responds that he does not trust her, she claims that mistrust alone is not a punishable offense, and the Duke responds that she is her father’s daughter and that is enough to banish her. Once again, Rosalind responds that “treason is not inherited”. Celia also tries to persuade her father stating that she and Rosalind have been like Juno’s swans and have slept together -doing everything together- therefore she must also be accused of treason. However Duke Frederick notes how the people value Rosalind’s “silence and patience” and he calls his daughter a “fool” for she will “seem” more virtuous to the people. Duke Frederick is always concerned with his image among the people, in desiring his daughter to appear more virtuous rather than behave virtuously in earnest. Celia states she cannot live without the company of Rosalind.
In grief Rosalind and Celia decide to retreat to the forest of Arden to find Duke Ferdinand. Celia will cover herself with dirt to look like a peasant and Rosalind, since she is tall, will dress like a man to be called “Jove’s own page”, Ganymede (who was a Trojan shepherd boy swept up by Jove disguised as an Eagle to serve as his cupbearer and attendant). While Celia will be called Aliena (meaning “stranger”). The purpose of their disguises are for protection -Rosalind becomes the homoerotic disguise of a boy called Ganymede and heavenly Celia becomes a stranger. Celia also notes that this will help as she will no doubt be trailed by members of the court. Lastly, Celia decides to “woo” Touchstone the “Clowne” into joining them: “Now we go in content to liberty and not to banishment” (1.3, 134-135). Why does Celia even suggest they bring the clown with them? Could it have some relationship to their discussion Fortune and Nature in Scene 2? Or could it be connected to the fact that her father called her a “fool” twice before banishing Rosalind. It should be noted that he never explicitly banishes Celia.