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A Shakespeare play that doesn't read very well at all.
on July 5, 2001
'As you like it' is one of those Shakespearean plays that is considered 'great' by critics, but never really found true popular acclaim, perhaps due to the absence of charismatic characters (the romantic hero is particularly wet) or compelling dilemmas.
It shares many features with the great comedies - the notion of the forest as a magic or transformative space away from tyrannical society ('A Midsummer night's dream'); the theme of unrequited love and gender switching from 'Twelfth night'; the exiled Duke and his playful daughter from 'The Tempest'. But these comparisons only point to 'AYLI''s comparative failure (as a reading experience anyway) - it lacks the magical sense of play of the first; the yearning melancholy of the second; or the elegiac complexity of the third.
It starts off brilliantly with a first act dominated by tyrants: an heir who neglects his younger brother, and a Duke who resents the popularity of his exiled brother's daughter (Rosalind). there is an eccentric wrestling sequence in which a callow youth (Orlando) overthrows a giant. Then the good characters are exiled to Arden searching for relatives and loved ones.
Theoretically, this should be good fun, and you can see why post-modernist critics enjoy it, with its courtiers arriving to civilise the forest in the language of contemporary explorers, and the gender fluidity and role-play; but, in truth, plot is minimal, with tiresomely pedantic 'wit' to the fore, especially when the melancholy scholar-courtier Jacques and Fool Touchstone are around, with the latter's travesties of classical learning presumably hilarious if you're an expert on Theocritus and the like.
As an English pastoral, 'AYLI' doesn't approach Sidney's 'Arcadia' - maybe it soars on stage. (Latham's Arden edition is as frustrating as ever, with scholarly cavilling creating a stumbling read, and an introduction which characteristically neuters everything that makes Shakespeare so exciting and challenging)