In the year 1599, Queen Elizabeth sat on the throne of England. One of the most brilliant political minds of her century, she had presided over nearly fifty years of change and struggle, and brought her country to a position of global power where it would remain for centuries.
The last half of the sixteenth century had been, as they say, pretty busy. England had become irrevocably Protestant, with Elizabeth's excommunication by the Pope in 1570; English explorers had reached the New World, and English armies had bloodily subjugated their Irish neighbors; England's warships (and bad weather) had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, cementing the country's position as ruler of the seas and confirming, in the minds of its people, that they had been chosen by God to forge ahead in the new century. On the cultural front, the printing press, invented about a hundred years before, was fundamentally changing the way literature reached ordinary people. The city of London had seen its population double in the decades following 1563, to top 200,000 people for the first time, and a massive new middle class was influencing the economic, cultural, and literary development of the nation. The Renaissance Humanistic movement, spilling in from Europe, had ushered in a new era of interest in learning and the classics; and in the past half century, English writers and poets had, for the first time, begun to try to create literature in their native tongue that could stand up to the greatest works written in Latin, French, or Italian.
And in 1599, a thirty-five-year-old playwright named William Shakespeare was enjoying his prosperity as one of the most successful people working in the London theatre. His acting company, called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, had great favor with the Queen, and that very year the troupe was in the process of building its own theatre on the south shore of London's Thames River; the theatre would be called the Globe.
As You Like It was written in this year, just after Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, and Julius Caesar, and just before the writing of Hamlet in 1600. Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, As You Like It seems to contain few references to the world outside the theatre; unlike the political history Shakespeare reworked in his "history plays," or the commentaries on kingship and power that pervade his tragedies, Shakespeare's comedy plays generally seem to be light-hearted works, meant to entertain and amuse, but not to provoke thought about anything more politically sensitive than the nature of love or poetry. To be sure, As You Like It contains good and bad rulers - Duke Frederick and Oliver are tyrannous siblings, who usurp the rights of their nobler kin, Duke Senior and Orlando - but their wickedness comes straight out of fairy tales, and, the nature of their badness left unexplored, it is easy to create a happy ending by simply letting them reform. Shakespeare seems to be more interested in developing characters like Rosalind, Orlando, Touchstone and Jacques, through whom he can explore questions of identity, semiotics, self-knowledge and (of course) love.
Some basic historical details are useful for a richer understanding of the play. For instance, modern readers should remember that all roles in Renaissance drama were played by men and boys, so that Rosalind and Celia (as well as Phoebe and Audrey) would really have been played by youths in women's clothing; this puts the theme of cross-dressing in a whole new light. And the "mode" in which As You Like It is written - in which noble people flee the court to a simpler life as shepherds and woodsmen - is part of an allegorical literary genre called the "pastoral," which was based on classical writings and was extremely popular in Shakespeare's day; well-known contemporaries like Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Philip Sidney also wrote pastoral works. (You can read more about these issues in the "Did You Know?" and "Points to Ponder" sections, if you're really interested.)
There are a few references in As You Like It to potentially controversial points of Renaissance law. For instance, Oliver is legally allowed to tyrannize Orlando because oldest sons inherited all their fathers' land under ancient English property laws - which some people thought was a bad idea. And Duke Senior's men are technically violating the law by shooting deer in Arden Forest: all the deer legally belonged to the current ruler (as you'll know if you've read the even older stories of Robin Hood!) However these themes are not pursued very strongly in As You Like It, and, after all, everything comes out well in the end; the play seems to be intended to entertain and stimulate, rather than to bear any political message.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 2.1, 2.2, 2.3
Scenes 2.4, 2.5, and 2.6
Scenes 4.2 and 4.3
Scenes 5.1 and 5.2
Scenes 5.3 and 5.4