The hero/heroine of the play, Rosalind ranks among Shakespeare's unforgettable characters -- and is definitely one of his most interesting female creations. Outspoken, quick-witted, bold, creative and wildly gifted with language, Rosalind starts the play as a persecuted "damsel in distress," but soon wrenches around the world of the story to create her own path to happiness. When faced with a difficulty, she will come up with some surprising way around it, and never loses her superb confidence in her own mental agility and power of fast-talking. If she has a vulnerable point, it is that she has a "womanly" weakness - or thinks she does - in her helpless love for Orlando.
Left at the mercy of her uncle Duke Frederick when he banishes her father, Duke Senior, and usurps his throne, Rosalind quickly develops a swaggering self-confidence when she flees the court and disguises herself as "Ganymede," becoming Celia's protector in Arden Forest and a magnet for all kinds of romantic attention. As an acid-tongued, beautiful shepherd boy, she matches wits with Jacques, keeps her cover even from her own father, and handles the most surprising events with finesse - when the shepherdess Phoebe falls in love with "him," "Ganymede" throws "himself" into the role of an arrogant young stud with amazing ease. Most intriguingly, "Ganymede" persuades Orlando, the boy "he" loves, to play a bizarre courtship game in which Orlando makes love to "Ganymede" as if "he" were a woman. In the course of their encounters (usually chaperoned by Celia), "Ganymede" simultaneously teaches Orlando about the realities of love and seduces him with "his" magnetic presence and suggestive words. In this double disguise, Rosalind secures Orlando's love... meaning that when she finally reveals her identity, her match with Orlando will be one between equals who truly have come to know one another (even if one of them was cross-dressed as a boy at the time).
The romantic hero of the play, the Orlando is hot-tempered, passionate, attractive, and tenacious in pursuit of his goals. His wit pales beside that of Rosalind, and to many readers he comes across as something of a muscle-bound hunk, but his resourcefulness and intelligence shine forth in his constant attempts to seek his fortune and find his lost Rosalind. Orlando is naive in the ways of love, however, and it is up to the disguised and practical Rosalind to transform him from a lovelorn boy who hangs bad poetry in the trees to a thoughtful young man ready for marriage.
The youngest son of a recently-dead nobleman, Orlando is certain that he has some rich destiny in store, and if the world gives him a hard time he will go out and find it himself. When his older brother Oliver denies him the chance for an education or a career, Orlando takes his fate into his own hands; denied a reward from Duke Frederick for his victory at his wrestling matches, Orlando flees his murderous brother into Arden Forest, accompanied by his servant Adam. Accepted into Duke Senior's band of merry men, Orlando spends his days writing pathetically clichéd love poetry to the woman he fell in love with at court. Little does he know that Rosalind, his beloved, is close by all the time, disguised as the handsome shepherd boy "Ganymede." Under "Ganymede's" tutelage, Orlando learns about women and the practical realities of day-to-day love, and by the time he demonstrates his courage by risking his life to save his wicked brother Oliver, it's clear that he's worthy of Rosalind's love - setting us up for the inevitable happy ending.
Critics and readers have long been interested by Orlando's unusual romantic situation: although he declares he is in love with Rosalind, he has never spoken more than twenty words to her. The person he's really seduced by in Arden Forest, and to whom he develops a fascinated romantic attachment, is "Ganymede" - the shepherd "boy" who's persuaded Orlando to romance "him" as if "he" were a woman. Of course, "Ganymede" really is a girl... but Orlando doesn't know that, and wasn't it a little odd for him to agree to play "Ganymede's" game in the first place? Some readers assert that if Orlando can come within kissing distance of someone and neither turn away nor notice that "he's" a girl, then Orlando must be a few carrots short of a basket - or, on the other hand, not quite as heterosexual as he seems. With all the cross-dressing, disguises and erotically charged innuendo being flung around Arden Forest, who's to say?
Celia and Oliver
Rosalind's cousin and the daughter of Duke Frederick, Celia is almost as pretty and witty as her cousin, but she becomes a more secondary character as the play moves along. Smaller and more delicate than Rosalind, Celia disguises herself as a peasant girl instead of a boy when they flee to Arden, and spends much of the play making caustic comments about Rosalind's weepy crush on Orlando. Celia has declared her love for her cousin at the play's outset, and proves it by leaving her palace to follow Rosalind into exile when she doesn't have to; as Rosalind/"Ganymede's" only confidante in the forest, Celia's reactions suggest that she thinks none too highly of Rosalind's new love. But she unexpectedly finds love of her own when Oliver, Orlando's reformed older brother, appears in the forest, and Celia marries him on the same day her beloved cousin marries his brother.
Oliver himself, who begins as a wicked elder brother straight out of fairy tales, is temporarily banished from his home by Duke Frederick when Celia, Rosalind and Orlando all disappear. He apparently repents during the time he spends wandering the forest in search of his brother, and is deeply moved by Orlando's courage in risking his life to save the brother who had done him wrong. When he falls in love with Celia (disguised as the poor "Aliena"), he tells Orlando he intends to give up his title and live his life humbly in the forest - though by the end of the play, it looks as if he and Celia plan to return to civilization with Rosalind and Orlando to reclaim their lands and wealth.
Duke Senior and Duke Frederick
Two brothers who couldn't be more different: Duke Senior, Rosalind's father, is friendly, benevolent, kind and just, while Duke Frederick (Celia's father) is wicked and power-hungry. When Duke Frederick banishes his older brother and seizes his throne, Duke Senior heads to Arden Forest, where he lives surrounded by his loyal noblemen and by those - like Orlando - who have fled the injustices of court in search of a simpler life. Though he's clearly good-hearted and fairly intelligent, it's not clear that Duke Senior is as realistic as he thinks he is; his noblemen retain most of the trappings of their court life even while living in caves and trees, and Duke Senior's blithe praise of the "natural" pleasures of homelessness smacks of unreality. What if he'd had to flee to the woods in the middle of winter?
Duke Frederick, who like his brother remains a relatively underdeveloped character, begins the play (like Oliver) as a wicked brother - he banishes first Duke Senior and then his niece Rosalind, and denies Orlando a reward he'd fairly earned at the wrestling match. Then he one-ups Oliver's evilness by banishing him, holding him accountable for the disappearance of Celia, since he assumes that Rosalind, Celia, and Oliver's brother Orlando are all somehow in cahoots. In the final scene, we discover from Oliver and Orlando's long-lost third brother that Duke Frederick has met a holy man and gotten religion, while in the course of attempting to storm Arden and recapture his brother - thus getting cut off at the height of a brilliant career of stereotypical wicked-brother-hood.
The "melancholy Jacques," as he's always being called, is one of Duke Senior's noblemen who lives with him in Arden Forest. Jacques - no relation to Orlando and Oliver's middle brother, by the way - makes a hobby out of being unhappy, and spends most of his time making other people sing him depressing songs and working himself into weepy fits over wounded deer. Yet he's not soft-minded, and not really soft-hearted, either: Jacques' distinguishing characteristic is his unmitigated cynicism, his certainty not only of the futility of life but also of the weakness and wickedness of human nature.
For the relatively small amount of stage time he gets, Jacques' thematic importance and memorable presence in As You Like It is quite impressive. Though we don't know much about Jacques' history - since, like all the noblemen, he temporarily loses his past when he comes to Arden - we do learn from his conversations with Rosalind that he lost his optimism while traveling the world, and from Duke Senior we get the intriguing tidbit that Jacques has been a "libertine," or someone who indulged all the sensual vices. Whatever the root of his bitterness, Jacques now places himself outside the group of happy characters who populate Arden. His function seems to be to provide a sharp foil for the wit of other characters, but also to create a shadow within the sunny forest; inside the happy fantasyland of Arden, Jacques is a constant reminder that in the real world time is not suspended, and grief, sorrow and death provide a counterpoint to all human joys. His famous "All the world's a stage" speech, in Scene 2.7, is a manifesto of existentialist despair, but is the most often-quoted speech of the play. Jacques is considered by some critics to be a precursor to the character of Hamlet, especially since As You Like It was written just before Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, and the darkness he adds to this shining comedy is a sort of reflection of the vein of black comedy which lightens Hamlet's gloom.
Though Jacques' depression makes him the butt of other characters' jokes throughout the play, his final exit is impressive: at the end of the last scene, just as a dance is starting up to celebrate the marriage of the four happy couples, Jacques halts all the proceedings to announce that he is going off to join Duke Frederick's monastery. Though Duke Senior begs him to stay, Jacques says flatly, "I am for other than for dancing measures," and, after an awkward good-bye to his male friends, disappears from the scene. His self-imposed isolation poses a curious puzzle to readers: in fact, Jacques does seem to try throughout the play to reach out to other characters - first Touchstone, then Orlando, and finally Rosalind/"Ganymede," whom he addresses as "pretty youth" and tries to engage in punning banter. He never speaks a word to a woman, though, and when all the courtships end in marriage he disappears from the scene, seeking a celibate and inward life. What Jacques really wants from the world or from others, and what kind of private mystery might lie behind his cynical veneer, remains a thought-provoking exercise for the reader.
Touchstone and Audrey
Touchstone is a professional "fool," or court clown - his job is to entertain his noble employer with acrobatics, jokes, and puns, but also to point out the truth behind the hypocrisy which is prevalent at court. Like most of Shakespeare's clown characters, Touchstone is intelligent, self-aware, and a consummate professional; he works for whoever will employ him - when Duke Senior was overthrown, he was "inherited" and employed by the usurping Duke Frederick. Touchstone is amazingly witty (it's his job, after all), and his conversation is unfailingly packed with puns. He's also a clever mimic, and comes up with scathing impromptu parodies of Orlando's limp love poems to Rosalind (in Scene 3.2); beyond that, he seems to win Jacques' eternal admiration at their first meeting by parodying Jacques' own dejected mannerisms for his entertainment (Scene 2.7), though it's not clear that Jacques is aware of this.
However, Touchstone also has plenty of human sympathy, and through personal loyalty to Celia he accompanies her and Rosalind when they flee to Arden Forest. Once in Arden, Touchstone no longer needs to entertain noblemen for his pay. Though he continues to interact with others much as he did before - he uses his wit to dizzy and delight Jacques, baffle Audrey and Sir Oliver Martext, and thoroughly intimidate his romantic rival William - he is also free to pursue other interests, and, while remaining a friend and ally to the disguised Rosalind and Celia, courts and wins Audrey the goatherd, whom he marries at the end. Touchstone rather cynically claims that he desires her for purely carnal purposes, though how much of this is merely his "wit" is debatable.
Audrey, the goatherd whom Touchstone romances and marries, appears to be none too bright, or at least uneducated; she is frequently confused by Touchstone's way of talking - but then again, who isn't? Still, she is clearly fond of Touchstone, and is full of admiration when he intimidates her former suitor William into backing off from his claim. According to Touchstone, Audrey is also both chaste (that is, sexually abstinent before marriage) and unattractive, but it's hard to know whether to trust what he says; as with several of the other characters - for instance, Phoebe - different characters may offer differing opinions about a third character's physical appearance. In Arden Forest, beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
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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