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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Like most of the major characters in As You Like It, William Shakespeare experienced life in both the country and the city. His birthplace- Stratford, on the Avon River- was a bustling country town. He arrived in London, the social, commercial, and intellectual center of England, during the reign of Elizabeth I, at the height of the English Renaissance. All classes of Englishmen, including artisans, the new middle class, and the nobility, shared a keen desire to be entertained. The influx of wealth from the New World had given many of them money to spend. Since Shakespeare's plays were- and still are- crowd pleasers, he quickly became one of the most successful playwrights of his time.
It should be helpful to examine a few ways in which As You Like It reflects the interests of the audience for which it was written. For example, Elizabethan audiences took great pleasure in the type of complex wordplay practiced by Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone. During the Renaissance, the English had begun to take their own language seriously for the first time. It had previously been considered too coarse for the expression of subtle ideas or fine shades of meaning. ("Serious" writing was still done in Latin.) Shakespeare probably shared his audience's enthusiasm for exploring the potential of their native tongue.
As You Like It draws upon an Elizabethan genre (type of literature) known as the pastoral romance. As escapist literature, the pastoral romance (a love story with a country setting) was extremely popular. Its conventions were as fixed and artificial as the formula plots of today's romance novels. These love stories were set in idealized country locales, where life was pure and innocent. The rustic settings were populated by shepherds and shepherdesses who thought only of love and spoke of their passion in elaborate (and sometimes awful) verse. Love at first sight was commonplace. The characters suffered the pangs of unrequited love. In the forest settings of these stories, you might encounter a lion, a magician, or a band of thieves. Elizabethans would have recognized the poetic rustics Silvius and Phebe from As You Like It as stock characters out of such a pastoral romance. They would have enjoyed seeing Rosalind save Orlando from becoming just another lovesick young man like Silvius.
Many noble Elizabethan households kept professional fools such as Touchstone for entertainment. His role was actually written for Robert Armin, who had been a professional fool before joining Shakespeare's acting company. Jesters occupied a special place in Elizabethan society. They could mix with both kings and servants. As long as they pleased their masters, they could say almost anything they wished. Often, Shakespeare's fools tell the truth when nobody else will. As you will see, Touchstone exposes pretension and foolishness wherever he finds them.
The romance and humor of As You Like It are played out against a backdrop of danger and political intrigue. Rosalind and Orlando both flee the city under threat of death. Much is made of the "envious court," where nobody can be trusted and where flatterers are always seeking to add to their own power. This darker side of life was also a part of Shakespeare's England. When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, she inherited both religious tensions and grave financial difficulties. Fortunately, she was a shrewd politician and skillfully played her noblemen against each other, so that no individual could gain enough power to threaten her.
A very real threat to Elizabeth was posed by Mary, Queen of Scots. Until Mary's execution in 1587, Elizabeth lived with the fear that the Roman Catholics might rally around Mary and mount a rebellion. In this play, Duke Frederick fears that Rosalind's graces will remind the people of her father and cause them to revolt.
So As You Like It does mirror the concerns of Shakespeare's audience. But what about the author, what of Shakespeare the man? Very little is actually known about him. Neither he nor anybody else of his era ever recorded the story of his life. A few facts are known. He was born in Stratford, a small English country town on the Avon River, and baptized on April 26, 1564. Since infants were generally baptized at three days, his birth date may have been April 23. His father was John Shakespeare, a prosperous Stratford businessman and town council member. William's mother, Mary, was the daughter of a well-to-do landowner. William was the eldest of their six children. Shakespeare almost certainly attended the local grammar school. There, his studies would have included Latin, rhetoric (grammar, composition), and literature.
In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. Anne's age, combined with the fact that their first child was born only six months after the wedding, has led some scholars to believe that the marriage was one of necessity. That may not be the case, however, because at that time it was socially acceptable for an engaged couple to sleep together. William and Anne had two girls, Susanna and Judith, and one son, Hamnet, who died young.
Nobody knows what work Shakespeare did while in Stratford. He may have been a schoolteacher or a private tutor in a wealthy household. Like Orlando in As You Like It, he had to leave his birthplace to find his future. Unlike Orlando, who fled to the country, William headed for the big city, London. (Legend has it that he had to leave Stratford after being caught hunting illegally on a large estate, but no records exist to verify that story.) In London he became first an actor and later a playwright. Along with success, he found envy. The first mention of Shakespeare in London is in a pamphlet by a rival playwright, Robert Greene. In "A Groatsworth of Wit" (groat: an old English coin worth four pennies), Greene warned fellow university-educated playwrights of an upstart actor (Shakespeare) who had the gall to write plays. Nevertheless, Shakespeare became the most successful playwright of his day. He was an actor (of small parts), a playwright, and a partner in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a theater company favored by Queen Elizabeth. Her successor, James I, elevated the company to the rank of King's Men in 1603.
Although plays were a popular form of entertainment, they weren't highly regarded as literature. To secure his artistic reputation, Shakespeare wrote poems. Between 1592 and 1601, he penned three long narrative poems- Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and The Phoenix and the Turtle- as well as a famous series of sonnets.
As You Like It premiered in 1599 or 1600, about the same time that Shakespeare's company moved into the Globe Theatre, across the Thames River from the city of London. Shakespeare's reputation had been firmly established by nineteen previous plays. Among the eighteen to follow would be his four great tragedies- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. By 1612, Shakespeare had returned to live in Stratford, where he owned a fine house called New Place. He died there, presumably on his birthday, April 23, 1616.
As You Like It was rarely performed in the first century after Shakespeare's death. In 1723 an enterprising London producer combined the play with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream to create a collage called Love in a Forest. But by the nineteenth century, As You Like It had become one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed works. The Romantic spirit of that time probably helped the play to find new favor with audiences. In addition, many leading ladies wanted to play the showcase role of Rosalind. As You Like It is still popular today. Audiences enjoy its blend of humor and romance, and fall in love with Rosalind just as Orlando does.
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