The Reality in Unreality
In As You Like It, characters from the court go to the green world to escape inhibiting societal roles. Once in the green world, these characters go through a series of twisting of unrealities that reveal true realities. In this essay, I will examine what realities are shown about the characters of As You Like It in their reasons for moving from the court to the green world, the roles they adopt once their, and in their twisting of those roles to make things work.
In the first Act of As You Like It, Celia and Rosalind are unhappy living at court with Celia’s father, Duke Friedrich. Duke Friedrich has usurped his throne from Rosalind’s father, but kept Rosalind at the court because Celia loved her. At the beginning of the play, Rosalind is unhappy because she misses her father, and through her mourning, the people of the Duke’s kingdom grow to love and pity her. This infuriates the Duke, and so he banishes her. Celia does not want to be without Rosalind, so she devises a plan for them to escape to The Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s father is living in exile. They also take the court fool, Touchstone, with them.
The other character that escapes to The Forest of Arden in the first act of the play is Orlando, but he goes under very different circumstances than Celia and Rosalind. Orlando’s father died when he was young and Orlando was left living under the rule of his older brother, Oliver, who never gave him a courtly education and made him live as a field hand. Yearning to be a gentleman, he wrestles with the court wrestler of Duke Friedrich in hopes of elevating his social status on his own. He wins the wrestling match, but instead of gaining status with his victory, Duke Friedrich and Oliver conspire to kill Orlando, and so Orlando fleas to the green world for his safety. Orlando’s father’s servant, Adam, gives Orlando his life saving and escorts Orlando to the forest.
“Now go we in content to liberty, and not to banishment,” Celia says as she and Rosalind leave the court for the green world. To Celia and Rosalind, the green world represents a sort of freedom from the constraints of the Duke’s court – an escape from roles they felt were stopping them from being happiness. This is ironic because to survive in the green world they have to play more literal roles.
Rosalind and Celia’s ideas of court life and the green world contrast that of Orlando, who wants to play a role in the court, but is forced to go to the green world where he thinks he will have to live like an animal. Though Rosalind and Celia have a different idea of the green world from Orlando, all three of them go to The Forest of Arden to escape their roles at court. Before they all depart, they meet at the end of Orlando’s wrestling match. Rosalind and Orlando fall in love, and Rosalind’s longing for her father becomes a longing for Orlando, which carries on into the green world, where she has the potential to be with her father, but decides to play a role with Orlando instead.
The second act begins with the exiled duke praising life in the green world, particularly when compared with the venomous and toad-like ways of court life. Indeed, almost every member of the duke’s court that was exiled with him feels this way, except for Jaques, who loathes it, saying he has lost himself through traveling.
This immediately contrasts Jaques with Touchstone, who, upon entering the forest, says, “Ay, now am I in Arden: the more fool I; when I was at home I was in a better place; but travelers must be content.” Touchstone accepts his new role in the green world while Jaques riles against it, even though both would prefer to return to the court. Throughout the play Touchstone has fun twisting the unreality of his life in the green world while Jaques becomes more melancholy.
Meanwhile, Celia and Rosalind establish their unreality in the green world by dressing Rosalind as a man and Celia as a shepherdess and moving into a cottage. They are not happy with these roles either, as Celia finds life in the green world difficult, and Rosalind longs for Orlando. While they find the green world less liberating then they thought it was going to be, Orlando finds the company of the Duke, and because of their generosity and good company, decides the green world is not as savage as he thought it was going to be. He thus takes up a role of a merry lover wandering throughout the forest, writing love poems to Rosalind.
In the third act, Jaques, who is becoming obsessed with Touchtone, follows him through the forest. Eventually Touchstone uses his wit to convince a country wench named Audrey to marry him. Right after this, we see Orlando stumbling upon Rosalind dressed as a boy, who starts a role playing game with him to test his love for her; and after this Rosalind discovers two shepherd lovers named Silvius and Phebe in a quarrel. As the unrealities of all of these love affairs become intertwined the true realities of all the characters involved are shown.
Touchstone and Audrey are the first two characters to engage in a love affair in the green world, and their love affair sets the tone for all those to come. Touchstone realizes that he is playing a role in the green world, and by accepting it and having fun with it, he gets what he wants and make himself happy. This is the path that the rest of the lovers must follow to be happy, as well.
When Orlando comes upon Rosalind and Celia in disguise, Rosalind decides to test Orlando’s love before she reveals herself. She convinces him that he must prove his love to himself by devoting himself to her (dressed as a man) and put up with a female’s changes in emotions, which she will act out. He agrees to go through the test, but does not show up for their first meeting, revealing something about the nature of his love. While he says he would never be late for the real Rosalind, he does so. If he had a true role to love Rosalind, he would not be late to meet her even if she were dressed as a boy. Instead, he continues talking in lofty love language while not grasping the love that is in front of him.
When he says he would die if Rosalind would not love him back, Rosalind tells him that, “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” The interaction that takes place after this proves her words to be true, and clearly shows the nature of love in this play. As Rosalind goes through the emotions with Orlando that a woman might have in a relationship, Orlando says how he would react to them if Rosalind were to have them, but he does not react to them in that way, even though Rosalind is the one having those emotions in front of him. Orlando claims that his reality is a steadfast lover of Rosalind, but as we see, this is just a role he is playing. If he were to give up his role as a steadfast lover of Rosalind and play the role Rosalind is asking him to, he could have Rosalind and be happy. At the same time, Rosalind is playing a role by putting Orlando through this test, which she wouldn’t do if she were steadfastly in love with him. She is not recognizing that the love she professes for him is also a role she has chosen to play. But to figure this out, she must continue playing her new role.
Ironically, when Rosalind sees an argument between the third set of lovers in the play, Silvius and Phebe, Rosalind points out that Phebe is playing a role with Silvius. Silvius is madly in love with the Phebe, and Phebe is constantly putting down his advances and making fun of him. Rosalind chastises Phebe for this, saying that she is being false with Silvius because she wants to pretend to be too good for him. Phebe then falls in love with Rosalind.
All of these lovers are playing roles, yet with the exception of Touchstone, none of them realize it. We can see that Touchstone realizes that his romance is a role because he tries to make his wedding to Audrey as unofficial as possible so that he can later leave her. It is clear that Orlando is playing a role because he writes love poems on every tree of the forest, but does not grasp the love that is in front of him. Rosalind wants to be with Orlando, but she puts him through a test instead of just accepting his love and making them both happy. Phebe refuses to love Silvius even though we see at the end of the play that she can be happy marrying him. As all of these lovers’ roles are about to be tested, it is obvious that they are all playing roles as fully as Touchstone is.
“What ‘tis to love?” Rosalind asks Silvius. “It is to be all made of fantasy,” replies Silvius, and all the lovers agree that they are all made of fancy. Once this is established between the four lovers, Olivia uses her wit to arrange a situation in which she can make Phebe marry Silvius and Orlando marry her, all by simply admitting that she is playing a role. To give herself time to get her clothes, she tells Orlando that she is a magician and will bring Rosalind to them the next day and make her marry him. He accepts this.
When she comes the next day, she admits that she was playing a role, which forces Orlando and Phebe to admit that they were playing roles, and all four of them have a group wedding with Touchstone and Audrey.
It is telling that these two couples consummate their love in a group marriage with Touchstone’s marriage, which is clearly just a role for him, because even though they realize they have been playing roles throughout the play, their finding happiness in the situation they end up in is not a recognition their true selves, but merely another set of roles that work out to satisfy all of them. This can be seen in the facts that Phebe concedes to love Silvius just because Rosalind is a women, and Orlando decides that it is okay to marry Rosalind if a magician can make her fall in love with him. When the lovers realize that their roles are just roles, they can play the proper roles to make everything work out.
We see this as the play ends with two simple acceptances of roles that resolve every remaining conflict of the play: first, the middle brother of Oliver and Orlando comes to the duke to tell him that the usurping duke has found a role that makes him happy – becoming a monk – and has given the court back to the duke; second, Oliver marries Celia as a shepherdess and moves to the country where they will both presumably be happy playing the role of shepherds, leaving Orlando his father’s estate. Thus everyone but Jaques finds a role to be happy with. While the restored duke and his company continue their festivities before returning to court with their new roles, Jaques decides he can not be happy in any role, and resigns to join Duke Ferdinand in becoming a monk. This is ironic because Jaques is the one who delivers the quote cited at the beginning of this essay. It is as if Jaques is too aware of the fact that life is merely a succession of role playing to be happy living. The people who end up happy at the end of the play realize that life is a series of role playing, but see that they can be happy by playing the right role well.