2 Getting to know the play
In this section, you will get to grips with three of the most striking moments in As You Like It. None of these extracts features any of the ‘major’ characters in the play – the lovers Orlando and Rosalind, or Rosalind’s friend and cousin, Celia – and none of them involves an important turning point in the plot. Taken together, however, they are representative of the exciting variety of Shakespeare’s writing in this highly entertaining comedy. The activities in this section allow you to experience this variety.
As the context of each of these three sections of text will be explained, it will not be essential for you to read the whole play. If you do have time to read it in full, however, you will find the discussion that follows more valuable – and you should find it a very enjoyable experience! There are many free editions of As You Like It on the internet. In this course, we will be quoting from and using act and scene numbers from the modernised text on the excellentwebsite. (If you already have a copy of As You Like It, you may find that the act and scene numbers quoted here differ from those in your copy.)
As You Like It is a relatively short play and tells an engaging story. Here are some tips to bear in mind as you read it – whether the whole text or just the extracts included in the discussion below.
- You will enjoy the experience more if you do not worry at first about understanding all the text’s ins and outs: try to concentrate on getting the gist of what is going on. For each passage, numbered footnotes have been added to the text to explain unusual words or references; the footnotes can be accessed via a PDF file, which is linked to in the introductory paragraph of each of the passages . It’s a good idea, however, to see how far you can get by without looking at the notes. As you continue to read, you will develop your own way of moving between the text and the notes. (You might, for example, refer to the notes after reading a sentence or a paragraph.)
- You will find some passages easier to follow than the others. At some points, you might have to stop and work through the sentence slowly, a word at a time, referring to the notes. At other points, you will be able to ‘go with the flow’.
- Remember, you are reading dialogue – that Shakespeare’s characters are people speaking with each other. If you find some sentence difficult to understand, it will often help to look back at what another character has just said. Is the speaker whose sentence you find difficult to comprehend agreeing with the previous speaker? Disagreeing with them? Making fun of them? Changing the subject? Humorously pretending to disgaree with them?
- It is a good idea (particularly if you are reading in a private place!) to speak out loud at least some of the lines, as you read. To help understand a difficult passage, it is sometimes better to read that passage out loud in a number of exaggeratedly different ways
- In this course, you will be asked occasionally to write notes about the bits of the play that you read. It will be tempting to skip these bits, and simply read the whole course through. This would be a mistake, though: making notes on what you’ve read will help you clarify what you think about it, and will therefore make it much easier for you to understand the play.
Before you begin reading, have a look at the very short video below, a jokey introduction to Shakespearean comedy narrated by the comedian Josie Long. When a play like As You Like It is referred to as a ‘comedy’, the word is being used in a slightly different way from most twenty-first-century uses of the word. Watching the video will give you a quick idea of the sort of comedy As You Like It is, and will give you some ideas to think about as you delve into the play.
JOSIE LONG: Theatrical comedy isn't like anything you'll find on telly today. In fact, writers like Shakespeare would probably struggle in your average sitcom and, alas, shift very few stand-up DVDs. As well as slinging more puns than an embarrassing dad, comedies celebrate youth, desire, and fertility, with a little homoeroticism for good measure. They challenge moral codes and make particular fun of hypocrisy and pretension.
Most of the gags come from social mishaps, which escalate to the point of absurdity. All that human silliness has a social function. It's meant to make us cringe so hard we won't make similar mistakes in the real world. And no matter how anarchic they get, it all resolved happily at the end in that boring, old social mender, marriage. But worry not you singletons, some writers satirise their wedding endings.
Let’s now explore the play, by looking at three passages from it. Each of the extracts will be preceded by a question for you to think about while reading. Bearing the question in mind, and taking rough notes as you go along, is an excellent way to focus your thoughts. Don’t worry if your responses to the questions are different from the discussions that follow each extract. One of the things that makes the study of English literature so exciting is the difference that exists between different readers’ views of the same text. Language as rich as Shakespeare’s, in particular, conjures up a very wide range of opinions and ideas. The questions seem straightforward, but in fact raise many complex issues which don’t admit of easy solutions.
The three sections of the play discussed on the next page are as follows:
- Jaques’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech (Act 2, Scene 7)
- The dialogue between Corin and Touchstone (Act 3, Scene 2)
- The entrance of Hymen in the final scene (Act 5, Scene 4).
Let’s now read those three passages.