This free course, Reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, has looked at a selection of key moments from a very rich play: a vivid survey of the roles people play in their lives; a discussion about the difference between life at court and life in the country; the resolution of the plot by a classical god; and a piece of disorientating, gender-switching flirtation. At this point, you may like to look back at the critical opinions listed in Section 1 of the course. Do you think that your experience of As You Like It helps support or refute any of the critics’ descriptions? Michael Hattaway suggests that the play’s variety of moods and types of writing are so provocative that it is best seen as a ‘tragi-comedy’: a play where the ‘woeful pageants’ detailed by Jaques in the seven ages of man speech all but eclipse the ‘true delights’ of love and marriage referred to in the final line. An earlier critic, Helen Gardner, began a lecture on the play with precisely the opposite perspective: ‘It is the last play in the world to be solemn over’ (Gardner, 1959, p. 203). Hattaway’s sense of darkness and complexity is more in keeping with the approaches of many twenty-first-century Shakespeareans, but that doesn’t mean it is correct and that this is a simple case of the new superseding the old.
Gardner is correct about the play’s literary refinement even though the conventions which Shakespeare inherited are complex enough to mean that a play about falling in love may at the same time contain other resonances, both veiled and overt. The hybridity and variety of the play is, meanwhile, a feature of As You Like It that is surely undeniable. Indeed, the complexity of As You Like It – the way it is threaded through with contrasting motifs and traditions and shot through with both light and shade – helps us understand a key part of the literary period from which it comes, the Elizabethan Renaissance: that its best literature is almost always a mixture of contrasting ingredients.
This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course.