1.2.3 Critical Reception

Critical controversies about As You Like It have focused on different topics, depending on the literay and cultural climate of an age.

Eighteen-century critics debated the play’s lax moral outlook but praised it in general. With the Romantics began an appreciation of the idyllic atmosphere of the forest of Arden. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of women drew attention to the glorious charms of Rosalind. Since the 1950s , critics have focused on the nature of Shakesperean comedy and As You Like It. Others have sought to read the play in the context of political and social changes in Shakespeare’s time and in  the modern world. Feminists have taken up the questions of Shakespeare in relation to women’s oppression and patriarchy:

Some feminist critics evaluate the play in terms of its support for patriarchy and oppression of women although I disagree with it. According to this view, the marriages at the end of As You Like It affirm and restore the oppressive values of an authoritarian society. Nevertheless, I think Shakespeare restores the order at the end politically motivated, I mean, he has to avoid being censured and to please the audience (including men, women and even the king herself). So I agree with Penny Gay in some aspects but not in all of them:

Penny Gay (1994:48-85) describes the cycle of Shakespeare’s conflict over the problem of patriarchy. Shakespeare first rejects, then restores patriarchal order:

‘As You Like It effects, through Rosalind’s behaviour, the most thorough deconstruction of patriarchy and its gender roles in the Shakesperean canon; yet it is a carnival license allowed only in the magic space of the greenwood. At the end, all must return to the real world and its social constraints.’

According to feminist critics like Gay, Shakespeare, by not finally abolishing patriarchy, contributed little to the process of social change and the amelioration of women’s lives. I know that it was very difficult to change women’s situation only by representing a comedy but I reckon Shakespeare contributed a lot because at that time it was unthinkable women impersonated a personality like Rosalind showed. So it is obvious Shakespeare camouflaged it with a male disguise and that at the end he restored the order but the criticism he did remained, remains and it will remain for ever.

Fortunately, many of the feminist readings of the play are more positive about Shakespeare’s depiction of Rosalind and other rebellious women. I would highlight here Katy Emck, Clara Claiborne and Ian Johnston for their contributions to this theme and because I think so too.

First of all, Katy Emck argues that Shakespeare’s stress on rebellious women ’embodies the desire for expanded self-sovereignty in a world where the power of domestic patriarchs and of monarchs was being absolutised’ (“Female Transvestism and Male Self-Fashioning in As You Like It and La Vida es sueño,” in Reading and Renaissence: Culture, Poetics, and Drama, ed. Jonathan Hart [New York: Garland, 1996], 77). She acknowledges the difficulty of limiting discussions of the play to polarizations of male and female:

‘Rosalind’s erotic play on her identity with the audience suggests the pleasurable incommensurability and reality which cannot be contained in gender binarisms or class binarism of low to high, or controlled by figures of the sovereign masculine subject, here parades its disturbing, and intensely pleasurable, irrepressibility.’

Clara Caiborne, also talks about Rosalind and the Elizabethan society and how the queen is closely related with some Rosalind’s traits. So Queen Elizabeth I could have been a great influence on Shakespeare because he had to represent his plays in front of her:

Retrieved from: “As We Like It. How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular”, by Clara Claiborne Park. [Google books]:

‘What catches his imagination in As You Like It is a young woman of an entirely different kind: on who, by her energy wit, and combativeness, successfully demonstrates her ability to control events in the world around her, not excluding the world of men. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the greatest Elizabethan was attracted by the qualities of his sovereign, who told her lords that “though I be a woman, I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had…I thank God I am endued with such qualities that were I turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in christendom.’

Finally, Ian Johnston, expressed his opinion in a brilliant essay called: ” Variations on a Theme of Love: An Introduction to As You Like It”:

Retrieved from: Variations on a Theme of Love: An Introduction to AYLI. By Ian Johnston:

‘Here the role of Rosalind is decisive, and much of one’s response to this play (especially in performance) will depend upon our reaction to her. Rosalind is Shakespeare’s greatest and most vibrant comic female role, and there’s a old saying to the effect that in any successful production of As You Like It, the audience members will all leave the theatre in love with her. She is clearly the only character in the play who has throughout an intelligent, erotic and fully anchored sense of love, and it becomes her task in the play to try to educate others out of their false notions of love, especially those notions which suggest that the real business of love is adopting an inflated Petrarchan language and the appropriate attitude that goes with it […] Rosalind has not an ounce of sentimentality. Her passionate love for Orlando does not turn her into a mooning, swooning recluse. It activates her. She takes charge of her life. […] She will not permit herself or Orlando to be deceived into thinking love is something other than the excitingly real experience she is going through-love is the most wonderfully transforming experience for her but it is not the sum total of everything life has to offer (as Orlando’s poems make out). […] It’s significant that throughout much of the play, when Rosalind talks to others about love, she talks in prose, rejecting the formal potential of a more imaginative language, in order to keep the discussions anchored in the reality of everyday life. Rosalind wants love, but she will have it only in the language of everyday speech, without the seductive embellishments of poetical conventions, which corrupt because they take  one away from the immediately reality of the experience.’

I like Ian Johnston because he knew to catch the meaning of this play. This play sings the praises of female’s audience at that time and even nowadays because unequality between men and women is so present in everyday life.

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