From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom:
Let it suffice to affirm that no one else in the plays, not even Falstaff or Hamlet, represents Shakespeare's own stance toward human nature so fully as Rosalind does. If we can point to his unshadowed ideal, then it must be to Rosalind. His ironies, which are Rosalind's, are subtler and more capacious than ours, and more humane also....
Orlando actually is no more adolescent than most of Shakespeare's males: did Shakespeare or nature invent the emotional inferiority of men to women?...
One might venture that Rosalind as an analyst of "love" is akin to Falstaff as an analyst of "honor" -- that is to say, of the whole baggage of state power, political intrigue, mock chivalry, and open warfare. The difference is that Rosalind herself is joyously in love and criticizes love from within its realm; Falstaff devastates the pretensions of power, but always from its periphery, and knowing throughout that he will lose Hal to the realities of power....
Reductionism, or the tendency to believe that only the worst truth about us is true, is a great irritation to Shakespeare, a grim joy to Jaques, and an obscene pleasure to Touchstone. Jaques is both a social satirist and a mocker of Arden; however, society is off stage, and we are in pastoral exile, so that the satirical stance of Ben Jonson is barely available to Jaques. That leaves only Arden, where Touchstone serve both as Jaques's rival and as his colleague, another malcontent. Touchstone, who is both funnier and cruder, sees country innocence as mere ignorance: Jaques is only a little kinder on this. The major target for both would-be satirists is erotic idealism, or romantic love. But their mutual critique is redundant; Rosalind is both an erotic realist and a superbly benign critic of romantic love, and she makes both malcontents seem inadequate to their chosen modes. She exposes Jaques's silliness and Touchstone's absurdity, and thus defends Arden and its affections from an unhealthy reductionism....
That last line [of the "seven ages of man" speech] is Jaques's triumph, it being a natural reductionism that even Sir John Falstaff could not dispute, and yet Shakespeare does, by entering as old Adam (a part, as I've noted, he himself performed). Orlando staggers onto the stage, carrying his benign old retainer, who has sacrificed everything for him, and yet who is precisely not "sans everything." The rebuke to Jaques's reductionism scarcely could be more persuasive than Adam's quasi-paternal love for and loyalty to Orlando....
[Rosalind] may well be the least nihilistic protagonist in all of Shakespeare, though Bottom the weaver is her close rival, as are the great victims: Juliet, Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, and the near-victim yet troubled survivor Edgar. We cannot imagine Rosalind (or Bottom!) in tragedy, because, as I have noted, she seems not to be subject to dramatic irony, her mastery of perspective being so absolute....
When Ganymede plays Rosalind in order to rehearse Orlando in life and love, are we to assume that her lover does not recognize her? Aside from straining credulity, it would be an aesthetic loss if Orlando were not fully aware of the charm of his situation. He is not brilliant, not educated, yet his natural wit is reasonably strong, and he is a livelier straight man for Rosalind than Horatio is for Hamlet.Bloom's fanboyish enthusiasm for Rosalind -- he also calls her "the most admirable personage in all of Shakespeare" and "the most remarkable and persuasive representation of a woman in all of Western literature" -- is a bit excessive, bordering on criticism as cheerleading. And his distaste for feminist criticism or queer theory often leads him astray into needless polemic. Nor do I think it necessary to bring everything back to Falstaff, Bloom's primary infatuation. But what he has to say here, particularly about Jaques, Touchstone and Orlando, is illuminating. And I support his suggestion that Orlando sees through Rosalind's disguise, and would like to see the play performed with that in mind.
From The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966):
It would be difficult to bring the contents of As You Like It within the compass of an ordinary relation; nothing takes place, or rather what does take place is not so essential as what is said; even what may be called the denouement is brought about in a pretty arbitrary manner. Whoever perceives nothing but what is capable of demonstration will hardly be disposed to allow that it has any plan at all.... Throughout the whole picture it seems to have been the intention of the poet to show that nothing is wanted to call forth the poetry which has its dwelling nature and the human mind, but to throw off all artificial constraint and restore both to their native liberty. In the progress of the piece itself the visionary carelessness of such an existence is expressed; it has even been alluded to by Shakespeare in the title. Whoever affects to be displeased that in this romantic forest the ceremonial of dramatic art is not duly observed, ought in justice to be delivered over to the wise fool, for the purpose of being kindly conducted out of it to some prosaical region.
--A.W. Schlegel, 1809-11
A very Romantic observation, stated in a very German way, yet provocatively: It's not so much a play as a poem. That is, dramaturgical desiderata like plot and motivation are suspended for the sake of discovering the poetic impulse, the "visionary carelessness" that springs from nature, liberty and the lack of "artificial constraint."
It is not what is done, but what is said, that claims our attention. Nursed in solitude, "under the shade of melancholy boughs," the imagination grows soft and delicate, and the wit runs riot in idleness, like a spoiled child that is never sent to school. Caprice and fancy reign and revel here, and stern necessity is banished to the court. The mild sentiments of humanity are strengthened with thought and leisure; the echo of the cares and noise of the world strikes upon the ear of those "who have felt them knowingly," softened by time and distance.... The very air of the place seems to breathe as spirit of philosophical poetry; to stir the thoughts, to touch the heart with pity, as the drowsy forest rustles to the sighing gale. Never was there such beautiful moralising, equally free from pedantry or petulance.... Rosalind's character is made up of sportive gayety and natural tenderness; her tongue runs the faster to conceal the pressure at her heart.... The silent and retired character of Celia is a necessary relief to the provoking loquacity of Rosalind.
--William Hazlitt, 1817
Like Schlegel, Hazlitt praises the liberation of the imagination by the escape to Nature. His account of the play makes it sound rather more saccharine than it is, however, and I think he misreads Celia -- "silent and retired," indeed! -- completely.
Upon the whole, As You Like It is the sweetest and happiest of all Shakespeare's comedies. No one suffers; no one lives an eager intense life; there is no tragic interest in it as there is in The Merchant of Venice; as there is in Much Ado About Nothing. It is mirthful, but the mirth is sprightly, graceful, exquisite; there is none of the rollicking fun of a Sir Toby here.... The wit of Touchstone is not mere clownage, nor has it any indirect serious significance; it is a dainty kind of absurdity worthy to hold comparison with the melancholy of Jacques. And Orlando in the beauty and strength of early manhood, and Rosalind,
A gallant curtle-axe upon her thigh,and the bright, tender, loyal womanhood within -- are figures which quicken and restore our spirits, as music does, which is neither noisy nor superficial, and yet which knows little of the deep passion and sorrow of the world.
And boar-spear in her hand,
Shakspere, when he wrote this idyllic play, was himself in his Forest of Arden. He had ended one great ambition -- the historical plays -- and not yet commenced his tragedies. It was a resting place. He sends his imagination into the woods to find repose.
--Edward Dowden, 1875
Well, no. If Hazlitt made the play sound saccharine, Dowden's account of it has "honey a sauce to sugar." He ignores the fact that most of these characters are fleeing for their lives, and if Jaques doesn't have a tragic vision who does? And Touchstone's humor dainty? The Victorian desire for sweetness and light overcomes here the Victorian tendency to doubt and uncertainty.
As You Like It is a criticism of the pastoral sentiment, an examination of certain familiar ideas concerning the simple life and the golden age. It is not satire; its examination is conducted without prejudice.... The result is something very curious. When Rosalind has made her last curtsy and the comedy is done, the pastoral sentiment is without a leg to stand on, yet it stands; and not only stands but dances. The idea of the simple life has been smiled off the earth and yet here it still is, smiling back at us from every bough of Arden.... The doctrine of the golden age has been as much created as destroyed. We know there is nothing in it, and we know that everything is in it. We perceive how silly it is and why we shall never be able to do without it. We comprehend the long failure of cynicism to undo sentiment. Here there is neither sentiment nor cynicism; there is understanding.
--Mark Van Doren, 1939
Written in the year that World War II began, this sounds more like wishful thinking than clear-sighted criticism.
Corin's dialogue with the Touchstone of the court, dropped into the middle of the play, adds to the conventional antithesis between courtier and countryman a glimpse of the real thing.... Though Touchstone seeks to entangle Corin in the fantastications of his wit, his arguments to show that the court is better than the sheepfarm have a way of recoiling on himself.... In city or country, all ways of life are at bottom the same, and we recognize a conclusion that Jaques, by a different route, has helped us to reach before....
Whether he is wiser or more foolish than other men it is never possible to decide, but Touchstone is, as well as the most artificial wit, the most natural man of them all; and the most conscious of his corporal needs. After the journey to the forest Rosalind complains of a weariness of spirits, to which Touchstone retorts, "I care not for my spirits, if my legs were not weary." And when he displays his wit at the expense of Orlando's bad verses, saying, "I'll rhyme you so eight years together," he remembers to add, "dinners and suppers and sleeping-hours excepted."... This preoccupation with the physical makes Touchstone the obvious choice for the sensual lover who will burlesque the romantic dream.
--Harold Jenkins, 1955
Though perhaps not the critic's intent, I think this touches on a central problem with performing Touchstone: It's how to judge the blend of "artificial wit" and "natural man" in the character. Touchstone is always "on," always playing to the groundlings, always doing his shtick. But that shtick is four hundred some-odd years old, and making it new, making it comprehensible, making it organic to the play gets harder with each passing year.
To follow Jaques through the play is to become aware of Shakespeare's preoccupation with the ideal of order in society, in Arden, and in love, and of the subtlety and range of his consequent judgments. But Jaques alone cannot suggest the light-footed gaiety, the warmth, and the confidence with which this comedy is written.... [T]he play's generosity and confidence spring chiefly from the character of Rosalind. She ensures that Shakespeare's ideal of love's order is not presented as a cold theorem; in her person love's doubts and faith, love's obedience and freedom, coexist in delightful animation....
In the two central scenes between Orlando and Rosalind, Shakespeare shows us the growing assurance of their mutual love, its generosity, truth, and order. And at the close of the play, he directs that they should take hands in the forefront of the other lovers and, after the final dance affirming the creation of mutual order, that they should go back with the duke to the court, away from purely subjective content -- they go to play their part on the great stage of society and to affirm order and harmony there.
--John Russell Brown, 1957
Perhaps, but if Shakespeare is so preoccupied with the ideal of order, and if Orlando and Rosalind are so central to it, then why doesn't he give us a scene back at court in which we see them "affirm order and harmony there"? This is, I think, a case of the thesis riding the critic.
The Forest of Arden, like the Wood outside Athens, is a region defined by an attitude of liberty from ordinary limitations, a festive place where the folly of romance can have its day. The first half of As You Like It, beginning with tyrant brother and tyrant Duke and moving out into the forest, is chiefly concerned with establishing the sense of freedom; the traditional contrast of court and country is developed in a way that is shaped by the contrast between everyday and holiday, as that antithesis has become part of Shakespeare's art and sensibility. Once we are securely in the golden world ... the pastoral motif as such drops into the background; Rosalind finds Orlando's verses in the second scene of Act III, and the rest of the play deals with love.
--C.L. Barber, 1959
This strikes me as little more than stating a familiar pattern: thesis (corrupt court) + antithesis (liberated forest) = synthesis (more humane court), with love as the catalyst. But perhaps it's worth restating the familiar from time to time.
From Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate:
Paternal grandfather: Richard Shakespeare, yeoman farmer from the village of Snitterfield on the fringes of the Forest of Arden. Maternal grandfather: Robert Arden of nearby Wilmcote, owner of the land that Richard farmed.... Like Corin in As You Like It, the Arden family farmed on the edge of the forest....
Thomas Lodge's elegant prose romance Rosalynd is located in the Ardennes forest in France. When Shakespeare dramatized the tale and called it As You Like It, he domesticated the setting. The first we hear of the exiled Duke is that, "like the old Robin Hood of England," he is in the forest with a group of "merry men." Ostensibly, the qualifier "of England" is an indication that the action is supposed to take place in France, but the deeper effect is to identify Arden with Sherwood.... As in the Robin Hood story, the wished-for conclusion is the restoration of the right ruler.
Often wrongly described as one of the Duke's courtiers, [Jaques] is a gentleman who has sold his lands in order to become a "traveller," a wry detached observer of manners and morals. The forest order is dependent on hunting, leading Jaques to sympathize with the wounded stag and suggest that the good duke usurps the place of the deer every bit as much as the bad duke has usurped power back at court....
The golden age was the imagined infancy of humankind, another Eden, a playground in which Nature offered up her fruits and the winter wind never blew. But Shakespeare complicates the picture. The Duke's very first speech sees Arden as a place less to "fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world" than to draw lessons from the natural world. This is no Arcadia of perpetual summer: the seasons do change, it is just that "the penalty of Adam" -- being forced to labor for subsistence -- seems less harsh than the vicissitudes of the court.... The old shepherd Corin is a voice of happiness, yet he has no illusions about the need for labor and his dependence on property that he does not own....
The merging of Ardennes and Arden is only the most extreme example of Shakespeare's tendency to swerve back to his point of origin.... Perhaps what is most distinctive about Shakespeare's representation of his own land is this sense of the local, the regionally specific, the provincial. The social and natural ecology of rural Warwickshire plays a key part in his vision....
[W]hen As You Like It was written, [Shakespeare] was confident enough in his success to use his own name when teasing himself for his humble origins in Arden:
TOUCHSTONE Is thy name William?Noting the consonance of sexual wordplay between shaking a spear (penis) and touching a stone (testicle), the critic Katherine Duncan-Jones brilliantly suggests that Touchstone as well as William is a version of Shakespeare: "Their dialogue can be read as an exchange between the wealthy and quick-witted playwright and the provincial youth he has left behind him in the Forest of Arden." William is at the "ripe age" of twenty-five: could it have been at the same age, in 1589, that his creator left the forest and began his career as a witty player?
WILLIAM William, sir.
TOUCHSTONE A fair name. Wast born i'th'forest here?
WILLIAM Ay, sir, I thank God....