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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Delights of Love

As You Like It spoofs many of the conventions of poetry and literature dealing with love, such as the idea that love is a disease that brings suffering and torment to the lover, or the assumption that the male lover is the slave or servant of his mistress. These ideas are central features of the courtly love tradition, which greatly influenced European literature for hundreds of years before Shakespeare’s time. In As You Like It, characters lament the suffering caused by their love, but these laments are all unconvincing and ridiculous. While Orlando’s metrically incompetent poems conform to the notion that he should “live and die [Rosalind’s] slave,” these sentiments are roundly ridiculed (III.ii.142). Even Silvius, the untutored shepherd, assumes the role of the tortured lover, asking his beloved Phoebe to notice “the wounds invisible / That love’s keen arrows make” (III.v.31–32). But Silvius’s request for Phoebe’s attention implies that the enslaved lover can loosen the chains of love and that all romantic wounds can be healed—otherwise, his request for notice would be pointless. In general, As You Like It breaks with the courtly love tradition by portraying love as a force for happiness and fulfillment and ridicules those who revel in their own suffering.

Celia speaks to the curative powers of love in her introductory scene with Rosalind, in which she implores her cousin to allow “the full weight” of her love to push aside Rosalind’s unhappy thoughts (I.ii.6). As soon as Rosalind takes to Ardenne, she displays her own copious knowledge of the ways of love. Disguised as Ganymede, she tutors Orlando in how to be a more attentive and caring lover, counsels Silvius against prostrating himself for the sake of the all-too-human Phoebe, and scolds Phoebe for her arrogance in playing the shepherd’s disdainful love object. When Rosalind famously insists that “[m]en have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” she argues against the notion that love concerns the perfect, mythic, or unattainable (IV.i.91–92). Unlike Jaques and Touchstone, both of whom have keen eyes and biting tongues trained on the follies of romance, Rosalind does not mean to disparage love. On the contrary, she seeks to teach a version of love that not only can survive in the real world, but can bring delight as well. By the end of the play, having successfully orchestrated four marriages and ensured the happy and peaceful return of a more just government, Rosalind proves that love is a source of incomparable delight.

The Malleability of the Human Experience

In Act II, scene vii, Jaques philosophizes on the stages of human life: man passes from infancy into boyhood; becomes a lover, a soldier, and a wise civic leader; and then, year by year, becomes a bit more foolish until he is returned to his “second childishness and mere oblivion” (II.vii.164). Jaques’s speech remains an eloquent commentary on how quickly and thoroughly human beings can change, and, indeed, do change in As You Like It. Whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, those who enter the Forest of Ardenne are often remarkably different when they leave. The most dramatic and unmistakable change, of course, occurs when Rosalind assumes the disguise of Ganymede. As a young man, Rosalind demonstrates how vulnerable to change men and women truly are. Orlando, of course, is putty in her hands; more impressive, however, is her ability to manipulate Phoebe’s affections, which move from Ganymede to the once despised Silvius with amazing speed.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare dispenses with the time--consuming and often hard-won processes involved in change. The characters do not struggle to become more pliant—their changes are instantaneous. Oliver, for instance, learns to love both his brother Orlando and a disguised Celia within moments of setting foot in the forest. Furthermore, the vengeful and ambitious Duke Frederick abandons all thoughts of fratricide after a single conversation with a religious old man. Certainly, these transformations have much to do with the restorative, almost magical effects of life in the forest, but the consequences of the changes also matter in the real world: the government that rules the French duchy, for example, will be more just under the rightful ruler Duke Senior, while the class structures inherent in court life promise to be somewhat less rigid after the courtiers sojourn in the forest. These social reforms are a clear improvement and result from the more private reforms of the play’s characters. As You Like It not only insists that people can and do change, but also celebrates their ability to change for the better.

City Life Versus Country Life

Pastoral literature thrives on the contrast between life in the city and life in the country. Often, it suggests that the oppressions of the city can be remedied by a trip into the country’s therapeutic woods and fields, and that a person’s sense of balance and rightness can be restored by conversations with uncorrupted shepherds and shepherdesses. This type of restoration, in turn, enables one to return to the city a better person, capable of making the most of urban life. Although Shakespeare tests the bounds of these conventions—his shepherdess Audrey, for instance, is neither articulate nor pure—he begins As You Like It by establishing the city/country dichotomy on which the pastoral mood depends. In Act I, scene i, Orlando rails against the injustices of life with Oliver and complains that he “know[s] no wise remedy how to avoid it” (I.i.20–21). Later in that scene, as Charles relates the whereabouts of Duke Senior and his followers, the remedy is clear: “in the forest of Ardenne . . . many young gentlemen . . . fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (I.i.99–103). Indeed, many are healed in the forest—the lovesick are coupled with their lovers and the usurped duke returns to his throne—but Shakespeare reminds us that life in Ardenne is a temporary affair. As the characters prepare to return to life at court, the play does not laud country over city or vice versa, but instead suggests a delicate and necessary balance between the two. The simplicity of the forest provides shelter from the strains of the court, but it also creates the need for urban style and sophistication: one would not do, or even matter, without the other.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

As Orlando runs through the forest decorating every tree with love poems for Rosalind, and as Silvius pines for Phoebe and compares her cruel eyes to a murderer, we cannot help but notice the importance of artifice to life in Ardenne. Phoebe decries such artificiality when she laments that her eyes lack the power to do the devoted shepherd any real harm, and Rosalind similarly puts a stop to Orlando’s romantic fussing when she reminds him that “[m]en have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (IV.i.91–92). Although Rosalind is susceptible to the contrivances of romantic love, as when her composure crumbles when Orlando is only minutes late for their appointment, she does her best to move herself and the others toward a more realistic understanding of love. Knowing that the excitement of the first days of courtship will flag, she warns Orlando that “[m]aids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives” (IV.i.125–127). Here, Rosalind cautions against any love that sustains itself on artifice alone. She advocates a love that, while delightful, can survive in the real world. During the Epilogue, Rosalind returns the audience to reality by stripping away not only the artifice of Ardenne, but of her character as well. As the Elizabethan actor stands on the stage and reflects on this temporary foray into the unreal, the audience’s experience comes to mirror the experience of the characters. The theater becomes Ardenne, the artful means of edifying us for our journey into the world in which we live.


Like many of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, As You Like It explores different kinds of love between members of the same sex. Celia and Rosalind, for instance, are extremely close friends—almost sisters—and the profound intimacy of their relationship seems at times more intense than that of ordinary friends. Indeed, Celia’s words in Act I, scenes ii and iii echo the protestations of lovers. But to assume that Celia or Rosalind possesses a sexual identity as clearly defined as our modern understandings of heterosexual or homosexual would be to work against the play’s celebration of a range of intimacies and sexual possibilities.

The other kind of homoeroticism within the play arises from Rosalind’s cross-dressing. Everybody, male and female, seems to love Ganymede, the beautiful boy who looks like a woman because he is really Rosalind in disguise. The name Rosalind chooses for her alter ego, Ganymede, traditionally belonged to a beautiful boy who became one of Jove’s lovers, and the name carries strong homosexual connotations. Even though Orlando is supposed to be in love with Rosalind, he seems to enjoy the idea of acting out his romance with the beautiful, young boy Ganymede—almost as if a boy who looks like the woman he loves is even more appealing than the woman herself. Phoebe, too, is more attracted to the feminine Ganymede than to the real male, Silvius.

In drawing on the motif of homoeroticism, As You Like It is influenced by the pastoral tradition, which typically contains elements of same-sex love. In the Forest of Ardenne, as in pastoral literature, homoerotic relationships are not necessarily antithetical to heterosexual couplings, as modern readers tend to assume. Instead, homosexual and heterosexual love exist on a continuum across which, as the title of the play suggests, one can move as one likes.


As You Like It abounds in banishment. Some characters have been forcibly removed or threatened from their homes, such as Duke Senior, Rosalind, and Orlando. Some have voluntarily abandoned their positions out of a sense of rightness, such as Senior’s loyal band of lords, Celia, and the noble servant Adam. It is, then, rather remarkable that the play ends with four marriages—a ceremony that unites individuals into couples and ushers these couples into the community. The community that sings and dances its way through Ardenne at the close of Act V, scene iv, is the same community that will return to the dukedom in order to rule and be ruled. This event, where the poor dance in the company of royalty, suggests a utopian world in which wrongs can be righted and hurts healed. The sense of restoration with which the play ends depends upon the formation of a community of exiles in politics and love coming together to soothe their various wounds.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Orlando’s Poems

The poems that Orlando nails to the trees of Ardenne are a testament to his love for Rosalind. In comparing her to the romantic heroines of classical literature—Helen, Cleopatra, Lucretia—Orlando takes his place among a long line of poets who regard the love object as a bit of earthbound perfection. Much to the amusement of Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone, Orlando’s efforts are far less accomplished than, say, Ovid’s, and so bring into sharp focus the silliness of which all lovers are guilty. Orlando’s “tedious homil[ies] of love” stand as a reminder of the wide gap that exists between the fancies of literature and the kind of love that exists in the real world (III.ii.143).

The Slain Deer

In Act IV, scene ii, Jaques and other lords in Duke Senior’s party kill a deer. Jaques proposes to “set the deer’s horns upon [the hunter’s] head for a branch of victory” (IV.ii.4–5). To an Elizabethan audience, however, the slain deer would have signaled more than just an accomplished archer. As the song that follows the lord’s return to camp makes clear, the deer placed atop the hunter’s head is a symbol of cuckoldry, commonly represented by a man with horns atop his head. Allusions to the cuckolded man run throughout the play, betraying one of the dominant anxieties of the age—that women are sexually uncontrollable—and pointing out the schism between ideal and imperfect love.


Rosalind’s choice of alternative identities is significant. Ganymede is the cupbearer and beloved of Jove and is a standard symbol of homosexual love. In the context of the play, her choice of an alter ego contributes to a continuum of sexual possibilities.

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