The Story Before Shakespeare: As You Like It

Published December 24th 1997 by Edinburgh University Press
Published December 24th 1997 by Edinburgh University Press

From whence did Shakespeare draw his inspiration?  This question has intrigued scholars for centuries, and we have a wealth of knowledge to show for it. For As You Like It, the direct and immediate source is Thomas Lodge’s pastoral romance Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie published in 1590. Shakespeare used much of Lodge’s novel, even adapting the title for the play “As You Like It” from one of the introductory notes of the novel:  “If you like it.” Shakespeare usually took influence from other writers. With the exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Tempest, Shakespeare borrowed, sometimes directly and in precise detail, from existing works. Recurring influence can be traced to Geoffrey Chaucer, Plutarch, Euripides, and Ovid. Even so, nothing is more characteristic of Shakespeare’s talent than his ability to transform the stories of other artists and writers to create superior pieces, illuminating the human experience more brightly than the works on which they are based.

AsYouLikeIt

When comparing Lodge with Shakespeare’s play, it is clear that  As You Like It owes much to the novel.  All the important lines of action in the play are borrowed from Lodge: the enmity between the Dukes, the quarrel between Orlando and Oliver, the love-affairs of Orlando and Rosalind, of Oliver and Celia, of Silvius and Phebe, all find parallels in Lodge. But Shakespeare has rolled out some noteworthy improvements and additions, as Shakespeare is wont to do.

François Boucher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
François Boucher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lodge’s Rosalynde is a pastoral romance, a genre which mixed pastoral poems with a fictional narrative in prose, taking inspiration from ancient classics (notably Ovid) set in the countryside. This was a popular, albeit rather pedestrian genre, that Shakespeare often used to contrast a depiction of court.  The Bohemia of The Winter’s Tale, the island of The Tempest, and even the forest, populated by outlaws, of the The Two Gentlemen of Verona exemplify this device.  The sentiment of Lodge’s novel is thick, overwhelming, and conventional. Yet when Shakespeare took on writing his piece, he metamorphosed the tangled web of hidden identities and incomprehensible violence into As You Like It, the upbeat, poetic romance we cherish today. Shakespeare altered a great deal of the action, by both modifying existing and inventing new characters. Shakespeare kept in tact the characters of Rosalynde, Celia, Phebe, Corin, and Silvius from Lodge, but invented others like Touchstone, Jaques, Amiens, Audrey, and Le Beau to facilitate a parody of the traditional and conventional pastoral romance.

1969-Shakespeare-VS-ShawWhen comparing  As You Like It with its principal source, Shakespeare’s manipulation of the borrowed story is a testament to his writing genius .  George Bernard Shaw sneers at As You Like It, a play for which he had an extreme dislike. Shaw terms Rosalind “a fantastic sugar doll,” and makes the strange suggestion that the title of the play was given in a spirit of ill-humor, as a stinging satire. Shaw holds, “that Shakespeare found that the only thing that paid in the theatre was romantic nonsense… a cheap falsehood [of] borrowing the story and throwing it in the face of the public with the phrase ‘As You Like It.'”

The thought that Shakespeare shows special contempt for As You Like It “‘by borrowing the story'” is a surprising suggestion. As a rule, Shakespeare’s plays were often derived from known and identifiable sources. And unlike Shaw suggests, the manner in which Shakespeare manipulates and supplements the material derived from his sources is a fundamental subject of study in examining the genius of Shakespeare.

Katrina HeadshotKatrina Lind is a graduate of Southern Oregon University with a BFA in Theatre (Performance). She has worked with such companies as Island Shakespeare Festival (2015, Miranda in The Tempest, Ensemble in The Three Musketeers), Shakespeare in the Vines and South Coast Repertory.

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