The Taming of a Schlemozzle: As You Like It as you like it.

The Taming of a Schlemozzle:

 As You Like It as you like it.


Burton Weltman


 “I see a woman may be made a fool

If she had not a spirit to resist.”

Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew.


Domestication Altercations: What goes around, comes around.

A schlemiel is a guy who invariably spills the soup.

A schlemozzle is the guy on whom the soup is invariably spilled.”

Mel Brooks.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare dramatized the efforts of a husband, Petruccio, to dominate his wife, Katherine.  The play is widely considered what we today call sexist because it seemingly lauds the husband’s efforts, denigrates the wife, and applauds her apparent submission to him in the end.  In As You Like It, Shakespeare seems to take a reverse course, and portrays a woman, Rosalind, who dominates the action around her and her suitor, Orlando.

Conventional interpretations of the play portray Rosalind as a golden girl, selfless, virtuous, and brilliant.  Conventional interpretations portray Orlando as a golden boy, a repository of the Boy Scout virtues, a heroic figure, and a devoted lover.  In this essay, I am going to argue that, contrary to the conventional view, Rosalind is mercenary, mendacious and selfishly manipulative.  I am also going to argue that Orlando is a schlemozzle, that is, a nice guy who isn’t very bright and tends to be a loser.  Orlando is a well-liked fellow, and an impressive physical specimen, but he is intellectually dense and prone to violence.  In turn, he repeatedly gets dumped on until fortune miraculously turns his way at the end of the play.

As You Like It is typically played as a light-hearted pastoral romance about love at first sight and lovers in an idyllic forest setting.  A recent production of the play that I saw at the Stratford Festival was staged as a carnival of singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, and audience participation.  It was wonderfully conceived and performed, and was great fun.  The young people in the audience (busloads of students from local schools) seemed to have a particularly good time.  The play concludes with the marriage of four couples who have ostensibly fallen in love at first sight, and closes with what seems to be a “Happily ever after” ending for them all.

In this essay, I suggest an alternative approach that contrasts with conventional interpretations of the play, and that I think better fits the words that Shakespeare wrote.  As You Like It, in my view, is not a romance of good things coming to good people and bad people becoming good, but is essentially a dark comedy, that is, a play in which bad things sometimes happen to good people, and selfishness sometimes prevails over selflessness.  The play is full of ironies.

The characters, for example, volubly justify their amorous inclinations as true love at first sight, but their mutual attractions appear to be mainly just lust at first sight.  They proclaim undying love and loyalty, but their personalities do not seem the stuff of which long-lasting commitments are made.  Finally, I think that the superficially happy ending of the play belies the underlying problems that will likely soon emerge in the characters’ marital relationships.  My interpretation could still be performed as you might like it in a fun-filled circus-like fashion, but it would also have a serious side to it and would suggest some serious things to think about.

As You Like It parallels The Taming of the Shrew in many ways, albeit with a reversal of gender roles.  Although most productions of The Taming of the Shrew close with what seems to be a “Happily ever after” ending, some interpreters see Katherine’s submission at the end of that play as merely a strategic retreat.  They foresee that her struggles for dominance with Petruccio will be resumed in the near future, thereby giving the lie to a superficially happy ending.  Likewise, I think that the various marriages at the end of As You Like It, including that of Rosalind to Orlando, are fragile and full of potential contradictions and conflicts.  Loving peace and harmony seem likely to be short-lived, and battles for dominance are likely to break out in the near future.  What seems to be a “Happily ever after” ending is really an ironic beginning.

As You Like It goes Into the Woods: Wishing Well and Unwell.

“Into the woods…

You can have your wish…

Then out of the woods,

And happy ever after.” Not.

Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is a dark comedy that also parallels As You Like It in many waysIn Sondheim’s play, the main characters leave their mundane lives and venture into a nearby forest seeking the ways and means of bettering their lives.  In seeking to fulfill their wishes, however, the characters create a host of problems for themselves.  In the course of the first act of the play, they resolve these problems and each gets the wish that prompted him or her to go into the woods.  The first act ends with all of them rejoicing that they are now going to live happily ever after.  But not so fast.

At the beginning of the second act, the characters find themselves disappointed with the way things have turned out. They come up with new wishes that generate new problems for themselves that are even more daunting than the ones they faced in the first act.  With great sacrifice and loss of life, the surviving characters solve these problems and, once again, rejoice that they are finally going to live happily ever after.  Or so they think, because the play closes with one of them whispering “I wish,” a potent act which portends even more trials and tribulations for them all.  Sondheim’s characters seem to be caught in a vicious cycle of wishes and troubles, unhappily ever after.

As You Like It is a play full of songs, a Sondheim-like musical of Elizabethan times.  It is also the story of a group of people who venture into a forest to escape unhappiness and unjust persecutions, hoping there to find a better way of life.  As in Sondheim’s musical, they overcome adversity and their wishes seem to come true.  But like Sondheim’s comedy, the play seems to end at the beginning of a new round of troubles for them all.  The melancholic philosopher Jacques closes the play with what seem like ironic congratulations to the pairs of lovers and then, refusing to participate in the marital festivities, retires to see what will be the outcome of it all.

The Plot: Courtly Usurpations and Forest Peregrinations.

I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK.

I cut down trees, I eat my lunch,

I go to the lavatory.

On Wednesdays, I go shopping

And have buttered scones for tea.”

Monty Python.

As You Like It has a peripatetic plot but the gist of the action can be summarized as follows.  A French duke, Duke Senior, is deposed by his brother Duke Frederick.  Senior escapes to the Forest of Arden with a bunch of his followers, including the philosopher Jacques, and they proceed to set up an idyllic housekeeping among the natives there.  The courtly gentlemen settle into what seems to be a very refined forest life, with docile peasants and shepherds to serve them, and plentiful deer to shoot.  Maybe even buttered croissants for tea.  Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, stays behind in the ducal palace under the protection of Frederick’s daughter, Celia.

Meanwhile, Oliver, a lesser nobleman, has been systematically mistreating his younger brother Orlando, and rendering him penniless.  Orlando rebels and threatens violence against Oliver.  When Orlando enters a wrestling competition, Oliver induces the other wrestler to try to kill Orlando.  However, Orlando wins the competition and then flees to the forest with his faithful servant Adam.  In the course of the wrestling scene, Orlando meets up with Rosalind.  Unbeknownst to them, each falls in love with the other at first sight.                  

Frederick eventually suspects Rosalind of conspiring against him on behalf of her father, which she is not doing, and she escapes to the forest with Celia and Touchstone, the court jester.  As a means of self-protection, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, and calls herself Ganymede.  Celia disguises herself as Rosalind’s sister.  As they settle into country life, they meet Orlando, who has been posting love poems about Rosalind on trees all around the forest.  Touchstone makes fun of Orlando’s poems, which even Rosalind thinks are sophomoric.

Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, convinces Orlando to undergo a prolonged and humiliating course of so-called treatment with Ganymede to cure Orlando of his unrequited love for Rosalind, while actually fanning it.  Meanwhile there is much debating about life and love among the various displaced gentlemen, including Ganymede, and much repartee about the relative merits of court life versus country life between the gentlemen and the rural folks.

In the end, Orlando saves Oliver’s life when Oliver is attacked by a lion as Oliver is seeking for Orlando to further persecute him.  Oliver vows to turn over his wealth to Orlando and to live in the forest with Celia, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight.  Frederick also has a conversion experience as he is seeking to further persecute his brother, and Frederick vows to give Senior back the dukedom and retire into a monastery.

Finally, Rosalind removes her disguise and reveals herself to her father and to Orlando.  The play closes with the marriage of Rosalind to Orlando, Celia to Oliver, their jester Touchstone to a peasant girl, and two peasants to each other.  Everyone rejoices.  But is this the end or merely the beginning of their problems?

Conventional and Contraventional Interpretations: Where are the Entwives?

“I’ve seen love from both sides now,

From give and take and still somehow,

It’s love’s illusions I recall.

I really don’t know love at all.”

Joni Mitchell

According to Wikipedia, which is a good source of conventional opinion on many subjects, As You Like It is generally regarded as a light-hearted pastoral romance, in which Rosalind is generally portrayed as a paragon of virtue and a role model for men and women alike.  Orlando is, in turn, generally regarded as a hero.  Most interpreters generally accept at face value the acclamations of love at first sight made by various characters in the play, as well as the happy ending.  This is the conventional view of the play.[1]

The conventional interpretation makes for a pleasant play that the Shakespearean scholar George Goddard says is not one of Shakespeare’s best but is one of Shakespeare’s best loved.  I would contend, however, while the conventional view makes for a likeable play, it also makes for difficulty in construing in pari materia the words written by Shakespeare.  This is exemplified by Goddard’s own interpretation of the play.

Accepting the description of the play as “a pastoral romance,” Goddard claims that it is Rosalind’s play, and that she completely dominates the drama just “as Hamlet does Hamlet.”  Like many critics, Goddard seems smitten with Rosalind, gushing that “Rosalind is wit with humor” and “a sort of universal image of Woman as Sweetheart.”  He also describes Orlando as a hero.  Goddard concludes that the moral of the play is that love is wisdom and that love at first sight, exemplified by the attraction of Rosalind and Orlando for each other, is wisdom in action.

Goddard runs into difficulties, however, in reconciling this view with Shakespeare’s words.  He claims, for example, that the love poems Orlando has posted on trees in the forest are genuinely good poetry, despite evidence within the play that Shakespeare intended the verses to be deemed inferior.  Touchstone, the jester, ridicules Orlando’s verses as “bad fruit” coming from good trees, and extemporizes a mock love poem that is clearly a better composition than Orlando’s. (3.2.87-158).  Goddard thunders, nonetheless, that “Touchstone stands condemned as a fool” for criticizing Orlando’s poems.  This is an odd condemnation since Touchstone, as a court jester, is, in fact, a professional fool.  In any case, Rosalind also mocks Orlando’s verses as “tedious,” and acknowledges that Touchstone’s are better than Orlando’s. (3.2.158-173).  Is she a fool, too?

In defense of his thesis, Goddard denounces as a hypocrite the philosopher Jacques, who doubts that love at first sight can endure, because Jacques claims to eschew mankind but seemingly craves an audience for his misanthropic pronouncements.  Goddard notes that Orlando refuses to engage in repartee with Jacques, which Goddard cites as an example of Orlando’s intelligence.  But Duke Senior, who is a voice of reason in the play, likes to engage in debate with Jacques, and finds him a fount of interesting ideas, albeit not always wisdom.  Goddard’s view of Jacques does not seem to be Shakespeare’s.

Finally, Goddard thinks that in the debates between the courtly gentlemen and the rural folks, the peasants win hands down, with their sincerity triumphing over the cynicism of the gentlefolks.  But this is not the conclusion of Duke Senior, and is clearly not the case when one looks at the debates.  While in some instances the common sense and humility of the peasants wins out, in others the superior wit of the court people clearly triumphs.  The play is just too two-sided for the one-dimensional conventional view that Goddard espouses.[2]

Mark Van Doren, another Shakespearean scholar, takes a more two-sided view of the play.   Unlike Goddard, he thinks that As You Like It is a great play, and that it embodies a thorough-going critique of pastoral romances.  Also unlike Goddard, Van Doren thinks that both the court and the countryside folks have their points, but that the court people ultimately have the better of it in their debates.  Finally, unlike Goddard, who disparages Touchstone, Van Doren considers Touchstone a genuine “intellectual,” a man “without illusion” who shreds the pastoral myth, and who even wittily proves to the shepherds that they are really courtiers.

But, like Goddard and consistent with the conventional view of the play, Van Doren idealizes and idolizes Rosalind.  He claims she is “a perfect symbol of the romantic heroine” who “loves Orlando without limit.”  He rhapsodizes that she is “a gallant and witty girl” who is “the philosopher of the play.”  Van Doren also accepts the conventional view of the play as a paean to love at first sight and marriage at first chance.[3]

I do not agree with this love-and-marriage view of the play, if for no other reason than that there are lots of husbands and their offspring in the play, but no wives and mothers.  This is a situation similar to that of the Ents in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Ents are primordial tree-like creatures that take care of the earth.  When the Hobbits Merry and Pippin ask the Ent Treebeard about the whereabouts of the Entwives, Treebeard explains that in the course of time, the male Ents took to the forests to tend the trees while the female Ents remained in the fields to tend the plants.  The male Ents eventually lost all touch with their Entwives and, thereafter, lived a bachelors’ existence in the woods.  “You see, we lost the Entwives,” he concludes.

The men in As You Like It have similarly taken to the forest and seemingly lost touch with their wives. They have constructed a bachelors’ paradise, and there is no indication that they might be looking forward to reuniting with their wives when they return home.  As You Like It is, thus, a play about marriage and family but with no wives or mothers, not even a mention of them.  In leaving out any example of a marriage in the play, let alone a successful marriage, Shakespeare has placed the marriages that are contracted at the end of the play in a doubtful context.  It raises the question of whether love, lust, love’s illusions, and/or greed are the motivating factors in the play, and whether Shakespeare thinks love at first sight will last for long in a marriage.

The Case Against Rosalind, and the Schlemozzle Tamed: Seeming is Believing.

“You’re good.  You’re very good.”

Sam Spade.

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the hard-boiled detective Sam Spade falls under the hypnotic sway of the mercenary Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who is drop dead beautiful (in the book, not the movie), brilliant, sympathetic, and totally disingenuous.  It is lust at first sight.  For most of the book, he knows he is being conned by her but he can’t help himself.  He is overwhelmed by her beauty, and she is too clever for him.  I think that Rosalind is very much like her, and is essentially a female version of Petruccio in The Taming of the Shrew, who was himself mercenary, manipulative, mendacious and domineering.

The case against Rosalind is simple.  When her father is banished by Frederick, she stays behind to live in the luxury of the palace, rather than rough it with her father in the forest.  Not a very loyal daughter.  When Frederick suspects her of plotting in favor of her father, she truthfully denies it.  Not a very valiant daughter.  When she escapes to the woods with her loyal and valiant cousin Celia, her intention is to live on Celia’s money.  A very convenient friendship.

Rosalind falls for Orlando after admiring his good looks, admiring his strength and prowess in winning a wrestling match, and admiring his pedigree without yet knowing that he has been disowned by his brother.  Her attraction to him is strong but her language about him is more calculated than caring.  Not a very elevated motive.

Rosalind adopts the name Ganymede in taking on her disguise as a man.  In ancient Greek mythology, Ganymede was the most beautiful of male mortals, and was made immortal by Zeus.  Not a very humble disguise.  By contrast, the humble Celia takes on the alias of Aliena, which means stranger in Latin and was the name of a plebian Roman family.

Rosalind dominates her cousin, and seems to expect to dominate any situation.  While in the forest, she does not reveal her identity to her father, who is likely worried about her, until the very end of the play when he has been restored to his position of power and wealth by Frederick.  She also does not reveal her identity to Orlando and plays a hurtful hoax on him, claiming to help him forget his love for Rosalind while actually fanning his passion.  She treats him with scorn and derision, quite cruelly, during her supposed treatment of him.  She reveals herself to him only after she has completely hogtied him with her psychological manipulations, and he has been granted wealth and power by his brother Oliver.

Rosalind’s views of the world are mercenary and cynical.  She states her own philosophy as “Fortune reigns in the gifts of the world, not in the lineaments of nature,” that is, it is what you have and not what you are that is most important. (1.2.40-42).  When the philosopher Jacques attributes his chronic melancholy to all the suffering and evil he has seen in his travels around the world, she replies that “I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad.”  That is, she would rather pretend the world is as she would like it, and ignore the hardship and suffering of others, than to see it as it really is.  She also derides Jacques for having “rich eyes and poor hands,” that is, he has seen a lot but has no wealth to show for it. (4.1.13-32).

Rosalind’s views of love are also cynical.  When the jester Touchstone quips that “as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal folly,” she seriously agrees with him.  (2.4.54-56). Later, when Orlando complains to Rosalind, who is disguised as Ganymede, that he is dying for the love of Rosalind, she mocks him and claims that “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” (4.1.112-113).  Rosalind is good at her games, very good, and she is able to carry her schemes off, making seeming into believing.

Rosalind is a winner.  In contrast, Orlando is a whiner.  The play opens with him whining first to his servant Adam and then to his brother Oliver that Oliver has not provided him with the education and income that he deserves.  He is unable to live up to the high social status of his birth.  Orlando complains that Oliver has “undermined my gentility” and “trained me like a peasant.” (1.1.1-25).  There is no indication that he has done anything to educate or elevate himself.  Orlando seems to think he is entitled to whatever he wants.  His obsession with money and status sets the stage for the play, and stands in sharp contrast with the deposed Duke Senior’s lauding of forest life because there is “no painted pomp” and “no flattery” there. (2.1.3-15).

When Oliver does not immediately sympathize with Orlando’s complaints, Orlando seizes Oliver by the throat and threatens him with violence.  The result is that Oliver promises to give Orlando some money, but then hatches a plan for Orlando to be killed in a forthcoming wrestling match.  Oliver is an evil person, but he seemingly has legitimate concerns for his personal safety.

Orlando is a violent person.  This works to his advantage when he defeats the wrestler at the beginning of the play, and when his kills the lion that was attacking his brother at the end of the play.  But he seems inclined to violence at the wrong times, as in this opening scene with his brother and later when he storms the forest camp of Duke Senior in search of food and threatens to kill anyone who eats a morsel before he gets what he wants.  He needs a keeper.

Orlando is also not very bright.  This is indicated by the fact that he has apparently been taken advantage of by his brother for such a long time, and it has taken him so long to register a protest.  It is also indicated by the awful love poems he writes, his inability to do well in repartee with other characters, and his falling for the ridiculous hoax that Rosalind plays on him.  He is a schlemozzle, a loser, who seemingly wins in the end only because Rosalind has fallen for him and takes him in hand.  I say “seemingly wins” because it is not clear that in the long run he is going to enjoy the marriage to the domineering Rosalind that he has won.

Power-Tripping into the Woods: As You Like It as you will.

“The truly great books are the few books

that are over everybody’s head all of the time.”

Mortimer Adler

As You Like It is a play purportedly about love, but is seemingly more about lust.  Each of the main pairings is established at first sight, with the exception of long-suffering peasant Silvius’ long-standing passion for the peasant Phoebe.  Silvius is also the only one in the play who seems to have a conception of love that goes beyond personal satisfaction.  Love, he says, “It is to be all made of faith and service.” (5.2.93).  Scattered throughout the play until the very end are songs that speak of love as lust, love as ephemeral, and love as folly.  (2.5.1-10; 2.7.183-201; 4.2.12-20; 5.3.17-39).  This is not a play that extolls true and lasting love.

The play is also purportedly about selflessness overcoming selfishness, but is seemingly more about power struggles and the survival of the wittiest.  Adam, the faithful servant of Orlando’s family, is the only one who gives with no expectation of return, as when he offers Orlando his life’s saving and life’s service in helping Orlando escape from Oliver’s vengeance. (2.3.40-57).

The superficially happy ending of the play is engineered by Shakespeare through a series of fantastical conversions and deus et machina. In defending his thesis that the play is a light-hearted pastoral romance, Harrold Goddard attributes these miracles to “the magic of the Forest of Arden,” and claims they contribute to the upbeat moral of the story.

I think otherwise.  I think the ending is ominous and the moral of the story is a downer.  Shakespeare has given us a play about brothers pitted against brothers for wealth and power, nobles versus peasants, court versus countryside, men versus women, and pessimists versus optimists.  With the exception of a few characters, such as Duke Senior, Celia, Adam and Silvius, each is trying to impose his or her will on the others, and the question is whose wills will win out.  Goddard would have it that the play shows the optimists winning out, and that Shakespeare intended his audience to leave the play encouraged about the world.  I think that Shakespeare leaves us with a Jacques-like feeling of foreboding that if the only way things can work out reasonably well is through miracles, then we all ought to begin praying ASAP.

In suggesting an alternative to the conventional view of As You Like It, I am not insisting that mine is the only plausible interpretation.  It has been frequently said of Shakespeare’s plays that one of the things that makes them great is that they can be interpreted and performed in many different ways.  In his seminal treatise on How to Read a Book (1940), Mortimer Adler defines a great book as one that can be read over and over with the reader getting something more or different each time.  That is true of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s words and directions form the parameters within which his plays can be performed, but he leaves a lot of latitude for interpretation within those parameters.  The staging is everything.  I think that staging the play with the interpretation I am suggesting would make for a more interesting and more humorous performance, even without all of the gimmicks that were superadded to the production I recently saw at the Stratford Festival.

[1] “As You Like It.” Wikipedia.  Accessed 9/23/16.

[2]  Harrold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. pp.281-293.

[3]  Mark Van Doren.  Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. pp.127-134.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s