The Reading Room
Justice and Marriage in Shakespeare’s As You Like it
When As You Like It opens, the political world of its unnamed duchy is truly out of joint. At both the familial and ducal level, injustice is ascendent. What marks the play as a comedy—rather than one of Shakespeare’s blood-thirsty tragedies—is that the development of the play points back to a restoration of justice and order—a renewal sealed by not one but four marriages.
As the curtain parts, Orlando has a legitimate complaint. Whereas his father had left money in his will for his education, his older brother Oliver has kept him at the family estate, denying him the opportunity to better himself or make his way in the world. As an alternative path for success, Orlando decides to enter the ring with the duke’s undefeated wrestler. Before the match, Oliver takes the wrestler aside and gives him free reign of violence over his brother: “I had as lief [am willing] thou didst break his neck as his finger” (I.1.115). Then, after Orlando’s surprise victory, Oliver plots to do away with his problem once for all—by burning down Orlando’s lodging over his head while he slept!
The wrestling match exposes Orlando to the court of Duke Frederick. Frederick, though, was an usurper, having driven his older brother Duke Senior into exile. Duke Frederick repeatedly reveals his tyrannical disposition. After Orlando wins the wrestling match, Frederick praises him—until he finds out his name and learns that his father had supported the legitimate Duke. Soon after, Frederick threatens the life and drives out of his court Rosalind, Duke Senior’s beautiful daughter—for no other reason than that she was the confidant of his daughter Celia. Later, he even threatens the estate of Oliver unless he drags his brother back to court.
Retreat and Renewal
This train of abuses drives the play’s heroes and heroines into the Forest of Arden. If not fully a state of nature, this return to an Arcadian setting promises the possibility of safety and a fresh start. Indeed, as some of the foresters sing, “Here shall he see/ No Enemy/ But winter and rough weather.” (II.5.5)
Orlando soon stumbles upon Duke Senior’s court-in-exile and becomes a trusted retainer. Rosalind and Celia settle into a cottage disguised as a young noble man and a shepherdess.
The idyllic moment allows love to bloom. Orlando uses his spare time to write impassioned poetry about Rosalind, whom he had first met on the day of his wrestling victory. Rosalind, dressed as a young man, teaches Orlando how to woo…herself. At the same time, the clown Touchstone finds the countrywoman Audrey alluring, and another couple wrestles with unrequited love.
Just at that moment, several waves of trouble crash toward Arden. Oliver, on Frederick’s order, appears, seeking Orlando. Meanwhile, Frederick marshals an army and marches it toward the forest.
Oliver’s appearance presents Orlando with a truly critical choice. With Oliver asleep and a hungry lioness ready to pounce, Orlando confronts how to treat his enemy. Twice he turns his back, meaning to leave Oliver to his fate. However, virtue triumphs, and he decides to intervene. In Oliver’s words, it was “Kindness, nobler ever than revenge” (IV.3.122) that changes Orlando’s path. This change of heart and choice of kindness elevates Orlando’s actions and becomes a turning point for the whole play. Orlando courageously sacrifices his body in battle with the lioness, but he gains his brother—Oliver describes the experience as his “conversion” (IV.3.131).
Then, as Duke Frederick was about to invade the forest, he meets an “old religious man.” By deep conversation, Frederick is convicted of his misdeeds and so also “was converted” (V.4.144-145) He decides—we learn through a messenger—to return the duchy to his older brother Duke Senior and retire from the world.
Remarkably, then the injustices of family and state have been remedied. They were brought about by Orlando’s virtuous choice of mercy over revenge and the courage and wisdom of a “religious man” to speak truthfully to the usurping Duke. Both resulted in conversion, a turning of mind of heart that led to restoration and political renewal.
Marriage as the Capstone
From a structural viewpoint, then, justice has been restored, but a final component to cap the renewal of the state remains: the creation of new, loving families. Through Rosalind’s efforts, all four couples gather, disguises fall away, and each lover is matched appropriately. The quadruple wedding in the enchanted forest then welcomes an unexpected presider: Hymen, the god of marriage.
Although some productions skip over Hymen’s presence and lines, his presence is central to understanding the play. Hymen demonstrates divine blessing on marriage as an institution. As he sings:
O blessed bond of board and bed’Tis Hymen peoples every town,High wedlock then be honourèd. (V.4.126-128)
Thus, through the newly formed marriage covenants the renewed state will grow and flourish. The joys and confusions of love may seem personal and ephemeral, but when they guide couples to marriage they create a spiritual hearth for political flourishing.
With the god’s blessing, Orlando and Rosalind are recognized that “no cross shall part,” while Oliver and Celia are united “heart in heart” (V.4.114-116) With Duke Senior’s command to “Play, music,” (V.4.162) his restored duchy bids fair for a prosperity that is both individual and corporate.