Whether his dramas should be taken as plays or as literature has been disputed. But surely they should be taken as both. Acted, or seen on the stage, they disclose things hidden to the reader. Read, they reveal what no actor or theater can convey.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
Like it or not, we must face the possibility that As You Like It was never performed in Shakespeare's time. We can make assumptions, but no written record remains anywhere—or at least no written record that scholars know of—that proves Shakespeare's popular comedy was produced, either at the Globe (which had just opened at the time the play was written) or anywhere else. But there are a few clues that the play may have been performed. In August of 1600 As You Like It was "stayed" in the Stationers' Register of plays, meaning that no one other than Shakespeare's company could print the play. A likely reason for "staying" a play was due to its current popularity: if it was earning money for Shakespeare's company, they would want to keep a monopoly on the rights to stage it.
More fuel for our assumptions that As You Like It was indeed performed sometime when Shakespeare himself actually could have seen it comes from a story told by a nineteenth-century Englishman named William Cory. Cory was told by his host at Wilton House about a letter from the lady who had lived there in 1603. The letter instructed her son to bring King James I to Wilton House to see a production of As You Like It, for William Shakespeare would surely be there. But no one has ever seen the letter in question, so we are left with yet another unsolved mystery about Shakespeare.
And so scholars, after years of debate, are fairly certain that no production even resembling As You Like It was staged until 1723, when Love in a Forest debuted at London's Drury Lane. The Prologue to the play, spoken by the actor who played Orlando, stated that the intention of its producer, Charles Johnson, was to "tune the sacred Bard's immortal lyre; / The scheme from time and error to restore, / And give the stage from Shakespeare one play more." But Johnson did not really bring Shakespeare's As You Like It back to the stage; if Love in a Forest sounds like a funny title for Shakespeare's play, that's because the play hardly resembled Shakespeare's original. It used the basic plot line of Shakespeare's play, but it cut certain characters from the play entirely, most notably Touchstone. The wrestling match of Act I became a sword fight, and Celia married Jaques, not Oliver. Strangest of all, Johnson imported speeches and characters from other Shakesperean plays: when Oliver and Orlando argued at the play's opening, for example, they used Bolingbroke and Mowbray's words from Richard II; and in the final scene, the Rude Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream appeared to offer up their rendition of "Pyramus and Thisbe." Johnson's curious production had a total of six performances.
As You Like It was revived in the 1740s in a truer form, probably due to the popularity in the 1730s of "breeches" parts—parts in which women dressed as men. It became a very popular play to perform, often running at more than one theater in London simultaneously. Two actresses, Hannah Pritchard and Margaret Woffington, were considered "rival Rosalinds" during their many performances at two different theaters between 1741 and 1750. Woffington, however, met a very unfortunate end as Rosalind. On May 3, 1757, she suffered a stroke as she was delivering the Epilogue, and in the words of the spectator John Doran, "that once saucy tongue became paralyzed."
It has often been said that the stage history of As You Like It is really the history of different Rosalinds. Rosalind was portrayed in different ways at different times, often reflecting society's current feelings about women. If Rosalind was played in a mischievous, tomboyish way in the eighteenth century, she was romantic and tender in the nineteenth, and liberated in the twentieth. After a few operatic versions of the play were attempted in the 1820s, As You Like It saw its share of lavish productions and sentimental Rosalinds. William Charles Macready's 1842 version of the play included 97 cast members! In 1908 Richard Flanagan put on an As You Like It with highly elaborate and realistic scenery, including a flock of deer, which one night persisted in chasing Orlando around the stage. Meanwhile, Helen Faucit was at work perfecting the nineteenth-century Rosalind. She wrote that every time she delivered the line, "I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband," she experienced "the involuntary rushing of happy tears to the eyes, which made it necessary for me to turn my head away from Orlando."
As theater moved into the twentieth century, new approaches were taken to the play. At Stratford,
England in 1919, Nigel Playfair used virtually the whole text of As You Like It but scaled back the intricate set and costumes, which were previously so common. For the backdrop of the play he used unrealistic, stylized foliage reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript, and instead of taffeta costumes he used brightly dyed linen. Lines were spoken more quickly and naturalistically than had been traditional in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Athene Sayler played a giggling, girlish Rosalind. In 1950 Katherine Hepburn starred in the play in New York, and though critics thought she made a poor Rosalind, crowds came night after night to see her.
Twentieth-century productions often displayed contrasting interpretations of Shakespeare's text. For example, in 1936 Michael Redgrave played a young Orlando wooed by an older Rosalind (Edith Evans) in a romantic performance. Twenty-five years later, Redgrave's own daughter, Vanessa, starred in a Royal Shakespeare Company production that turned traditional productions on their heads. Ian Bannen's Orlando grew attracted to and wooed the "male" Ganymede rather than the woman that Ganymede pretended to be, thereby making the story more complicated, and perhaps, according to some scholars, closer to its author's original intention.
As You Like It has made its way into film and video, as well. Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, adapted As You Like It to the silver screen for Paul Czinner's 1936 movie. Whether Barrie thought he was at work on another children's story is hard to say, but the resulting production eliminates all the satirical elements of Shakespeare's script and leaves us with nothing but a simplistic pastoral. Touchstone and Jaques are amiable characters, with their most satirical lines left out. When the characters begin their journey into Arden, waterfalls and herds of sheep line their path. Later, with the camera focusing in on a close-up of sniffing rabbits, the message seems to be that in Arden, everything is cute. In 1978, the BBC produced a video version of As You Like It performed al fresco. Though nearly the entire production takes place out of doors, a sharp contrast is drawn between the court and Arden, the former being a manicured garden; the latter, a more natural, woodsy setting.
Back on stage, directors continued to experiment with the matter of gender in their productions of As You Like It. Buzz Goodbody, a woman directing the 1973 Royal Shakespeare Theatre production, chose to dress the players in contemporary styles—long hair for women or men, and tight jeans for both—reflecting the cultural movement towards androgyny in the 1960s and 1970s.
While such a setting might seem the ideal one for a play like As You Like It, not all critics were pleased with what they saw. As one commented, Rosalind in her Ganymede costume "could just as easily be a boy as a girl. She could, however, just as easily be a girl as a boy, and I have never felt less inclination to suspend my disbelief."
A few years later, Peter Stein mounted a production in Berlin which began its performance in a film studio; after Act I, the audience, limited to 300 people for obvious reasons, then walked fifteen minutes to an open forest where they viewed the remainder of the play beside a stream, a pond, and singing shepherds. Some critics said this experience was nothing short of "total Shakespeare," but others found the four-and-a-half-hour production overwhelming.
Inspired by a 1920 production at a YMCA with an all-male cast, Clifford Williams directed his own group of men in As You Like It at the Old Vic Theatre in England in 1967. Williams' serious intention was to clarify some truths about love that had nothing to do with gender. He wanted to show a version of love that was more spiritual than sexual. He was not above a good laugh however, and featured an Audrey with a "thick blonde pigtail and a five o'clock shadow."
A little more than twenty years later, director Declan Donnellan continued the trend of single-sex casting. As an audience, we exhibit a certain faith by accepting what takes place on stage as "real," at least momentarily, and Donnellan reasoned that if playgoers could suspend their disbelief about the gender of an actor, the result would be a powerful sort of theater. His London company, Cheek by Jowl, found their model in the work of Kabuki actors in Tokyo, where, as Donnellan says, "people can accept men as women if their belief is there." Apparently, audiences have exhibited the sort of belief that Donnellan hoped to see, for his As You Like It toured internationally and was restaged for another run in New York. His Rosalind was played by the tall, handsome English actor, Adrian Lester (who in 2001 starred in Peter Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet, which toured to Chicago Shakespeare).
In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged As You Like It, directed by Adrian Noble. Noble envisioned Arden not as a solid, realistic place, but as an abstraction and a metaphor. Arden's set was the court set reworked, but not obliterated: its blacks turned to green; the court's clocks still hung where they had, but had lost their faces; and the mirrors, which once reflected back the decadent figures of the Duke's world, lost their reflective glass. When the production was first staged in Stratford, the god Hymen appeared as a flickering silhouette on a lighted screen upstage. With the actors facing upstage and their backs to the audience, Noble felt that the scene became about Hymen and not the characters' individual responses to their separate futures. When the production moved to London, Noble made Hymen a beam of light with its source behind the audience so that, with the actors facing downstage, their faces and individual responses could be read by their audience.
When Chicago Shakespeare (then Shakespeare Repertory) first staged As You Like It in 1995, the production was directed by Englishman David Gilmore. Gilmore's design concept was inspired by the French Impressionists' view of the pastoral, and he chose to set his production in the mid-1800s: his women dressed in full hoop skirts and his men in waistcoats. Fascinated by American dialects, Gilmore's rustics in Arden spoke in thick, hillbilly twangs.
In 1997, Associate Artistic Director Michael Maggio directed As You Like It at The Goodman Theatre, and set his production in in the American Old West. Maggio saw a direct connection between Shakespeare's mythical Forest of Arden and the American myth of the western frontier, where the European ideal of the pastoral seemed once more to be a possibility. The play began set in the decadent society of the industrialized East, and we watched the girls head west, pulled along on a wagon by Touchstone. Touchstone took on the persona of a traveling cowboy, who out-rusticked the rustics they met along the way. Jaques was dressed in a uniform reminiscent of the Confederacy, his hopelessness a remnant of the recent defeat of the South.
The possibilities for performing As You Like It evolve in every new production. Four hundred years after Shakespeare's comedy was written, directors and actors still relish the challenge of creating their own Arden, just as audiences still relish the journey into those deep and surprising woods.