He was more original than the originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.
– Walter Savage Landor, 1846
The detection of [Shakespeare's sources] has its own fascination and is useful in so far as they illustrate the workings of Shakespeare's imagination, but the most notable feature of the play is the dramatist's inventiveness, brilliantly fusing scattered elements from legend, folklore and earlier books and plays into a whole that remains as fresh and original now as when it was composed.
– R.A. Foakes, 1984
Watching one of Shakespeare's plays come to life on stage is exciting, especially when we stop to consider that we are watching a drama penned four centuries ago. And while the words the actors speak are old, the stories that unfold are even older. Scholars tentatively agree that As You Like It was written in 1599, but Shakespeare's drama is based on another work published a decade earlier. That work in turn was based on a fourteenth-century story, and so, in a way, the story of As You Like It is really at least six hundred years old.
The fourteenth-century story in question is known as The Tale of Gamelyn, and for some time scholars, mistakenly believing that it was written by Chaucer, actually included it in some editions of the Canterbury Tales. The story takes much of its inspiration from the Robin Hood legends of old. Sir Johan of Boundys decides to leave virtually all of his estate to Gamelyn, the youngest of his three sons, but the eldest son, jealous of Gamelyn, takes him captive. Gamelyn manages to steal away in order to join in a wrestling match, which he wins, but upon returning home, he finds his brother has locked him out. In a fit of rage, Gamelyn kills his brother's porter and flings him down a well, then breaks into the house and throws a week-long party for his friends!
John, the eldest son, pretends to be sorry and apologizes to Gamelyn, but soon reverts to his evil ways and ties Gamelyn up. When his brother hosts a feast of churchmen, Gamelyn asks for their aid, but none will free him. It is Adam the steward who loosens the ropes, allowing Gamelyn to attack the churchmen and take his revenge. He then flees with Adam as his companion. Gamelyn and Adam encounter a group of outlaws in the woods and join their ranks, with Gamelyn eventually becoming their leader. Later, joined by his long-absent middle brother, Gamelyn and the outlaws prepare their onslaught, killing John—and some government officials in the process. The rewards for the avengers are many; Gamelyn himself becomes heir to all that was meant to be his, and best of all, finds "a wyf bothe good and feyr."
Two centuries later, the sixteenth-century novelist Thomas Lodge was on a long voyage to the Canary Islands. For entertainment, he decided to rewrite the story of Gamelyn, turning it into a love story so popular that it went through nine printings. To the old tale Lodge added elements of the pastoral romances that were popular in his time. Lodge called the piece Rosalynde (in honor of its heroine) and changed the names of many characters. But he went beyond mere cosmetic changes. Where Gamelyn only mentions a woman at the end of the story as a reward for the hero, Lodge's work is about women and men and the love affairs between the two. He also adds a pair of royal rivals, one of whom banishes the other, to echo disputing brothers of The Tale of Gamelyn. The "banisher" has a daughter named Alinda; the daughter of the banished brother is named Rosalynde; and the girls, despite their fathers' situations, are friends.
The leading man, Rosader, is held captive by his eldest brother, named Saladyne, just as Gamelyn was in the old story. He flees his captivity and in the Forest of Arden joins a company of outlaws, led by the banished king. In Arden Rosader encounters Rosalynde and Alinda, who, too, have been banished by Alinda's paranoid father. For their safety, the girls adopt disguises and pseudonyms so that Rosader, who previously met Rosalynde and had fallen in love with her at a wrestling match, does not recognize his beloved. Instead he meets Rosalynde's "Ganymede," a page who serves Alinda's "Aliena." "Ganymede" urges Rosader to woo her as Rosalynde's proxy, but the game is never meant to be a cure for love; it is merely a lengthy exchange of flowery, romantic poetry.
In the meantime, Rosader's brother repents and comes to the forest where he joins the others. As the two brothers save Alinda from bandits, Alinda and Saladyne fall in love. Eventually, true identities are revealed, Rosalynde helps set straight a misguided love between two rustics, and a number of marriages take place. A battle ensues between the royal rivals' factions, with the outlaws victorious. They are restored to their rightful places, and happiness is secured by all.
It might sound as if Shakespeare's play is no different from Lodge's Rosalynde, and it is true that the plot of As You Like It is largely derived from it. But there are subtle and significant differences as Shakespeare reworks his source. Shakespeare's As You Like It pares away the many adventures within Lodge's story and eliminates its most violent aspects. In Lodge's tale, men are killed in the wrestling match, Alinda nearly abducted, and lives are lost in the final battle; in Shakespeare's story, none of these dire outcomes occur. It's likely that Shakespeare wanted to focus more on his characters and their internal dramas rather than on their actions. As one scholar notes, all the characters in Lodge's version are "differently situated rather than fundamentally unlike and all they change are their fortunes, not their inner natures."
Shakespeare also added elements of satire to his play while taking out the most sentimental aspects of his source. In Lodge's story, for example, there are no characters equivalent to Touchstone or Jaques. These two characters provide alternative voices to the dominant characters in the play, counteracting the stereotypes of court and country life that otherwise threaten to make the play trite. Throughout the play Touchstone enjoys disagreeing with his companions' opinions; and when all the other characters are celebrating a joyous resolution at the end of the play, Jaques refuses to abandon his melancholy mood. Touchstone and Jaques' presence ensure that the characters do not all become identical to each other by the play's close. Just as in real life, not everyone conforms to one point of view, nor are the paths that our lives follow all the same.
Gone are the melodramatic elements of Lodge's tale. Instead of writing a sonnet the moment he falls in love as Lodge's Rosader does, Shakespeare's Orlando can find virtually no words at all. And Shakespeare's Rosalind is no corny lover. She knows that love is difficult and wants Orlando to prove his faithfulness, so the playful exchange of vows is turned into a ritual that will either prove Orlando's love or end it.
Shakespeare has taken a simple folk story and made it complex, intricate, and pleasing. No literary hand-me-down, As You Like It is an adventure that is infused with new life every time it is read or performed anew—not bad for a story that's at least six hundred years old.