As You Like It is one of the most famous pastoral comedies by William Shakespeare. It was written in 1599 or 1600. Historically speaking, the critical response to the comedy has been often varied, and many a critics have termed it as a work of lesser merit. However, the play has been a clear favorite among the audience from the initial days, as they loved to watch the life of Rosalind, the main heroine, and other characters, both in the Court and in the Forest of Arden, and particularly to watch the Epilogue part towards the end of the play, when the comedy evokes from situations and dialogues, for example, “O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book; as you have books for good manners” (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4), or “Rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house, as your pearl in your foul oyster” (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4).
There are two different families in the beginning, when Sir Rowland de Bois dies; all of his estate comes to his eldest son Oliver. The deceased lord requested Oliver to take care of Orlando, his younger son, but Oliver refused to do that. Orlando goes to fight a wrestler in the court of Duke Frederick, who has usurped his elder brother to the throne. His daughter Celia and his elder brother’s daughter Rosalind are best friends, and they come to see the match. It is love at first sight between Orlando and Rosalind. Orlando defeats the wrestler, and when he comes back home, he is banished from his house. Then, he sets out for the Forest of Arden. By the stroke of luck, Rosalind is also banished from the court. Along with her best friend and Cousin Celia she also leaves the court with Touchstone, a court jester. Duke Fredrick is angry to learn about the disappearance of his own daughter and the fate of Orlando, and orders Oliver to start a manhunt. All characters come to the Forest of Arden, an idyllic place where the banished Duke and his faithful band of lords leave in a voluntary exile. Finally, everyone comes to the place, where a number of happy marriages take place to end the comedy.
Thus, we can say that love is the most important theme in the comedy like other comedies of Shakespeare. However, what is important in the drama is that here we will see that love is manifested in various forms. For Orlando and Rosalind it is nothing but love at first sight and after that Orlando longs for his beloved Rosalind and imagines Ganymede as his lost love. While the love story between Audrey and Touchstone is a direct parody to the form of romantic love, there are two other love stories between Celia and Oliver, and Phebe and Ganymede. We can say that Rosalind and Celia’s deep bond is a testimony of love and friendship between two women. When the play begins, usurpation and injustice become an integral part of the plot, and all important characters are either thrown out of the court or flee from the court to the Forest of Arden. Here, Oliver usurps the rights of his younger brother Oliver, and the Duke Senior is usurped from the court by his younger brother Duke Junior. However, the play ends happily as reconciliation and forgiveness prevails in the end. The change of hearts plays an important role here.
The ending of the play is quite different from that of any other comedies in one prominent way. Here the epilogue is told by Rosalind, the central heroine of the play. She states,
It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
no bush, ‘tis true that a good play needs no
epilogue.....And I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women—as I perceive by your simpering,
none of you hates them— that between you and the
women the play may please. If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I
defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good
beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths will, for my
kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell (Shakespeare, Epilouge).
If we look at the structure of the general drama of the Elizabethan Age, the epilogue was a custom at that time. However, the task is usually assigned to a male character, but here Rosalind is delivering the epilogue, as she herself for the most part of the play is the driving force. At the point of delivering the epilogue, she has shredded her Ganymede disguise, and she is again a woman. The character of Rosalind has been disguised as a man, and the man was romantically attractive to another person. This can show the complexities of human life in the context of a comedy. Basically, the theater changes to a place, where the audience wants to escape from all daily complexities and problems, and the play can be really refreshing.
If we look at the political situation of the Elizabethan Age, we will see that there were numerous stories of deceit and usurpation in the English politics, as it is seen in the drama. However, in many cases these problems ultimately resulted in bloody battles that caused havoc in daily lives of the common people. Therefore, the audience was really experienced in these situations. However, in the play we see that in the end everything settles without bloodshed, Duke Senior forgives his younger brother, while Oliver gladly accepts Orlando in his court. This surely gave the audience a chance to escape from their bitter reality. Here the bard speaks, "Your 'if' is the only peacemaker; much virtue in 'if'" (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4).
Therefore, we can say that though the play is a romantic comedy, but the theme of banishment is really profound. There are two different types of banishment, one is forced and another one is chosen. While Duke Senior, Rosalind and Orlando are forcibly removed from their palaces, such characters as Celia, Duke Senior’s loyal supporters and Adam are people, who chose to go into exile with their favorite people.
In the final parts of the drama, there are four marriages. Marriage is a social ceremony, which unites two persons into a couple and ultimately ushers the couple into our community. Here, in the Forest of Arden, everyone sings and dances in the joy of marriages and ultimately in the Act V, Scene 4 we see that everyone is ready to go back to their past worlds, except for Duke Junior, who is transformed by a saint and chooses to live a life in the forest. The words of love and music are designed to pour various wounds of characters in the play.
In the final part of the play, Rosalind makes all matters even, as it effected all romantic entanglements in the drama. Both Duke Senior and Orlando is now familiar with the older Rosalind, but there are hints that Orlando might have identified Rosalind from the very beginning, “My lord, the first time that I ever saw him,/Me thought he was a brother to your daughter” (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4).
However, according to a romantic tradition, Orlando continued to play with her charm and moved the drama along. Actually, their love has to be translated to marriage only to become stable in the currency of the outside world. There are several issues that have been dealt in the play, such as the rural and urban life, slight homosexual and heterosexual overtones and others, but it never takes a definitive stand on these issues. Actually, all characters have crossed daily hustle bustles and become an integral part of the Elizabethan Utopia. There are no hardships of life in the forest; here people spend their days singing and merrymaking, so it is better than the tension of the court life. Ultimately, we come to the epilogue, which is said by Rosalind. Here we have to remember that at that time, generally a man used to play the role of a woman, and so it was a clever ploy from the dramatist to make the heroine slip into a boy’s attire for the most part of the play. This also lessens the boundaries between two genders at that point.
The ending of As You Like It is fascinating in many ways, but most importantly it has a huge commercial value, and that is why, the play has been so successful. It does not try to give any discourse on any subject, and most subjects in the play are very common at that time, and offer any solutions to the problem. It simply transports characters to a different world, where everyone is happy and everything ends in a perfect note. This is probably one of the finest pastoral comedy endings ever composed by William Shakespeare with wonderful dialogues, for example, "He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit" (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4), or "Here comes a pair of very strange beasts, which in all tongues are called fools" (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4). He also presents us with one of the most notable romantic lines, such as "A poor virgin, sir, an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own" (Shakespeare, Act V Scene 4). All these elements make the play one of the highlights of the career of the world’s greatest dramatist.