It was a real pleasure to read As You Like It; it's been such a long time since I've read a Shakespeare play I felt a little out of touch with that part of my reading identity. I once decided to read all of them, and although I've read most, it's been a while since I worked on that particular resolution. And As You Like It is such a pleasant one to return to, as whimsical and free-wheeling as the Forest of Arden that provides its setting.
The plot--though it isn't really a play where much happens--goes like this: Duke Senior, having been usurped by Duke Ferdinand, has fled to the Forest of Arden. Senior's daughter Rosalind has been allowed to remain because she is besties with Celia, Ferdinand's daughter, but not for long: when the jealous Ferdinand exiles Rosalind, she flees in disguise as a young man, Ganymede, with Celia in tow. Meanwhile, Orlando has been denied any inheritance by his cruel brother, Oliver, and, having fallen in love with Rosalind, flees to Arden as well. In Arden, Rosalind--as Ganymede--promises to "cure" Orlando of his lovesickness by pretending to be Rosalind.
As You Like It reminded me strongly of A Midsummer Night's Dream, another play that differentiates the civilized world from a "green" space where freedom and fluidity reign. The Duke's kingdom is a nasty place, where brother conspires against brother, and "civilized" institutions, like the primogeniture that robs Orlando of an education and an income, perpetuate misery. But civilized hierarchies collapse in Arden, a place whose essence is inherited from Roman pastorals. (It's a funny place, this forest: for one, there seem to be a lot of shepherds and sheep for a forest.) In Arden, plot seems to stop almost entirely; the most exciting action--including, amazingly, a lion attack--all happens off stage. Instead, what Shakespeare stages is a series of interactions and dialogues between residents and outsiders about the nature of love and the relative virtues of life in country versus life at court. Arden is a space for wit, which might be describes a kind of verbal free play, free of the consequences they may have in the ivilized world.
It's only in Arden that Rosalind can get away with the gender and identity slippage that she enjoys. The irony of Rosalind's identity--she's pretending to be a man who is pretending to be herself--is one of the core pleasures of the play, and as elegant a setup as it is, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. Rosalind is often described as Shakespeare's wittiest female character, and that's probably true, but Orlando, who is never quite more than a decent and victimized lunk, never seemed to live up to her. As a result, their relationship lacks some of the heat of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. But Arden is too gentle a place for that kind of sparring, and instead what stands out about Rosalind is the way she exerts control over her identity, and thus the relationships in Arden. She withholds her true identity until she knows she can use it to arrange everyone's lives in harmony: she with Orlando, Celia with Orlando's brother Oliver, and the shepherd Silvius with Phoebe--a young maiden who, as genre demands, has fallen in love with "Ganymede."
There's a feminist reading in there somewhere: only in Arden, a place of fantasy, can a woman even as intelligent and perceptive as Rosalind have real control over herself and her place. And even that has its limitations, because her last-minute sorting has the ironic result of reinscribing everyone into the rigid hierarchies of the civilized world. It's hard to imagine the marriage between Rosalind and Orlando surviving back in the Dukedom, even with Senior on the throne. But Shakespeare allows her at least the right of the play's epilogue, in which she stakes a final claim to total freedom: "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you 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."