5 things to look for when you watch “As You Like It”

Aaron Krohn as Touchstone, in green with guitar, in As You Like It, Folger Theatre, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Aaron Krohn as Touchstone, in green with guitar, in As You Like It, Folger Theatre, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

This year, you can catch productions of Shakespeare’s As You Like It from our theater partners in Atlanta, California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, and Washington (or, maybe you saw one of the already-closed productions in Alabama, Arizona, or Virginia). If you get to see one of these great productions, what should you keep an eye out for? What moments are key to understanding the play? How can we learn something about the creative process behind the production?

Maybe you’ve never seen As You Like It before and are looking for a way in. Maybe you’ve seen it a hundred times and want to take your relationship with the play to the next level. We reached out to our theater partners, many of which are tackling As You Like It this summer, and talked to seven people who’ve thought a lot about this play. We asked them, “What should an audience member look for in As You Like It?” Here are their answers:

1. The songs

A sketch of a man in a branch-like headdress, with billowing sleeves and a stags-head codpiece. A 1948 costume rendering by Salvador Dali for a production of Come Vi Piace, As You Like It. Folger ART Vol. f99.
A 1948 costume rendering by Salvador Dalí for a production of Come Vi Piace (As You Like It). Folger ART Vol. f99.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival‘s production of As You Like It runs June 27 – August 9. Kee-Yoon Nahm, Festival Dramaturg and Illinois State University Assistant Professor of Theatre, suggests listening for As You Like It’s songs:

The First Folio text for As You Like It contains more song numbers than any other Shakespeare play. These songs range from sweet to melancholy, beautifully describing life and love, the natural world, and the changing seasons. More than anything else, Amiens’s numerous songs convince us that Duke Senior and his men are living the good life in the Forest of Arden. The lyrics (while they may not be Shakespeare’s) can be set to different melodies and rhythms, giving each production of As You Like It its own unique flavor. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival production features new music by composer Jordan Coughtry, who also plays Touchstone. In collaboration with director Robert Quinlan, Jordan chose to write songs in the style of late-1910s music hall entertainment, giving our As You Like It a cheerful and bouncy tone.

Carolyn Howarth, director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival‘s upcoming production of the play, says the same. The music for her production, which kicks off June 21, is composed by folk and Americana artist Sam Misner. Howarth says, “The live music will set a tone: sometimes providing a melancholy feel to the characters’ environment and sometimes a celebratory one. Plus, it’s fun!”

⇒ Related: Take a look at our Esperanto translation of As You Like It. 

2. The “All the world’s a stage” speech

As You Like It is onstage now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: catch their production through October 26. Wiley Basho Gorn, OSF’s 2019 Shakespeare Dramaturg and Text Resident, tells us that Rosa Joshi’s production offers one take on Jaques’s iconic speech:

Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior and Erica Sullivan as Jaques, As You Like It, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Rachel Crowl (Duke Senior) and Erica Sullivan (Jaques), As You Like It, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo by Jenny Graham.

We spend so much of our lives as theater artists putting ourselves into the plays of William Shakespeare. What draws us in? The language is beautiful and complex of course, and the characters speak to a common humanity, but in rehearsals for As You Like It we discovered that Jaques’ famous statement “All the world’s a stage” was actually an invitation to put the plays inside of us. What if our lives, our thoughts, feelings, and dreams had the same stakes and beauty of a 400-year-old piece of text? To explore the possibilities and ask these questions we have moved the speech from its customary place in Act 2, scene 7 to be our epilogue. We have also de-gendered the language to be more inclusive and reflective of the company telling the story.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the people in it merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And all people in their time play many parts,
Their acts being seven ages.

We found that shifting the gender and position of the text unlocked a beautiful love of life and that the universality we were speaking to earned the break in the rhythm of the verse. The speech felt activated in a new way, rising out of the play’s joyful celebrations. It became about hope and the sweet remembrances of our past selves. If theater is a mirror to our present moment then we must always look to see ourselves in the stories told. As Erica Sullivan speaks the speech on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Stage she is both the character Jaques and herself. Listening to her we (both the ensemble and the audience) are invited to remember our own childhoods, to reminisce on the causes we would fight for, to smile at our great loves. We are also able to look into the future, examining our own seventh age and the undiscovered country that follows it.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion…

Our modern ears hear the word mere or merely and go to the contemporary definition of “being nothing more than” but in Elizabethan England the meaning (now obsolete to us) was in fact “being nothing less than: absolute.” Following this thread, mere oblivion opens a door to the cosmic knowing that is oblivion: the great transcending absence of self. Not a state of forgetfulness but one of total unity with the world. After the final line is spoken the lights go down and our ensemble raises and spins the shadow lanterns they have been holding, filling the darkness with dancing fireflies. They, like the words spoken and the breath we breathe, are now one with the universe.

You can also see As You Like It at San Diego’s The Old Globe from June 16 – July 21. The Old Globe’s Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director Barry Edelstein offers a different perspective on the same speech:

Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein with actors, during Thinking Shakespeare Live
Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein (left) with actors, during Thinking Shakespeare Live! 2013. Photo by Doug Gates.

As You Like It is a play full of quotable lines. None are more famous than the ones that begin Jaques’s great speech explaining that the world is a theater and the people in it are actors playing parts. “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” is in the Shakespeare Top Ten. So famous is this utterance that it’s often quoted out of context: in a poetry anthology, or a greeting card, or some other random place. (The first time I heard it was as a kid watching the ‘70s TV sitcom The Odd Couple, when fastidious Felix Unger offered it, for some reason, to sloppy Oscar Madison.)

Quoted away from the play it’s in, the speech acquires the nobility and solemnity of a Universal Truth. But within the action of As You Like It, Jaques means it rather differently. For him, it’s a cynical vision of life as a dark farce. Jaques says that the acts of life unfold in seven ages, and all of them are unhappy. The infant screams and vomits, the schoolboy doesn’t want to go to class, the lover makes an idiot of himself writing overwrought poetry, the soldier places himself in harm’s way for no good reason, the justice is corrupt and takes bribes, the old geezer is emaciated and miserly, and the whole horrid play ends in blind, toothless oblivion. It’s a bleak view.

But the most striking thing about it is what happens next. The instant Jaques finishes his acrid aria, Orlando, the play’s hero, enters the stage carrying his kindly friend Adam, a senior citizen who is weak, hungry, and sick from his long trek through the remote Forest of Arden. Orlando brings his friend some of the food and drink that Jaques and his companions had been eating, and he lovingly begins to nurse the suffering old man back to health. Importantly, this action plays out in silence. That is, Jaques’ enormous and famous outpouring of language is followed by a simple act of kindness during which nothing is said. We simply watch a friend do something nice for someone he loves, in a wordlessly eloquent rejoinder to Jaques’ cynicism. Life need not be a seven-part journey toward nothingness, this silent tableaux reminds us, as long as we remember to care for each other.

This beautiful gesture expresses something essential about Shakespeare’s world view, in which compassion rebuts toxicity. And it gets to the heart of Shakespeare’s genius as a theater-maker. Not only can he spellbind us with a cascade of gorgeous words, but he can also rivet us with quiet. Both things together—the avalanche of words coupled to the mute stage picture—are what make this writing great and what reveal the full scope of Shakespeare’s genius. Watch for this moment when you see the play, and you’ll understand something fundamental about Shakespeare’s craft.

As you watch the play, ask yourself: How does this production interpret Jaques’s speech? Is it a statement of shared humanity or a cynical counterpoint to Orlando’s kindness?

3. Poems on trees

Black and white photo of a 1903 production of As You Like It. Rosalind, played by Edith Wynne Matheson, reads a poem pinned to a tree.
Edith Wynne Matheson in a 1903 production of As You Like It by the Ben Greet Players. Folger ART File S528a4 no.135.

We walked across the hallway to chat with Beth Emelson about As You Like It. Emelson is the Folger’s Associate Director of Public Programs and Associate Artistic Producer of Folger Theatre. She told us:

If I were to select something for an audience to look for, I would suggest that you note the section where Orlando, flush with passion, runs around the forest carving Rosalind’s name in trees. He says, “hang there, my verse.” I love watching the inventive ways that directors handle this interesting piece of stage business. One can’t really have a set filled with trees which are carved up with verses proclaiming love of Rosalind every single night—it’s a producer’s nightmare! It is more often an opportunity for a director to allow the actor a moment of the wild abandon that comes with the first flash of love.

⇒ Related: “Five things to look for in A Winter’s Tale”

⇒ Related: “Six things to look for in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

4. Rosalind and Celia

Another one of Emelson’s favorite features of As You Like It is the relationship between the play’s heroines: “With Rosalind and Celia hitting the road in disguise, it also has a great ‘buddy picture’ feel.”

Lindsay Alexandra Carter as Rosalind and Antoinette Robinson as Celia in As You Like It at Folger Theatre, 2017
Lindsay Alexandra Carter (Rosalind) and Antoinette Robinson (Celia) in As You Like It at Folger Theatre, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

At the San Franscisco Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals suggests the same thing. She’s directing their production of the play, which tours the San Francisco region from June 29 through September 22. Ennals wants you to keep an eye on Celia (and Orlando’s brother Oliver):

As a woman directing As You Like It, I’ve always been most interested in the friendship between Rosalind and Celia, especially Celia’s story. It’s a love story itself—Celia has power in the court, but her love for Rosalind is so great that she follows her into the forest and an uncertain future. Then Rosalind gets really obsessed with Orlando, and there’s Celia, watching every scene. How does she feel? Jealous, bored, nervous about being discovered—she doesn’t say much, but I think there has to be a lot of nonverbal communication with Rosalind. And Ros keeps putting her into these tricky positions—“Marry us!”—which is really awkward for Celia. But she stands by her best friend—she’s protective of her, she doesn’t want her heart to be broken. When Oliver comes along, this handsome man with an amazing story, she’s so ready. She’s done being the third wheel. And Oliver is everything Orlando isn’t—he’s a master storyteller, he’s humbled but he still has all this confidence. He knows what he wants, and he’s making it happen without a lot of poetry or game-playing. That has to be refreshing for Celia!

⇒ Related: Read an excerpt from Angela Thirlwell’s book, Rosalind: Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine.

5. A Christopher Marlowe Easter egg

As You Like It in the First Folio. Folger STC 22273 Fo.1 no.09.
As You Like It in the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Folger STC 22273 Fo.1 no.09.

Colorado Shakespeare Festival Director of Outreach Amanda Giguere suggests listening for a particular line:

There’s a line in the play that some scholars believe is a reference to playwright Christopher Marlowe’s death. Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl, supposedly over the bill (which was called “the reckoning” in Shakespeare’s day). Touchstone has a line in the play (which was written after Marlowe’s death): “it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” Scholars think this is Shakespeare’s shout-out to his deceased play-writing colleague.

As You Like It-lovers: what do you think audiences should look for in a production of this classic romantic-comedy?

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Old Globe, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival are theater partners of the Folger Shakespeare Library. 


  • Our educational homeschool troupe will be living with this play on our upcoming 2019/20 year and this is such an inspiring article to wet the appetite of all the joy, laughter, song to come as we choose to walk upon the worlds stage and study the words and the silence of Shakespeare. I love all the notes for our students and families to take away from this pointed article. Thank you for it!

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