Quarrelling brothers and stolen dukedoms catalyze Shakespeare’s comedy about romantic entanglements in the wilderness outside of a French duchy. Duke Fredrick usurps the throne of his brother, Duke Senior, and banishes him to Arden Forest. Senior’s daughter Rosalind flees court with her best friend, Fredrick’s daughter. The cousins retreat to the forest disguised as men.
Meanwhile, the young nobleman Orlando has left his home on the rumor that his older brother, Oliver, has a plot against his life. It’s love at first sight for Orlando and Rosalind at court, but it’s when Rosalind adopts the guise of a boy in the forest that the fellow exiles and potential lovers freely engage in witty exchanges about the delights and pitfalls of love. With muddled romantic affairs, power struggles, gender confusion, a fool who speaks wisdom, and wedding finale with an appearance from the god of marriage, As You Like It is a quintessentially engaging and vivacious Shakespearean comedy.
Scholars estimate Shakespeare wrote As You Like It in 1598 and that the play was probably first staged in 1599; it was printed in the First Folio in 1623. Shakespeare’s linguistically inventive plays were combinations of stories from multiple sources. As You Like It is a classical pastoral, a story with urban characters in a rural setting. The genre mixes pagan and Christian mythologies just as the play mixes high and low culture; the Forest of Arden alludes to the Garden of Eden and to the classical region of Arcadia, and the plot draws from Robin Hood folklore and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
But for As You Like It, Shakespeare did what many modern dramatists do – he based his script on a popular novel. Thomas Lodge’s 1590 prose pastoral, Rosalynde or, Euphues Golden Legacy, was in its third printing in 1598. Shakespeare left Rosalynde’s narrative mostly unaltered. He shortened the timeline of the romance novel from months to ten days, discarded any plot points that would be ineffective on stage, and made the characters more suitable to comedy - for example, at the end of the play Duke Fredrick turns to religion instead of dying in battle. Shakespeare wasn’t alone in the practice of seeking authorial inspiration in the plots of other texts. As You Like It has roots even farther back than Lodge’s Rosalynde; Lodge was inspired by the story of Gamelyn, an orphan who is mistreated by his older brother. The Tale of Gamelyn is a fragment in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but the story was around Medieval England even before Chaucer wrote it down.
"All the World’s a Stage"
Shakespeare’s plays helped standardize modern English. His unique expressions of human emotions have entered the English lexicon as common sayings, familiar to even those unacquainted with Shakespeare’s work. In As You Like It, Jacques speaks the famous “All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” monologue.
The hopelessly melancholy Jacques is an example of an Elizabethan comedy stock character. Though he is one of Duke Senior’s devoted followers and the middle brother of Oliver and Orlando, Jacques’ disposition leaves him more suited to comment on the action rather than truly participate in it. His monologue describes the seven roles of man’s life; the infant, the school child, the lover, the solider, the justice, pantaloon (a feeble old man or an old fool), and, “the last scene of all,” second childhood, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (Act II, scene 7).
“Ducdame”: Fools and Wordplay
Though Touchstone is the court jester, and therefore the typical mouthpiece for pointing out the folly of other characters, it is Jacques to whom Shakespeare assigns a song about the foolhardiness of a man who casts off his riches:
If it do come to pass
That any man turn ass,
Leaving his wealth and ease,
A stubborn will to please,
Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame:
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he,
An if he will come to me. (Act II, scene 5)
Ducdame is a nonsensical word that Jacques explains as “a Greek invocation, to draw fools into a circle.” The word has long puzzled scholars. They dismiss it as completely nonsensical or try to unravel its possible etymology and meanings; suggestions have included “Dewch da mi,” Welsh for “Come to me.” In the 1960s, Elliot House at Harvard University had ducdame parties, where students hung a banner with the word above their door and waited to see who turned up. Scholar Henry Levin noted that the fervor some have devoted to deciphering ducdame’s exact meaning is what makes Jacques’ explanation of gathered fools the most apt.
The Aquila Theatre Company
The Aquila Theatre Company is a company of British and American artists dedicated to the reinterpretation of classical drama, particularly Greek and Shakespeare. Aquila’s mission is to bring the greatest theatrical works to the widest possible audience. The company tours to approximately 70 U.S. towns and cities every year. Aquila also presents a regular season of plays in New York and at international festivals.
Aquila means eagle in Latin. In Greek mythology the thunderbird Aquila carried and retrieved the thunderbolts that Zeus hurled at enemies. The golden eagle was Zeus’ sacred bird and a symbol of strength, courage and justice. Aquila’s high-quality classical dramas are staged to be innovative, bold and relevant. They are meant to empower American audiences to appreciate the classics as the invigorating and entertaining plays they were written to be.
Aquila partners with major American theaters in the presentation of its work, and collaborates with notable artists from other disciplines including dance, music, and opera. Aquila also provides access to excellent theatre for people in under-served rural and inner city communities. Aquila runs a Shakespeare after-school education program, and the Aquila Theatre for Young Audiences Company tours educational productions of Shakespeare to New York City area schools.
Peter Meineck – Founder and Producing Artistic Director
Peter Meineck was born in Melton Mowbray, England and grew up in London. He studied at University College London and founded Aquila in 1991. The producing artistic director for As You Like It, Meineck also developed the Aquila performance approach. The technique unifies text and physical action to provide performers with the ability to create and recreate a role in a consistently changing theatrical atmosphere.
He now lives in Katonah, New York with his family. He has worked extensively in the London Theatre and directed and/or produced over 40 productions in New York, London, Holland, Germany, Greece, Scotland, Canada, Bermuda, and the United States in venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the ancient Stadium at Delphi, Lincoln Center, and the White House.
Peter has published several volumes of translations of Greek plays including Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which won the Lewis Galantiere Award for Literary Translation from the American Translators Association, Sophocles’ Theban Plays (with Paul Woodruff) and Philoctetes and Ajax, and Aristophanes’ Clouds, Wasps & Birds. He has also written several literary adaptations for the stage including The Man Who Would Be King, Canterbury Tales, The Invisible Man, and Catch-22. Peter is a regular performing arts contributor to the humanities journal Arion and has published several scholarly articles of Greek drama and Shakespeare.
Peter holds a clinical professorship in Classics and Ancient Studies at New York University where he teaches Greek literature and mythology. He has held teaching posts at Princeton and USC and was a fellow at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies. He also acts as a mythological advisor, most recently to Will Smith on I am Legend.