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Portraits of Human Virtue: A Look at the Characters in Shakespeare's As You Like It

From Shakespeare's As You Like It. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. Boston: Ginn & Co.

As You Like It is exceedingly rich and varied in character. The several persons stand out round and clear in themselves, yet their distinctive traits in a remarkable degree sink quietly into the feelings without reporting themselves in the understanding; for which cause the clumsy methods of criticism are little able to give them expression. Subtle indeed must be the analysis that should reproduce them to the intellect without help from the Dramatic Art.

Properly speaking, the play has no hero; for, though Orlando occupies the foreground, the characters are mainly co-ordinate; the design of the work precluding any subordination among them. Diverted by fortune from all their cherished plans and purposes, they pass before us in just that moral and intellectual dishabille which best reveals their indwelling graces of mind and heart. Schlegel remarks that "the Poet seems to have aimed, throughout, at showing that nothing is wanting, to call forth the poetry that has its dwelling in Nature and the human mind, but to throw off all artificial restraint, and restore both to their native liberty." This is well said; but it should be observed that the persons have already been "purified by suffering"; and that it was under the discipline of social restraint that they developed the virtues which make them go right without such restraint, as indeed they do, while we are conversing with them. Because they have not hitherto been altogether free to do as they would, therefore it is that they are good and beautiful in doing as they have a mind to now. Let us beware of attributing to Nature, as we call it, that goodness which proceeds from habits generated under Gospel culture and the laws of Christian society. After all, the ordinary conditions of social and domestic life give us far more than they take away. It requires a long schooling in the prescriptions of order and rectitude, to fit us for being left to ourselves. In some sense indeed it is a great enlargement of liberty to be rid of all the loves and duties and reverences which the past may have woven about us; and many there are who seem to place free dom of mind in having nothing to look up to, nothing to respect outside of themselves. But human virtue does not grow in this way; and the stream must soon dry if cut off from the spring. And I have no sympathy with those who would thus crush all tender and precious memories out of us, and then give the name of freedom to the void thus created in our souls. The liberty that goes by unknitting the bands of reverence and dissolving the ties that draw and hold men together in the charities of a common life, is not the liberty for me, nor is it the liberty that Shakespeare teaches. I am much rather minded to say, with a lawyer-poet of our time,

If we lose
All else, we will preserve our household laws;
Nor let the license of these fickle times
Subvert the holy shelter which command
Of fathers, and undoubting faith of sons,
Rear'd for our shivering virtues.
It is true, however, that in this play the better transpirations of character are mainly conducted in the eye of Nature, where the passions and vanities that so much disfigure human life find little to stir them into act. In the freedom of their woodland resort, and with the native inspirations of the place to kindle and gladden them, the persons have but to live out the handsome thoughts which they have elsewhere acquired. Man's tyranny has indeed driven them into banishment; but their virtues are much more the growth of the place they are banished from than of the place they are banished to.


Orlando has no special occasion for heroism, yet we feel that there is plenty of heroic stuff in him. Brave, gentle, modest, and magnanimous; never thinking of his high birth but to avoid dishonouring it; in his noble-heartedness, forgetting, and causing others to forget, his nobility of rank; he is every way just such a man as all true men would choose for their best friend. His persecuting brother, talking to himself, describes him as "never school'd, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and indeed so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprised": and this description is amply justified by his behaviour. The whole intercourse between him and his faithful old servant Adam is replete on both sides with that full-souled generosity in whose eye the nobilities of Nature are always sure of recognition.

Shakespeare evidently delighted in a certain natural harmony of character wherein virtue is free and spontaneous, like the breathing of perfect health. And such is Orlando. He is therefore good without effort; nay, it would require some effort for him to be otherwise; his soul gravitating towards goodness as of its own accord: "In his proper motion he ascends; descent and fall to him is adverse." And perhaps the nearest he comes to being aware of his virtue is when his virtue triumphs over a mighty temptation; that is, when he sees his unnatural brother in extreme peril;

But kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
made him risk his own life to save him; and even in this case the divine art of overcoming evil with good seems more an instinct than a conscious purpose with him. This is one of the many instances wherein the Poet delivers the highest results of Christian discipline as drawing so deeply and so creatively into the heart, as to work out with the freedom and felicity of native original impulse.

I must dismiss Orlando with a part of his tilt of wit with Jaques, as that very well illustrates the composition of the man:

Jaq. I thank you for your company; but, good faith, I had as lief have been myself alone.
Orlan. And so had I; but yet, for fashion's sake, I thank you too for your society.
Jaq. God b' wi' you: let's meet as little as we can.
Orlan. I do desire we may be better strangers.
Jaq. I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love-songs in their barks.
Orlan. I pray you, mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.
Jaq. Rosalind is your love's name?
Orlan. Yes, just.
Jaq. I do not like her name.
Orlan. There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.
Jaq. What stature is she of?
Orlan. Just as high as my heart.
Jaq. You have a nimble wit: I think it was made of Atalanta's heels. Will you sit down with me? and we two will rail against our mistress the world and all our misery.
Orlan. I will chide no breather in the world but myself, against whom I know most faults.
The Banished Duke

The banished Duke exemplifies the best sense of nature as thoroughly informed and built up with Christian discipline and religious efficacy; so that the asperities of life do but make his thoughts run the smoother. How sweet, yet how considerative and firm, is every thing about his temper and moral frame. He sees all that is seen by the most keen-eyed satirist, yet is never moved to be satirical, because he looks with wiser and therefore kindlier eyes. The enmity of Fortune is fairly disarmed by his patience; her shots are all wasted against his breast, garrisoned as it is with the forces of charity and peace: his soul is made storm-proof by gentleness and truth: exile, penury, the ingratitude of men, the malice of the elements, what are they to him? He has the grace to sweeten away their venom, and to smile the sting out of them. He loves to stay himself upon the compensations of life, and to feed his gentler affections by dwelling upon the good which adversity opens to him, or the evil from which it withdraws him; and so he rejoices in finding "these woods more free from peril than the envious Court." In his philosophy, so bland, benignant, and contemplative, the mind tastes the very luxury of rest, and has an antepast of measureless content.


Touchstone, though he nowhere strikes so deep a chord within us as the poor Fool in King Lear, is, I think, the most entertaining of Shakespeare's privileged characters. And he is indeed a mighty delectable fellow. Wise too, and full of the most insinuative counsel. How choicely does his grave, acute nonsense moralize the scenes wherein he moves! Professed clown though he be, and as such ever hammering away with artful awkwardness at a jest, a strange kind of humorous respect still waits upon him notwithstanding.

It is curious to observe how the Poet takes care to let us know from the first, that beneath the affectations of his calling some precious sentiments have been kept alive; that far within the Fool there is laid up a secret reserve of the man, ready to leap forth and combine with better influences as soon as the incrustations of art are thawed and broken up. This is partly done in the scene where Rosalind and Celia arrange for their flight from the usurper's Court. Rosalind proposes,

But, cousin, what if we assay'd to steal
The clownish Fool out of your father's Court?
Would he not be a comfort to our travel?

And Celia replies, He'll go along o'er the wide world with me:
Leave me alone to woo him.
Where we learn that some remnants, at least, of a manly heart in him have asserted their force in the shape of unselfish regards, strong as life, for whatever is purest and loveliest in the characters about him. He would rather starve or freeze, with Celia near him, than feed high and lie warm where his eye cannot find her. If, with this feet in view, our honest esteem does not go out towards him, then we, I think, are fools in a worse sense than he is. So much for the substantial manhood of Touchstone, and for the Poet's human-heartedness in thus putting us in communication with it. As for the other points of his character, I scarce know how to draw a reader into them by any turn of analysis. Used to a life cut off from human sympathies; stripped of the common responsibilities of the social state; living for no end but to make aristocratic idlers laugh; one therefore whom nobody heeds enough to resent or be angry at any thing he says; — of course his habit is to speak all for effect, nothing for truth: instead of reflecting the natural force and image of things, his vocation is to wrest and trans-shape them from their true form and pressure. Thus a strange wilfulness and whimsicality has wrought itself into the substance of his mind. He takes nothing for what it is in itself, but only for the odd quirks of thought he can twist out of it. Yet his nature is not so "subdued to what it works in" but that, amidst the scenes and inspirations of the Forest, the Fool quickly slides into the man; the supervenings of the place so running into and athwart what he brings with him, that his character comes to be as dappled and motley as his dress. Even the new passion which there overtakes him has a touch of his wilfulness in it: when he falls in love, as he really does, nothing seems to inspire and draw him more than the unattractiveness of the object; thus approving that even so much of nature as survives in him is not content to run in natural channels.


Jaques is, I believe, an universal favourite, as indeed he well may be, for he is certainly one of the Poet's happiest conceptions. Without being at all unnatural, he has an amazing fund of peculiarity. Enraptured out of his senses at the voice of a song; thrown into a paroxysm of laughter at sight of the motley-clad and motley-witted Fool; and shedding the twilight of his merry-sad spirit over all the darker spots of human life and character; he represents the abstract and sum-total of an utterly useless yet perfectly harmless man, seeking wisdom by abjuring its first principle. An odd choice mixture of reality and affectation, he does nothing but think, yet avowedly thinks to no purpose; or rather thinking is with him its own end. On the whole, if in Touchstone there is much of the philosopher in the Fool, in Jaques there is not less of the fool in the philosopher; so that the German critic, Ulrici, is not so wide of the mark in calling them "two fools."

Jaques is equally wilful, too, with Touchstone, in his turn of thought and speech, though not so conscious of it; and as he plays his part more to please himself, so he is proportionably less open to the healing and renovating influences of Nature. We cannot justly affirm, indeed, that "the soft blue sky did never melt into his heart" as Wordsworth says of his Peter Bell; but he shows more of resistance than all the other persons to the poetries and eloquences of the place. Tears are a great luxury to him: he sips the cup of woe with all the gust of an epicure. Still his temper is by no means sour: fond of solitude, he is nevertheless far from being unsocial. The society of good men, provided they be in adversity, has great charms for him. He likes to be with those who, though deserving the best, still have the worst: virtue wronged, buffeted, oppressed, is his special delight; because such moral discrepancies offer the most salient points to his cherished meditations. He himself enumerates nearly all the forms of melancholy except his own, which I take to be the melancholy of self-love. And its effect in his case is not unlike that of Touchstone's art; inasmuch as he greatly delights to see things otherwise than as they really are, and to make them speak out some meaning that is not in them; that is, their plain and obvious sense is not to his taste. Nevertheless his melancholy is grateful, because free from any dash of malignity. His morbid habit of mind seems to spring from an excess of generative virtue. And how racy and original is every thing that comes from him! As if it bubbled up from the centre of his being; while his perennial fullness of matter makes his company always delightful. The Duke loves especially to meet him in his "sullen fits," because he then overflows with his most idiomatic humour. After all, the worst that can be said of Jaques is, that the presence of men who are at once fortunate and deserving corks him up; which may be only another way of saying that he cannot open out and run over, save where things are going wrong.

Rosalind and Celia

It is something uncertain whether Jaques or Rosalind be the greater attraction: there is enough in either to make the play a continual feast; though her charms are less liable to be staled by use, because they result from health of mind and symmetry of character; so that in her presence the head and the heart draw together perfectly. I mean that she never starts any moral or emotional reluctances in our converse with her: all our sympathies go along with her freely, because she never jars upon them, or touches them against the grain.

For wit, this strange, lovely being is fully equal to Beatrice, yet nowise resembling her. A soft, subtile, nimble essence, consisting in one knows not what, and springing up one can hardly tell how, her wit neither stings nor burns, but plays briskly and airily over all things within its reach, enriching and adorning them; insomuch that one could ask no greater pleasure than to be the continual theme of it. In its irrepressible vivacity it waits not for occasion, but runs on for ever, and we wish it to run on for ever: we have a sort of faith that her dreams are made up of cunning, quirkish, graceful fancies; her wits being in a frolic even when she is asleep. And her heart seems a perennial spring of affectionate cheerfulness: no trial can break, no sorrow chill, her flow of spirits; even her sighs are breathed forth in a wrappage of innocent mirth; an arch, roguish smile irradiates her saddest tears. No sort of unhappiness can live in her company: it is a joy even to stand her chiding; for, "faster than her tongue doth make offense, her eye doth heal it up."

So much for her choice idiom of wit. But I must not pass from this part of the theme without noting also how aptly she illustrates the Poet's peculiar use of humour. For I suppose the difference of wit and humour is too well understood to need any special exposition. But the two often go together; though there is a form of wit, much more common, that burns and dries the juices all out of the mind, and turns it into a kind of sharp, stinging wire. Now Rosalind's sweet establishment is thoroughly saturated with humour, and this too of the freshest and wholesomest quality. And the effect of her humour is, as it were, to lubricate all her faculties, and make her thoughts run brisk and glib even when grief has possession of her heart. Through this interfusive power, her organs of play are held in perfect concert with her springs of serious thought. Hence she is outwardly meny and inwardly sad at the same time. We may justly say that she laughs out her sadness, or plays out her seriousness: the sorrow that is swelling her breast puts her wits and spirits into a frolic; and in the mirth that overflows through her tongue we have a relish of the grief with which her heart is charged. And our sympathy with her inward state is the more divinely moved, forasmuch as she thus, with indescribable delicacy, touches it through a masquerade of playfulness. Yet, beneath all her frolicsomeness, we feel that there is a firm basis of thought and womanly dignity; so that she never laughs away our respect.

It is quite remarkable how, in respect of her disguise, Rosalind just reverses the conduct of Viola, yet with much the same effect. For, though she seems as much at home in her male attire as if she had always worn it, this never strikes us otherwise than as an exercise of skill for the perfecting of her masquerade. And on the same principle her occasional freedoms of speech serve to deepen our sense of her innate delicacy; they being manifestly intended as a part of her disguise, and springing from the feeling that it is far less indelicate to go a little out of her character, in order to prevent any suspicion of her sex, than it would be to hazard such a suspicion by keeping strictly within her character. In other words, her free talk bears much the same relation to her character as her dress does to her person, and is therefore becoming to her even on the score of feminine modesty. — Celia appears well worthy of a place beside her whose love she shares and repays. Instinct with the soul of moral beauty and female tenderness, the friendship of these more-than-sisters "mounts to the seat of grace within the mind."

We still have slept together;
Rose at an instant, learn'd, play'd, eat together;
And, wheresoe'er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Ed. Henry N. Hudson. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1897. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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