Laughing at As You Like It’s Ending, Not with It
Despite the strong plot and character development in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the play’s conclusion leaves much to be desired. Instead of closing with a believable and earned ending, Act 5 and the Epilogue of AYLI leave readers feeling that their intelligence has been insulted. In short, the play’s ending can be perceived as comic not in the traditional sense of reassured resolution, but in the modern sense of the word “comedy”; its contrivances are laughable. The primary culprits of this offense include the sudden coincidental appearance of Jaques de Boys and the fruitless Epilogue.
The unlikely events leading up to
the conclusion foreshadow the corny ending. When Rosalind begins to lose faith
in Orlando’s return in 4.3, Oliver storms onto
the scene and reports that Orlando
happened to be in the right place to save him from a lion’s attack
(4.3.97-131). Later, in a magical moment smacking strongly of deus ex machina, Hymen—the
ancient Greek god of marriage—restores order in the forest by wedding the four
couples (5.4.123-44). Both of these events consist of a character suddenly
appearing and accomplishing near-impossible feats to save the day, Orlando by happening upon
his endangered eldest brother, and Hymen by using deific authority to force
unions among eight indecisive quarrelers.
As soon as Hymen marries the four couples, only one primary conflict remains: the characters’ exile in the forest. How can return to their courtly origins? Will they resolve live in the forest, attempting to find happiness despite their statuses as outcasts, or will they find a way to return to urban life? Shakespeare’s method of solving this problem is unacceptable by today’s standards because he answers the questions too neatly.
He introduces a new character, Jaques de Boys, for the sole purpose of entering and declaring good news to the newlywed forest-dwellers: “Let me have audience for a word or two. / I am the second son of old Sir Rowland / That bring these tidings to this fair assembly” (5.4.149-151). Jaques de Boys’ first line of speech indicates that his entrance interrupts the scene. When he says, “Let me have audience for a word or two,” he implies that others are busy talking, and he demands that they stop chattering and listen to him. Without having previous acquaintance with these people, his act of hushing others seems especially rude. As such, his presence interrupts the natural flow of the play toward a believable ending. Characters did not have proper time to react to the assistance of a Greek deity before de Boys’ speech, the sole instance of paranormal intrusion into the text, and no one seems to even question it afterwards. Instead of receiving a chance to ponder the gods’ intermingling in human affairs, which would have added some credence to the story, Shakespeare injects another new character into the play.
Without being asked, Jaques de Boys introduces himself as “the second son of old Sir Rowland,” and readers learn that he is the middle de Boys brother. How could Orlando and Oliver not recognize their own kin? No previous part of As You Like It references Jaques de Boys (except the dramatis personae list), yet he announces the important news of Duke Frederick’s change of heart. What are the chances that Oliver and Orlando’s brother, whose existence or—at the very least—appearance they forgot, could burst onto the scene right when the play’s audience wonders how the characters will solve the problem of their exile? The more times Shakespeare forces readers to ask “What are the chances?” consecutively, the more likely they will not accept the ending the text takes for granted.
One would think that maybe after the singularly eerie coincidence of a mystery brother materializing out of thin air, Shakespeare might tone it down a bit, but he does nothing of the sort. Even the strangeness of his arrival cannot measure up to the puzzling story he relates. He says in lines 152-156 that Duke Frederick, after discovering that many of his enemies take shelter in the forest, dispatches an army to vanquish them, especially his brother, Duke Senior. Yet his murderous plot did not unravel as planned. Instead, Jaques de Boys claims the following about Frederick:
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came,
Where meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him, was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. This to be true
I do engage my life.
On his way to find and kill Duke Senior, Duke Frederick happens upon an “old religious man” that remains unnamed. Jaques de Boys does not express why Frederick feels inspired to stop to chat with the old man or what the old man actually says. Furthermore, no one cares to know what the old man said; they just accept it because his wise advice to Frederick helped them regain their urban courtly lives. They do not question that it took just one conversation to change Frederick’s whole opinion of Duke Senior.
Thus, readers are supposed to accept the unlikely claim that Frederick, previously viewed as a conniving usurper, would just “convert” and end up “bequeathing to his banished brother” the royal crown. Frederick even invites Duke Senior’s companions out of exile. Extending that courtesy seems pointless. Duke Senior, as the older brother with the primogeniture-borne right to the kingdom, stands as a legitimate threat to Frederick’s throne, but Orlando has no army to raise and no claim to the Dukes’ disputed estate. Ending Orlando’s exile benefits Frederick none. The text tells readers to believe that Duke Frederick willingly dethrones himself out of sheer goodwill. Without any detailing of the exchange between the old man and Frederick, readers have good reason to question Frederick’s actions.
Spakespeare caps off with play with an epilogue. A play should not need an epilogue to explain itself, yet Rosalind, the speaker of AYLI’s Epilogue, addresses that exact issue in lines 3-5. Excellent plays might not necessarily need epilogues, she admits, but they can benefit from such postscripts anyway. Nevertheless, some might argue that AYLI’s Epilogue proves otherwise. Rosalind spends lines 1-11 introducing the Epilogue, which more than halves the total of 21 total lines in the entire section. Because the Epilogue uses most of its duration metadramatically explaining why it deserves to exist, it seems to contain more fluff than substance.
The latter half of the Epilogue only emphasizes its weakness. Rosalind demands that women and men in the audience enjoy the play because they are heterosexuals watching a heterosexual love story. Women should like the play “for the love [they] bear to men,” and men should like the play “for the love [they] bear to women” (Epilogue.1.12-16). Rosalind’s logic states that because the play ends happily with four couples marrying and regaining their wealth, the audience should be satisfied, despite the literally supernatural measures required for the marriages to form and the too-coincidental circumstance leading to their collective return from exile. The success of heterosexual relationships amidst adversity does not overcome the text’s cornball use of MacGuffins to achieve the marriages.
But what about the fact that the actor portraying Rosalind is a male? Does the homosexuality implied in cross-dressing and offering to kiss men in the audience in line 17 add a sense of irony to the play, indicating Shakespeare’s open awareness of ASLI’s contrived ending? The actor negates this argument by qualifying his statement: “If I were a / woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards. . .” (Epilogue.1.16-17). He would kiss the men if he were a woman, but he is not a woman, and therefore refuses to partake in a gesture that would indicate homosexuality. Thus, the hokey idea that any plot turn suffices, as long as it leads to heterosexual marriage, remains a major suggestion of the text.
This causes readers to question
Shakespeare’s ability to end his plays as well as he starts them. Rightly or
wrongly, if a current author wrote an ending as contrived as As You Like It’s, critics would boo him or
her from the literary stage. Scholars would dismiss the author’s writing as
predictable genre fiction, influenced by mainstream Hollywood romance films
with happy endings instead of lofty classic tomes from Greece and Rome.
Does this mean that people hold Shakespeare’s oeuvre in high esteem due to
unquestioning subjective tradition and not objective criticism? The debate on
whether or not one can measure a centuries-deceased writer’s work by today’s
standards rages on.
 All references are to Juliet Dusinberre’s edition of As You Like It (Arden, 2006)
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