Historical Context in As You Like It

Historical Context Examples in As You Like It:

Act I - Act I, Scene 1 2

"old Robin Hood of England..."   (Act I - Act I, Scene 1)

Robin Hood is a bandit hero who originated in ballads in Renaissance England. The reference to Robin Hood would have been widely understood by Shakespeare’s audiences. Shakespeare penned As You Like It in 1599, a year after the appearance of a pair of popular plays about Robin Hood by the playwright Anthony Munday.

"his countenance seems to take from me: he lets me feed with his hinds, bars me the place of a brother, and as much as in him lies, mines my gentility with my education...."   (Act I - Act I, Scene 1)

Here, Orlando complains that his older brother strips him of his nobility by denying him an education. This establishes two prominent themes in the play. First, that education is a means by which one can gain power; second, the scrutiny of a feudal class system based on primogeniture, the right of succession going to the firstborn son.

"Ganymede..."   (Act I - Act I, Scene 3)

Ganymede, the name that Rosalind chooses for her male persona, is an allusion to a divine hero from Greek mythology. Ganymede was rumored to be the most beautiful mortal on Earth. Zeus turns into an eagle to kidnap him so that Ganymede will serve as a cupbearer on Olympus. In poetry Ganymede came to represent homosexual desire and love.

"and thus the hairy fool, Much marked of the melancholy Jaques, Stood on the extremest verge of the swift brook, Augmenting it with tears...."   (Act II - Act II, Scene 1)

From the first appearance of Jaques, it is clear that he is different from his companions, the other men in Duke Senior’s cohort. Much of the scene is devoted to the telling of an encounter between Jaques and a dead deer. One lord teases Jaques for his grief, calling him “the hairy fool.” Jaques has a connection to the natural world that his companions cannot comprehend. It can be said that Jaques represents the mythological archetype of the Wild Man, a hairy man with a deep, intuitive connection with nature. It is this connection that accounts for the depth of his grief.

"melancholy..."   (Act II - Act II, Scene 1)

“Melancholy” is a term that comes from galenic medical philosophy, the dominant medical knowledge system in the medieval era. In this medical theory, one’s mood, health, and outlook on life were caused by an imbalance within the “humors,” bodily fluids black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Melancholy was thought to be caused by an abundance of “black bile” the humor that caused dark thoughts, depression, and negativity.

"no, no brother; yet the son-- Yet not the son; I will not call him son-- Of him I was about to call his father,..."   (Act II - Act II, Scene 3)

Adam has a hard time identifying Oliver through his familial connections because Oliver’s actions break these bonds. In a class system organized by primogeniture, actions should not matter. One’s identification comes from one’s lineage regardless of action or merit. Adam’s attention to Oliver’s cruelty demonstrates disorder in this system: as a servant he should be less concerned with Oliver’s actions and have more reverence for his title.

"discord in the spheres...."   (Act II - Act II, Scene 7)

The Celestial Spheres were a medieval cosmological understanding of how the planets and stars were positioned and moved. In this ideology, the planets were fixed in crystalline concentric circles that rotated around each other. Because many believed that one’s destiny and disposition were largely influenced by astrology, the position of the Celestial Spheres was important, as was “discord” ominous and potentially life threatening.

"capricious poet, honest Ovid..."   (Act III - Act III, Scene 3)

Touchstone makes reference to the Roman poet Ovid in part because of Ovid’s reputation as a lover and libertine. In the year 2CE, Ovid published the Ars Amatoria, a guide to navigating the complex worlds of romance and sexual liaisons. Given that Touchstone is courting Audrey as he makes reference to Ovid, this historical context is important.

"humorous sadness..."   (Act IV - Act IV, Scene 1)

The four “humors” were a theory that came from Galenic medicine. The four humors were bodily fluids— yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood— which were thought to control one’s moods, disposition, and health. Having a “humorous sadness” yeilds a double meaning in this context: it both means that his sadness is comical, and that his sadness comes from an imbalance in his humors.

"with udders all drawn dry..."   (Act IV - Act IV, Scene 3)

The reference to the lioness offers connotations of royalty which pull together two traditions. On an immediate level, the lion is the symbol for the English throne. The fact that it is a lioness with “udders all dry” brings to mind the mythical she-wolf who reared the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The image of the lioness serves to relocate the she-wolf in an English context. From this perspective, we can see how the rival brothers Romulus and Remus serve as a fitting allegorical backdrop for Orlando and Oliver, themselves brothers locked in a rivalry for their father’s title.

"Like Turk to Christian..."   (Act IV - Act IV, Scene 3)

Rosalind’s metaphor for Phebe’s offensive actions draws on the history of the Crusades. From the 12th to 14th centuries, numerous Catholic kingdoms in Europe banded together to launch a series of invasions in the Middle East, valued as the “Holy Land.” The “Turk” Rosalind alludes to stands in more broadly for the muslim populations of the Middle East, the enemies of Christendom.

"huswife's hand..."   (Act IV - Act IV, Scene 3)

Rosalind uses the color and texture of Phebe’s hands as proof that she could not have written this letter. Phebe has “leathern” hands the color of stone, so rough they look like leather gloves. These hands demonstrate that Phebe does manual labor and is therefore a member of the low working class. Rosalind takes this to mean that Phebe cannot write and is not clever enough to put these ideas and words on paper.

"HYMEN..."   (Act V - Act V, Scene 4)

Hymen was the Greek god of marriage who was supposed to be present at every wedding. His absence was considered a bad omen for the future of the marriage. It was custom at Greek weddings to run about calling his name to summons him to the ceremony. It is unclear whether Shakespeare intended this to be the presence of the actual god or simply a symbol for a good marriage.