Once you make sense of the plot of As You Like It, you can begin understanding some of the stranger and more interesting parts of the play, like the discourse about power and the unconscious. We have a foolish Duke, a brother made murderously stupid with jealousy, another brother struck dumb with love, we have a wise jester, and a philosophical sad boi. The play is a meditation on how power can make people foolish and how self-aware actors can manipulate the situation.
The play is set in two main locations: the court and the countryside. The main characters are banished from the court to the countryside. When the play begins, Duke Ferdinand has already exiled his brother–Rosalind’s father–to the Forest of Arden. There are biblical connotations throughout the play, beginning with fratricidal rage, evoking the story of Cain and Abel. Arden suggests the Garden of Eden.
Oliver, the older brother, is aware of his own motivations. He identifies Orlando as the source of his own feelings of jealousy. He is fully aware that he is driven by an evil desire, but it is a mental condition he feels he can resolve only with the death of his brother. Shakespeare gives us a look into the mind of a murderer. He’s jealous to the point of being ill and he knows it.
Oliver believes his path to feeling better begins with his brother’s death. It isn’t till much later in the play, when Orlando saves Oliver’s life from a mountain lion, that he transforms how he feels. It isn’t Orlando’s death, but his willingness to sacrifice his life that is successful in changing the bad energy between them. Despite his jealousy, Oliver is transformed into a loving brother through Orlando’s act of service.
For most of the play, Orlando is completely out of control, first with ambition and then with love. He makes bold moves that lead to radical change. He beats the wrestler, but it is a form of entertainment for the Duke. Orlando’s father was an enemy to the Duke, so wrestling as a form of entertainment for his recently deceased father’s enemy is kinda shady. That’s how bad he feels about himself. He has a cockblocking older bro who wants him dead and so he takes on the court wrestler right in front of the Duke. You almost can’t blame the Duke for losing his shit when he finds out who the kid is.
We don’t know why Duke Ferdinand exiled his brother, but we do know that it is not working to his favor. The older brother is off in the woods living like Robin Hood with a bunch of men and women loyal to him. Ferdinand is surrounded by arrogant enemies who don’t respect his authority. His temper tantrum when he finds out who Orlando’s father is leads him to snap on Rosalind and his own daughter. In this pathetic speech, you see the Duke insecure about his power and taking it out on young women. This portrayal shows how power can amplify insecurities to the point of violence.
The villains are fools in As You Like It, and the fools are wise. This play gives us some memorable quotes delivered by fools, including “all the world’s a stage.” The portrayal of Jaquis and Touchstone are another moment of meta-comedy in Shakespeare. The play reflects on the value of entertainment and on the possibility that there is more wisdom in those who occupy the privileged position of entertainer and thinker within a group than in those who have power. Touchstone is subservient, but also witty and he has pointed insights and a theory about everything.
Jaquis is highly empathetic and poetic kind of thinker. He is one of the Duke’s men living in exile and as he experiences things that happen in the countryside he compares it to his own background. This leads to him creating metaphors that link the violence and ruthlessness of men and women in the court to the dealings of the natural world. Whereas Oliver and Frederick try to get rid of their negative feelings through violence, Jaquis is a connoisseur of sadness.
Through his embrace of feeling bad, because he enjoys his own sadness, Jaquis becomes empowered. He is entertaining to the men. They love to laugh at him grieving over the death of a deer. His sadness is fun for them to witness. Oliver and Ferdinand reject their negative feelings and try to fix their feelings through violence. Jaquis shows us the opposite. He owns his feelings and therefore attracts brotherhood.
As You Like It is a comedic tapestry full of fun moments, but it is also a philosophical reflection on the interaction between power and understanding. The self-aware fool is ultimately more in control and has more influence than someone who has political clout but is not in control of their own emotions. The fools and villains in As You Like It are a key to the play’s deeper meanings and relevance to today.