Stage To Screen: As You Like It

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“The Mock Marriage of Rosalind and Orlando,” Walter Howard Deverell painting, 1853. (Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood)

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s later and more mysterious works, although it contains a lot of famous lines, such as “All the world’s a stage.” Thought to be written in 1598 or 1599 and possibly not performed until 1603, the play is a comedy about finding freedom through disguise and breaking through barriers.

It’s also a pastoral romance, meaning it takes place in the country, and it has elements of courtly love in it, as well as familial jealousy and rivalry. It pokes a bit of fun at the upper classes, but I’m sure they were too busy smirking to notice. It’s not known how many performances were given of As You Like It, but its delightfully sly comedy keeps it coming back into the public eye again and again.

The play may be not as well-known as, say, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, but As You Like It has one of my favorite quotes in all of Shakespeare:

Sweet are the uses of adversity…And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. –Duke Senior, Act II, Scene 1.

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First page of As You Like It in the First Folio, published in 1623. (Wikipedia)

The story follows Orlando, Sir Rowland’s youngest son, who is treated like a peasant by his older brother, Oliver. Orlando has to work like crazy, and one day he revolts, putting Oliver in a headlock. He knows that if their dad wasn’t exiled to the country, he wouldn’t be in this predicament.

We also see Rosalind and her friend Celia, the latter of whom is the daughter of Duke Frederick, the man who stole the dukedom from Duke the Senior, who’s also exiled to the country. Whew. Rosalind and Orlando meet after Orlando beats Charles at wrestling, and it’s the proverbial love at first sight.

Since the road to love is a bumpy one, Orlando has to flee to the country as well because Frederick wants to kill him, so he and his servant, Adam set off right away. Rosalind also must vacate because Uncle Frederick is angry that she and Orlando have fallen in love. She’s the daughter of the banished Duke anyway, so it was just a matter of time.

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Celia, Touchstone, and Rosalind. Early 20th century painting, Charles A. Buchel. (Pinterest)

Celia decides to come with her, and to throw any potential robbers off the scent, Rosalind disguises herself as a man. She’s tall, so she figures she can pull it off. Just for laughs and giggles, they bring along the court jester, Touchstone.

Meanwhile, the Duke Senior, Sir Rowland, and a whole band of others are living the life of Riley out in the forest. The Duke is determined to learn from his situation and make some lemonade, so he’s a contented fellow.

Rosalind creates quite a stir when she arrives in the country, where everyone, including Orlando and her dad are fooled. Other than that, Orlando is lovesick for Rosalind, pinning poetry to trees. Rosalind is ecstatic, but then she gets almost frantic. How will she make herself known to Orlando when he thinks she’s a man? Then she gets the idea of having Orlando pretend her boyish self is Rosalind. They even stage a mock wedding at one point, with Celia officiating. Rosalind’s face almost betrays her, but she holds it together, and her disguise enables her to profess her love for Orlando in a way she would never have been able to if she had been herself.

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Maurice Barrymore as Orlando, late 19th century. (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Proxy Rosalind isn’t enough for Orlando eventually, making him antsy. However, he’s got surprises in store, and since it’s a comedy, As You Like It ends happily, with love most definitely in the air.

The play has been adapted in different mediums off and on over the years. It’s thought to be one of the first radio broadcasts, airing in 1922, but there’s little to no confirmation. Even before that, though, it’s been enticing material for creative types. As it’s full of songs and is therefore considered musical comedy, many of its compositions have been arranged and set to music by various composers. Here’s a 2013 composition of “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by Michael John Trotta:

Another memorable musical setting was for a modern-day retelling of the play at the 2005 Stratford Festival in Canada, featuring the Barenaked Ladies:

Naturally, As You Like It has been adapted for the screen as well, with the usual selection of modern-day settings. It’s all well and good, but we’re in a post-Rosie the Riveter world. Women wearing men’s clothes isn’t nearly as daring or as likely to fool people as it used to be. Oh well. Moderns gonna modern…

1936

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Pinterest

One of the first film adaptations featured Laurence Olivier as Orlando and Elizabeth Bergner as Rosalind. While the latter plays Rosalind with a pronounced German accent, she’s still charming. The play was shortened by about an hour, but it doesn’t lose anything in the translation–the performances are excellent and Olivier is handsomely magnetic. On a side note, those who are familiar with the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol might recognize Lionel Braham, also known as the Ghost of Christmas Past, as Charles the wrestler, only he’s without facial hair in this instance. Watch the film here.

1978

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This robust and competent TV film doesn’t deviate a whit from Shakespeare’s original text, albeit omitting a few lines. The BBC Ambrose Shakespeare adaptations are famous for that, which is one of the reasons they’re beloved by English profs and high school teachers the world over. Brian Stirner plays Orlando in this film, and the whole cast is stellar, but the especial standout is Dame Helen Mirren as Rosalind. It was fairly early in her film career, but she was already a veteran Shakespearean, and the other actors seem to look at her with reverential deference, as if they can tell she’s going to be a huge star.

1992

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IMDb

The 1992 iteration takes the pasture out of this pastoral comedy, as well as the fun–it makes Orlando a homeless person who’s banished to the streets by his evil executive of a brother. Probably the most universally disliked of all the As You Like It adaptations, the filmmakers basically plopped Shakespeare’s dialogue into a modern setting with no care whatsoever. Variety complained that only scholars and Shakespeare geeks would like this one, but this English B.A. thinks that’s a tad optimistic. It’s just depressing, plain and simple, and deserves to be forgotten.

2006

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Frock Flicks

The 2006 Kenneth Branaugh film respects Shakespeare’s dialogue…sorta…except that it’s set in Victorian-era Japan. Er, OK. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard mixed reviews about this one. The consensus seems to be that Branaugh’s movie looks all right but doesn’t quite have It. On the bright side, those who have seen Branaugh’s other Shakespeare films will see some familiar faces in this one, such as Richard Briers as Adam and Brian Blessed as both Duke Senior and Duke Junior.

2010

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IMDb

Here, Shakespeare’s light comedy is made darker and grittier. Groan. That doesn’t bode well. Seeing as it doesn’t have a single user review on IMDb or any readily available information, it was probably panned by theatergoers, even if it was a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Hard pass.

2019

asyoulikeit2019
IMDb

This one came out in March, and if one doesn’t know it’s a Shakespeare play, it might appear confusing, with men playing the female parts. This would be correct in that Shakespeare’s original acting troupe was all male, but times have changed, which means this version is closer to Brokeback Mountain than the Globe Theatre. The film apparently also tanked big time, because apparently no critic will touch it and no film aggregate will catalogue it. Hardest of hard passes.


Yeah, As You Like It seems to work best when it’s done traditionally. Other plays might succeed in a modern setting, but the play is so steeped in courtly love and verbal sparring that it begs to be a period piece. Most filmmakers who have attempted it don’t seem to get that, which is too bad. It deserves to stand on its own and let its classic lines shine.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages… —Jacques, Act II, Scene 7

Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow with my entry for Sean’s Orson Welles Blogathon…


The 1936 film is available from Amazon on DVD and Blu-ray. The 2006 version can also be purchased on DVD. The 1978 film is available to stream on Amazon Prime.


Bibliography

Shakespeare, William. Comedies, Volume 2. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996.

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