as you like it ending explained american shakespeare center

I often find myself asking my boss (Will, obviously) questions out loud.

“Why pirates?”

“What’s up with all the cross-dressing?”

What is up with that ending, Shakespeare?”

“How you doin’?”

Okay, not so much the last one, because, sadly, he has been dead for four centuries…but I do sometimes feel like we are hanging out when I dig deep into what is happening with the plays that survive him.

And although Two Gents and Measure for Measure are runner-ups, I don’t think I have ever questioned a turn in a play more than the one(s) that end As You Like It.

I mean: a lion, a snake, fainting, transformation, god, conversion? All to tie up what has become an insane network of subplots and a world of characters’ transgressions THAT YOU WROTE, Will?? (Sorry, shouldn’t be yelling at my boss like that.)

In short, Shakespeare birthed a lot of children….characters that is. With their own individual, partially fleshed-out plots. How can he lose any of them? What’s left then? In the end, you have to sew the loose ends up. At least in As You Like It he felt the need to do so.

Let’s review:

  1. Orlando’s previously cruel brother, Oliver seeks him in the forest (to do harm to him) and Orlando saves him from a Lion and a Snake (because one wild beast is never enough).
  2. Hymen (the god of marriage descending from GREECE, I mean, FRANCE, I mean ENGLAND) marries four random (and I do mean random) couples at the same time.
  3. Orlando & Oliver’s brother, Jacques, come to announce that the banished Duke’s brother has abandoned his usurping ways and is headed into monastic retirement so Duke Senior can take the throne once more.

So. To use some theatrical terminology: that, my friends, is a triple (wish I knew the Greek word for triple) deus ex machina in action right there. Deus ex Machina is Greek for Lazy Playwright.*  You can see it in Hamlet (Pirates cited above) and elsewhere throughout the canon of western plays and literature. Anytime it seems incredible that something worked out (see all films in the US Romantic Comedy genre), you can pretty much find Deus ex Machina.  But three? One on top of the other? Only Shakespeare can do that.**

So, to the specifics:

  1. Orlando rescues Oliver.

    It’s romantic. It gives us the chance to make boy Ganymede, actually girl Rosalind (originally a boy actor***) swoon upon hearing the danger. Sweet. It also gives us the chance to add the 4th (elusive) couple to our foursquare.

  2. Four Couples married by a Greek god in France

    (but in Arden, which we all know is in England)
    Okay, picture it: We get the couple of Rosalind and Orlando (love at first sight at the top of the play: genius).  Then we add another couple with Touchstone and Audrey (Rosalind and usurping Duke Frederick’s witty sidekick and his country lass).  We get one more when the tables turn on Phebe and she’s forced to marry Silvius.  And finally to add the cherry on top of our newly-newly-newly-weds’ cake Oliver and Celia (who’ve just met) tie the knot too.  These things happen.

    Tell me more about the Greek God, you say?  While there are many traditions of Hymen’s origins, I like to think that Shakespeare had the story of the child of Dionysus (god of Theatre, and other wonderful things like wine) and Aphrodite (goddess of Love) in mind. What a beautiful blend that would be on any stage. Present at all weddings, and running this one. Really, how else can we make sense of four weddings at the same time?

  3. Orlando and Oliver as it turns out, have another brother.

    Said brother, arrives just as Hymen is making his proclamation. As if out of nowhere! He announces that Duke Frederick is returning the throne to the older rightful Haier (Duke Senior) as a result of a random encounter with a holy man on the edge of the forest. Now, we haven’t met this brother before. I’m not even sure if we know if this brother exists. But here he is to save the day.

While uber Shakespeare critic George Bernard Shaw said that As You Like It was “romantic nonsense”, I find his take on Shakespeare’s “optimism being distasteful” to be its own kind of nonsense. The ending of this play reinforces the joy it brings to audiences throughout. And even if Shakespeare resorts to “easy solutions” in the end, audiences do leave happy.

*mostly kidding
**and get away with it
***a nod to the INSANE amount of gender-bending going on: a man, playing a girl, who is now pretending to be a man

Special thanks to Steve Werkmeister for pointing out and narrowing in on the triple deus ex machina.