The crucial relationship between identity and belonging is explored in the play As You Like It by William Shakespeare. The play deals with the universal dilemma of disconnected individuals searching for a place of belonging, to regain a lost sense of self. In the play Shakespeare identifies a number of different ways which one can belong; the family’s role in establishing one’s identity and self-perception, the role of gender as defining identity, and love as an avenue for ultimate belonging. These concepts of belonging are explored through Shakespeare’s use of characterisation, plot and setting.
As You Like It follows several characters disconnected from society on their individual journeys to regain a place of belonging. The sense of disharmony in the play is unmistakably a result of the corruption in the court, the setting where the main characters are supposed to belong. Corruption in the court is identified through the family breakdowns that have occurred. The play opens with a sense of disorder, a situation where Orlando criticises his brother’s maltreatment of him. Oliver fails to fulfil the role “charged” him by his late father to provide Orlando with adequate education befitting a “gentleman of [his] birth”. By denying Orlando the means to his rightful place in society, Oliver removes a vital part of his identity, consequently denying him a part in the family; the “place of a brother”. The corruption in the court is further illustrated through the banishment of Duke Senior by his brother Duke Frederick.
The use of setting to explore the ability of a location to either affirm or transform ones identity is evident in the setting of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. The forest is a place of transformation, and idyllic world where one can “fleet the time carelessly” and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and society. The name itself, “Arden” is a variation of “Eden”, which evokes a sense of biblical perfection. Duke senior himself describes life in the court as “painted pomp” and the woods “more free from peril than the envious court.” There is a unity with Dukes associating with fools and shepherds and the natural world is portrayed as harmonious, a place where one can belong regardless of their identity.
The forest also allows the characters to explore their identity through identifying gender expectations. In the play, Shakespeare toys with the idea of gender, suggesting that it is largely performative, but that there is an essential basis of gender and identity within humans. The plot device of Rosalind posing as a male shepherd, Ganymede allows Shakespeare to convey this idea. Whilst dressed as a man, Rosalind is able “command” the events of the play, exerting power that she did not possess as a woman. However, Shakespeare identifies that she is essentially feminine, highlighted when she faints when Orlando proves his worth to her, despite her “counterfeit to be a man.”
The exploration of gender roles is only one part of the process the characters must undergo to regain a lost sense of identity. In the play, romantic love is explored as a means of creating harmony and restoring the disorder in society. The transformative power of love is illustrated by the relationship between Rosalind and Orlando, who despite having developed a relationship while Rosalind was a man, still share a connection that “no cross shall part” once they are married. The unconventional relationship between the ever devoted Silvius and the scornful Phebe is also transformed by marriage. Even though Phebe appears to command Silvius, making him “an instrument” of her will which was an unlikely role for women of the time, their marriage restores the balance and allows Silvius to regain his rightful place as her husband. In many ways, the rightful identity of both individuals and both relationships is restored through a sense of belonging found in marriage. The various couplings in the play provide the characters with fulfilment; a sense of belonging associated with another being.