In a broader sense the play is built around pairs of characters: two Dukes; two daughters, Rosalind and Celia; two fools (Jaques is not a conventional fool after the officially licensed manner of Touchstone, of course; but he occupies a similar place, commenting wittily and sardonically upon the world for his master), two shepherds, Corin and Silvius; two shepherdesses, Phebe and Audrey, and so on.
It's more than just a mania for pairing things off. This is a play that keeps playing with words and puns, with homophones and near homophones. 'Come sweete Audrey,' Touchstone says to his girlfriend: 'we must be married, or we must live in baudrey' [3.3.88] (the Audrey/bawdry gag might be funnier if one didn't suspect Shakespeare had chosen the name precisely in order to facilitate the joke. Ah well). There's a ruder gag in the name Rosalind adopts when she dresses as a boy: Ganymede, taken from classical mythology (it's the name of Jupiter's young male lover). There's an obvious applicability in the name, given the gender-bending Elizabethan stagecraft practice of getting boys to dress as girls to disguise themselves as boys and so on. But there's a cruder, comic double-meaning in the name too, since ganny was a variant of cunny or cunt and mede, as pronounced after the Elizabethan fashion, is a homophone for 'maid'. So the girl, dressed as a boy but still very obviously a girl in men's clothes (and indeed praised by other characters for the femininity of his/her beauty) adopts as a male name the transparently female 'Cunny-maid'. Ho ho. Not that all the wordplay and naming larks are rude. Jaques reports meeting Touchstone for the first time, with: 'as I do live by foode, I met a foole' [2.7.14], which almost looks like one of those word-chain games where you one letter at a time. Or consider the multiple wordplay games in Duke Senior's first speech, from the beginning of Act 2:
Now my Coe-mates, and brothers in exile:This, famously, is the Duke saying that though life in the country is sometimes hard, it is at least honest: no flatterers or court politics, truth and therefore good everywhere. It is, in point of fact, one of the key statements of a fundamental belief about the worth of pastoral as a mode: city life, or courtly existence, may be civilised and pretty, but is fundamentally inauthentic; whereas country life, though rude, is fundamentally authentic. But look how he has said it! Wordplay and puns. It's not just at the end, the alliteration of tongues/trees, the one-letter-away wordplay of books/brooks, or the more complex game played by equating the religious discourse of 'sermons' in the stonily petrifying 'Peter' on which Christ, of course, built his church. It's there at the beginning too. The Duke addresses his exiled nobles as 'co-mates', which is both a perfectly functional English phrase and also a pun on the Latin comites, 'companions, comrades, friends'. And so all the way through: so the chill winds 'persuade' the Duke 'he is what he is', which persuasion he pronounces 'sweet'; fittingly, since the Latin for both words derives from the same source, the word suavis, sweet. And so on.
Hath not old custome made this life more sweete
Than that of painted pompe? Are not these woods
More free from perill then the envious Court?
Heere feele we not the penaltie of Adam,
The seasons difference, as the Icie phange
And churlish chiding of the winters winde,
Which when it bites and blowes upon my body
Euen till I shrinke with cold, I smile, and say
This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly perswade me what I am:
Sweet are the uses of adversitie
Which like the toad, ougly and venemous,
Weares yet a precious Jewell in his head:
And this our life exempt from publike haunt,
Findes tongues in trees, bookes in the running brookes,
Sermons in stones, and good in euery thing. [2.1.1-17]
There are lots and lots of other examples of this sort of thing in the play, but I don't want to labour the point. 'Shakespeare liked wordplay and puns' is hardly news. It's just that, in this play specifically, I think there's something else going on. Puns and wordplay depend upon the same word, or two nearly-the-same words, having different meanings, which is actualised in the dramatis personae of As You Like It by having so many pairs of characters with the same, or nearly the same, names. What's happening?
Instead of trying to answer that question I'm going to take this blog-post in a knight's-move away from it, and in the direction of: Edmund Spenser. There he is, at the top, wearing one of those ruffs that makes it look as though he has been decapitated, his head put on a doily-topped-plate and then balanced back on his shoulders. It's a good look.
Why Spenser? Well, I've long entertained the notion, more or less idly, that As You Like It was a play Shakespeare wrote with Spenser in mind; and more specifically, that he was prompted to write it by the poet's death. Spenser was only 46 when he died, on the 13th January 1599, having lost his large estates in Ireland—that is, his draconic gubernatorial policies having provoked an armed uprising of put-upon Irishmen, and his mansion burned down. He died, according to Ben Jonson, in penury.
Spencer's Goods were robbed by the Irish, and his House and a little Child burnt, he and his Wife escaped, and after died for want of Bread in Kingstreet; he refused 20 Pieces sent him by my Lord Essex, and said he was sure he had no Time to spend them.Once one of the Queen's favourites, Spenser appears to have fallen from favour, and to have alienated the Queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley (William Cecil). He got a grand funeral, though, paid for by the Earl of Essex, whom Spenser had praised in poetry, and whose star with the Queen seemed, at that precise moment in time, to be in the ascendant. Here's James Shapiro's account of the procession, from his rather good 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber 2005):
William Camden, who eulogized Spenser as one who "surpassed all the English poets of former times, not excepting even Chaucer himself" recorded the unusual funeral arrangements. Spenser's hearse was "attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems, with the pens that wrote them, thrown into the tomb." Cambden later added that poets even carried Spenser's hearse ... The verses, which the poets had but three days to compose, would have first been read aloud before being ceremoniously tossed into the grave. Not just a great poet was celebrated this day, but English poetry itself. It's unlikely that many of London's writers would have missed the occasion. [79-80]Was Shakespeare there? There's a tradition, but no hard evidence, that he was one of the pallbearers; and it's possible the two men knew one another. They certainly would have been aware of one another, and presumably admired one another's verse, and both were at Whitehall in the winter of 1598-99, and so could easily have exchanged words then, if they hadn't before. Spenser wrote nine plays, although these were not for the popular stage, and none of them have survived; but one not-noble-born dramatist and poet might very plausibly have sought out another not-noble-born dramatist and poet, at least on those occasions when both of them were in the same town. Perhaps Shakespeare was one of those who read aloud a Spenser elegy and then threw it, and the pen that had written it, into the grave. Shapiro notes that 'three centuries later' eager scholars opened Spenser's tomb, 'hoping to unearth the long buried tributes, especially one by Shakespeare'; but that they 'failed to find what they were looking for', for the very good reason that they exhumed the wrong grave, and were in fact rummaging around in the mortal remains of Matthew Prior.
Whether Spenser and Shakespeare actually knew one another is speculation, though; and scholarship is quite properly allergic to unsubstantiated speculation. Which leaves my specific As You Like It theory high and dry.
What theory is that, you ask? Let me tell you. It is an extrapolation from a few things that are not in doubt. So, As You Like It is Shakespeare's great pastoral play. Spenser's first masterpiece was The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), the book that made his reputation and ushered in an energetic vogue for Elizabethan pastoral writing. Much bucolic poetry and prose followed hard on the heels of this collection, some of it frankly imitative of Spenser; and The Shepheardes Calendar was still selling well and being reprinted in the 1590s (there was a fifth edition in 1597). Nowadays Spenser's reputation is more intimately tied-up with The Faerie Queene (the first six cantos—of a prospected twelve—were published in 1596). But although The Faerie Queene was admired, it didn't catch-on with contemporary readers the way The Shepheardes Calendar had done. We have to wait until 1609 for a second edition, for instance. So let's say that at his death in January 1599 The Shepheardes Calendar was Spenser's most popular, if not quite his most admired, work.
Two other things to note that are fact rather than speculation. One is that the name of Shakespeare' heroine, Rosalind, is taken from Spenser's pastoral poem. And two is that As You Like It was almost certainly written in 1599, the year Spenser died. Its title was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1600, and so must have been written before then; and there are several reasons (listed in the Arden edition intro, xxvi-xxvii) for placing it after 1598. One oddity though: although the play was entered in the Stationer's Register, there are no contemporary records of any performances, nor were any quarto edition of the play (licensed or unlicensed) published. The earliest published edition of the play is the Folio of 1623. Since it has subsequently become one of Shakespeare's most often performed and most popular plays, this lack of any kind of theatrical record of it 1599-1623 is a little strange. Either it was publicly performed and wasn't a hit (possible, but surely unlikely) or else it just wasn't performed. If this latter circumstance is the case, then why not? Did Shakespeare's company not think it good enough? Might there be other reasons?
But that's not much to go on. If we're looking for actual evidence of a connection between the two men, or support for the thesis that Shakespeare was prompted to write his pastoral play by the death of this master of pastoral verse, then there isn't anything. That's largely because these two figures, Shakespeare and Spenser, giants of their literary era though they were, are more poorly served by biographical data than almost anybody else of comparable stature in literary history. The thinness of Shakespeare's biography is well known, of course, but if anything even less is known of Spenser. A C Hamilton’s 'Longman’s Annotated Poets' edition of The Faerie Queene (2001, rev ed 2007) concludes its scanty biographical essay with this:
In a review of Judson’s Life, Conyers Read noted the paucity of our knowledge: ‘outside what Edmund Spenser himself wrote all that is positively known about his life could probably be written in a few short paragraphs. The rest is inference, surmise and conjecture’ [AHR 51:539]. D Cheney [1996:172] concludes that evidence for S.’s life is questionable ‘not merely doubtful but calling its own authority into question and demanding that we question it.’ [xix]Wait: 'D Cheney' ... that's not Dick Cheney, is it? Presumably not.
Of course it would be nice if we had other evidence: letters, pamphlets, reports of conversation in which Shakespeare talked of his friendship, something like that. But there's nothing. So, absent 'hard' evidence, what sort of evidence might we admit to the bar in support of a far-out theory? I don't mean a theory of the 'Shakespeare-didn't-write-Shakespeare' kind, which mode of conspiracizing is invariably fruity-loops. (Isn't it interesting that nobody has proposed a Spenser-didn't-write-Spenser, The-Faerie-Queen-was-actually-written-by-the-Earl-of-Oxford style theory? One wonders why not?) I mean something more in line with plausible literary speculation.
Something like this: Shakespeare makes specific praising reference to Essex in Henry V (Jonathan Bate calls this the only verifiable contemporary reference in the whole Shakespearian corpus). And whilst nothing can be proven, Leeds Barroll's 'William Shakespeare's Regnal Connections' [Renaissance Drama 40 (2012), 185-195] makes a persuasive case that if not Essex himself then what Barroll calls 'the Essex group' of wealthy and powerful noblemen attached to the Earl, acted as patrons to various theatrical writers and troupes, Shakespeare's amongst them. There's hard evidence that Richard Burbage was a favourite of the group, and received gifts from them; Ben Jonson was gifted £20 a year for books; and it doesn't strain credulity to think that a little of this patronage might have come Shakespeare's way (Southampton, to whom Shakespeare had dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece a few years earlier, was part of the 'Essex Group').
So imagine this: Essex organises and pays for Spenser's funeral, which is conceived as an extravagantly literary affair. He maybe gets Shakespeare to write a brief elegy, and read it at the service. But perhaps he also commissioned a play, for private performance at Essex House, before a select audience (rather than a public showing at the newly constructed Globe) commemorating his friend; not a biographical piece, but something inspired by, or in some other way connected with, Spenser. Shakespeare decides to take The Shepheardes Calendar as inspiration. He can't dramatise that directly, since it doesn't have a dramatic through-line or narrative; so he lifts a plot from a recently published pastoral novel called Rosalynd by Thomas Lodge, (published 1590 and itself quite heavily indebted to Spenser's pastoral), soaks the story in a metaphorical marinade of Spenser, and writes As You Like It.
Unproven and probably unprovable, I know: but this notion does provide a possible explanation for the strange way the play made no impact at all on London theatrical culture 1599-1623. Let's say Shakespeare accepts the commission and makes a start on the play soon after Spenser's funeral, January 1599. Say the play is finished by the spring. Any performance at Essex House would be postponed by Essex's departure for Ireland at the head of his army in March. His Irish campaign, of course, did not go well; on his return to London in September Essex found himself committed for trial and imprisoned. That trial on 5th June 1600 lead to his conviction and removal from all public office. This in turn lead to Essex's abortive rebellion at the start of 1601, and finally his second trial and decapitation on Feb 25th 1601.
In such a circumstance, Shakespeare might well have been in a tricky position. However close, or otherwise, he had personally been to Essex he would certainly want to distance himself from a decided and executed traitor. If As You Like It had been written for Essex, the events of 1600 would make performance impossible; but Shakespeare, surely conscious that he had written a good play (it is, after all, one of his undisputed masterpieces) would surely not want simply to abandon it. After Essex's conviction in June 1600, he would naturally have given up on the idea of ever seeing it performed at Essex House; but the fact that it was entered into the Stationer's Register on the 4th August 1600 (marked 'to be stayed'; that is, not performed but held back and noted in an attempt to preserve it as company property and prevent piracy) suggests he, or his company, wanted to hold it in reserve. After that speculation gets mistier and mistier. Perhaps Essex's final disgrace meant that Shakespeare, or the company, thought this play too dangerous to stage. Maybe Elizabeth's death in 1603, and the coming of James, pushed it onto the back-burner: too 'Elizabethan' maybe, or too Spenserian. I'm flailing here, you can tell. But the play is a great play, and Heminges and Condell certainly recognised as much when they included it in the First Folio.
My point, though, is less about such speculation and more about evidential bases. And, to repeat myself, the theory I'm advancing is about Spenser, not about Essex. There have been theories that As You Like It has something to do with Essex's Irish campaign going back at least the to the 1930s (Sharpe's The Real War of the Theatres  argues that; Chris Butler's ‘”The howling of Irish wolves”: As You Like It and the Celtic Essex Circle’, in Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane's Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers (2013) 89-102 elaborates a similar reading). Since Elizabeth and Essex, and Essex in Ireland, were the 'big' contemporary news of 1599, it's makes historicist sense to try and situate the play in that context. But that's not what my spurious argumentation here is trying to do. I'm not suggesting As You Like It is an allegory of Essex in Ireland, because I don't think it is. What I do think is that it is a play either 'commissioned', in whatever sense of that word would have been meaningful to an Elizabethan, in honour of Spenser, or else simply inspired by the memory of Spenser.
Spenser, author of the age's most famous pastoral poem, is memorialised by Shakespeare writing the age's most famous pastoral play. Said play puts at the heart of the bucolic drama Rosalind, whom Spenser (under the pseudonym 'Colin Clout') loved in his poem. Since Spenser (following Vergil) wrote pastoral narratives of love gained and lost, and interspersed that narrative with country songs, this is also what Shakespeare does.
But, as I finally wind my way back to my point. if I start combing the text itself for evidence of this, I find myself performing some of the fruity-loops hermeneutic maneuvres of, say, the famously loopy Ignatius L. Donnelly's The Great Cryptogram (1888). So my initial question returns after its knight's-move digression. Given that this is a playful play, a play about escaping the constraints of an oppressive court into the Ardenic territory of pastoral holiday, love and fun; and given that the playfulness of this play is apparent in its fondness for wordplay and puns, some bland, some bawdy, all so much a feature of the play's world that even the characters become punning and anagrammatising versions of one another ... given all that, would this sort of thing count as legitimate evidence that this play was written playfully to commemorate the pastoral imagination of Edmund Spenser?
Oliver: And what wilt thou do? beg when that is spent? Sir, get you in. [1.1.75]Or this?
Rosalind: There were none principal, they were all like one another, as pence are ... [3.2.346]a 'halfe' having been dropped out? Convinced?
No, I didn't think so. We'd be better off painting with broader strokes. Which is to say: a dramatist, setting out to write a drama that playfully memorialised Edmund Spenser (without narrating his life, or being too literal minded) would surely seek to reproduce the lineaments of his literary achievement. If Shepeardes Calendar remained his most popular work, then let the play be pastoral, interspersed (as Shepeardes Calendar is) with songs. If Spenser's pastoral is divided between some shepherds poor and put-upon, and some experiencing the ups and downs of love, then let us have two such shepherds in our play: Corin and Silvius. If Shepeardes Calendar posits an inhabitant of the forest in love with Rosalind, then let that be the name of our heroine. But as many critics have pointed out, 'Arden' in the play is both a wild wood, haunt of outlaws (Robin Hood is even namechecked) and wild beasts, and a cultivated, enclosed land where hireling herdspeople raise sheep and goats. Let us reserve the latter space for the Shepeardes Calendar portion of the play; and let us render the former a wilderness populated by allegorically significant monsters like sapient lions and snakes, maidens in peril and heroic travellers, in memory of the unfinished Fairie Queene. And in memory of Amoretti, let us have one character literally bedeck the forest trees with 'little love poems', some of which (eg: 'He that brings this love to thee,/Little knowes this Love in me') actually juxtapose 'little' and 'love' after the manner of Spenser's title. Throughout let us work-in key words, such that Shepearde appears 33 times, Faire (if not quite Fairie) 28 times and two lists of seven (after the seven extant cantos of Spenser's unfinished epic: six whole cantos and the Mutability canto) are paired: Jaques on the seven ages of man and Touchstone on the seven degree of the lie. Presto!