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Who is Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but today it is celebrated on April 23, which is the date of his death and, based on the record of his baptism, may very well also have been his birthday. Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, a glover, and his mother was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer.

Shakespeare probably attended what is now the Edward VI Grammar School. At age 18 he married a farmer's daughter, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and, two years later, the twins Hamnet (who died in childhood) and Judith. 

Nothing more is known of his life until 1592, when his earliest known play, the first part of Henry VI, became a hit in London, where Shakespeare had gone (without his family) to work as an actor.

Soon afterwards, an outbreak of the plague forced theatres to close temporarily, and Shakespeare turned for a while to writing poetry. By 1594 he was back in the theatre, acting with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He quickly established himself as one of London's most successful dramatists, with an income that enabled him, in 1597, to buy a mansion back in Stratford. In 1599 he became a shareholder in London's newly built Globe Theatre. In 1603, Shakespeare's company was awarded a royal patent, becoming known as the King's Men.

Possibly as early as 1610, the playwright retired to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, living there and continuing to invest in real estate until his death on April 23, 1616. He is buried in the town's Holy Trinity Church.

In the first collected edition of his works in 1623, fellow playwright Ben Jonson called him a man "not of an age, but for all time." Not only did Shakespeare write some of the most popular plays of all time, but he was a very prolific writer, writing at least thirty-eight works in twenty-three years. Shakespeare enjoyed great popularity in his lifetime, and 450 years later, he is still the most produced playwright in the world. 

Have you noticed that Shakespeare's plays usually have a lot of characters? It's true, and it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out who's who. It's helpful to understand that the characters often come in groups, with different groups being featured in different parts of the plot.

Orlando, youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys, is at odds with his brother, Oliver, who is withholding the inheritance left him in their father's will. Oliver plans to have Orlando maimed or even killed in a wrestling match held before Duke Frederick (who has recently usurped the realm from his brother, Duke Senior), but Orlando wins the bout - and with it the heart of Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke.

When Rosalind too is banished, she decides to join her father, who is holding court with a group of other exiled nobles, including the melancholy philosopher Jaques, in the nearby Forest of Arden. Her cousin Celia, Duke Frederick's daughter, promises to go with her. For safety's sake, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man and takes the name Ganymede.

Learning that Oliver is still plotting against his life, Orlando too flees to the forest. Duke Frederick sends Oliver in pursuit, with instructions to bring back his brother dead or alive.

Orlando does not recognize his beloved when he meets her dressed in her disguise as the youth Ganymede. Seeing in this an opportunity to test his sincerity, Rosalind does not undeceive him; instead, she proposes a game of role-playing: by "pretending" to be Rosalind, "Ganymede" will attempt to cure Orlando of his lovesickness. At the same time, she finds herself having to deflect the attentions of Phebe, a shepherdess who finds Ganymede a much more attractive proposition than the adoring shepherd Silvius.

To resolve these romantic complications, Rosalind organizes a masque, in the course of which she at last reveals her true identity. Meanwhile, the two sets of brothers are almost miraculously reconciled: Orlando saves Oliver from an attacking lion, and Duke Frederick, having undergone a religious conversion, restores Duke Senior's crown and lands.


Did You Know?

Though not based on historical characters or events, As You Like It does draw on popular folk tales and literary sources of Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare's placing of the outlawed but happy Duke Senior in the forest, for example, recalls the Robin Hood legends that were popular in his time. Shakespeare may have been capitalizing on a contemporary vogue for plays romanticizing outlaws, including two versions of Robin Hood that were presented by a rival theatre company, the Admiral's Men, in 1598.

The play's main plot comes from English poet Thomas Lodge's 1590 romance Rosalynde or Euphues' Golden Legacy. Lodge's story of a young man mistreated by his brother was inspired by a 14th-century poem, The Tale of Gamelyn. Lodge's version turned the tale about outlaws and revenge into a pastoral comedy about love. Shakespeare further softened the story by removing much of its violence.

Jorge de Montemayor's romance Diana Enamorada, with a plot involving multiple lovers, is mentioned in the play and may have been an influence.

The Rosalind/Celia plot and the subplot involving Corin, Silvius and Phebe were Shakespeare's own inventions, as were most of the other characters, including Jaques, Touchstone and Amiens.

Orlando may have been named after the hero of Orlando Furioso, a 16th-century romance by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. Ganymede, the name chosen by Rosalind as her male persona, was the name of a Trojan boy whom Zeus carried off to serve as his cupbearer.

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote the role of the fool Touchstone for the great English comic Robert Armin, who joined his acting company in 1599. A touchstone is an object used to test the genuineness of some other material, such as gold. As a professional fool, Touchstone is constantly testing others.

Some Interesting Tidbits…

The actors in the original production of As You Like It did not want the play to be published, because once a play was printed they lost their monopoly over the text and therefore their profits. As a result, the play was not published in Shakespeare's lifetime.

As You Like It is one of several Shakespearean comedies (also including The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing) that feature weddings as part of their plots.

As You Like It contains more songs than any other play by Shakespeare. The song "It was a lover and his lass" was published (with musical setting) in Thomas Morley's First Book of Airs in 1600.

Shakespeare is known to have played the role of Orlando's aged servant Adam.

Themes and Motifs in As You Like It


  • Love
  • Flexibility of human experience
  • Urban vs. rural / court vs. country
  • Foolishness and folly
  • Family
  • Art and culture
  • Transformation
  • Philosophical viewpoints
  • Deception, disguise, gender
  • Tolerance and goodwill


  • Artifice
  • Exile
  • Time


As You Like It, Me B'y

Director Jillian Keiley sets Shakespeare's "love letter to the pastoral" in her native Newfoundland

Why was Shakespeare one of the most popular playwrights of his day? Partly because he gave his audience what they wanted. And it seems that what they wanted around 1598-1602 was comedy. The titles of both As You Like It and Twelfth Night, or What You Will, written during that time, suggest that Shakespeare was giving his audience what they had asked for and was inviting them to receive it in whatever way pleased them best.

Jillian Keiley, the director of this season's production of As You Like It, concurs. "I think Shakespeare conceived it as a populist piece," she says. "It's as if he's saying: 'Here's more of what you like - the cross-dressing heroine, the clown, the music.' It was his gift to the people."

In As You Like It, the heroine of the play, Rosalind, escapes the court of her villainous uncle (with the clown Touchstone in tow) and flees to the wilderness, disguised as a precocious boy. When it turns out that her crush, Orlando, just so happens to have fled to the forest as well (in order to escape his own villainous relative!), she convinces him to participate in an imaginary courtship that ends in marriage.

The play had broad appeal in Shakespeare's day, and Ms Keiley certainly intends that to be the case today. She is setting it circa 1985 in her native Newfoundland, where, in the contrast between that province's traditional rural culture and the oil-wealthy big-city life of its capital, St. John's, she sees a modern-day parallel to the two worlds of the play: Duke Frederick's court and the Forest of Arden.

"There had always been a tension between the urban and rural in Newfoundland," she says, "and in the 1980s, the tide began to change in the desired identity of the island. In a very short time, traditional Newfoundland customs, dances, music, humour were embraced instead of hidden, and it became a place that by the 2000s people wanted to come in droves to, not leave in droves from."

As You Like It is Shakespeare's love letter to the pastoral," she says. "It starts in the court, which is all about backstabbing and the rat race. But when they go out to the country, even though they have to think about survival, everyone relaxes: they sing songs and write poetry." It is a joyous, accessible play about love, family, foolishness and the power of transformation.

It is also full of music, which in this production runs the gamut from '80s-style arena rock at court to traditional Celtic music in the forest. The music will be composed by none other than Bob Hallet, a member of one of Newfoundland's most famous bands, Great Big Sea. 

If you've ever wanted to be a part of an East Coast "kitchen party," you will get your chance in this production! Immediately prior to the performances, a select number of audience members will be invited to learn a traditional Newfoundland set dance (much like a square dance) and then to perform it on stage with the cast. "At one point in the play," explains Ms Keiley, "[the character] Jaques utters an incantation to draw people into a circle. This production will be about that: drawing people into a circle and saying, let's play together." 

Those who have seen Ms Keiley's previous Festival productions, The Diary of Anne Frankand Alice Through the Looking-Glass, won't be surprised to learn that she plans to engage the audience in this light-hearted comedy in unconventional ways. 

"I want the audience to feel like we're creating this show together. I want them to be delighted and to have so much fun and so much love for life - and for each other." She elaborates: "Designer Bretta Gerecke and I have concocted a world where the audience engages not just as the observer, but as those with whom we work to make the play." 

Upon entering the theatre, audience members will be given a bag (which they get to keep!) that contains such things as tree branches, paper fans, hats and flowers, letters, clothespins, light-up stars, etc. From these simple items, audiences on the orchestra level, wearing their green paper crowns, will help create an image of a meadow or the forest floor for example. Light-up stars in the balcony will illuminate the night sky. Gigantic mirrors on the stage will enable the audience to see the picture they are creating. Audience members are encouraged to wear white or light-coloured clothing to enable the theatre lighting to incorporate them into the landscape of the play. Whilst in the forest of Arden, the young hero of the play, Orlando, writes love poetry to the object of his affection, Rosalind, which he hangs on branches of trees throughout the forest. Young people are being requested to submit these poems, which will be used as props in the play.

"It starts in the court, which is all about backstabbing and the rat race. But when they go out to the country, even though they have to think about survival, everyone relaxes: they sing songs and write poetry."

"I want the audience to feel like we're creating this show together. I want them to be delighted and to have so much fun and so much love for life - and for each other."
These are only some of the ways that audiences can embrace the welcoming and engaging nature of this production, which exemplifies the idea expressed in the most famous line in the play: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Come be a part of this most magical stage and enjoy the best of Shakespearean comedy - as you like it! More details on how to "play your part" and get the most out of this engaging production below.
Dance on the Festival stage: Learn "Running the Goat," a traditional Newfoundland set dance, and be invited to perform it on stage during the show. School groups can book space in our Prologues (11 a.m. before most student matinées). Students will learn the dance and a select few will be invited to perform it during the show!

Calling all young poets: Aged 8 to 14? Orlando needs your help to woo Rosalind! In the play, he writes love poems to Rosalind and sticks them on trees in the forest. We'd like to use your poems to decorate our "forest"! Your poems must:

• Be hand-written on a piece of paper half the size of an 8½ by 11" sheet. You can also cut it out in any shape you like - be creative!
• Rhyme
• Use the word "Rosalind"
• Be anonymous (unsigned)





The Stratford Adventure

This 1954 Oscar-nominated film follows the founding of the Festival: how the idea grew, how a famous British director, international stars and Canadian talent were recruited, and how the Festival finally became a triumphant reality.