I have to laugh at the “critics” who feel it incumbent upon their academic greatness to have an opinion on one or another of the Shakespeare plays as to its “value.” One of the plays that has the critics confused in this way is As You Like It, about which Wikipedia pontificates: “Historically, critical response has varied, with some critics finding the play a work of great merit and some finding it to be of lesser quality than other Shakespearean works.” Because 400 years of Shakespeare scholarship has not sufficed to awaken these self-appointed experts to the fact that, however difficult to us today, it was Shakespeare who created the language that we speak, at home, in the marketplace, in the journals, the newspapers, here and all over the world, if not as first then as second language, such opinions are like claiming that Annapurna in Nepal, at a mere 27,000 feet, is not one of Nature’s “best mountains.”
Shakespeare was a phenomenon of nature just as much as Mt. Everest or Annapurna, and his plays should be regarded in the same light. There is no “better,” no “best,” only those that still speak to us today, and those that do not. And we will not understand the latter until we know WHO wrote them, WHY he wrote them, and where it fits into the story of his life and his nation during one of the most significant periods in its, and our, history, political as well as cultural.
In an effort to establish whether it was, as is thought, the play that entertained King James over the summer of 1603 as he and his entourage waited at Wilton, the Pembroke country estate, for the plague to die down in London, I delved into what is known about it, which isn’t much. It’s major “source” (the term the Stratified universities like for the early versions of his plays), was the very early Rosalynde, or Euphues Golden Legacy, published in 1590, but, based on its style, obviously written at about the same time as the more famous example of that elaborately self-conscious style, Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, published in 1578, a style that would vanish three years later when Oxford––banished from Court––began using a less fancy style for his Inns of Court audience.
For a work that advertises itself as something that’s been universally liked, this just isn’t enough. If we go by the title, he could not possibly have gone from the agonizing tropes of the Golden Legacy pamphlet to the witty play of 1623 without at least one and probably several versions of the play in between. Unfortunately the Revels Record, our only source for tracing these early plays, yields nothing. Too many seasons passed without any titles recorded, and what titles there are are usually no help at all. What are we to make of “as plain as can be” from 1568, or A History of Loyalty and Beauty from 1578-79. (One suspects that most of these titles were made up on the spot to satisfy a clerk.) While Oxford’s name is frequently listed as a patron of various companies, the only title from the 1580s that comes close to something we know as Shakespeare is “The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses by the Earl of Oxenford his boys on St. John’s day,” 1584, which, as Eva Clark points out, must be an early version of Troilus and Cressida.
Using our god-given gifts of perception and interpretation to fill in the great blanks that are all the history of the London Stage has left us, it seems clear that the original story as told in both Golden Legacy and As You Like It belongs in time with another play that has the experts buffaloed, namely Cymbeline. The themes are the same, a girl from a classy background escapes from cruelties at Court to wander in the woods, where, dressed like a boy, she runs into other escapees from the Court. That both plots are so similar urges that they were written at about the same time. (The the Stratified universities have attempted to account for these pastorals as Shakespeare having a late reversion to childhood is yet another of the many jokes they attempt to pass off as something worth believing.)
What makes the most sense is that both plays were inspired by Oxford’s lifelong friendship with Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton, for whom (I suggest) he had written Romeus and Juliet after meeting her at a party at her father’s City mansion shortly after arriving at Cecil House), and––many years later––A Midsummer Night’s Dreame for her 1594 marriage to Sir Thomas Heneage. The plots of both these plays fit neatly with what we know of Mary’s life at that time, when she was desperately seeking ways to escape from the nightmare of her marriage to the insane 2nd Earl of Southampton (Akrigg: Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton). The cruelties were different, but the results were the same. Thus the Forest of Arden, supposedly in France, were the wooded hills surrounding Mary’s family home at Cowdray, a palatial estate some 50 miles south of London, where she would inevitably have gone to escape her crazy husband.
In Act I Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio castigates Romeo for yearning for Rosaline before he meets and falls in love with Juliet, but by 1583 or so, when Oxford wrote the version of R&J as we know it, his Juliet would have been Ann Vavasor. Meanwhile his friendship with Mary Browne would continue until both died within a few months of each other, many years later. What it does suggest is that Mary, by 1603 the mother of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s Fair Youth), was most likely, one of the company of Court regulars who gathered on the lawn at Wilton to see the play she had inspired so long ago, in a new version written especially to welcome King James, as he waited for the plague to die down so he could finally get to London to be crowned.