For a play that is almost universally seen as “Rosalind”’s play (after all, the source of Shakespeare’s play is one called Rosalyne: Euphues Golden Legacie), As You Like It begins with Orlando and Adam, an “old servant” (Names of the Actors) to Orlando’s late father Sir Rowland de Boys. Orlando expresses his “sadness” (I.i.4) that despite being remembered by his father in his will, the executor of that will, his older brother Oliver, has been less than forthcoming with either the inheritance or the promise of education:
For some reason, his older brother is treating Orlando like less than a brother, and Orlando has “the spirit of (his) father … within (him), begin(ning) to mutiny” (I.i.20-21). He wants to do something, but he “know(s) no wise remedy” (I.i.24).
Before Adam can give any sage advice, Oliver enters and Orlando cannot help but snipe at this brother, subtly at first, then sarcastically, then finally and boldly stating his case:
Seems that while “the spirit of (their) father grows strong in”” Orlando (I.i.65-66), there’s not much of the kind old man in Oliver
And what does Orlando receive in return? A punch. When he attempts to defend himself by holding on to his brother (“seizes him” [I.i.52, stage direction following]), he is pronounced a “villain” (I.i.52). Orlando demands that he be given his inheritance so that he might leave and “go buy (his) fortunes” (I.i.69-70), then releases his brother. Orlando says that he will give Orlando “some part” (I.i.73) of the inheritance and then orders his younger brother to leave, and tells Adam to leave as well, calling him an “old dog” (I.i.77). Adam responds that the boys’ father “would not have spoke such a word” (I.i.80).
Orlando and Adam exit, and Oliver says to no one but us the audience that he will not give the thousand crowns to Orlando either.
Charles, the duke’s wrestler, enters to deliver a little bit of overall exposition (“the old duke is banished by his younger brother” [I.i.95-96]; the old duke’s daughter Rosalind has not been banished because the new duke’s daughter Celia is so close to Rosalind that she “would have followed [Rosalind into] exile” [I.i.104]; and the old duke and his followers [“many merry men” (I.i.110)] now live in the Forest of Arden). But more importantly, Charles tells Oliver that there is a wrestling match tomorrow before the duke, and Orlando has signed up to wrestle Charles. Charles is worried that he will end up breaking Orlando’s bones at the very least, so he wants Oliver to convince his younger brother not to wrestle. Oliver tells the wrestler that he should “break (Orlando’s) neck” (I.i.137-38) and kill him; otherwise, Oliver says, Orlando would find some “poison… (or) some treacherous device” (I.i.141) to kill Charles. Charles believes this and says that he’ll carry out the death by wrestling.
Charles leaves, and we get a short soliloquy from Oliver to end the first scene, and here we learn two things: Oliver “hates nothing more than” Orlando, and more disturbingly, Oliver “know(s) not why” (both I.i.154).
Act One, Scene Two starts with the entrance of Celia and Rosalind, and it seems Rosalind shares Orlando’s state of mind, as Celia implores her cousin to “be merry” (I.ii.1). When Rosalind bemoans her banished father, Celia says that had roles been reversed, she would have learned to love her uncle, plus Celia is her father’s only child and when he dies, Celia will restore Rosalind’s inheritance. Rosalind relents and sets out to “devise sports. Let me see, what think you of falling in love?” (I.ii.23-24).
Uh, what? That was a quick and awkward segue.
They continue their conversation, ranging from Fortune to Nature to “natural(s)” (I.i.47) or fools, when the Clown, Touchstone, enters. Fool-speaking-wisely wordplay follows, especially when a messenger from the Duke arrives, who tells them of the scary skill of Charles the wrestler.
And with that, the Duke Frederick, lords, Charles and Orlando, arrive for the wrestling match. The Duke calls the women over and tells them that “such odds” (I.ii.148) are against Orlando, that he asks them “move him” (I.ii.151) to pull out of the match.
Rosalind, meet Orlando. Orlando, meet Rosalind.
They can’t convince him not to wrestle, but they do cheer him on.
After which, Duke Frederick asks Orlando his name, and when Orlando responds not only with his name but his lineage, it all goes downhill. Although “the world esteemed” (I.ii.212) Orlando’s father, Frederick sees Sir Rowland as “still (his) enemy” (I.ii.213), even after death.
The duke leaves, and Orlando says that he would not change his father for anyone, not even to be Frederick’s heir. Rosalind tells Orlando that her “father loved Sir Rowland” (I.ii.222). The women pretty much fawn over the victorious wrestler, and Rosalind give him a chain to wear.
If Celia and Rosalind seems smitten, the feeling is mutual, so much so that he questions why he
Are all thrown down, and that which here stands up
Is but a quintain, a mere lifeless block.
He’s as dumb (mute) as a post. (of course, there’s a touch of bawdy there, too, which we may need to touch again later in the month) The ladies exit, and the messenger re-enters to tell Orlando that the duke is upset and that he should leave. But before Orlando does, he needs important information: he wants to know who the ladies were.
Orlando must go, and go he does to end the scene, but not without letting us know what’s on his mind: “heavenly Rosalind!” (I.ii.276).
The third and final scene of the opening act returns us to Celia and Rosalind, the former curious, the latter in a state. Celia asks if this is all about Rosalind’s father (as that was what was bothering her at the beginning of the previous scene). No, not her father, Rosalind says, but “(her) child’s father” (I.iii.11).
Whoa, there, honey. You just met the guy… you got a name for the baby yet?
Celia understands immediately and teases Rosalind with wrestling terms (“wrestle” [I.iii.21], “try” [I.iii.24], “fall” [I.iii.25]), and asks if Rosalind could “on such a sudden…fall into so strong a liking” (I.iii.26-27) with Orlando. It’s natural, Rosalind says, since “the duke (her) father loved his father dearly” (I.iii.29).
Is this Rosalind’s subtle way of saying: “back off, he’s mine!”?
In the midst of this fun love-talk, in comes Duke Frederick, and the fun ends quickly. He tells Rosalind that he is banishing her on pain of death. Her crime: being her father’s daughter (I’m supposing here that the whole Orlando/Sir Rowland thing has pushed the duke over the edge). Celia tries to intervene and convince her father to let Rosalind stay. This doesn’t work, even when Celia says that he’s banishing her, too.
After he leaves, Celia gives Rosalind a destination for their flight (after all, Celia’s going, too): “To seek (Celia’s) uncle in the Forest of Arden” (I.iii.105).
Celia plans to wear shabby clothes (“poor and mean attire” [I.iii.109]) to disguise herself, and since Rosalind is “more than common tall” (I.iii.113), she will dress as a boy. And her, ahem, his name shall be Ganymede–Jove’s cup-bearer, but the Elizabethans knew the name as a term referring to a boy servant who provided sexual favors to his older master–so that her name would reflect her effeminate look. Celia will be Aliena, “a reference to (her) state” (I.iii.125), and they decide to take with them Touchstone the Clown as “a comfort” in their travels (I.iii.129).
And the act ends with them going “in content // To liberty, and not to banishment” (135-36).