As You Like It


William Shakespeare

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As You Like It: Paradox 2 key examples

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Definition of Paradox
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar Wilde's famous declaration that "Life is... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel... read full definition
Act 2, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Holy Traitors:

In Act 2, Scene 3, Adam paradoxically laments Orlando’s goodness:

Why are you virtuous? Why do people love you?
And wherefore are you gentle, strong, and valiant?
Why would you be so fond to overcome
The bonny prizer of the humorous duke?
Your praise is come too swiftly home before you.
Know you not, master, to some kind of men
Their graces serve them but as enemies?
No more do yours. Your virtues, gentle master,
Are sanctified and holy traitors to you.
O, what a world is this when what is comely
Envenoms him that bears it!                      

Adam opens with a rhetorical question—why are you so likable, Orlando? Adam doesn’t actually want Orlando to be less “virtuous,” “gentle,” “strong,” or “valiant.” On the contrary, he is frustrated because Orlando’s natural goodness, talent, and charisma spur his more powerful brother to jealousy. “Your praise,” Adam says, “is come too swiftly home before you,” in reference to Orlando’s public defeat of the wrestler Charles (his would-be assassin). Oliver is sure to receive news of his brother’s victory, and be driven once again to rage. 

Adam is older than Orlando and takes the opportunity to offer a worldly insight that seems paradoxical at first. He asks Orlando whether he knows that for some men, “their graces serve them but as enemies?”  Orlando’s virtues, though “holy” and “sanctified,” are also “traitors.” Adam mourns a world in which good qualities like Orlando’s  poison (“envenom”) the man who holds them. 

How can it be that Orlando’s strength and bravery ultimately betray him? Adam is suggesting that Orlando’s good qualities irritate the insecurities of more powerful men, and so ensure his ruin. This is not just Orlando’s lot, but, in Adam’s estimation, the case throughout the court (“what a world is this”). The striking paradox of Orlando’s  “venomous” goodness reveals how totally jealousy has reversed and perverted the priorities of Oliver’s relationship with him. Oliver’s insecurity has turned his innocent brother into a villain and a threat. This delusion, Adam notes, is intimately linked with the atmosphere of corruption and intrigue in the French court.

Act 3, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—A Shepherd's Life:

Touchstone mocks Corin in Act 3, Scene 2, describing the shepherd’s life in a series of paradoxes:

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humor well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach. 

When Corin asks whether Touchstone likes a shepherd’s life, the fool replies that it is a good life in itself, except that it is a shepherd’s life. He goes on to say that it is good in that it is solitary, but “vile” in that it is private; it is good in that it is outdoors, but bad in that it is not in court. It suits Touchstone’s nature because it is simple, but it clashes with his taste in that it lacks plenty.

Touchstone’s monologue is in keeping with his joking, playful nature as he seeks to confuse the simple Corin with his wit. Though Touchstone’s statements are meant to contradict one another, they actually do reveal his opinion of pastoral life. Country life is too isolated (not only “solitary,” but “private”), and too far from the social center of things (“the court” and its “plenty”) to please him. The playful passage reflects a great deal of reflection on Touchstone’s part about the nuances of country vs. city life.

In contrast, Corin’s reflections on life, which follow, are dull and dumb in their straightforwardness. Corin reflects that “the more one sickens,” the worse one feels; that the “property of rain” is that it is wet; and that the “cause” of night is the “lack of sun.” In this scene, the self-proclaimed fool reveals more nuance in his view of the world than the straight-talking shepherd, playing on the tension between fools and foolishness throughout As You Like It. 

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