The virtue in “If”

Nothing makes for a motivational quote quite like a good conditional.

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

“If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” -Marilyn Monroe (?)

“If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance.”  -Bernard Shaw

According to OpenSource Shakespeare, the word “if” appears 93 times in As You Like It. Rosalind uses the word 27 of those times, and Touchstone does 16 times. Together, these two characters account for nearly half of the word’s appearances in the play. They are also the ones that demonstrate the full power of conditional statements.

Much of Rosalind’s playful and loaded use of conditionals occurs in the Forest of Arden. This is fitting because, as Frances Dolan describes in his analysis of As You Like it, the Forest is “a magical place in which one can imagine alternatives, play roles, explore possibilities” (Pelican). As the title of the play suggests, some of the characters, particularly Rosalind, live in a reality within the forest that is quite separate from their lives at court. To be flip, they are living life “as they like it.”

Rosalind uses the conditional “If” to suspend her hypothetical life as Ganymede. She uses them to protect her identity and future while preserving her integrity in Act V, Scene 2 when she defends herself against the advances of Phoebe and ensures her own marriage to Orlando, her love. Rosalind’s clever riddling that “if” she marries a woman, she’ll marry Phoebe, and that if Orlando accepts her then they will marry allow her to orchestrate her future life as a woman while keeping the power she has gained by posing as a man.

Touchstone, however, is the character that brings the true power of “If” to the forefront. In Act V, Scene 4, he has a political discussion with Jacques. Although he is satirizing the methodical, political process that gentlemen use to quarrel, he makes some resounding points. He describes an instance in which quarreling parties, who could not resolve their dispute, simply brush the matter under the rug by saying “If you said so, then I said so.” This remark, made in front of Duke Senior, is rather dangerous. It could be interpreted as hinting at the corrupt nature of politics by suggesting that politicians resolve quarrels by using an “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality. Or, perhaps more pertinently to the recent events of the play, he could be suggesting that Duke Senior could have resolved his conflict with Duke Ferdinand, but was not witty enough to find a way to do it. By proposing the solution – “If is the only peacemaker” – it could be that Touchstone is flaunting his intelligence in a way that makes Duke Senior, the patriarch of Arden, look foolish. However, ironically, it is Touchstone’s guise as fool that allows him to make these rather inflammatory remarks without fear of reprimand.



The Complete Pelican Shakespeare:  Shakespeare, William, and A. R. Braunmuller. The Complete Works. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print. The Merchant of Venice. (p. 285-323).