Cynthia Marshall discusses the wrestling scene of As You Like It as it plays into the school of thought that the play is not one of simple light-hearted comedy. As lenses such as feminism and the questioning of social statuses are introduced into scholarly dialogue, the heavier themes of Shakespeare are being extrapolated (Marshall 265). The themes of fratricide and the anxiety of fissures within families, social implications of lineage and gender stability can be explored through interpretations of the wrestling match. The wrestling match also brings to light the idea of the lines between reality and performance blurring in a way that brings the anxieties of the play closer to the audience.
Charles the wrestler comes to ask Oliver to dissuade Orlando from wrestling, as Charles is fighting for his honor and will have to hurt or kill Orlando. Oliver, instead of sympathizing for his younger brother, tells Charles to do as he must and does not ask for any mercy on behalf of his brother. It is through this first conversation about wrestling that Oliver’s hatred for Orlando is explicitly stated. The fact that Orlando, a gentleman’s son, is even participating in this brutal entertainment is a statement of where he stands socially as he does not have the luxury of an education or gentle work. So in setting up the wrestling match, the audience is introduced to Oliver’s desire for fratricide (even if it is done by the hand of Charles) and Orlando’s desire to make a name for himself where the limited social allowances he has due to his place in his family’s lineage have left him at a disadvantage.
The wrestling scene itself can be seen as performed violence in which a focus on the interplay between performance or violence allows for another lens to view the play. Wrestling is in a position between being a sport with rules and a spectacle of uncontrolled violence (Marshall 267). Within the play the wrestling match is referred to as a performance, yet the audience knows that the lives of the characters are in danger and they can really get hurt or else Charles would not have spoken to Oliver. There is an instability in how the wrestling match should be regarded. It is not just entertainment, but it is not purely visceral. Marshall writes that this is purposeful of Shakespeare as such an instability can be seen as a reflection of how gender and social status is very unstable throughout the play (Marshall 266)
The instability of this scene can be further exaggerated by breaking through the fourth wall. This can be played upon by the actors in how interactive they make the scene. At a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon the audience is riled up and encouraged to stand for the entrance of the duke as if they are in attendance of the actual wrestling match. The wrestling match is a rare scene in which the inclusion of the audience is possible, giving it a unique role in the play and further highlighting its importance.
Orlando coming out victorious against a seasoned champion like Charles allows for the rest of the story to unfold in a very different way than if he had been critically injured or killed during the match. This also speaks to the importance of the scene. The inclusion of the wrestling match can be translated as Shakespeare’s desire for an outlet that introduces the idea of instability and deeper conflict in a way that brings these anxieties of the play to the audience’s attention.
Marshall, Cynthia. “Wrestling as Play and Game in As You like It.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33.2 (1993): 265-285.
Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989 (Part II).”Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 491.