Shakespeare's As You Like It - A Pre-oedipal Reading

Shakespeare's As You Like It - A Pre-oedipal Reading

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A Pre-oedipal Reading of As You Like It


In these lines we see how Orlando saves his brother from a snake and a lioness. This is basically what leads to their reconciliation. On the surface this seems fairly simple, but by using a pre-oedipal reading on this passage I'll make it a bit more complex. I will try to show that this passage depicts Oliver's liberation from his mother. I will also point out how Oliver is unable to achieve this liberation himself, and how he needs to be helped by his brother Orlando.

            Already in line 106 we get a glimpse of Oliver's problem: "A wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair," He is unknown and unrecognisable, even to his own brother. You can see that he is an adult person by his hair (beard), but he has not got an identity as a man. Oliver suffers from the same problem as Orlando had before he met Duke Senior, in the respect that he does not have a father-figure to identify with. Rowland de Boys, who was his biological father, is dead. His only substitute, Duke Frederick, has threatened to take his estates from him, and thereby denying him his identity.

            A snake is crawling towards Oliver's mouth. If we take a closer look at this snake in a pre-oedipal context it is fairly obvious that it is a phallic symbol. As I said it is moving towards Oliver's mouth. If we regard the snake as a symbol of a penis, the vagina is represented by Oliver's mouth. On that basis, we can claim that Oliver is about to be "penetrated" and violated. We also witness a reversal of gender roles as we notice that the snake is female. This might represent Oliver's (or indeed, men's) fears of being effeminated.

            What's more, Oliver is sleeping. In other words he is not fully aware of the situation he is in. He is also defenceless. He therefore needs someone to enlighten him and to save him. This is where Orlando comes in. He is now a representative of the "liberated" man, having found his "father" in Duke Senior, and having proved his manhood by being valiant and gentle. The mere sight of him makes the snake "impotent", and it escapes. Orlando has now saved his brother from the threat of becoming effeminate.

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But one threat remains; Oliver must differentiate himself from "the engulfing mother" in order to find a new father-figure. Here, "the engulfing mother" is represented by the very physical threat of "A lioness, with udders all drawn dry," (IV.iii.114) The fact that her udders are dry seems to point out that she is no longer of any use to her child (Oliver). It's time for him to leave her, but she will not let him go; "Lay couching on the ground, with catlike watch/When that the sleeping man should stir" (IV.iii.115-116). Into this we can read that she'll leave him alone as long as he stays with her, but if he tries to get away from her, she'll kill him.

            Once again, he has to be helped by Orlando. Orlando, who has at least partially found his identity, saves Oliver from the engulfing mother. At the same time he establishes a new identity for Oliver. Oliver gets recognised as Orlando's brother, and receives acceptance as a man.

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