As You Like It and the “Magic Circle”

As You Like It and the “Magic Circle”


Something I feel we all take for granted in our modern media-saturated society, where we casually interact with media all the time without really thinking about what we’re doing, is just how instinctively we know how to do it. Fundamentally, the consumption of media is learned behavior; to sit still and absorb information, or to react in appropriate ways, is not a behavior we’re born with, and we all pick it up so quickly that society has learned to stop thinking of it as an acquired behavior. Instead, the sequences of interactions with displays of media we call “consumption” are largely thought of as an automatic, unchangeable behavior, like eating or breathing.

But this, of course, isn’t true; the appropriate way to consume media varies, widely and often. The concept we now take for granted, of sitting quietly and absorbing a theatrical work, was largely the work of one man, Richard Wagner, who wrote a new form of opera that deliberately sacrificed a form of audience interaction for greater complexity, and as such had to make the very hard sell to audiences of a new form of consumption that demanded greater restraint on the part of the audience. Even formats like the museum, an institution we perceive as culturally static, have significantly changed through the centuries. Originating from mere private collections that allowed visitors, the modern museum has evolved through a dizzying array of iterations and behaviors, from the luxury gallery, to the grand public salon, to the state funded exhibition hall, all the way to today’s focus on incorporating related media and emphasizing new kinds of scholarship through written and audiovisual materials. The patterns of consumption of the museum have changed extraordinarily in the past ten years alone, not to mention the past one hundred.

Such changes are often spurred by new technology. Take, for example, how the record, the magnetic tape, the cassette, the portable Walkman, the iPod, and streaming have all dramatically changed what experiences are connoted by the phrase “listen to music.” Or how the Internet itself has fundamentally changed how we relate to media and what it means to create derivative work. Or the past fifty years, in which an entirely new form of media, video games, made interaction with the work a key part of the work itself and opened up an entire new way of asking, talking, and thinking about what it meant to engage with media, what constituted a “text,” and to what degree social activities are enabled and to what degree they relate to the media that enables them.

But all of these forms of media are fundamentally just that: media. They all share the common attribute of being some constructed, artificial object, with which a designated audience engages. And it’s for this reason that video games, and game spaces more generally, have been such a useful tool for media discourse. They lay bare the fundamental nature of what we’re doing when we consume media, they make it easier for us to realize that what we’re doing is profoundly artificial, and they allow us to more easily examine what exactly it is we’re doing when we think we’re passively consuming media.

It’s this understanding of theater as a new kind of modern game space, that I think was at the forefront for Shakespeare’s audience, who were coming to the theater, not as we do, with centuries of practice and preconception, but as hesitant newcomers, who didn’t know exactly how to interact with the stage play or what it could offer. It’s in this context that I think As You Like It is so valuable; fundamentally, it’s an introduction to the concept of the consumer theater, of this new game space that we consciously create via works of “media” and to how we’re expected to act to gain value from it. By building a separate game space, the forest of Arden, within the game space of the play, we are not only told how to participate, but also sold on why participating is a good idea, something that makes the play incredibly valuable, not just as a historical artifact that helps us understand early attitudes toward the theater, but also as a sentimental work that reaffirms the value of these wonderful spaces for all of us.


Despite games having existed for virtually all of human history, long, long before consumer theater, there was virtually no formal analysis of games, nor of the spaces they create, in Western scholarship until the 1930s. Dutch historian Johann Huizinga was the first historian to analyze exactly what constitutes “playing,” and began to analyze different languages’ terms for “play,” which wildly varied in number, usage, and duration. One thing Huizinga did notice, however, was that the theatrical performance very frequently, in virtually all European languages, is referred to with the same term (“play” in English) that the language uses to refer to participation in a game.

Huizinga’s lasting contribution to this anthropological question of what defines play has been the concept of a “magic circle”: the idea that a game space is any artificially created environment where the rules of “real life” are suspended and an artificial set of rules is enforced instead. Of note, Huizinga says, is that play cannot be compelled; the play space cannot be defined as such if people are only participating for some benefit (or coercion) outside this circle. It exists as a separate sphere, one that must be entered willingly and left with only lessons and memories.1

The theater, in this case, especially the mass commercial theater, certainly fits this definition, more so even than other kinds of performance prior to Shakespeare’s time. While it’s arguable as to the degree earlier forms of Western performance, like virtue pageants and privately staged plays, were solely the domain of entertainment, the purpose-built theater in the round was quite literally a magic circle, a place people, actors and spectators alike, voluntarily chose to enter to play-act according to different rules than those outside. This was an entirely new idea in the early modern period, especially in Tudor England, and we see it show up due to rapidly changing material realities. For the first time, England suddenly had a large urban middle class with disposable income, which fueled an unprecedented rise in the gaming and entertainment industries. Mass-produced playing cards proliferated, board games were widely produced, printed literature and songbooks were widely circulated, and an entire new industry, that of commercial ticketed entertainment, sprang up in London.2 Suddenly available to the new middle class were bear baiting, cockfighting, public music, horse and dog racing, and, most scandalously, public viewing of other people playing games for the purposes of betting. It’s into this explosion of this new idea that you can parcel out, commodify, and sell access to the magic circle, that commercial theater emerged as a product. Your money could buy you access to the magic circle of bear baiting, but it could also buy you access to the magic circle of Shakespeare for around the same price in around the same place, and most Tudor audiences would have seen the two as equivalent in nature. Likewise, these experiences, of paying money to enter a game space, would have been seen as a radical and new concept, and Tudor audiences didn’t know exactly what would be expected of them in this new paradigm.


However, to simply cast stage plays as some new entertainment technology ignores a key part of why Shakespeare was so popular and continues to be so relevant. We now know, of course, that the “magic circle” is not neatly separated from “real life” as Huizinga imagined. Roger Caillois, a scholar of sacred spaces, proposed in the late 1950’s that Huizinga’s “magic circle” does exist, but that we consciously choose to create it as a safe environment in which we have agency to work out anxieties and problems we fear are insurmountable in the real world. Caillois theorized a scale by which play grows more and more structured as societies can command more and more resources. To take theater as an example, the ad-hoc groups of mummers performing in royal courts, often with interruptions by the patron, was systematized in Shakespeare’s time into mass commercial entertainment before an audience with set scripts, costumes, and times for audience interaction. Likewise, today, theater has been even more systematized, more rules added, and more patterns of consumption learned by the audience. But, Caillois says, play is still play, and, at its core, theater is still theater. Caillois isolates different core kinds of play that this increasing structure can often hide, games of competition (think wrestling or chess), games of chance, games of mimicry (think theater or role-playing) and games of physical sensation (think a concert or a roller-coaster).3

Caillois’ core insight is that you can often tell exactly what a society’s prevailing anxieties and nascent social conflicts are by looking at the game spaces they choose to build and inhabit. Societies that choose to overindulge in games of mimicry, like the theater, Caillois says, often are struggling with a sense of depersonalization and alienation, of feeling (or wanting to feel) held apart from their own actions or environment.4 Shakespeare’s England was a time of tremendous social change, of the weakening of the power of landed aristocracy in favor of more mobile and mercantile power, of a growth in banking, of an explosion of an urban middle class. It’s quite possible that the average Londoner in Shakespeare’s time felt worried about their place in the world and wanted to hold themselves apart from it, choosing instead to enter a magic circle where actors “by the strength of magic sleights, shall raise such artificial sprites” and provide a new identity for the theatergoer to inhabit and play-act.5

It’s in the context of this “magic circle” that I believe As You Like It can be fully appreciated. The play itself is not simply a magic circle for the audience to enter but also provides within itself another magic circle, the forest of Arden, that the characters enter. Almost like a tutorial, this play shows not only the value inherent in creating this kind of game space, but also instructs viewers on how to enter, how to exercise agency in this space, and ultimately how to take value away from it, as the title suggests, as they like it.


A lot of research into Shakespeare, and early modern theater more generally, as a modern “game space” has been by Professor Gina Bloom, presented in her 2018 book Gaming the Stage. In this book, Bloom observes plays from the period with the tools we now have at our disposal thanks to the proliferation of playable media such as video games. Bloom makes Huizinga’s linguistic observation, that the word “play” implies an inherent interactivity, and posits that theater, especially commercial theater, is the first truly interactive technology that combines rules for play with media that heightens immersion in the magic circle.6 Table games and sports, she argues, are all magic circle, no media, whereas visual art is media around which magic circles are drawn by people who are not the artist. Theater, she says, is the first technology that successfully marries the two.7

Bloom highlights the radical nature of theater as gamified entertainment by making the key observation that this was the first time in the history of Western theater that people made the experience transactional. You weren’t coming to the Globe to be a patron of the arts, you were paying money to be entertained. In fact, Bloom argues, this was more game-like than we perceive theater to be now, as the concept of going to see a specific play didn’t exist; you knew what the play was roughly going to be about from a short description outside the theater and were essentially gambling that the play was going to be good.8 It’s extremely easy for us to forget how radical the idea of paying for and gambling on discrete units of entertainment must have been for an audience completely new to the concept.

Likewise, theater operators and playwrights had to figure out a way to make this entertainment interactive on a mass scale. As Caillois points out, early stage plays, performed to private audiences, were often a dialogue between the patron and the actors, and this obviously didn’t scale to mass commercial entertainment.9 Thus, Bloom says, we see an incredible amount of innovation in the commodification of interaction, of making the spectator a player of the theater, rather than just another participant, with all the attendant rules that govern structured games.10 It’s in this innovation, of allowing interactivity while still upholding set rules of interaction, that Bloom sees the strongest case for theater as a game space: games do this all the time. Even cheaters, who transgress the rules, do so as a way of upholding the goals of the game, much as, when Richard III talks to the audience, breaking a rule of theater, he does it in the service of the aims of the theatrical experience.11

Finally, Bloom looks at the staging of other games within the game space of the theater, such as Ferdinand and Miranda’s chess game at the end of The Tempest.12 By bringing rules of a different magic circle, with which the audience is already familiar, into the magic circle of the theater, Shakespeare makes an incredible leap of using emotions and feelings evoked by that game space in the service of the broader play. Your average theatergoer would know the feeling of being in check, would know what it felt like to have limited options in a chess game, and so we see the “magic circle” of chess wholesale dropped in as a way to encourage the audience to know, by feeling, Bloom says, rather than exposition, how they should feel in the play’s game space, heightening immersion and giving the audience tangible agency in the theatrical space, all without breaking the form of the play.13 An extraordinary achievement. Under this paradigm, dramas and conflicts are simply games, like any other, of imperfect information, and this makes the theater, like any game space, a powerful place for the spectators to perform agency, to feel things not possible in the “real world” outside.14,15

As an aside, it’s a shame that Bloom wrote this book before the advent and cultural prominence of widespread game streaming, which turns video games, traditionally a competitive and participatory activity, into one of open theatrics and role-playing. I’m sure she’d be interested in the implications of streaming on the game space of not just video games, but theater as well.


As You Like It, then, is a work of profound optimism and honesty. It places us in a world of characters, who, like us, are beset with real-world problems that seem insurmountable. And where do they go to reclaim agency but a magic circle within their world, and invite us, the agents in their world, along to participate with them in their own magic circle so that we can see how it’s done.

Probably the best example of this idea in the play is when Jaques leans heavily on the fourth wall to explain to us that we are in a magic circle, reducing the actions in his world to artificiality and reminding us all of the constructed nature of the space, and, potentially, the world beyond the circle itself.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.16

I don’t think it’s an accident that this is the quotation that’s been immortalized on the ceiling of the Globe, the original Shakespearian magic circle, but the irony is that Jaques doesn’t realize what his own statement truly implies. Ever a cynic, he insists that this means that life is meaningless, that the artificiality of it precludes us from any genuine enjoyment. It’s a lazy argument, certainly a hypocritical one from someone who has chosen to exercise agency in the game space of the Arden forest, and a fault that’s touched upon by the duke when Jaques insists that his cynicism and pessimism is somehow deep and witty:

Most mischievous foul sin, in chiding sin:
For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself;
And all the embossed sores and headed evils,
That thou with licence of free foot hast caught,
Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world.17

Jaques is something of a foil through the play; he realizes that there are very real problems with the world (the anxieties Caillois posits we build game spaces from which to escape) but chooses instead to not see the potential of the magic circle he’s entered, nor does he see the reason for its existence when he bitterly refuses to leave it at the end of the play.18  In light of all that’s happened in the play, the audience can clearly see the folly here; Jaques is an example of what not to do, even if you’re entering the circle for the right reasons.


A primary purpose of the magic circle is to impart agency, and we see characters flex their agency throughout the play. A notable example is Rosalind’s intercession on the part of Silvius, who is involved in an extremely unhealthy relationship with Phoebe, a woman who not only doesn’t like him but whom he just can’t quit, much to her annoyance. Phoebe, by contrast, knows he’s emotionally vulnerable and uses the opportunity to taunt and abuse him when he won’t go away and leave her alone. Rosalind solves the problem by forcefully dragging them both into Arden’s magic circle and using her role as Ganymede to force Phoebe to confront what she’s doing:

Who might be your mother,
That you insult, exult, and all at once,
Over the wretched? What though you have no beauty,—
As, by my faith, I see no more in you
Than without candle may go dark to bed—
Must you be therefore proud and pitiless?
Why, what means this? Why do you look on me?
I see no more in you than in the ordinary
Of nature’s sale-work. ’Od’s my little life,
I think she means to tangle my eyes too!
You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her,
Like foggy south puffing with wind and rain?
You are a thousand times a properer man
Than she a woman: ’tis such fools as you
That makes the world full of ill-favour’d children[.]19

Ironically, this happens right after Phoebe has played the role of spoilsport and dumped all over another magic circle, the idea of true love:

Now show the wound mine eye hath made in thee:
Scratch thee but with a pin, and there remains
Some scar of it; lean but upon a rush,
The cicatrice and capable impressure
Thy palm some moment keeps; but now mine eyes,
Which I have darted at thee, hurt thee not,
Nor, I am sure, there is no force in eyes
That can do hurt.20

Of course, Phoebe isn’t stupid, and so, even after realizing that she was too cruel to Silvius, understands the newfound agency she has in the game space of Arden, immediately resolving to use it herself, to go after “Ganymede”:

For what had he to do to chide at me?
He said mine eyes were black and my hair black:
And, now I am remember’d, scorn’d at me:
I marvel why I answer’d not again:
But that’s all one; omittance is no quittance.
I’ll write to him a very taunting letter,
And thou shalt bear it: wilt thou, Silvius?21

But, of course, if this is a game, Phoebe gets seriously outplayed by Rosalind, who uses hidden information (her identity) much as we would use hidden information in a game of cards, and plays to manipulate Phoebe (and others) into doing what she wants:22,23

To-morrow meet me all together.

I will marry you, if ever I marry woman, and I’ll be
married to-morrow:

I will satisfy you, if ever I satisfied man, and you
shall be married to-morrow:

I will content you, if what pleases you contents
you, and you shall be married to-morrow.

As you love Rosalind, meet:

as you love Phoebe, meet:

and as I love no woman,
I’ll meet. So fare you well: I have left you commands. 24

And, of course, Rosalind’s ideal outcome resolves everyone’s problems. Ultimately, the stories of the play all speak to the same message: Problems that are seemingly insurmountable can be solved by constructing a space in which they can be worked out with agency separate from the “real world” of the play outside the Arden forest in which those problems exist.


The play also gets fairly meta when it comes to Rosalind’s disguised relationship with Orlando. Unable to transgress the separation of Arden’s magic circle from the outside world by revealing her true identity, she constructs yet another game space for them both to inhabit in which she will role-play as herself so that things can be said that would otherwise be impossible to say. She even sells this exercise as a way helping Orlando work through his issues.

Yes, one, and in this manner. He was to imagine me
his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to
woo me.
And thus I cured him; and this way will I take upon
me to wash your liver as clean as a sound sheep’s
heart, that there shall not be one spot of love in’t.25

So we have a magic circle in which the audience exists (the play itself) in which a bunch of characters gain agency to form another magic circle (Arden), which gives them agency to form yet another one (Rosalind’s fake love game). We’re three levels deep at this point, and yet, the action remains perfectly understandable and we can easily mentally map out the scope of each circle, who is involved, and what they’re using these circles to do. An extraordinary achievement on the part of Shakespeare’s writing, but also a testament to the power of the theatrical or game space, and one I think would have impressed a Shakespearean audience, which is why we see these little mini-plays used elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works. The instances of mise en abyme, as literary scholars might term them, aren’t always explicitly spelled out as they are here, or in plays like Hamlet, probably because the audience would be more familiar with the “nested-game” mechanic in a more serious play, but the exact same technique is used when Falstaff plays the part of the King in Henry IV, Part 1 and when Richard plays the role of the “Christian prince” in Richard III, much to the same effect as the games in As You Like It .


Of course, a magic circle is nothing without a separation from the “real world” that allows for this kind of agency and freedom, and we see that rigidly enforced at the end of the play.26 With everyone’s problems solved, the game is over, and the Duke, the temporal authority outside Arden’s game space informs us that there must be a hard separation as the characters return back to their real lives after everyone celebrates one last time.

Thou offer’st fairly to thy brothers’ wedding:
To one his lands withheld, and to the other
A land itself at large, a potent dukedom.
First, in this forest, let us do those ends
That here were well begun and well begot:
And after, every of this happy number
That have endured shrewd days and nights with us
Shall share the good of our returned fortune,
According to the measure of their states.
Meantime, forget this new-fall’n dignity
And fall into our rustic revelry.27

But that isn’t to say that lessons haven’t been learned and value taken. Problems have been solved, the participants now understand each other and have entered real-world relationships, and the world itself is made better by having spaces like the forest of Arden in it, even if our characters are no longer in it, a powerful statement as to the power of these spaces and this new theatrical institution.


Right after this scene, where the magic circle of the forest of Arden is formally exited, comes the epilogue, in which our own magic circle is ended until next time and we have to go home, too. The job of closing out the circle falls to the “game-master” of the play, Rosalind, who opens by reminding us that we’re about to return to the real world, with all its attendant social norms (ladies don’t give solo speeches; good plays don’t have an actor come out and beg for applause), but reminds us that, for now, we’re still in the game space and can keep the norms of the magic circle for just a bit longer:

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
no bush, ’tis true that a good play needs no
epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good

Rosalind calls attention to the artificiality of the magic circle, reminding us that she is played by a man, but immediately follows up with a reminder of the artificial norms of the place we just left, saying that, as Rosalind, she would gladly kiss the audience, before formally closing the circle with a goodbye:

If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good
beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my
kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell!29

Ultimately, this epilogue is twofold. In addition to simply closing out the circle and gently putting us back in the real world, Rosalind also reminds us of the power of the institution we’ve just left, making a powerful case for the viability and use of not just the magic circle within the play, and not just the magic circle of the play, but ultimately of the broader magic circle of the institution of commercial theater itself. A satisfying sell for an audience that was new to the idea of this kind of entertainment media.


Ultimately, As You Like It is a play about relationships. But it goes beyond that. It’s a play about transcending the real world, of constructing a reality that exists apart from our own and granting agency and meaning to the actions of those within it. It celebrates the vital function of these spaces and makes them welcoming and understandable to even a newcomer. It gently introduces us to how these spaces are constructed, spells out how people’s identities can change within such spaces and nests multiple constructed spaces within each other to show the profound effect they have on the world outside them.

In our time, as these mediated spaces continue to proliferate, be created, managed, and commodified, the lessons we learn from As You Like It, as well as its earnest insistence that “magic circles” can be and are often a force for good, is the kind of optimism that helps us through our darkest times. In our modern times, especially now, we grapple with circumstances that feel overwhelming and scary; As You Like It reminds us that game spaces are here to help us become more like the people we want to be, that the forest of Arden is always there for us in some form to offer us peace and agency, and that there’s always room for a little love and a lot of hope. And that’s a message that I think is always welcome and relevant.


  1. Huizinga, chapter 1 in Homo Ludens.
  2. Gina Bloom, chapter 1 in Gaming the Stage: Playable Media and the Rise of English Commercial Theater (University of Michigan Press, 2018).
  3. Roger Caillois, chapter 2 in Man, Play, and Games, translated from the French by Mayer Barash (Free Press, 1961).
  4. Caillois, chapter 2 inof Man, Play, and Games.
  5. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 3, scene 5, 26-27.
  6. Bloom, chapter 1 in Gaming the Stage.
  7. Bloom, chapter 1 of Gaming the Stage.
  8. Bloom, chapter 1 in Gaming the Stage.
  9. Caillois, chapter 7 in Man, Play, and Games.
  10. Bloom, chapter 1 in Gaming the Stage.
  11. Huizinga, chapter 1 in Homo Ludens.
  12. Bloom, chapter 4 in Gaming the Stage.
  13. Bloom, chapter 1 in Gaming the Stage.
  14. Bloom. Chapter 1 in Gaming the Stage.
  15. Caillois, chapter 2 in Man, Play, and Games.
  16. William Shakespeare, As You Like It, act 2, Scene 8, 142-146.
  17. Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.8.65-70.
  18. Caillois, chapter 4 in Man, Play, and Games.
  19. Shakespeare, As You Like It, 3.5.37-46; 51-55.
  20. Shakespeare, As You Like It,  3.5.20-27.
  21. Shakespeare, As You Like It, 140-146.
  22. Huizinga, chapter 6 in Homo Ludens.
  23. Bloom, chapter 2 in Gaming the Stage.
  24. Shakspeare, As You Like It, 5.2.108-115.
  25. Shakespeare, As You Like It, 3.2.383-385; 397-399.
  26. Huizinga, chapter 1 in Homo Ludens.
  27. Shakespeare, As Yout Like It, 5.4.163-173.
  28. Shakespeare, As You Like It, Epilogue, 196-202.
  29. Shakespeare, As You Like It, Epilogue, 212-217.
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