This painting shows three scenes from Shakespeare’s play, ‘As You Like It’. The scenes are set in the Forest of Arden, where the court has fled after being exiled by the Duke’s brother. On the left the fool Touchstone woos the dull-witted Audrey. In the centre Orlando comforts his aged servant Adam whilst Amiens sings to the Duke and his courtiers. On the right the Duke’s daughter Rosalind, disguised as a boy, discovers her name carved on a tree by Orlando.
Works based on Shakespeare’s play were popular with middle-class art audiences and buyers during the Victorian period. Scenes from ‘As You Like It’ were particularly interesting to artists due to the subversive reputation of the play, with its central themes of cross-dressing, entangled relationships and same-sex desire. In ‘As You Like It’ the intelligent and beautiful Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede and sets up home with her kind-hearted cousin, Celia. They pool their funds to purchase a cottage, a flock and pasture and become financially self-sufficient. Rosalind’s disguise as Ganymede inspired love and lust in both male and female characters throughout the Forest of Arden. Celia, Orlando and Phoebe are infatuated by both Rosalind and her male persona, Ganymede. When Rosalind adopts the male dress her whole personality seems to transform and become more masculine, decisive and dominant. This provokes questions about the fluid nature of both gender and sexual desire.
Hughes was part of the Pre-Raphaelite circle in the 1850s. He painted pictures of lovers, notable for their glowing colour and their detailed landscape backgrounds with tangles of ferns, ivy and foliage. In the 1860s and ‘70s he turned to romantic medieval subjects, often with musical associations.