The forest of Arden is the setting where the majority of As You Like It takes place. As inhabitants of the court enter the forest they experience people and an environment very different from what they are accustomed to and each perceive this experience differently. The environment is consistent so how each character views the forest as an alternative to life in the court reveals insights into the nature of the characters. The forest of Arden can invoke paradisiacal sentiments for some but feelings of meagerness for others but most find the forest a simple place of escape from the city.
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Only from a pastoral perspective can one truly see the full effects of nature on characters just as only from a fortune-or courtly perspective-can we see how characters are limited and confined from full enjoyment of pastoral life. The extent to which characters can adapt to the forest of Arden and accept such a life not only reveals insights into the true nature of characters but it also attempts to answer whether or not people are better suited to live in the country or the court.
The audience’s first impression of the forest of Arden is from Charles, the undefeated wrestler whom Orlando is about to defeat. Charles informs Oliver, in regard to the usurped Duke Senior, that “they say many young gentlemen flock to him everyday, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world” (Shakespeare 7). The inhabitants of the court see the forest of Arden as an Eden-like place, a reference that is continued in regard to some of the forest’s inhabitants. Such optimism of the forest is true for Celia and Rosalind as well for in their banishment Celia remarks that “now go in we content to liberty, and not to banishment” (24).
Upon entering the forest both Rosalind and Celia complain to great lengths but eventually both warm to the country experience. With Celia’s remark that “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” (35), it is clear that the forest is a viable option and can be favored over the court. Yet others find the opposite, making the forest of Arden a place of “easy ambivalence about the place which characters find themselves and easy ambivalence among the characters” (Westlund 74). Since both Rosalind and Celia are dressed as shepherd and shepherdess respectively, they free themselves from any physical ties with their past courtly lives and are free to enjoying the ambivalent atmosphere of the country.
Orlando’s experience is rather different from that of Rosalind and Celia. He has been repressed and treated in contempt by his older brother, Oliver, who we find out is going to kill him. Oliver refers to his younger brother as “gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble devices, of all sorts enchantingly beloved” (Shakespeare 8). Orlando appears to be well suited for country life and to have been rather unsuited for courtly life. The division that separates Orlando and Oliver is one of love and hate, a gap that closes upon their mutual experiences in the forest of Arden. Orlando leaves the court with Adam, an old servant of his father, who gives Orlando his money for retirement and offers his assistance, stating “my age is as a lusty winter, frosty but kindly” (30). Adam appears unsuited to courtly life as well for he values his friend, Orlando, so highly that he is willing to give his complete servitude and his savings. He is uncorrupt and trustworthy, perhaps naive as well, and this is noted in Orlando’s remark that “thou art not for the fashion of these times” (31). These two set out in exile from the court in anticipation of a more simple life, perhaps one more suited to their natures.
Duke Senior, banished in the forest of Arden at the start of the play, has the most idealized and paradisiacal perception of the country life. He reflects this perspective during his first speech where he states:
Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we not the penalty of Adam… and our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything (25).
Criticism of the Duke’s speech ranges from him “invoking the pastoral vision and the idea of a new society in extraordinary specific terms” (McFarland 101) to the Duke providing a “norm of wisdom” (Peterson 28) upon which all other characters wisdom can be measured. Duke Senior does set an example, however he is by no means free from “the penalty of Adam.” Such an overstatement is not justified but it does exemplify the fact that the forest of Arden is a place where people can get what they want out of it. The forest is “a place halfway between reality and paradise” (McFarland 102) and a place of “testing and education” (Leggatt 190) and has no single purpose universal to all.
For some of the characters in Arden it turns out to be a place where one can escape reality and try to reach paradise. This is especially true for Orlando and Adam who are escaping their own deaths in the city and entering the country with dreams of a simpler life. Orlando may have entered the forest thinking “that all things had been savage here” (Shakespeare 42) but is promptly converted by Duke Senior into understanding that “gentleness shall force more than your force move us to gentleness” (42). Orlando lets the audience and Duke Senior know that he has internalized his new environment for his analogy that, “like a doe, I go to find my fawn and give it food” (43), reflects his newly found pastoral surroundings.
Despite his subservient role to Rosalind, Orlando has several Christ-like qualities and roles. He provides for the aged Adam and mercifully saves his brother, who openly stated his hate towards him, by battling and slaying a lioness. A snake that threatened the life of Oliver “unlinked itself and with indented glides did slip away” (85) at the sight of Orlando as if the serpent knew of the vice of Oliver and the virtue of Orlando. Orlando’s virtuous character of “kindness, nobler ever than revenge, and nature, stronger than his just occasion” (86) converts the vengeful Oliver into a simple, pastoral character. The lion and serpent are also thematic tools, representing “venom and fury, they symbolically accept the burden of the venom and fury generated by the Cain and Abel contest of Oliver and Orlando” (McFarland 103). This Biblical analogy allows for the tension and violence to be suppressed into one incident and allows the play to continue to pursue it’s primary pastoral themes.
Oliver is an extreme example of the power of the forest of Arden to convert court-associated values such as greed, envy and hypocrisy into the country-associated values of honesty and simplicity. Oliver, the man who states that “my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than [Orlando]” (Shakespeare 8), becomes completely reformed from his evil ways upon his entrance into the forest of Arden. It seems that the enlightenment of Duke Senior that was passed on to Orlando is now passed on to Oliver, a chain reaction of acceptance of virtue over vice that the pastoral setting encourages. However Oliver was the most devious and wicked in the court and suddenly repents all his treachery and vows to live virtuously and modestly in the forest. Hence Oliver bestows Orlando with, “my father’s house, and all the revenue that was old Sir Rowland’s, will I estate upon you, and here I live and die a shepherd” (91), forfeiting all he once worshipped. This example illustrates both the subjective perspective of Oliver and the strength of the pastoral experience in the forest of Arden.
There are two characters whom react very differently than the others to their experiences in the forest: the melancholic attendant to Duke Senior, Jacques, and the humorous clown, Touchstone. The audience’s first impression of Jacques is through the First Lord when he recalled a past hunt and Jacques had called the hunting party “fat and greasy citizens, tis just the fashion.” The First Lord concludes “thus most invectively he pierceth through the body of the country, city, court, yea, and of this our life, swearing that we are mere usurpers, tyrants…” (27). Critics compare Jacques to Hamlet in that “he calls into question all aspects of life that fall below an exalted ideal of human conduct” (McFarland 104). Jacques is not a pastoral character and is an excellent foil of character’s authenticity, as Duke Senior is for his wisdom and pastoral perspective. Jacques criticizes everyone in the play, and it appears true that he has a “misguided conviction that man’s life is altogether evil and detestable” (Phialas 232).
Although Jacques critiques man in all environments he appears most content in the country because here he can at least compare man to nature and appreciate the beauty of nature. This is true when he is left sobbing over a fallen deer or willingly staying alone in the forest of Arden to dwell in a cave. Jacques is intelligent; although it is easy to appear smart when constantly criticizing everyone else, he is consistent and argues a fair case. Duke Senior, a man who appears rather contrary to Jacques, is intrigued by his philosophy and admits “I love to cope him in these sullen fits’ for then he’s full of matter” (Shakespeare 27).
Jacques intelligence may be in fact the cause of his melancholic disposition, as noticed by Rosalind who states “I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad” (74). Jacques seams to be searching for a place in nature similar to that of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that solitary man enjoyed original happiness because he was free from the sins of society, such as jealousy and envy, and could peacefully co-exist with nature. Thus from being an attendant to Duke Senior in Court to being immersed in nature with courtly men, Jacques finally leaves to be free from vice of his main antagonist-man.
Touchstone and his relationships with people in the forest of Arden reveals several insights into country life. Touchstone is the main source of comedy in the play and one major vehicle for his comedy is to play on the various perspectives of others in regard to country life. “Instead of representing or expressing a forthright point of view, [Touchstone] is intended to expose and mock, in straightforward statements or by means of irony, the attitudes of other people” (Phialas 227). His role is similar to Jacques in that they both rely on others to express themselves and yet they hold opposite attitudes towards the court versus country debate. Touchstone is a courtly character and expresses this upon his entrance to the forest of Arden that “when I was at home, I was in a better place, but travelers must be content” (Shakespeare 32).
Touchstone’s time with Corin begins his play on perspectives, partly in the fact that Corin is a born and raised shepherd and enjoys a simple life in nature. Touchstone’s speech to Corin that begins “truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught…” (47) reveals that his own perspective is malleable and will change with regard to his company. Touchstone is not ‘experienced’ as Jacques is in a philosophical sense; rather experienced in human relations upon which he draws his comedy. Touchstone condemns Corin for he has never been in the court, and Corin responds in the simplistic statement that “those that are good manners at court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at the court” (48).
In this respect the simple shepherd has detected Touchstone’s courtly wit and, although not openly, Touchstone is willing to give country life a chance. He eventually departs with Corin “not with bag and baggage, yet with scrip and scrippage” (52). However Touchstone’s “comments on the conflict between pastoral life and life at court cannot be taken in a strict biographical and psychological consistent sense” and he “refuses to idealize life in Arden or the ways of pastoral wooing” (Phialas 228-30). Touchstone’s role in As You Like It is cynical towards wooing lovers, optimistic Dukes, and simple shepherds alike for he completely opposes pastoral values.
Although Touchstone attempts to enjoy the country life, he cannot let go of courtly conventions, mainly his reliance on his wit. Touchstone’s wit is acknowledged by courtly characters such as Rosalind and Celia, but is usually lost on the shepherds such as Corin, Silvius and William. This enables him to maintain a tone of dominance over the country dwellers that result in his ability to control conversation and, in effect, their actions. Touchstone’s ability to manipulate people in the country with his rhetoric results in his marriage to Audrey, for she sees his wit as wisdom. Touchstone easily breaks the bond between Audrey and William by unleashing his rhetoric to make William see Touchstone as a wise man who threatens “to wit, I kill thee, make thee away” (Shakespeare 90). Touchstone’s wit enables him to be completely ignorant of country values and limits him from any enjoyment of the pastoral life except in its exploitation.
The reliance on or lack of reliance on time is another way one can view a character’s life in nature. For some, like Celia, who “willingly could waste my time in [the forest of Arden]” (35), Jacques, who mocks the clock as an instrument that lets one know that “from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot” (39), and Duke Senior all appear to be enjoying endless afternoons. Others, such as Rosalind, who instructs Orlando on punctuality and its importance in courtly love, bluntly exclaims that “Time is the old justice that examines all such offenders, and let Time try” (79). At first Orlando is willing to “lose and neglect the creeping hours of time” (42) but is quickly instructed on the proper use of time by Rosalind and uses it when saving Oliver from the lioness. At that moment “he determines for him as well as for his brother the course of future events” (Peterson 29), internalizing courtly time in Orlando and the opposite for Oliver. Although the awareness of time is a direct relation to city life, this instance allows Oliver to let go of time and join the endless afternoon in the country and allows Oliver to realize the importance of time, specifically in regard to love.
The division of characters who favor either court or country is very even in the final scene of the play. Rosalind and Oliver, the time-worshipping, wooing lovers will undoubtedly return to courtly life as the two protagonists living happily ever after. Touchstone and Audrey will most likely return to courtly life as well for Touchstone has only cynicism for country life and his wit would be completely useless there. Duke Senior is perhaps the most remarkable example of ambivalence between man and his surroundings, for only a short time after praising nature for its ideal way of life contradicts himself and returns to his usurped dukedom.
On the other hand, Oliver and Celia, two figures that had bourgeoisie status in court abandon all to live in nature as shepherds. Silvius and Phebe remain for they were never tempted by city life at all. Jacques fulfils his role as melancholic philosopher, yet leaves the party not with cynicism but compassion for a life forfeited, for he is “for other than dancing measures” (103). The actions of Duke Frederick are remarkably similar to that of Oliver for they were both usurping, powerful figures in the court who become converted by virtuous characters in the forest. The ambivalence of Duke Frederick and Duke Senior trading their respective roles seems to be a final twist of plot that allows Shakespeare to further complicate and overshadow the court versus country debate.
As You Like It concludes with the realization that there is no environment best suited to all. Although the forest of Arden gives its courtly guests the atmosphere to let go of the constraints of society and search for an ideal life, most characters have constrained themselves by bringing their own reality with them. Conventions such as time and wit are brought to the forest to highlight those from the court and to demonstrate basic differences between people experienced in either the court or the country. The complicated theme of perception in forest reveals that:
One’s sense of the forest of Arden is a place that changes from moment to moment and from character to character… Arden has objective reality, but its reality is not simply objective… [Shakespeare] does not reduce reality to one truth or to the other (Berry 141).
The different views of the forest reflect the various realities of the characters themselves. Shakespeare gives examples of these, even the extreme positions held by Jacques and Touchstone, to portray a wide range of beliefs for those who favor country life and those who prefer the court. The play ends in an ambiguous manner that allows the audience to debate and conclude as it likes.
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Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. London: Chaucer Press, 1974. McFarland, Thomas.
Shakespeare’s Pastoral Comedy. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1972. Peterson, Douglas L.
Time, Tide and Tempest. San Marino: Huntington, 1973. Phialas, Peter G. Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1966. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.
A Discourse on Inequality. London: Penguin Books, 1984. Shakespeare, William., and Albert Gilman, ed.
As You Like It. New York: Signet, 1963. Westlund, Joseph. Shakespeare’s Reparative Comedies. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1984.