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Analysis of "As you like it", by William Shakespeare

Updated on May 18, 2014

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Shakespeare associates the pastoral concept of a golden age, perhaps akin to a prelapsarian Eden with that of the countryside, or rather, with regards to “As you like it”, the forest of Arden. He sets the natural setting of the forest as a transformative area in which man, while living in close proximity to nature is able to freely express himself. Moreover the marked contrast Shakespeare presents between the courtly corruption and the virtues of the rural heightens the audience’s perception as to the ideal nature of the equal, free, and harmonious existence of man within the forest. Simultaneously Shakespeare highlights qualities associated with the “envious court”, in the world of the pastoral forest which in turn arguably undermines the depiction of an ideal way of life in the countryside.


The forest as a 'golden age'

From the outset, Shakespeare assigns the forest to a certain ‘golden age’, the values of which are reminiscent of an prelapsarian Eden, one uncorrupted by human moral deficiencies. The first mention of the Duke’s exile to the forest leads to Charles the wrestlers comment that “three or four loving lords” and the Duke himself “live like the old Robin Hood of England…fleeting the time carelessly as they did in the golden world”.The inception of the concept of the Golden Age so early in the play and also by such an unexpected source as Charles deeply embeds the notion of a ‘golden age’, one which is characterised by pastoral virtues of sincerity, innocence and peace, within the overarching understanding of the forest. The fact that firstly the reference is to Robin Hood, a traditional legend of an outlaw fighting for equality, which immediately indicates the image of the ‘golden age’ has, like the legendary actions of Robin Hood were sparked by necessity, and likewise the depiction of a ‘golden age’ is bred from the need to alleviate the alienation experienced at court, caused by courtly corruption.

The link between the two is established through a learned joke, our first encounter directly with the forest sees Duke senior describes the forest, which has been established as being in an eternal springtime, as having “icy fangs” and “winter winds”, thus ironically seasonally placing the forest in winter. While this simply reminds the audience as to the metaphorical and symbolic coldness associated with the court. Thus as Charles’ description anticipates, with the beginning of Act 2 our entry into the forest restores the comic benignity as Duke Senior’s first action in the entirety of the play is to invoke the pastoral vision and the idea of a new society: “Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet.” His use of the inclusive “co-mates” suggests within the forest there is a sense of equality absent from the world of the court, while the reference to “old custom” like Charles’ comment further substantiates the link between the forest and the idea of a ‘golden age’. Moreover Celia’s comment : “to liberty and not to banishment” coupled with the freedom of the Duke to “fleet the time carelessly” suggests that the forest is characterised by a pre lapsarian Edenic freedom, one uncorrupted by the vices of man, affirmed by the Duke’s comment that “here feel we not the penalty of Adam”, in turn setting the forest out to be a place of equality and freedom, set within a golden age of humanity, and thus presented as an ideal way of life.

Courtly corruption v.s Virtue of the Forest

Further Shakespeare uses the forest to restore comic benignity, and thus through the marked contrast between life in the court and that in the forest, he accentuates the virtues of the forest. He extols the simplicity and honesty of the pastoral life, away from “painted pomp” and the “perils” of the “envious court”, he builds a sense of festive communion and brotherhood that celebrates the simple joys of life in this forest life which is impossible in the courtly life of mistrust, greed and, most notably a life characterised by the desire for power. We are first presented to a society of the court in which, duties are forsaken, noble virtues are disregarded and the desire for power and wealth governs their existence. We are immediately introduced to Oliver’s refusal to honour his responsibilities and while their father “charged my brother, on his blessing to breed me well… he keeps me rustically at home …he lets me feed with his hinds… bars me the place of a brother…”, unlike the “liberty” and freedom of the forest Orlando is confined “at home”, due to Orlando’s blatant disregard of his responsibility. While in the forest Orlando “enter[s] with Adam [on his back]” and subsequently the Duke invites Adam to feed: “welcome… and let him feed”, which demonstrates the level of care which is present in the society of the forest.

Moreover structurally, the fact that Jacques’ “all the world’s a stage “ speech precedes the care and compassion shown to Adam suggests that the rural virtues are part of man’s true nature, and can be expressed when in close proximity to nature, but are absent in the world of the court. Despite the want of an actual action our first encounter with Corin demonstrates his innate desire to be hospitable and show compassion as he says: “I pity her and wish for her sake more than for mine own, My fortunes were more able to relieve her”, Corin’s sincerity is indicative of the way in which life is conducted in the forest. Clearly this contrast between the compassion demonstrated and the lack of care within the court accentuates the value of life within the forest. Moreover the absence of these virtues of loyalty and compassion are further highlighted as Orlando comments on Adam’s “constant service of the antique world”, and the link to the a lost golden age, demonstrates the complete disregard and unappreciative attitude of the court towards the noble qualities which characterise the forest; again serving to heighten the value of rural life.


Man's freedom with nature

In addition the freedom gained by man’s ability to live in close proximity to nature is an indispensable feature of life in the forest. While the “painted pomp” of the court prevents arrogant leaders from seeing and understanding nature, Duke senior welcomes the opportunity to relearn man’s place in nature. This idea that moral lessons can be learnt from nature is expressed by Duke Senior as he comments that there are “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything”, the personification of the natural world suggests the unanimity between man and nature, and serves to emphasise the idea that man can learn directly from nature. While more specifically “tongues” implies speech, and the freedom of speech, not one experienced in the court, suggests that through nature man can attain true freedom. The alliteration reinforces that a sense of harmony characterises life in the forest due to the completeness of the phrase when supported by alliteration. While the freedom to express is also demonstrated through Orlando’s transformative journey to the forest. While in the forest he was unable to express his love: “what passion hangs these weights upon my tongue”, after entry to the forest he “hang[s] there [his verse], in witness of [his] love” The repetition of the word “hang” in both respective reflections of Orlando’s ability to express firmly affirms his transformation. Moreover the fact that he physically attaches his love to nature as he “carve[s] on every tree” further cements the idea that through close proximity to nature, in the forest, Orlando has been able to express his true emotions, in turn highlighting the ideal way of life experienced in the forest, in contrast to that of the court.


Hardship faced in the Forest

The forest of Arden, though a paradise is not an unequivocal paradise and although freedom and rural virtues are experienced by the courtly visitors to the forest, the same freedom is not enjoyed by the natives to the forest. This is first understood by Duke Senior who laments that “the poor dappled fools, being native burghers of the desert city should have their round haunches gored…” Commenting on man’s necessity to hunt the deer, coupled with the later sung celebratory deer hunt song suggests a sense of injustice in the forest. The helpless deer are unfairly usurped, and thus have their freedom curtailed.It is not a world where nature and its creations and man are at complete peace and understanding with each other, in a sense, man’s hunger and greed has not been completely overcome. While on a broader level “native burghers” could simultaneously be hinting at the lack of freedom experienced by the inhabitants of the forest. Silvius is bound to a hopeless repetitive love for Phoebe while the appearance of the lion and the serpent suggest that despite its presentation as an ideal environment, danger and a lack of freedom exist within this apparently “golden world”. However, arguably the most potent image highlighting the deficiencies in the ostensibly perfect way of life enjoyed in the forest, is the situation of Corin. He states: “I am shepherd to another man and don’t sheer the fleeces that I graze. My master is of churlish disposition and little decks to find the way to heaven, by doing deeds of hospitality” Corin’s master isn’t only “churlish” but is selling his land and Corin is left in starvation. Which for all its freedom for the courtly visitors, the shepherd is deprived of his most basic freedom- the freedom to eat. Thus the seemingly ideal way of life is only unequivocally stated from the viewpoint of those visiting the forest, while the native inhabitants are not party to the same unrestricted way of life.


Conclusion

Overall, while clearly Shakespeare presents the forest as a “golden world”, which serves to highlight the noble virtues of the forest, namely through the contrast to the absence of these within the precincts of the court. However the lack of freedom which characterises the existence of the native inhabitants of the forest, coupled with the inherent dangers seems to suggest that although depicted as a rural idyll to criticise the court, Shakespeare avoids depicting it as an ideal environment, but rather portraying it with realism, and thus it could be argued that while for the courtly visitors there is a newfound freedom and “liberty”, the same is not enjoyed by the native inhabitants.

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