The Pastoral Setting of Shakespeare's As You Like It

The Pastoral Setting of Shakespeare's As You Like It

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The Pastoral Setting of As You Like It


Central to the pastoral vision of As You Like It is the setting in the Forest of Ardenne, especially the contrast between it and the ducal court. In the former, there is a powerful political presence which creates dangers. Deception lurks behind many actions, brothers have secret agendas against their brothers, and people have to answer to the arbitrary demands of power.


In the Forest of Ardenne, however, life is very different. For one thing, there is no urgency to the agenda. There are no clocks in the forest, and for the exiled courtiers there is no regular work. They are free to roam around the forest, prompted by their own desires. There is plenty of food to eat, so the communal hunt takes care of their physical needs. That and the absence of a complex political hierarchy creates a much stronger sense of communal equality hearkening back the the mythical good old days. The exiled Duke himself attests to the advantages of living far from the court, free of the deceits of flattery and double dealing and welcomes Orlando to the feast without suspicion.


And, most important here, especially in comparison with the history plays, is the importance of singing. As You Like It is full of songs-not performances by professional court musicians, but impromptu group singing which expresses better than anything else the spontaneous joy these people derive from life in the Forest and the joy they give back to others. The songs indicate clearly the way in which in the Forest people can shape their actions to their moods-a situation totally unlike the court where one has to consider one's actions much more carefully.


Hence, the Forest of Ardenne provides for the exiled courtiers an important freedom to experiment with their lives, to discover things about themselves. In the Forest people can talk openly with whoever they might happen to meet on a stroll through the trees, and that might be anyone, given that in the Forest no one owns any particular territory (there are no rooms, palaces, roads-unlike the court where there is a preoccupation with property) and thus one might well meet and have to deal with a person whom one would never get close to in the court (that can have comic results, of course, as Touchstone's conversations with Audrey and William demonstrate).

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In the Forest life is, as I have observed, lived more immediately in the moment with whatever life presents at the moment. Such an approach to life is impossible in the politically charged world of the court.


That freedom makes possible Rosalind's transformation and her taking charge of the courtship and makes an interesting contrast between Rosalind and Viola (in Twelfth Night)-the latter is not nearly so free to take charge, because she is still operating in a social environment with a clear structure of authority, which she has to respect. Hence, the fortunate outcome of that play relies upon her patience and luck far more in the case of Rosalind, who is the driving force in her courtship (Viola's desires very nearly are unfulfilled).


We should note, however, that the Forest of Ardenne is not an entirely idyllic setting. The Duke pays tribute to the often brutal weather, and there are some dangerous animals lurking in the underbrush. Corin, the shepherd, informs us that he works for another man-a slight but significant reminder that even in this pastoral setting the realities of power are not entirely absent.

And, of course, there is never any sense here (as there might be if this were a Romantic vision of life) that the Forest is a suitable place to live on a continuing basis. Given the opportunity to return to the court, all the exiles (except, significantly, Jaques) seize the chance. The Forest has done its work-it has educated some, repaired fraternal relationships, brought the lovers to a fuller awareness of their own feelings. Now, they can return to what will be, we sense, a much better and fuller life in the court.



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