“They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.” Many expectations are being set up here about the Forest of Eden from the point of view of an outsider to the Forest. It is made to sound like the holiday home of an aristocrat in the countryside – with bounty and merrymaking. On closer examination we see that the Forest is not described as the golden world itself, but is only compared to it. While conjectures about the origins of the legend of Robin Hood vary from a peasant leader to an exiled aristocrat, he is always one who rights the wrongs committed by those in power against the dispossessed. Duke Senior on the other hand, is merely using the forest for refuge, and is no champion for the cause of the dispossessed. In fact, his presence in the forest can be read as the very dispossession of its natives, as we will see. As for the “many merry men” who are purportedly his companions, Jacques is a brooding, wistful philosopher, a self-confessed “Monsieur Melancholy”. Thus the first description of Arden is rendered incorrect in the eyes of the audience.
The first view we are given of the Forest is no locus amoenus – Duke Senior is rationalizing the value of its salubrious winters1. Thus, at best, Arden can be a period of trial by collective suffering of the lords, after which penance they will be restored to their previous positions in society. Despite critiquing the tyranny of the court, Jacques points out that they bring their own form of despotism with them, inflicting their violence on the “native burghers” of the forest. Critics have pointed out the possibility of Arden being part of the Commons and Duke Seniors’ usurpation of the Forest as symbolic of the systematic enclosure of the Commons in seventeenth century England2. In this context, feeding on the native citizens could also signify the exploitation of the peasantry – that Duke Senior and his lords were living off the labour and revenue of the original inhabitants of Arden, for it is no less governed by material concerns. For all his claims of brotherhood, the social inferiors of Duke Senior serve him; they prepare his meals for him. The lords sing a victory song on killing the deer for the Duke’s meal. The song celebrates the hereditary privilege of killing to feed one’s stomach, in other words, to live off another’s labour : “..wear the horn/It was a crest ere thou wast born/Thy father’s father wore it/And thy father bore it.”
The first encounter that Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone have as they enter Arden is with an impoverished shepherd, Corin, who complains of a “churlish” master. The contrast between them is remarkable – while they wish to “buy entertainment” with their gold, the shepherd does not even “shear the fleeces [he] graze[s]”. While Celia says, “I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.”, she envisions a life which does not entail any toil, while not only does Corin: “earn that I eat, get that I wear”, he has to also be “faithful feeder” to Celia and Rosalind. (And yet, their decision to buy the land rests not solely in the tranquility of the country, but equally in material considerations like “the soil, the profit”) Thus, who feeds whom is an important marker of hierarchy even in the Forest. Luxury is the prerogative of the Duke, his daughter and his niece, while others must labour for the preservation of these privileges.
Accent is another marker of difference between the shepherds and the exiled aristocracy. On their first meeting in the forest, Orlando remarks on her manner of speech : “ Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling.” While dress would normally have been the observable differentiator, all the exiles are in disguise – the lords as foresters and Rosalind as Ganymede. All except Touchstone, whose motley is a reminder of the court. He constantly marks out the difference between themselves and the native inhabitants of the forest. He bluntly refers to themselves as the “betters” of Corin. He calls William’s language – a native of the forest – “vulgar”, “boorish” and “common”. He translates from high/court to low/forest phraseology. He also elevates their own moral worth simply by virtue of having been at court – his claim that good manners are only to be seen at court is sensibly refuted by Corin’s argument that customs are variable with time, space and practical considerations like cleanliness. Touchstone uses courtly sophistry to argue against Corin’s sound reason and proclaim him a damned man. While he lives off the cattle which Corin rears, he hypocritically accuses him of engaging in sinful material practices: “to get your living by the copulation of cattle.” The other character who also does not wear the garb of a forester in the play is Jacques. He too is marked by a profusion of words, sometimes superfluous (he “moralized [the] spectacle…into a thousand similes.”) Yet, he is a traveler, he has “sold [his] own lands to see other men’s”. He lisp[s] and wear[s] strange suits, disable[s] all the benefits of [his] own country..” Thus, his origin is ambiguous and his status as outsider is determined by his “lisp” and “strange suits”, again marks of accent and dress. Though he hankers after Touchstone’s motley, he occupies a more neutral position in the play than him.
The function of the disguises is symbolic of the genre of the pastoral which disguises real situations as fantasy; of displacing direct conflict onto a world which is associated with serenity, where there is “good in everything”. Touchstone hits the nail on his head when he says “the trust poetry is the most feigning”. The pastoral is a form of “feigning”, from which position it critiques and resolves real (“the truest”) issues. It works by lowering the guard of a politicized audience while at the same time playing on their cultural, social and political associations through disguise in a completely different setting – for one, the play is removed to France (although it deals with contemporary English concerns). On the other hand, it both diffuses the audiences’ reactions through incredible costumes, settings and song and dance sequences, while at the same time using character types and situations familiar to them. But As You Like It is not only pastoral, but also self-reflexively so. Thus there are constant references to actors, stage, players, pageants and scenes in the play. When Jacques speaks the famous words: “All the world’s a stage”, it universalizes the events of the play. It reminds the audience that it is dealing with issues and situations beyond the play-house itself. It creates a space not only for the Duke to critique the court, but the playwright to comment on larger social issues, like enclosure, for example.
While the privileged few are preserved from want, Arden is nonetheless no haven of bliss. There is the constant threat of hunger, bitter cold and allusions to hunting and wounding. Even when Rosalind speaks of her love for Orlando, it is in the violent imagery of a predatory huntsman: “he comes to kill my heart.” The ultimate re-uniting of Orlando and Oliver happens through the wounding by a lioness of the younger brother to save the life of the very elder brother who had plotted to kill him. Though Orlando speaks depreciatingly of his upbringing saying he was trained “like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities”, Oliver’s perception seems to be different at the end of the play – he promises Orlando that: “my father’s house, and all the revenue that was old Sir Rowland’s I will estate upon you and here live and die a shepherd.” But of course, he does no such thing and returns to his “land and love and great allies”. The forest is never conceived of as a permanent dwelling place. It is always compared to “better days” at court.
While their move to Arden does not integrate the aristocrats into the social structure of the countryside (and never provides a critique of its dispossession), it does bring those from the city (and thus includes Orlando’s old faithful Adam) into a sort of religious communion. Their reference to “old custom” and “the penalty of Adam” seems to be an allusion to a prelapserian world. This raises the question of human origin, and moreover, the common origin of all humankind from one man. This was used in popular political discourse as a challenge to a grossly unequal social order at most radical, and to “emphasize social dependency and reciprocity”3 from a moderate to conservative standpoint. In this context, the sharing of food between Duke Senior, Adam and Orlando, seems to emphasize this spiritual commonality of those who suffer the malevolence of the new social order and desire a return to an “antique world”. This world is often evoked in the memory of Sir Rowland de Boys – the abstraction of all the desirable moral qualities representing the past.
Oliver, being the older brother, is the rightful inheritor of his fathers’ fortune according to the law of primogeniture. Although there was much literature written by younger brothers4 bemoaning their precarious social existence and complete dependency on their elder brothers, Orlando never questions his right to inheritance (“the courtesy of nations”). He does, however, deeply resent being cheated of his own rightful share. In denying Orlando this and mistreating Adam (he calls him “you old dog”), Oliver is violating the moral law of the traditional order which required the lord to fulfill the patriarchal obligation of ensuring a harmonious social order on his estate. While this extended to maintaining honour, prestige and the loyal service of his servants and tenants, his prime duty was to keep the family intact.
Their father, Sir Rowland de Boys is the epitome of the ideal lord. Adam, the old and faithful servant, constructs Orlando as an embodiment of Sir Rowland de Boys’ virtues: “…O you memory/ Of old Sir Rowland…Why are you so virtuous…gentle, strong and valiant?” Oliver, on the other hand, is established as the antithesis of his father: “…the son/yet not the son, I will not call him son,/Of him I was about to call his father”. In describing their natures in terms relative to their fathers’, implicit moral categories are being created. By virtue of being morally akin to his father, “people love [Orlando]”. He embodies traditional values of the old feudal order, “the antique world”. Oliver, being all that his father was not – selfish and scheming, is representative of a new type of Machiavellian figure – he plots to take his own brothers’ life because of his greater popularity and threat to his own position. Duke Frederick, similarly, is put in the same moral category when he says, “The world esteemed [Sir Rowland] honourable/But I did find him still mine enemy.” Not only this, he is an aberration in the law of primogeniture because he ousts the “rightful” legatee, Duke Senior (who also loved Sir Rowland and is thus imbued in the eyes of the audience with the same qualities as Orlando). He does not care for the loyalty of his vassals, “whose lands and revenues enrich the new Duke; therefore he gives them good leave to wander.” Thus, while Oliver violates moral law, Duke Frederick violates social law. There is a link between conflict within the manor/family and turbulence at the court/state. As Gordon J. Schochet puts it, “the family was looked upon as the basis of the entire social order.”5
The conflict between brothers threatens to destabilise the authority of tradition and patriarchal power. Thus, when Orlando physically assaults Oliver, Adam intervenes by saying “for your fathers’ remembrance, be at accord.” The play can be seen as using a figurative strategy to present the conflict within a class as that within a family. Society was often seen as a family, with the infantalising of dependents. Figures of authority were patriarchal in essence – whether as masters, husbands, fathers, eldest brothers or law-keepers. In the play, children are constantly referred to in relation to their fathers: “Thou art thy fathers’ daughter, there’s enough”, “The Duke my father loved his father dearly.” Concomitant with this, the play is marked by a conspicuous absence of any mothers. Identity was most often relational to a male kin who held a position of authority and self-determination was the luxury of those who owned and controlled the land and finances, whose favour could be bestowed selectively upon those who won it. Thus, Orlando is constantly frustrated by a sense of powerlessness, which leads him to vent it in physical violence against his brother.
Entry into the Forest of Arden by Rosalind, Celia and Orlando can be seen as a quest to determine their own identity. When Rosalind dons the disguise of a man, she becomes an owner of property (the sheepcote) and master of Corin. Within Elizabethan notions of freedom, she is now her own master, and begins to script her own narrative – the courtship between Silvius and Phebe and herself and Orlando as well as her concealment from and revelation to both him and her father.
Structurally, however, their entry is a means of resolving larger societal complexities. As Louis Adrian Montrose puts it:
“What happens to Orlando at home is not Shakespeare’s contrivance to get him into the forest, what happens to Orlando in the forest is Shakespeare’s contrivance to remedy what happened to him at home…. events unfold and relationships are transformed in accordance with precise comic teleology.”6
The conflict is the reason Orlando, dispossessed, is driven to the Forest of Arden. When, at the end of the play, the men and women of two warring aristocratic families are wed, a resolution of this intra-class conflict has been formalized, family bonds have been re-instated, albeit among reformed individuals conscious of the moral obligations of their calling, Rosalind submits herself to the authority of her father and husband (she says to both: “To you I give myself, for I am yours.”) as soon as she steps out of the skin of a man. Thus, class and gender hierarchies are restored to their “normal”, pre-Ardenic state. Importantly, the warring families which represent the manor and State are united, thus family is once more re-established as the fundamental unit of the State. The newly integrated family and state, moreover, are not only hereditary, but their restored positions are also well-deserved by (male) members – the “patience” and “virtue” of Duke Senior and “love and ..true faith”, virtues tested as the result of their trial in the forest. It is also significant that this re-instatement is brought about by a mysterious “religious man” who converts Duke Frederick “from his enterprise and from the world.” Thus the play ends with a religious realization of everyone’s true calling of their place in society (“according to the measure of their estates”), and the convenient removal of impediments by means of the form of the pastoral. Thus the resolution of the play is really a restoration of the moral order of society, with everyone occupying their rightful place and fulfilling their moral obligations.