The Idea of the Golden Age in ‘As you Like It’

The Idea of the Golden Age in Shakespeare’s As You Like It is invoked with respect to the ideology of the pastoral world, an idea, the dialectics involved in which is explored through the text, as opinions and views are constantly juxtaposed: art and nature, idealism and realism, optimism and cynicism, time and timelessness, country and court, heterosexual and homosexual, male and female, actor and role — established and de-established to critically analyze the myth of the pastoral as the Golden Age.

The pastoral idealized with cardinals of simplicity, purity, love and honesty and the invocation of the paradisal Golden Age was a common literary device in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Rapin urges in 1659, in his “Disertatio de carmine pastorah” that pastoral poetry “is a product of the Golden Age.” To Rapin, pastoral itself is a perfect image of the state of Innocence of that Golden Age, that Blessed Time, when Sincerity and Innocence, Peace, Ease and Plenty inhabited the Plains.”  In the first Act of the play itself, when enquired by Oliver about Duke Senior, Charles replies, “ They say he is already in the Forest of Arden…many young gentlemen flock to him everyday and fleet 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, Thomas Mc Faulana quotes “is to go – not historically but semiotically – to the very foundation of the pastoral myth and thereby to concede the dire need for alleviation of the alienated mood” – a mood of intense alienation that sets in by the end of Act I by the bitter rivalry and hatred between the two brothers Orlando and Oliver or the news of usurping of the benevolent Duke Senior and the corruption and treachery of court and power. It is thus accordingly, both fitting and necessary, that the second act of As you Like It opens with a massive attempt to restore comic benignity and to check the tragic comedy in an escape to the Pastoral, the elemental; as the Duke Senior without preliminary of action, invokes the pastoral vision and the idea of a new society, as he proclaims, “Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet.” He extols the simplicity and honesty of the pastoral life, away from “painted pomp” and “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 fakeness, mistrust, greed and hunger for power. The courtly life is the cold world where there is no place for goodness and virtue, no room for undissimulated feeling: the tainted radically corrupt world of court or city, of lust for gain and place, of craft and deceit. From wicked brother and wicked uncle there is no recourse for the oppressed but to take flight, which they do gladly: be it Duke Senior, Rosalind, Celia or Orlando. They go to “Liberty not to Banishment”. The flight into the forest draws upon the tradition of that other time and other place of the nostalgic imagination – the locus amocnus where the return to nature from corrupt civilization allows the truth, simplicity and humility of innocence to replace the treachery, craft and arrogance of worldly sophistication.

However, this promise of the golden world is not entire fulfilled. The forest of Arden, though a paradise is not an unequivocal paradise. “Arden”, as Helen Gardiner notes in her well-known essay on As You Like It, “is not a place where laws of nature are abrogated and roses are without their thorns.” It is the Duke himself who first notices the anomaly of the deer hunt wherein the “native citizens” of the forest are being unfairly usurped, though it is Jacques who rubs it in. 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. Duke Senior does not deny the icy fangs of the winter wind, the ugly venom of the toad. On the contrary, he welcomes them because they ‘feelingly persuade him what he is’ and he prefers them to man’s ingratitude and the ingratiation of court sycophancy. The contraries: painted pomp and icy fangs, chiding and flattery, feeling and persuasion, books and brooks, sermons and stones, are sought to be resolved in his remedial vision of the good life to be found in the hard discipline of nature, not in her soft bosom, in the riches of deprivation, not in the poverty of prodigality. As Amiens exclaims “Happy is our Grace/ That can translate the stubbornness of fortune/ Into so quiet and so sweet a style.”  However the Duke’s brave stoicism, is unable to dispel the reality and contradictions of this Golden Age. When Rosalind and Celia arrive in the forest and Rosalind asks Corin for help we are given a short extremely specific glimpse of the social and economic realities which were the real world equivalents of Elizabethan courtly pastoral. Corin’s world is one of economic necessity, of shepherds employed as hired hands, dependent upon masters and lords with little interest in charity. Corin’s landlord selling up his land and leaving his tenants to fend for themselves is not an exception but was in accordance with economic and agricultural crisis in England in 1604. Corin, it should be noted is himself facing starvation. Also, the presence of the serpent and the lioness in the forest, potentially dangerous, indicates a certain admixture of harsh reality in this version of a golden world. As the play begins we see that the forest has already achieved a kind of mythic reputation, even among the followers of usurping Duke Frederick as a haven, an idyllic space of safety. Charles draws parallels and later as well as the Duke to the life of Robin hood and his forest life. Thus this quasi-biblical golden age in the background, when glimpsed through the lens of a specially English folk-version of this idea: the old Robin Hood of England represents a more politically charged Golden Age. The Robin Hood legend always contained the suggestion of an alternative order, a court in Exile ‘under the greenwood tree’ which would one day challenge the injustice of the actual political order. Robin, it is true, was continually being assimilated and re-assimilated into the English aristocracy as an Earl of Locksley or of Huntington and his outlaw court in Sherwood forest was never actually revolutionary. It was always oppositional though, and was sometimes seen as prefiguring a Utopian commonwealth; it represented a version of the green world which was simultaneously politicized and idealized.

However, while Duke Senior articulates a completely positive view of the pastoral exile, characters in the play like Jacques and Amiens represent the negative. When Amiens echoes the Duke’s sentiments in a song, “Under the greenwood tree, who loves to lie with me……Come hither, come hither, come hither”, Jacques is to parody his sentiments, “a stubborn will to please/ Ducdame, Ducdame, ducdame”, explaining to the surrounding lord-foresters that Ducdame is a Greek invocation calling fools to a circle. In the conversation with Corin, Touchstone establishes through a series of paradoxes the moral and theological superiority of court over country. However, in spite of everything Corin walks away with his dignity intact, which stems partly from his eloquent and direct defense of his own lifestyle. “I am a true labourer, I earn that I eat…..” which however again brings out the economic and social reality of the pastoral.  The play constantly deals with these contrasts between the idyllic and the real: or perhaps more precisely, a continual conversation between the two poles of fantasy and reality, between Amiens’ ideal and Jacques’s response, between Corin’s honesty and Touchstone’s mockery. The play moves continually between these modes of knowing, allowing neither of them the last word.

There are also several characters who have the function of bringing time into the forest to challenge the attractions of the pastoral world. Touchstone is amongst them, when Jacques first meets him, he is about to moral on Time, ““and so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe/ and then from hour to hour we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale” which prefigure Jacques’s own Seven Ages speech. They point Time as the reality in comparison to which the pastoral world of Arden seems insubstantial. Although it might seem that the Duke and the forester lords have found a kind of refuge from time in this pastoral world of Nature, yet in their back, time’s winged chariot can be heard blowing its horn. Even the world of love is not an alternative to Time, but is intensely engaged with it. The newcomer’s acutely aware of it, Rosalind starts her conversation with Orlando “I pray you, what is’t o’clock? Orlando: “You should ask me what time of the day, there is no clock in the forest”. Rosalind: “then there is no true lover in the forest, else signing every minute and groaning every hour would detect the lazy foot of time as well as a clock.” Rosalind repeats the cliché that the lover feels eternity in every second spent out of the loved one’s sight. But the cliché leads Rosalind to a different understanding of the workings of Time. Starting from the experience of the lover, she sees Time not as an external and objective force, but as something which operates subjectively and relativistically, affecting everybody differently. This once again reaffirms what Shakespeare has been doing throughout the play, a series of disjunctive contraries, pointing and counter-pointing different opinions, without giving anyone a final say. While the threatening aspect of Time to the ideal of pastoral is evident, the juxtaposition of a relativist view of Time brings out the dialectics of it all.

The name Forest of Arden itself is significant in the sense that it is not just any anonymous forest, but a specific one with resonances of the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire and also to the French Area of the Ardennes. This makes it simultaneously both mundane and exotic. The English forest was an ordinary patch of Midlands landscape, while the French Ardennes was a favourite fictional location for the 16th century romance narratives. The forest name also has echoes in it of ‘Eden’: the garden of the Golden age before the fall of Adam, to which Elizabethan pastoral literature makes continual implicit reference. The garden of Arden exists somewhere between the material and the ideal, between reality and illusion.

Thus we see, that in As you Like It, that the pastoral ideal itself is scrutinized by a critical analysis of the sentimentalization of the pastoral as the Golden Age, and what we see is a burlesque dialectic of perfections and imperfections, abundances and deficiencies of idealism and realist perspectives.

Bibliography:

  • The Place of a Brother in As you Like It: Social Process and Comic Form: Louis Adrian Montrose
  • Existence in Arden: Ruth Nevo
  • The Complications of As you Like It: Thomas Mc Faulana
  • As you Like it: Helen Gardiner
  • Sexual Politics and Social Structure in As You Like It: Peter B. Ericson
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