William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1623) begins with a pair of duelling brothers, Orlando’s resentment and a severe hierarchy of power that structures court life. This hierarchy is exemplified by Charles’ hesitation regarding fighting a man of genteel. A mood of intense alienation sets in by the end of Act I because of this rivalry and the news of usurping of the benevolent Duke Senior and the corruption and treachery of court. Thus the second act opens with a massive attempt to check tragic comedy and to restore comic benignity with Duke Senior’s proclamation,

““Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet”

(Act I, Scene I)

Duke Senior extols the simplicity and honesty of the pastoral life away from “painted pomp” and “envious court” and builds a sense of brotherhood that celebrates such a life which cannot exist in the courtly life of fakeness, mistrust and greed of power. Thus the cynicism of the first scene and Orlando is opposed to Duke Senior’s optimism. He is our first insight into the people of Arden, which Charles in the previous act exalts to a paradisiacal stature and invokes the idea of a new society. 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 an English folk-version of this idea: the old Robin Hood of England represents a more politically charged Golden Age. He says,

“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.”

(Act I, Scene I)

Andrew Barnaby in his essay The Political Conscious of Shakespeare’s As You Like It states, “Exiled to Arden by his usurper-brother, Frederick, Duke Senior moralizes his own violated status as a paradoxically edifying experience, one in which the recovery of a communal (fraternal) ethic, in opposition to a courtly one, marks the return to a prelapsarian condition.” 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 forest name also has echoes in it of ‘Eden’: the garden of the Golden age before the fall of Adam. Adam is also the name of Orlando’s servant, a reminder of an earlier golden world:

“O good old man, how well in thee appears

The constant service of the antique world”.

(Act II, Scene IV)

The garden of Arden exists somewhere between the material and the ideal, between reality and illusion. The idea of the ‘Golden World’ is invoked so early in the play because of Arden being a space that allows one to live as one likes. Vinita Chandra explains, “Rather than being an idyllic, innocent site to escape to, Arden is constructed as a neutral space where people are allowed to be themselves, free to create alternative identities, and perhaps, this is from where the title of the play, As You Like It, derives.” Arden thus becomes a pastoral space portraying an idealized version of country life that allows the free flowing of emotions, actions and identities. On the contrary, the city allows oppression and banishment of anyone who doesn’t act in the way they are expected to, as part of society. Duke Frederick justifies banishing Rosalind,

“Her very silence and her patience,

Speak to the people, and they pity her.

Thou art a fool. She robs thee of thy name,

And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous

When she is gone.”

(Act I, Scene III)

which echoes Oliver’s envy of Oralando,

“Yet he is gentle, never schooled and

Yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts en-

Chantingly beloved; and indeed so much in the

Heart of the world, and especially of my own

people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized.”

(Act I, Scene II)

Both the heads of family in the domestic sphere of society act tyrannical and are quintessence of the rigidity and austerity of city life. Ruth Nevo in Existence in Arden compares this “radically corrupt world of court or city” to the cold world of Edmund and Goneril. “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 Forest of Arden may be a golden world, or a green world, but it’s wintertime (which sets the mood of satire) and the journey is a harsh one. Rosalind flees to Arden as Ganymede after being banished and from there on proves to be one of the strongest Shakespearean female characters according to many critics. She manages to pull the strings of the plot while keeping her disguise. However, she is throughout disguised as a man. At one point, Rosalind — who in Shakespeare’s day would have been a boy playing a girl — becomes a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. Gender is a complete performance and sex becomes the retroactive function of gender. Arden allows for such fluidity of gender as it is away from the lawfully governed city. Payal Khanna in “These Disguised Women”: Gender and Identity in As You Like It points out, “Gender is no longer a fixed and stable entity as the insularity of gender behaviour is open for contestation. Cross-dressing becomes a medium of confusing socially determined gender differences generating freer and alternative possibilities for both the sexes.” As a man, Rosalind is the strongest character of the play; in her wit, intelligence and vision, she is an equal to Hamlet. However, other female characters lack the same depth.  Moreover, while Orlando and Rosalind are pining over their fathers, there is no trace of their mothers even in the husbands’ minds. It seems as though they fulfilled their duty of bearing children and then completely disappeared from the text.

Rosalind is the most realistic character in her ideas. She does not romanticise love unlike other characters like Orlando and recognizes the dangers of the forest due to which she disguises as a Ganymede. On hearing Orlando’s highly romanticised yet crude and unsophisticated rhymes which objectifies Rosalind she comments,

“O most gentle Jupiter, what tedious homily

of love have you wearied your parishioners withal, and

never cried, ‘Have patience, good people!’”

(Act III, Scene II)

The question that arises is, why does Ganymede continue to exist even after he meets Duke Senior and Orlando who would guarantee Rosalind’s safety? Ganymede enjoys more power and liberty than Rosalind ever could living under the influence of her father in a patriarchal society. Rosalind chooses to enjoy this freedom for a little while longer which facilitates the ‘happy ending’ that As You Like It offers. However this existence in a fluid pastoral is only temporary and one has to go back to social order (or a new social order) as the structure of comedy suggests. But going back, one takes with oneself new experiences and thus we find a new social order, because of character development. One may justify the introduction of Phebe and Silvius so late in the play by thinking of the scene as an educational process for Rosalind. On seeing Phebe’s reaction to Silvius’ ardour, Rosalind learns exactly how she shall not act when Orlando declares his love for Rosalind. Also, she sees in Silvius a perfected lover, which Orlando is far from being. Orlando acts as though Rosalind has already accepted him but in reality he has no knowledge of her feelings for him. He is highly optimistic and romantic in his love. Rosalind as Ganymede thus offers to “cure” him and make him a perfect lover by trying to get rid of his romantic excess. She says,

“Men have died from time to

time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

(Act IV, Scene I)

She moulds Orlando’s love until he is more realistic in his idea of marriage and Rosalind. Ganymede as Rosalind impresses onto Orlando his tasks and gives him a more pragmatic  picture of Rosalind contrary to Orlando’s tendency to fixate her into definite structures:

“Say ‘a day’, without the ‘ever’. No, no, Orlando.

Men are April when they woo, December when

they wed. Maids are may when they are maids, but

the sky changes when they are wives. I will be more

jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his

hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain,

more new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in my

desires than a monkey. I will weep for nothing, like

Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you

Are disposed to be merry, I wil laugh like a hyen,

And that thou art inclined to sleep.

(Act IV, Scene I)

Ganymede (as Rosalind) and Orlando debate the plane of his object of desire while Ganymede edifies Orlando’s notions of love and wives. According to Harold Bloom Rosalind’s spirit cleanses us of false melancholies, rancid reductions, corrupting idealisms, and universalised resentments. Rosalind solves the problem of the play and brings us to its end which includes Phebe’s acceptance of Silvius. The female protagonist delivers the epilogue of a play which has endless erotic possibilities similar to that of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Such is the strength of Shakespeare’s Rosalind.

No one suffers seriously or for any great length of time. The banished Duke is only the happier for his exile, exults in his freedom from the artificial restraints of the court and in the end he is restored to his rank and position. His banishment has proved only a summer vacation, a rural “outing,” and we cannot doubt that he enjoyed his dukedom all the more for his brief exemption from its formalities and responsibilities. In like manner Rosalind, Celia, and the rest, who are made temporarily uncomfortable by the banishment of the Duke and other causes, soon forget their troubles in the forest, and are all happy at last.[i] Is Arden truly the perfect idyllic pastoral space?

The very existence of a character like Jaques, the Melancholy Monsieur, in that space hints otherwise. Jaques brings to our notice the primordial violence on nature that society is based on. G. Aparna in An Idyll Interrogated: Jaques and the ‘Golden World’ of Arden, as the title of her essay suggests, argues similar issues: “Through Arden is overtly constructed as a benign and perfect “golden world”, the only enemy there is not rough weather. Jaques’ parallel between the deer that abandon their wounded mate and the ”fat and greasy citizens” who care little for their less fortunate brethren is borne out by Corin’s description of his “churlish” master who “little recks to find the way to heaven/ By doing deeds of hospitality.” Greed and selfishness are as much an integral part of pastoral society as court life.” Jaques’ refusal to rejoice and participate in the merriment questions the completeness of the closure achieved at the end. G. Aparna questions “If the renewed order is as satisfactory as it appears to be, why does Jaques opt out of it?” Jaques highlights the pointlessness of human endeavour in the face of natural course which is evidenced in,

“And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,’

And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot”

(Act II, Scene VII)

This perception is also echoed in Shakespeare’s most prominent and insightful words that Jaques voices,

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players”

(Act II, Scene VII)

Jaques aims to cleanse the world by pointing out its flaws which implies that even in Arden, there are flaws. The departure of Jaques in this sense is more real than the ideal vision of love and matrimony that the readers tend to draw. G. Aparna concludes that in Jaques rejection of revelry in the end proves that there are “problematic aspects to life that are not quite answered by the idyll the comedy constructs. Jaques’ need to venture forth into these different area of experience is perhaps more true to life than the perfection embodied in the masque of Hymen. The inclusion of a character like Jaques in the play brings out the limitations of the pastoral idyll and anticipates Shakespeare’s apparently growing dissatisfaction with the artifice of comic resolutions – a tendency which becomes concretized in the ‘Problem Comedies’ which follow As You Like It before the commix vision is completely abandoned and the dramatist turns to darker facets of life in his tragedies.”

Jaques is not the only character who fails to indulge in the ‘idealism’ of Arden. The forest seems to have no effect on the characters who are already present in the forest like Corin, Audrey, Phebe, Silvius and Corin’s ‘master’. The plight of the lower classes is existent in Elizabethan England as well as Arden. The hierarchy of social order in Duke Senior and “his many merry men” also negates the purity of Arden as an ideal Edenic locus amoenus because in such a world, equality should reign. The Duke’s brave stoicism, is unable to dispel the reality and contradictions of this Golden Age. 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. Touchstone is another hindrance in Arden’s serenity and can be compared to the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear in his wit and wisdom. Contrary to Jaques’ melancholy and existential dilemmas, Touchstone is quite upbeat yet cynical. Even in Arden he cannot leave his courtly ways of deceit and greed. He constantly ridicules love and even tries to sexually exploit Audrey in Act II, Scene IV. Love is seen as a disease that brings to torment to the male lover, be it Silvius or Orlando. Orlando, in Arden, allows himself to shed the male reputation of power and perfection, and turn into a tortured lover in need of a “cure”. “The play breaks with the courtly love tradition by portraying love as a force for happiness and fulfilment and ridicules those who revel in their own suffering.” As written by C. L. Braber in The Alliance of Seriousness and Levity in As You Like It.

From the above we might infer that it is not Arden, the locus amoenus, that compels people to reflect harmony and goodwill but the situation that allows them to do so. However this can be contradicted with the example of the change of heart of the two usurpers of the play, Oliver and Duke Frederick, which could either be the effect of Arden or the plot’s need for a happy ending and new order. There is one more possibility i.e. the oppressors, by nature’s discourse, realise their folly and find in themselves a need for tranquillity which would be equally possible in the city.

In the ending, readers find themselves returned to reality by Rosalind stripping away not only the artifice of Arden but of her character as well. The revelry and wedding bells in the end restore the primary level of organisation of lawful society and thus we are reunited with order; a new order but order nonetheless. The play is a series of disjunctive contraries, pointing and counter-pointing different opinions, without giving anyone a final say. “As You Like It is a light-hearted comedy which appeals to the readers at all stages and all in lighter moods. It pleases some by its idyllic romance, others by its optimistic philosophy of simple goodness, and yet others by its cynical ironies. Indeed you can take this as you like it.” G. B. Harrison {ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952 (Page 776).}

[i] AS YOU LIKE IT An analysis of the play by William Shakespeare. Accessed on 25th March 2015.