'As you like it" is one of the darker comedies of Shakespeare's and is largely based on pastoral tradition that was very popular during Renaissance. This comedy especially draws inspiration from a pastoral novel by Thomas Lodge entitled "Rosalynde." Published in 1590, this romance by Lodge provided all the material that Shakespeare later needed for his own comedy including the exiled ruler, the animosity between two brothers, young women in disguise present in a forest etc. Shakespeare's version of the pastoral comedy is definitely richer. His characters have more depth and his forest is not a lonely place. It has some lively and interesting characters such as Touchstone and Jaques and the work on the whole is not bounded by pastoral traditions even though it certainly belonged to that genre. Corin, William and Audrey are not shallow characters, instead they are fully developed ones that offer an insight and add more flavor to the plot. (Mabillard, 2004)
Pastoral literature was escapist in nature. Rapin in his "Dissertatio de carmine pastorali," of 1659 described pastoral as "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." It had the feel-good value that came with all fairy tales and stories of escape and adventure. Forest was almost always the central setting of these plays and it served as an important piece in completing the escapist picture. Some of the other vital characteristics of pastoral literature included shepherds who were passionately in love and professed their love in most elaborate language, unrequited love was common, love at first sight was an accepted tradition and some kind of supernatural/magical elements were always present.
After seeing Shakespeare at his comic best in comedies such as Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer-Night's Dream, 'As you Like It' appears darker, more serious where comedy almost seems 'forced'. The Forest in this case is not the usually jovial place of pastoral literature, but is infested with some genuinely seriously problems. For this reason, comic element in the play appears 'forced'- as if it had to be entered to help the play maintain its balance and not tilt more towards tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth. Forest of Arden thus enjoys the presence of some complicated characters with even more complex behavior that generates laughter and lightens the mood. There is humor and sometimes a healthy dose of it actually makes the play appear less serious but on and on his humor fails to produce happiness, the way it does in other comedies.
Forest of Arden is presented as the land of pastoral delight or escape. It generates in readers a genuine interest when Oliver learns about it from the wrestler Charles. The old Duke had been "banished by his younger brother the new Duke" (1.1.91-92) and was now living in the forest:
OLIVER. Where will the old Duke live?
CHARLES. They say he is already in the Forest of Arden....
many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.
The play has anything but a jovial feel in the first Act but to restore the pastoral mood, it quickly shifts to comedy in the next Act. This was done primarily to keep in line with pastoral tradition and the Duke's speech accomplished it quite well:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
But Duke's "good" doesn't encompass the sweetness and lightness of other comedies and while Forest of Arden is more like heaven to him, it is definitely not free of its due share of problems. So while the "churlish chiding of the winter's wind," may not really be as torturous as it can sometimes be, it definitely enjoys a pervasive presence in the forest. Thus Forest of Arden, according to Helen Gardner, "is not a place where the laws of nature are abrogated and roses are without their thorns." The forest is not a happy place- free of cares or worries. It can be a dangerous land and the presence of danger is highlighted by Oliver's encounter with Orlando which Oliver latter described as:
A wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair,
Lay sleeping on his back. About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreath'd itself,
Who with her head nimble in threats approach'd
The opening of his mouth; but suddenly,
Seeing Orlando, it unlink'd itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush....
Serpent indicates that Forest of Arden wasn't at all the land of pastoral wonder that Oliver had envisioned. It was more of a perilous ditch of death. The dark side of the Forest is further accentuated by the presence of the lioness that attempts to kill Oliver:
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay crouching, head on ground, with catlike watch,
When that the sleeping man should stir....
This seen, Orlando did approach the man,
And found it was his brother, his elder brother....
... kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him....
In brief, he led me to the gentle Duke,
Who gave me fresh array and entertainment,
Committing me unto my brother's love;
Who led me instantly into his cave,
There stripp'd himself, and here upon his arm
The lioness had torn some flesh away,
Which all this while had bled....
Forest of Arden has also been compared to Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest since in the beginning we notice Charles saying that "in the forest of Arden" the Duke and others "live like the old Robin Hood of England" [1.1.105-9]). This sign was made to prove that Forest was not a land of pastoral delight. It was created in a much darker light and Shakespeare wanted it to be taken as such. It is for this reason that we find a twisted form of love that grows in the Forest. Romantic love is no longer the norm and is actually replaced by lovesickness that borders on madness. We find Orlando madly carving into bark of trees:
O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character; ...
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she.
This carving is actually a clear indication of Shakespeare's interest in deviating from fixed pastoral traditions. By carving, Orlando was ruining the environment that pastoral literature held dear. Thomas Rosenmeyer in his work The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric, describes this carving as "pretty vulgarism" and calls it "self-defeating attack upon the surface of trees." (p. 203).
The Forest is now transformed into a shepherd's world where love sickness rules and brother against brother saga retreats into the background. This may also have a political message when see from that aspect. In 1600, forests were ruthlessly destroyed to use its wood to amass funds for Irish wars (Wilson). The defacing of trees in 'As you like it' can be seen as a political opinion. However for the sake of narrowing down our discussion, let us come back to the theme of lovesickness. Court, kingdom, palaces and conquest are no longer as important as shepherd style of love. This unrequited love is all consuming and this transformation is signaled by the entrance of Touchstone and of Corin (a shepherd) who indulge in accusation and counter-accusations about which life is better:
CORIN. And how like you this shepherd's life, Master Touchstone ?
TOUCHSTONE. Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is nought. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.... Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?
CORIN. No more but that I know the more one sickens the worse at ease he is; ... that good pasture makes fat sheep; and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun; ...
Orlando's love is not treated with respect as it would have been in pure pastoral literature. Instead it is repeated condemned and is often associated with lunacy. Rosalind accuses him of abusing the forest with his mad behavior: