One of the most deep rooted themes in As You Like It is the contrast between city and country life, which in the play manifests itself as the contrast between life in court and life in the forest. Many of the poets and writers in Shakespeare’s day lived in the court, or at least in the city of London, and they spent much of their time pondering the instability and intricacies of court life, and wondering if a simpler life in the country would be more desirable. ‘I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger’ (1. 1. 137-8)’ Neck breaking is considered entertainment at Duke Fredereick’s Court.
Also, Oliver’s desire to see the court wrestler kill his little brother emphasises how dangerous life in court can be. These attitudes gave way to a literary form called the ‘pastoral’. In pastoral plays life in the country is romanticized, and elegant characters are placed into an idealistic and simplified ‘natural’ world, in which characters such as shepherds are used to be critical of life in the court and city. In As You Like It, the main characters ‘escape’ court life and travel to the Forest of Arden where they discover their true natures and feelings.
They are free from the burdens of title and responsibility, and are free to form relationships with one another as they please. In Act I, scene I, Orlando bemoans the injustice of life with Oliver and proclaims he ’know[s] no wise remedy how to avoid it’ (I. i. 20–21). This is an early indication of his dissatisfaction with his current situation. However, later on in the scene, the ‘remedy’ is made clear by Charles when he makes note on the whereabouts of Duke Senior and his followers, ‘in the forest of Arden . . . many young gentlemen . . . fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’ (I. i. 99–103).
In Greek mythology, the “golden age” is the first “stage of man,” when the world enjoyed peace, happiness, prosperity, and perfect weather. For Charles, this is analogous to the history of England, and when city life was far less common. Charles speaks of the ‘merry men’ (I. i. 110) of the Forest. When in exile in the Forest of Arden, Duke Senior speaks of how he’s finding his current life ‘more sweet’ (II. ii. 2) than his life in the court, and that people are free here from the ‘envious court’ (II. ii. 4).
In other words, everyone in the court seems to be two-faced and untrustworthy. Afterwards, Duke Senior explains how even though the weather in the court is not ideal, he barely notices its ‘icy fang’ (II. ii. 6). A significant thing about this passage is the way in which Duke Senior likens the passage to Eden before the fall of man. Like many people, Duke Senior sees bad weather as part of the curse laid upon man as punishment. It’s now worth noting that ‘Arden’ has got its name from a combination of two themes, Greek Mythology and Christianity, and the paradises of Arcadia and Eden.
Later on in the act, all the Lords who have left the Court break out into song and proclaim life in Forest as being opposite for the better from life in court. People of the Forest are described as being ‘pleased with what he gets’ (II. v. 37), and there is described as being no enemy in Forest except ‘winter and rough weather’ (II. v. 41). Jacques, however, points out the failings of the pastoral ideal. He describes men who come to the Forest as leaving behind their ‘wealth and ease’ (II. vi. 48), and labels them ‘gross fools’ (II. vi. 52) for doing so.
He does however concede that any man who did come to the Forest would still find him there. Later on, Orlando explains he thought that everything in the forest would be ‘savage’ (II. vii. 107) and that ‘therefore I put on the countenance of stern commandment’ (II. vii. 108-9). In other words, he tried to act savage himself because he saw the Forest as savage. He also means savage in contrast to the Court, which is ironic because the Court has been more savage to him than the Forest ever could be.
The argument between Corin the shepherd and Touchstone in Act 3, scene 1 is a good example of one about whether court or country life is preferable. Corin asks Touchstone how he is finding life in the country. Touchstone replies ‘Truly, Shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a Shepherd’s life it is naught’ (III. ii. 14-15). Touchstone is commenting on how even though he finds life in the forest pleasant, it is not worth giving up his job and title for.
Touchstone continues ‘in respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that is private, it is a very vile life’ (III. ii. 16-17). Touchstone stone is again commenting again on how a peaceful life in the forest is one without fame, although the words ‘solitary’ and ‘private’ are used for comic effect, as they mean practically the same thing. Touchstone explains that he would grow to find life in the forest tedious and dull, compared to that of life in court. Corin replies that the ‘more one sickens, the worse at ease he is, and that he wants money’ (III. ii. 22-23).
As far as Corin is concerned one ‘sickens’ as they live in court, in reference to the fact that illness spreads more easily in more densely populated areas, or that simply it is unhealthy for the mind to be away from nature. Afterwards he is bemoaning those whose only interest is acquiring money and is content without ‘three good friends’ (III. ii. 24), all of which turn out to be things one would associate with life in the forest. The argument continues, and for never having lived in court Touchstone tells Corin ‘Then thou art damned’ (III. ii. 35).
Touchstone explains that without court ‘thou never sawest good manners’ (III. ii. 39), referring more to behaviour from a moral standpoint than to actual manners, as he describes those without these ‘manners’ as ‘wicked’ (III. ii. 40). Corin protests with a relativist argument, pointing out how what’s seen as good behaviour in the court appears ridiculous in the forest, and vice versa. ‘That courtesy would be uncleanly if courtiers were shepherds’ (III. ii. 48). A significant thing about the forest however is that it’s only ever a temporary refuge. and even though life there does appear joyous for a while everyone ultimately returns to court and restores their original jobs and titles.