Academic Papers

Subverting the Pastoral Theme in “As You Like It”

Did Shakespeare, like most of his contemporaries, praise the idyllic pastoral life? Or, did he subtly and ingeniously undercut it at every turn?

In 1889, The New York Times ran an article talking about the newest trend that had made its way to New York from England. They called it “Slumming” and said that it would be all the rage in the coming summer for well-to-do New Yorkers. The trend ended up lasting decades, and the “Popular neighborhoods for this voyeuristic pastime included Chinatown, Harlem and the Lowest East Side tenements, home to the ‘Hebrews.’” The practice saw a resurgence in the ‘80s and ‘90s as people once again found themselves fantasizing about the lives of the lower class (Lee). This is far from a modern trend, however. The upper classes of societies across the world have always had a twisted fascination with people they considered beneath them. The Ancient Romans, for example, had a holiday where, for one day a year, the masters became the slaves and the slaves became the masters. For Renaissance writers, this fascination took shape as stories and poems written in the pastoral theme where they would idealize the simple life of shepherds. William Shakespeare was seemingly no different and included the pastoral theme into some of his plays, most notably As You Like It. While the play certainly appears to adhere to many idyllic pastoral themes, it is, in the end, little more than a mockery of the theme and subverts its rules and practices at every turn.

While the play certainly appears to adhere to many idyllic pastoral themes, it is, in the end, little more than a mockery of the theme and subverts its rules and practices at every turn.

In his article discussing the trend of pastoral writing during the Renaissance, Homer Smith states, “The chief motive which actuates men to write this kind of literature is a desire to escape from the complexity of city life with its vices and follies, and to refresh themselves with the simplicity and freedom of the golden age” (356). The pastoral style started in the 300’s BCE with the Greek poet Theocritus (Pastoral). The hustle and bustle of the cities have, since the beginning of civilization, beat down their inhabitants and forced them into an endless monotony of daily life. It comes as no surprise, then, that people dreamed of a simpler life and that the pastoral theme would be popular. It is the reason that the story of Robin Hood (which Shakespeare mentions himself in the play) has remained a beloved tale throughout the ages. The problem, though, is that much of the writing done in this style did not present an accurate picture of what life in the farms and the fields was like and “Pastoral literature, therefore, includes not only all forms of idealized country life based on primitive shepherd life…but also much literature in which the characters represented are shepherds only in name, and in which the scene is rural only in a townsman’s imagination.” (Smith 358). Robin Hood’s storied life was pure fantasy, which is why Shakespeare decided to mention it and compare Duke Senior and his own merry men to the legendary bandits. In addition to the exaggerated lives of the shepherds, another major element of the pastoral theme Renaissance writers focused on was contentment, and the idea that living the simple life of a shepherd inevitably led to a more content life than those in the cities had. Shakespeare was able to take all of these pastoral themes and show how ridiculous they were.

The most important element of As You Like It that goes against the pastoral theme is the character Jaques. For starters, the Forest of Arden is supposedly a place of magic that turns everybody who enters it into good people as soon as they set foot inside of it (Rice). Yet this transformation never happens to Jaques. Not only does he fail to become happy upon entering the forest, but he is full of melancholy and states himself that his “is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects” (4.1.15-17). Instead of shoving this morose character to the background of the play, though, Shakespeare gives him one of the longest and most emphatic introductions of any character in any of his writings. Duke Senior introduces himself by speaking and uses twenty-five lines to build his character. The Duke and his men then take forty-five lines to introduce Jaques before the man has even made an appearance on the stage (Wilcox 391). Such a grand introduction for a character who flies in the face of everything the pastoral theme stands for only further emphasizes that Jaques’ role in the play is a dominant one.

Jaques is a character on the outside looking in, exposing the absurdity of the other characters and fantastical elements of the pastoral theme. He acts as a reminder to both the other characters and the audience that the melancholy of the world still exists, and that everybody must deal with it eventually

With such a dominant role, it then becomes important to compare the melancholy Jaques to other important malcontents in Shakespeare’s plays, specifically Don John and Iago. Both of those characters share Jaques brooding nature, yet both are the villains in their respective plays while Jaques is a villain in no way except towards the ideas of pastoral writing.

Even critics who discuss the play as a standard pastoral play acknowledge the oddity of Jaques. Paul Zajac writes that Jaques “serves as a source of considerable humor, but his own humors nevertheless put him at odds with the pastoral comedy’s key value of contentment” (329). He mocks everybody and everything in the play, and even his famous lines “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.139-140) can be seen as referring to the characters around him who are all putting on an act that the pastoral life is amazing.

Touchstone is a character who also stands at complete odds with the pastoral theme. Much like Jaques, he is immune to the supposed magical effects of the forest and, throughout the play, completely fails to grow as a character.

Jaques is a character on the outside looking in, exposing the absurdity of the other characters and fantastical elements of the pastoral theme. He acts as a reminder to both the other characters and the audience that the melancholy of the world still exists, and that everybody must deal with it eventually (Marshall 377). While the characters have their fun slumming it up in the magical forest, Jaques is always there to remind them that their foray into the pastoral life will come crumbling down on them at some point.

Touchstone is a character who also stands at complete odds with the pastoral theme. Much like Jaques, he is immune to the supposed magical effects of the forest and, throughout the play, completely fails to grow as a character. Instead of using melancholy as he does with Jaques, Shakespeare uses Touchstone to subvert the pastoral element that has the snobby man from the court entering the shepherd’s life and magically becoming a new man. Touchstone “plays it snobbishly and scornfully here; he appears to try to raise his own status by forcing his very marginal ‘inferiors’ into a considerably lower position than they actually merit” (Kronenfeld 344). One of the fool’s first acts in the Forest of Arden is to call the humble shepherd Corin a clown. He then responds to the question of who is calling by responding “Your betters, sir” (2.4.45). His manners fail to improve throughout the play. When Corin asks him how he likes the country life, Touchstone responds by basically saying “It’s great if you’re a dumb farmer, but terrible for a classy gentleman like me!” Shakespeare then uses Touchstone to twist the idea of the gentleman from the city falling in love with the charm of the simple country maiden. Instead, Touchstone tricks Audrey into marrying him and threatens her other suitor William with death if he does not stop pursuing her. A person enchanted by the pastoral life and magic of the forest would change and become better, yet Touchstone fails to improve and maintains his snobbery throughout the play.

In addition to those two characters, Shakespeare manages to subvert several other key elements of the pastoral theme. The first of these is the idea that a pastoral life leads to freedom and that a person can escape the horrors of the burdens of their former life to live a new life in the woods and pastures. The end of the play destroys this idea, especially for Rosalind. She “gives up the freedoms and possibilities of Ganymede in order to marry Orlando: she strongly embraces femininity as a limit” (Marshall 389). Instead of escaping the court and living free in the woods, she tells Orlando at the end of the play “To you I give myself, for I am yours” (5.4.116) and gives up any chance that she may have had at a new and free life. She now belongs to Orlando in every way.

Rosalind at least had a choice in the matter. A far more sinister loss of freedom is the case of Phoebe. She makes it clear throughout the play that she has no interest whatsoever in being with Silvius and rebukes him constantly. At the end of the play, though, Rosalind tricks her and forces her to marry the man she despises. This is a marriage that is far more reminiscent of an arranged marriage at court than a marriage of love in the pastoral themed stories, robbing the young woman of being able to decide the course of her life for herself and her freedom.

By far the largest theme that Shakespeare subverts in the play is the idea of contentment. English Renaissance writers focused much of their attention on the idea of contentment with one’s life, often turning to the popular pastoral themes to do so (Zajac 309). This was clearly a focus for Shakespeare because the word “content,” or a variant of it, appears 10 times throughout the play. What makes it noteworthy, though, is that almost every time a character mentions being content, some disaster or hardship almost immediately finds them.

The first example in the play of this is when Rosalind and Celia are escaping the court to head out to the forest (Zajac 321). The last lines of the scene are Celia saying, “Now go we in content / To liberty, and not to banishment” (1.3.135-136). She seems happy to be leaving, thinking that she is going on some grand adventure where she will find freedom and happiness. In the very next scene the women appear in they have entered the Forest of Arden and are on the verge of collapse. Touchstone is lamenting his sore feet, Rosalind is wishing she could give up her act of a man and cry, and Celia states that she can go no further. The magical forest and the pastoral setting have failed to take care of them. If they had not been lucky enough to run into Corin, who knows how much longer they would have made it?

Orlando has given up fighting for his right to be educated like a proper gentleman and is now ready to flee into the forest where he thinks everything will be great for him. The very next scene he appears in has him barging in on Duke Senior’s party as they are about to eat, sword in hand, ready to kill somebody over a little bit of food.

The next instance of misplaced contentment comes with Duke Senior talking to his merry men about how great their lives are now that they live in the forest. His speech seems less like a man stating facts, and more like a man who’s trying to convince others—and maybe even himself—of something none of them fully believe in. No matter how fantastical the Duke tries to make it, “This bracketing of linguistically constructed reality means that banishments, displacements, and disguises are never totally realized…Inevitably some trace of what they try to repress remains behind” (Marshall 381). His words seem great, but the entire group still realizes deep down that their old lives have been destroyed, and they are now forced to live in the woods like peasants.

Orlando continues this trend when he and Adam flee their home to also head into the Forest of Arden (Zajac 322). Orlando says, “We’ll go along together, / And ere we have thy youthful wages spent, / We’ll light on some settled low content” (2.3.66-68). He has given up fighting for his right to be educated like a proper gentleman and is now ready to flee into the forest where he thinks everything will be great for him. The very next scene he appears in has him barging in on Duke Senior’s party as they are about to eat, sword in hand, ready to kill somebody over a little bit of food. Both he and Adam are close to dying of starvation and he is so desperate that he is willing to become a brigand just to save himself. In a traditional pastoral play, the magical forest would have provided for the characters the minute they stepped into it, but Shakespeare instead shows the reality of the situation; if people go wandering around the woods alone, they are generally not going to do very well for themselves.

Contentment is not only material goods, though. Zajac notes that contentment “characteristically suggests self-sameness and stability” but Rosalind “shifts her identity as the occasion demands” (327). The hero of any good pastoral story is supposed to head out and find out who they are and grow as a character. Rosalind, though, never settles on any one personality. She starts as a sad woman, becomes a lost man, then becomes the estranged lover pretending to be a man who is pretending to be a woman who is helpful to Orlando but harsh to Phoebe. By the end of the play she is once again a regular woman and is heading back to the same situation that she started the play in—living her life under the control of a man. It is fair to say that she learned nothing from her time in the forest pretending to be a man and has shown no growth throughout the play.

The final example of the destruction of the idea of contentment from the forest comes from the ending of the play. A good pastoral story would have all the characters staying in the forest and living out their new happy lives with their gained knowledge. This is not what happens in this play, however. As soon as word reaches the group that Duke Frederick has given up the crown and returned everything to Duke Senior, the whole party rejoices that they get to go back home. Duke Senior tells the messenger, this second Jaques:

“First, in this forest let us do those ends

That here were well begun and well begot;

And after, every of this happy number

That have endured shrewd days and nights with us

Shall share the good of our returned fortune

According to the measure of their states”

(5.4.169-174)

This response to being able to return home directly contradicts the speech that Duke Senior made earlier in the play about the joys of living in the forest, and he is immediately putting people back into a social hierarchy. If the Forest of Arden was as magical and amazing as he made it out, and adhered to traditional pastoral themes, they would have refused the offer to return home. Instead, they drop the act they had all been putting on and plan to escape the forest and head back to court as soon as possible.

The Encyclopædia Britannica describes pastoral literature as a “class of literature that presents the society of shepherds as free from the complexity and corruption of city life.” Robin Hood, once again, is an almost perfect example of this idea. A group of outcasts who have fun adventures as they harass the hapless Prince John, living a life of freedom away from the tyranny of the town and its sheriff. On the surface of As You Like It Shakespeare appears to do the same. The Forest of Arden seems to create a magical effect on just about everybody who enters it. The story is full of new love and different characters attending love school in their own way. The play even seems to end on a happy note, with everybody getting married, the magical forest defeating the bad Duke, and the good Duke getting to go back to his rightful place. But every use of traditional pastoral themes comes with a dark side attached and nobody in the play grows or learns anything of value other than Duke Frederick becoming a God-fearing man. Jaques, having known all along that the entire venture was a scam, refuses to go back with the party and stays in the woods with the only honest character in the play. Shakespeare, in all his genius, took the pastoral theme and shredded it in this work and was able to do so in a way that would go unnoticed by most of his audience. He understood far better than his contemporaries that the pastoral theme of his age was essentially no different from the modern-day practice of slumming; an unrealistic and exploitive fantasy that causes more harm than good.

Works Cited

Kronenfeld, Judy Z. “Social Rank and the Pastoral Ideals of As You Like It.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 1978, pp. 333–348. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2869144 Accessed 30 March. 2020.

Lee, Jennifer. “When ‘Slumming’ Was the Thing to Do.” The New York Times, 6 July 2009, https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/when-slumming-was-the-thing-to-do/.

Marshall, Cynthia. “The Doubled Jaques and Constructions of Negation in As You Like It.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 4, 1998, pp. 375–392. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2902234. Accessed 2 Apr. 2020.

“Pastoral Literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 Apr. 2016. https://www.britannica.com/art/pastoral-literature. Accessed 1 Apr. 2020.

Rice, Allen. “As You Like It.” Lecture. 6 Feb. 2020, Edmond, OK.

Smith, Homer. “Pastoral Influence in the English Drama.” PMLA, vol. 12, no. 3, 1897, pp. 355–460. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/456249. Accessed 1 Apr. 2020.

Wilcox, John. “Putting Jaques into ‘As You Like It.’” The Modern Language Review, vol. 36, no. 3, 1941, pp. 388–394. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3717519. Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.

Zajac, Paul Joseph. “The Politics of Contentment: Passions, Pastoral, and Community in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 113, no. 2, 2016, pp. 306–336., http://www.jstor.org/stable/43921889. Accessed 2 Apr. 2020.

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