Shakespeare’s themes are often expressed in terms of oppositions, such as the conflicting values associated with fair and foul in Macbeth. As You Like It is no exception. Running throughout As You Like It is a tension of antithesis between the natural (that which is free, spontaneous, and wholesome) and the artificial (that which is constrained, calculated, and unnatural). The clash between these two ways of life is seen on several levels: (1) social: in the values associated with civilized society (the court or a great country estate) compared with the value of simple living (the open pastures and the forest encampment); (2) familial: in the strife that sets brother against brother and parent against child; and (3) personal: in the contrast between courtships that are based upon genuine emotion (Orlando and Rosalind) and those that are based on formal conventions (Silvius and Phebe). These various levels are not kept distinct in the play, however, and disorder in one area is likely to parallel disorder in another.
The first scene of the play introduces us to organized life on a country estate. Here the close ties that should unite brothers have been perverted. The unnaturalness of the situation is made clear in Orlando’s opening speech. He has been kept from his modest patrimony, his gentle birth has been undermined, and he speaks of “mutiny” and “servitude.” Oliver’s brutal treatment of the faithful servant Adam, whom he addresses as an “old dog,” shows that the disorder affects other members of the household as well. In the same scene we learn of an earlier, parallel perversion of normal family life, but here the roles are reversed, with the young men’s father, a younger brother abusing his older brother. The wrestler, Charles, reports that “the old Duke is banished by his younger brother, the new Duke.” On the social level, the corruption of the great estate is matched by the debasement of court life.
But in opposition to these sinister currents, we witness a strong element of harmony between relations: Celia loves her cousin Rosalind so much that she will follow her into exile or else stay behind with her and die. And we learn too of a harmonious social order established by the banished Duke Senior and his “merry men” in the Forest of Arden. Thus the opposition between court and country, the natural and the artificial, is established at the outset of the play.
In Act I, Scene 2, the corruptions of court life are overtly shown; there is little subtlety here. For example, the clown speaks jestingly of a knight without honor who has nevertheless prospered under Frederick, the reigning duke. Not long afterwards, Orlando, who has just won the wrestling match, is denied the honor due him for his triumph because his father, whom “the world esteem’d . . . honourable,” was the usurper’s enemy. The natural values subverted in the earlier scenes find glowing representation in Act II, Scene 1 — that is, “painted pomp,” “the envious court,” and “public haunt” give way to the uncomplicated rewards of a life close to trees and running brooks. Here, the banished Duke Senior and his “co-mates and brothers in exile” find their existence “sweet.” But to achieve full contentment they have had to adjust themselves to the natural hardships of their lot — “the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind.”
The pattern of accommodation is one that the various fugitives in the Forest of Arden go through; to them, the forest at first appears wild rather than green, and threatening rather than hospitable. Rosalind complains that her spirits are weary; Celia is too exhausted to continue; Touchstone frankly declares, “When I was at home, I was in a better place.” Orlando and Adam almost starve, and Orlando speaks of the “uncouth [rough] forest,” “the bleak air,” and “this desert.” Oliver becomes a “wretched ragged man” threatened by savage beasts.
But all of these characters eventually make their peace with the forest, and even the tyrant, Duke Frederick, is converted when he comes “to the skirts of this wild.” For Orlando, the reconciliation is effected when he, along with Adam, joins Duke Senior’s feast. The grand movement of the play, then, is from organized society to the country, from constraint to freedom, and from hardship to joy. “Now go we in content,” Celia says on the eve of her exile, “to liberty, and not to banishment.”
Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden furnishes the setting against which most of the action unfolds, but it serves as much more than a mere backdrop. The greenwood assumes symbolic stature. First of all, it is an “idyllic forest.” The words used by Charles to describe Duke Senior’s life in the forest suggest an idyllic existence, and in the famous pastoral romances of Shakespeare’s day, a world is created in which shepherds and shepherdesses sing, pipe tunes, and make love while their flocks graze carelessly in green valleys bright with the sunshine of eternal summer. This golden world, needless to say, has little relation to the actualities of country living in any age, yet it is the artist’s fulfillment of the universal longing to flee burdensome realities and find quietude and peace. In Shakespeare’s time, no less than in ours, people felt the need for just such an escape. This idyllic concept of Arden is introduced, as was noted, by the rumor reported by Charles in the first scene, and to this Forest of Arden (a name that has since become synonymous with a forest utopia) belong such creatures as Silvius and Phebe, whose names and behavior link them to later Acadian literature. These characters are absorbed entirely in the sighing disquietudes of love, as only the shepherds and shepherdesses of romance can afford to do.
The greenwood of Arden is also, of course, symbolic of an “actual forest.” Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden is subject to the changes wrought by the seasons, and even the stoic Duke Senior admits finally that he and his company have suffered “shrewd days and nights.”
Furthermore, the presence of Touchstone and Jaques in the forest provides what one critic has called “counterstatements” to the theme of rural contentment. To Jaques, the exchange of civilized comfort for country hardships is symptomatic of human stubbornness, as his contemptuous parody of “under the greenwood tree” makes evident (II.v.52-59). Touchstone, on the other hand, is an example of Shakespeare’s sense of irony about pastoral joys, for he plays the role of a discontented exile from the court. Under the guise of apparent nonsense in his reply to Corin’s query about how he likes the shepherd’s life (III.ii.12-22), Touchstone mocks the contradictory nature of the desires ideally resolved by pastoral life — that is, to be at the same time at court and in the fields and to enjoy both the advantages of rank, in addition to the advantages of the classless estate of Arden. This sort of humor goes to the heart of the pastoral convention and shows how very clearly Shakespeare understood it and could use it to its best, humorous advantage.
The realities of country living are squarely faced in the characters of Audrey, who is no beauteous damsel; William, who is no poetical swain; and Corin, who is a simple “true labourer” in the pastures. If Silvius and Phebe find their places in Shakespeare’s complex Arden, their romancing is presented as frankly artificial, in contrast with both the elemental, biological basis of Touchstone’s pursuit of Audrey and the profoundly felt love experienced by Rosalind and Orlando. Thus, Silvius and Phebe, pastoral stereotypes, provide another instance of the opposition between the natural and the unnatural, which is always a dominant thematic concern of the play.