Traditionally, a pastoral is a poem focusing on shepherds and rustic life; it first appeared as a literary form in the third century C.E. The term itself is derived from pastor, the Latin word for ‘‘shepherd.’’ A pastoral may contain artificial or unnatural elements, such as shepherd characters speaking with courtly eloquence or appearing in aristocratic dress. This poetic convention evolved over centuries until many of its features were incorporated into prose and drama. It was in these literary forms that pastoralism influenced English literature from about 1550 to 1750, most often as pastoral romance, a model featuring songs and characters with traditional pastoral aspects. Many of these elements can be seen in the source for Shakespeare’s play, Thomas Lodge’s popular pastoral novel Rosalynde, written in 1590. But by the time Shakespeare adapted Lodge’s tale into As You Like It nearly a decade later, many pastoral themes were considered trite.
As a result, Shakespeare treated pastoralism ambiguously in the comedy. Without doubt, the audience is meant to be intoxicated by the carefree atmosphere of the forest along with the main characters, who are essentially given the freedom to concern themselves only with romantic love. The image of Orlando dashing from tree to tree hanging up his poems is perhaps the most emblematic of the play as a whole. Also, with the usurper Frederick as the head of the dukedom and the magnanimous Duke Senior overseeing life in the forest, each setting is endowed with the characteristics of its figurehead; the connotations of the forest are almost exclusively positive. In the speech in which Duke Senior introduces Arden, he praises the ‘‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything’’ (2.1.16–7).
On the other hand, the audience is rarely given respite from Jaques, whose melancholy is not really lessened by the forest, and Touchstone, who incessantly disparages both forest life in Arden and forest dwellers. While some of Touchstone’s comments are merely absurd— such as portraying Corin as a sinner for not having been at court—their presence nonetheless prevents a wholly idealistic tone from taking over. Perhaps most tellingly, the comedy’s resolution entails the entire company returning to court rather than remaining in the forest. Overall, As You Like It can be viewed as either an endorsement or a satire of the literary form of the pastoral—and that duality is nowhere more evident than in the play’s title. Take your choice.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007