While the term urban would not be coined until 1619, at the beginning of the seventeenth century London was without doubt an essentially urban locale, with a total population of some two hundred thousand. Thus life in the city would have been remarkably different from life in the countryside, with the residents of the respective milieus perhaps perceiving one another as virtual foreigners. Shakespeare drew on these differences heavily in As You Like It, juxtaposing aristocrats and philosophers from the upper echelons of the dukedom like Jaques and Touchstone with simplistic woodland folk like William and Audrey. The conversations between the educated and the uneducated are some of the most comical of the play. Overall, the importance of the setting may have been relatively small, as the stage would not have been decorated with any backdrop or props conjuring the feel of the forest; only the actors’ words and costumes and the spectators’ imaginations would have placed the action in the fictional forest. Further, Shakespeare focuses foremost on the love stories, not on the practicalities of forest life.
The English Satirists
The character of Jaques has been recognized not only as a fairly common Elizabethan literary personage—the traveler who has returned home to be generally discontented with life—but also as a representative of a group of satirists writing during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Englishmen who had availed themselves of the satiric format to address the era’s social conditions included John Davies, John Harington, Ben Jonson, Thomas Bastard, and John Weaver. An order put forth by the monarchy on June 1, 1599, called for the burning of many satirical works and banned any future production of work of that genre. Shakespearean scholars have assumed that when Celia states, ‘‘Since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show’’ (1.2.85–7), the line is meant to refer to the 1599 order.
One characteristic of the English satirists was that they restricted their commentary to impersonal, generic claims, such that they could not be accused of targeting any individuals in particular. In expressing his desire to become a fool so as to safely comment on society’s ills, Jaques notes that he would not ‘‘tax any private party’’ (2.7.71) but would speak broadly and allow anyone who has done wrong to suit ‘‘his folly to the mettle of my speech’’ (2.7.82). In his text Shakespeare’s Satire, Oscar James Campbell offers a succinct description of what the author may have intended to communicate to his audiences through his depiction of Jaques: ‘‘Shakespeare’s ridicule of Jaques… is amused disapproval of the headlong moral ardor which the satirists in both poem and play felt or pretended to feel. Such a temper, Shakespeare says, is ridiculous and utterly destructive to the comic spirit.’’
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