As You Like It as a Pastoral Comedy

As You Like It as a Pastoral Comedy

As You Like It as a Pastoral Comedy

What is Pastoralism?

By a pastoral comedy we mean a play in which the characters belong to the rustic class, specially shepherds and shepherdesses. The situations of such plays are romantically simple and pure and innocent, and the story usually delineates the peaceful and enviable life of these figures who love and enjoy life in an ideal fashion. They have no cares and burdens. They always get what they wish, and they end in a happy atmosphere of joy and felicity. Such, in the main, are the elements of a pastoral story whether in fiction or in drama.

This pastoral convention as it is often called, was first exploited and introduced by the ancient Greek poet, Theocritus. As an offset to artificial existence which civilization compelled the Greeks to lead, their poets and playwrights were led to compose imaginary scenes in which men and women lived a natural and simple life as distinguished from the complex and artificial life of over-civilized people. The convention became a popular literary mode in the Renaissance.

Pastoral Elements in As You Like It

It is easy to see how As You Like It conforms to the conventions of the pastoral tradition. We find, for example, a plentiful crop of rustic scenes and situations of shepherds and shepherdesses, and all the other associations of a pastoral life. Even the principal figure of the comedy, the heroine herself, takes to the life and manners of the shepherds in the major portion of the play. Rosalind buys the estate of a shepherd in the Forest of Arden and lives the life of simplicity and unsophisticated innocence. Besides, it is as a disguised shepherd youth that Rosalind appears in her best wit and intelligence. Her mock wooing of Orlando, her complications as a girl in the dress of a boy and, finally, her splendid resources of wit in reducing all these complications to an easy and happy ending-all these prove that Shakespeare exploited the pastoral convention in the service of comedy.

The Forest of Arden: Scene of Pastoral Bliss

Life in Arden is free from envies, jealousies and intrigues. It is one of simplicity and naturalness-hard but sweet-different from the life of ‘painted pomp’ and flattery to which Duke Senior makes a pointed reference in his famous speech on the sweetness of adversity. Driven into exile by his usurping brother, the Duke goes to Arden to seek peace, freedom and serenity in the midst of Nature’s sights and sounds. He comes here to

“Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks,

Sermons in stones and good in everything.”

But life here is not one of pure enjoyment. It has its sufferings, but Sorrows and sufferings have a chastising quality. Winter and rough weather make life doubly hard. Food has to be hunted wherever it can be found. But it has its compensations in the shape of peace beauty and freedom.

Rosalind comes to it, having been banished by her uncle, Duke Frederick Celia follows her out of sisterly affection and Touchstone follows the princesses on Celia’s request. Life at the court was one of ‘slavery’ of too many restrictions and inhibitions but the Forest of Arden seems to signify liberty, and not punishment. Orlando arrives in the Forest of Arden with Adam, seeking refuge from the wickedness of his brother. Oliver comes here to seek Orlando. Duke Frederick comes to it with a large army, moved by a ferocious idea; he wants to catch hold of his brother and put him to the sword. Chance brings him to a holy hermit whose influence makes him give up his ‘bloody intention’. He repents of his evil ways, turns an anchorite, and restores the dukedom to its rightful owner. His reward is spiritual bliss.

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Happiness comes to all who come to Arden, Thus Rosalind and Orlando get each other. Chance stumbles Oliver into a lucky marriage, for we must say, he gets more than he deserves. He also gains the goodwill of his brother, and achieves mental calm. As to the Duke and his band, they are all ultimately restored to their original possessions. Even Touchstone is no loser, for he gets Audrey, an ugly country wench, but he seems to get as much pleasure out of “ugliness as others get from beauty. Happiness comes not only to those who temporarily make Arden their home, but also to some natives through those visitors. Thus Silvius succeeds in his passion for Phebe through the trick employed by Rosalind.

Realism not Ignored

We may, however, note one thing while discussing As You Like It as a pastoral comedy. The pastoral creation of the ancient writers usually verge on the improbable and almost fantastic side. This results in the impression of artificiality in an endeavour to escape from it. But in the consummate art of Shakespeare even the idealization which is inevitable in the application of the pastoral convention is touched with probability and realism with the result that his characters remain endearingly human Their motives may be romantic but their passions and sentiments are human and worldly-wise. In other words, it may be said that in Shakespeare’s hands the pastoral convention is humanized.

Shakespeare’s Pastoralism not Conventional

As You Like It came directly out of Lodge’s pastoral romance Rosalynde. It is pastoral in its rustic scenes and situations, shepherds and shepherdesses, and other usual associations of a pastoral life. The setting is pastoral. The Forest of Arden forms the real background of the play, the greater part of the play being associated with forest scenes. It is true we cannot forget the court, but the courtly life here merely sets off the pastoral life. All the major characters of the play come to be associated with wood land life even though they do not really belong to the woods. Shakespeare also takes care to introduce some real shepherds and shepherdesses. Thus we have the Phebe-Silvius plot which enhances the pastoral and woodland element. Even their love is the conventional love of the pastoral Corin, Audrey, William, and Sir Oliver Martext, even though the part they play is mall and unnecessary to the main theme are some truly rural characters in the play.

Apart from the setting and characters, the spirit of the true pastoral-carefree abandonment and gaiety-animates all the major characters in spite of their apparent adversities. The Duke has lost his dukedom, but, perfectly in tune with his surroundings, he manages to be cheerful. However, the other side of the picture is never forgotten.

“This wide and universal theatre

Presents more woeful pageants than the scene

Where we play in”

Touchstone is there to remind everyone of the inadequacy of this life. The truth of the matter is that in the hands of Shakespeare pastoralism does not remain untouched by reality. His broadening humanity refused to accept the artificialities of the pastoral convention as such. His representation of the pastoral is thus rendered truthful. No life, as Touchstone tells us, is absolutely good or bad, pleasant or miserable.

Curious Blend of Pastoralism and Burlesque of Pastoralism

The pastoral note is deepened by the introduction of Phebe, the fair but unkind shepherdess; Silvius, the despairing lover; and Corin, the old shepherd, who soothes Silvius. Phebe, the proud disdainful shepherdess, is an Arcadian coquette. She has all the charms associated with a pastoral nymph, inky brows, black silky hair, bulging eye balls, and cheeks of cream. She has a pretty gift of language. Her taunting speech to Silvius is a charming piece of logic. The poetic shepherd youth, Silvius, is the victim of love sickness. He is blind to all defects in the goddess of his devotion. He is not to be discouraged by ridicule from loving her. He is made of sighs and tears, faith and service, passion and adoration.

Old Corin is the shepherd whom Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone meet on their arrival in Arden. The kindly old man makes the travellers welcome at the empty sheepcote. The sylvan life of the forest is faithfully represented by Corin who confesses (Act III. Sc. II)

“Sir, I am a true labourer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my cows grate and my lambs suck.”

Pitted against this pastoral life we have in As You Like It the genial humour of Rosalind, the professional humour of Touchstone and the melancholy humour of Jaques. Rosalind is pitted against the pastoral lovers-Silvius and Phebe. She ruthlessly brings home to Phebe that an uglier woman than she (Phebe) does not exist in the world, and therefore she does not like her : “Pray you, do not fall in love with me, I am false than vows made in wine, besides, I like you not”. Touchstone likes to have a fling at the pastoral lovers-Silvius and Phebe. But he goes a step further. He woos the rustic Audrey with folly, and with fcily he frightens away his rival William. His marriage is a satire on the pastoral marriages in the play because while others fall in love with beauty, he falls in love with ugliness He plays a match with Corin of court-folly against pastoral wit. Finally, he delivers a lecture on the theme of the pastoral life which is disliked by him.

Such is the satire on pastoral life that one finds in As You Like It. Jaques’ morbid humour is turned upon every element of life around him-particularly pastoral life. He ridicules the forest life when he points out that the Duke has been unwise in leaving behind the comforts and luxuries of the court life and embracing the hardships and discomforts of the forest life.

There is one man in the countryside who actually prefers the court. Finding himself in Arden, Touchstone decides : “When I was at home, I was in a better place.” It is no doubt important that he is a Fool, whose values may well be topsy-turvy. But in one word he reminds us that there are such things as domestic comforts. And presently we find that the old man whom society throws into the corner is likely in the “uncouth forest” to die of hunger and exposure to the “bleak air.” There is clearly something to be said on the other side; the fool may anatomize the wise man’s folly. And there is also Jaques to point out that the natural life in Arden, where men usurp the forest from the deer and kill them in their native dwelling place”, while deer, like men, are in distress abandoned by their friends, Is as cruel and unnatural as the other. When Amiens sings under greenwood trees and turns his merry note unto the sweet birds throat, inviting us to shun ambition and be pleased with what we get, Jaques adds a further stanza to the song which suggests that to leave your “wealth and ease” is the act of an ass or a fool. Most of us we suppose, have moods in which we would certainly are with him, and it is a mark of Shakespeare’s mature comedy that he permits this criticism of his ideal world in the very centre of it. The triumphal procession after the killing of the deer, a symbolic ritual of the forester’s prowess, is accompanied by a mocking song, while the slayer of the deer is given its horns to wear as a somewhat ambiguous trophy.

It is Jaques, mostly, with the touch of the medieval buffoon in him, who contributes this grotesque element of the songs and ritual of Arden. Like Touchstone he is not impressed by Arden, but unlike Touchstone he does not prefer the court. Indeed, as we have seen, he is able to show that they are very much alike, infected by the same diseases.

Audrey is a goatherd while William is a simple country clown. Audrey has none of the beauty which usually belongs to shepherdesses in pastorals but she is honest and plain, and this bucolic simplicity delivers her completely into the hands of Touchstone for whose sake she rejects her lover William

Shakespeare’s William is singularly tongue-tied though he is “five and twenty” and thinks he has a pretty wit“; the biggest of his eleven speeches is only seven words long. And his partner is just as much of a contrast to the shepherdess of pastoral legend. She thanks the gods she is not beautiful, does not even know the meaning of “poetical and her sheep, alas, are goats.”

Shakespeare presents the conventional pastoral, and duly burlesques it. But with a surer knowledge of life than many poets have had, he seems to suspect that the burlesque as well as the convention may also miss the truth. Do shepherds really sleep under hedges? In order to be unsophisticated, must they by stupid too? So among his varied array of shepherds, Silvius and Ganymede and William, Shakespeare introduces one who knows well of sheep, whose hands even get greasy with handling them. It does no matter that Shakespeare got the hint for Corin from Croydon in Lodge, for Lodge found Corydon in literature and for Corin Shakespeare went to life. Shakespeare’s Corin speaks at once of grazing and shearing, and unkind master, and when he talks about the shepherd’s life he shows that he knows the value of money and ewes that fat sheep need good pasture. His greatest pride is to see his graze and his lambs suck. This is the note of his philosophy, and it has its limitation; it is far from despicable and is splendidly anchored to fact. His attitude to love is that of the fully sane man undisturbed by illusion. Being a man, he has been in love and can still guess what it is like; but it is so long ago he has forgotten all the details. How little he belongs to Arcadia may be discovered from Sydney, whose shepherd boy went on piping “as though he should never be old.” In As You Like It perpetual youth is the happiness of Silvius, and his fate.

In Corin Shakespeare provides us with a touchstone with which to test the pastoral. Corin’s dialogue with the Touchstone of the court, dropped into the middle of the play, adds to the conventional antithesis between courtier and countryman a glimpse of the real thing. What emerges from the encounter of these two realists is that ewe and ram, like man and woman, are put together and that though the courtier perfumes his body it sweats like any other creature’s. In city of country, all ways of life are at bottom the same, and we recognize a conclusion that Jaques, by a different route, has helped us to reach before.


Shakespeare builds up his ideal world and lets his idealists scorn the real one. But into their midst he introduces people who mock their ideals and others who mock them. One must not say that Shakespeare never judges, but one judgement is always being modified by another. Opposite views may contradict one another, but of course they do not cancel out. Instead they add up to an all embracing view far larger and more satisfying than any one of them by itself.

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