The country versus the court
This is the plays central opposition - life at the court of the tyrannical Frederick is corrupt, dangerous and restrictive, while life in the Forest of Arden seems simple and free. As they are about to depart for the forest, Celia remarks, "Now go we in content/ To liberty, and not to banishment" (I.3.135-6).
But to a certain extent life in the forest is idealised. Charles the wrestler does much to create this mood when he tells Oliver of Duke Seniors condition:
"They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and
Many merry men with him; and there they live like the
Old Robin Hood of England: they say many young
Gentlemen flock to him everyday, and fleet the time
Carelessly as they did in the golden world." (I.1.108-12)
The Dukes speech at the beginning of Act II as the scene shifts to the forest for the first time draws explicit contrast between forest life and "the painted pomp" of "the envious court" (II.1.4). But the picture he paints contains its own hardships - he feels the winters cold in contrast to the warmth of courtly comfort and flattery. But the speech ends on an ideal note as the Duke "Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/ Sermons in stones, and good in everything" (II.1.16-17). Later, the song "Under the greenwood tree" (II.5.1) praises the natural life free from ambition.
Immediately following the Duke speech comes the account of Jacques lament for the sobbing deer in which he accuses the Duke and his followers of being usurpers in the forest (II.1.27). Jacques parodies "Under the greenwood tree" in which he mocks the folly of anyone who leaves "his wealth and ease,/ A stubborn will to please" (II.4.14). Touchstone, too, is unhappy in the forest, remarking "When I was at home, I was in a better place" (II.4.14). His debate with Corin compares the merits of this shepherds life with the life the clown has left behind:
"In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private it is a very vile life. Now in respect that it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in court, it is tedious" (III.2.15-17).
He doesnt completely outwit Corin, but amid the absurdity Shakespeare allows him to make some telling points.
The various viewpoints on the debate make for an ambiguous conclusion. Therefore, its no surprise at the end of the play, in spite of their avowal never to leave the forest, Duke Senior and his comrades immediately return to court as soon as the opportunity arises. But, given the ridicule heaped upon courtly wooing and the general movement of the play towards a mode of expression less affected and more natural than the traditional modes, the balance is weighted in favour of the natural rural life. The setting of As You Like It in the Forest of Arden certainly offers an indirect critique of the supposedly more civilised life at court.
The harmonious ending celebrating the numerous marriages upholds the values of romantic love as defined in Shakespeares source, Lodges Rosalynde or Euphes Golden Legacy. But through the devise of disguise many of these features are mocked and ridiculed - the postures of the courtly wooer for instance being undercut when Orlandos verses are satirised. The disguised Rosalind mocks these affectations and tells Orlando that he is too smartly dressed and controlled in demeanour to be taken seriously as a man in love (III.2). Her cure for love-madness is to present him with an unflattering picture of women (III.2.391-9) that quells his romantic enthusiasm. Though he rejects this cure, it does inject a note of
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