cruel frederick

The Forest of Arden

By Robin Craig, a Researcher at the Globe 

 As You Like It, performed in Georgian by Marjanishvili Theatre Company © John Haynes 

What is the importance of the forest of Arden in As You Like It? It is not Shakespeare’s only play that features a move from the court to the woods – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timon of Athens do the same – but in As You Like It the forest takes on a special role as a place of inversion, cross-dressing and unsettled gender roles. The escape from the court changes the characters and creates a space of sexual freedom and chaos, where women take control and men learn lessons in romance. In the comedies, the forest becomes a distorted version of the court where social rules are broken, creating a sense of jovial confusion before a return to civilisation in the final act.

‘Gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time
carelessly, as they did in the golden world.’ Act 1.1

The forest can be defined as a 'pastoral space’ that represents the opposite of urban life in the play, representing the division between the city and the country that was beginning to emerge in Shakespeare’s time. The country was often seen as a place of nostalgia for a simpler time, as shown in Duke Senior’s forest court that echoes tales of Robin Hood. The merry court of the forest is an inversion of the court at the beginning of the play, far from the threats of violence and cruel treatment of Duke Frederick. Danger in the forest of As You Like It is never truly life-threatening but, when considering the role of the forest in other plays such as Titus Andronicus, the possibility of violence draws a long shadow over the plot.

'Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far!’ Act 1.3

When Rosalind and Celia decide to enter the forest, they must put on disguises as 'beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.’ (1.3) The threat of displaying beauty is underscored by the reputation forests had during Shakespeare’s time as spaces where vagrants lived outside society, presenting a danger of sexual violence for women who wandered there alone. For wealthy women, such as Rosalind and Celia, the threat would be even more pronounced as they would be visibly affluent in a place of extreme poverty, fuelling Celia’s decision to dress in 'poor and mean attire’. (1.3) The forest of Arden is a place of comedy but underlying the play is a sense of unspoken danger, drawing on the role of the forest as a place of tragedy and violence that it assumes in Shakespeare’s other plays.

As You Like It, 2009 © John Tramper 

'I prithee, pretty youth, let me be better acquainted
with thee.’ Act 4.1

Rosalind’s decision to disguise herself as a 'pretty youth’ named Ganymede, rather than mimicking Celia’s peasant dress, allows her a degree of control over her romantic future she would not otherwise have access to as a woman. By leaving the court she leaves behind the pressures of being a noblewoman and is able to express her desire for Orlando, albeit while dressed as a man. That Rosalind must cross-dress in order to express her desires is evidence that the forest can only allow so much freedom: the woman may take control, but only while others believe she is male. Rosalind engages with Orlando in a way that can be seen as homoerotic, creating both the sexual and gender confusion that permeates the forest. Her disguise frees her from womanhood but entraps her in masculinity, meaning she cannot marry Orlando unless she returns to presenting as female. Gender never truly breaks down in the forest, showing how the pastoral space is still linked to societal values that render women subordinate, values that Rosalind plays into when declaring women 'apish, shallow, inconstant.’ (3.2)

'The duke hath put on a religious life
And thrown into neglect the pompous court’ Act 5.4

In the final scene of the play Duke Senior vows a return to the court after witnessing the marriages between the lovers, signalling a return to civilisation, heterosexuality and normative gender presentation. Rosalind’s return to femininity and her marriage to Orlando show an end to the chaos of the forest, but the court they return to has changed drastically from the court at the beginning of the play. Duke Frederick’s conversion into a holy man renders the court back to its 'natural state’ where Duke Senior returns to his rightful position, mingling the worlds of the forest and the court. The exploration of gender and the forest space renders As You Like It one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, using the move to Arden as an opportunity to explore the divides and rules of society. The question remains though – how safely can Rosalind navigate the dangerous space of the forest? And how far can cross-dressing take a female character while she still lives in a patriarchal society?

Further Reading

William Shakespeare, As You Like It (Cambridge: University Press, 2009)

Albert R. Cirillo, 'As You Like It: Pastoralism Gone Awry’, ELH, 38.1 (1971), pp. 19-39

Carol Thomas Neely, Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in S