'As You Like It' Setting: Forest vs Court

UK - 'As You Like It' Performance in Stratford-upon-Avon
Mariah Gale as Celia, Katy Stephens as Rosalind and Richard Katz as Touchstone in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of William Shakespeare's play 'As You Like It' at the Courtyard Theatre,Stratford-upon-Avon. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

As You Like It is set in a forest, but it is difficult to be clear about the As You Like It setting. Some argue that it is the Forest of Arden that once surrounded Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon; others believe that the As You Like It setting is in Ardennes, France.

Forest vs Court

The forest is presented in a more favorable light in that the “goodies”, Duke Senior and his court, reside there.

All of the good characters in the court are banished or exiled to the forest at the start of the play.

Duke Senior describes the court as “painted pomp…the envious court”. He goes on to say that in the forest the dangers are real but natural and are preferable to those in the court “The …churlish chiding of the winter’s wind… even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say This is no flattery” (Act 2, Scene 1).

He suggests the harsh conditions of the forest are preferable to the pomp and false flattery in the court: That at least in the forest, things are honest.

This could be compared to the courtly love between Orlando and Rosalind and the bawdy, primitive but honest love between Touchstone and Audrey.

There are also reflections of Robin Hood and his merry men in the lives of Duke Senior and his supporters: “…there they live like the old Robin Hood of England” (Charles; Act 1, Scene 1).

This reinforces the positive depiction of the forest as opposed to the negative portrayal of the court.

When the evil characters enter the forest they have a sudden change of heart as discussed – suggesting the forest has healing properties. There is, therefore, a sense of foreboding at the end of the play when the characters are to be restored to the court…we hope that they will bring some of the natural qualities of forest life with them when they return.

In this Shakespeare may be suggesting that there needs to be a balance between forest and court; living with nature and using your senses should be balanced with living in an ordered, political world where education and social politeness is necessary. If one is too close to nature they may turn out like Touchstone and Audrey but if they are too political they may become more like Duke Frederick.

Duke Senior has struck a happy balance – being educated and gentlemanly having the ability to manage people but also appreciating nature and its offerings.

Class and Social Structures

The struggle between forest and court also sheds light on the class struggle at the core of the play.

Celia disguises her nobility to become a poor woman, Aliena, in the forest. She does this in order to protect herself, presumably from those who would try and steal from her. This gives her a freedom she has never enjoyed. Oliver falls for her dressed as Aliena and we know as a result, that his motives are honorable – he is not after her money. This is important in that previously, Oliver’s motives have been questionable.

Touchstone and Audrey are seen as more lowly characters but as discussed, are possibly perceived as more honest as a result, they are unable to social climb and therefore don’t need to flatter and lie their way to the top.

Duke Senior is happier in the forest without the trappings of his dukedom.

Shakespeare may be suggesting in As You Like It, that just because you are considered to be ‘high class’ it is not necessarily reflected in your nature – or that in order to social climb one needs to lie and flatter and therefore people at the top of society are the worst kind of people.

However, at the end of the play when the Duke is restored to the court we are led to believe that the court will be a better place, perhaps because he has witnessed firsthand what it is like to be poor. He is compared to Robin Hood and as such is considered ‘of the people’.