Theme of Pastoralism in Shakespeare's as You Like It

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William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ is probably one of the most famous pastoral comedies of all times. Written around 1599 and published in 1623, its plot was derived from Thomas Lodge’s pastoral romance ‘Rosalynde’. But what is interesting about this play is how Shakespeare, using the features and tropes of a pastoral comedy, undercuts the idea of the pastoral. The pastoral, as a genre, can be said to have had its beginnings with Theocritus’ ‘Idylls’. Other notable works in this genre are Virgil’s ‘Eclogues’ and Longus’ ‘Daphnis and Chloe’. Artificiality and lack of realism are the chief characteristics of this tradition. When the Elizabethans wrote in this tradition, they more or less followed the set conventions. The shepherds with which they peopled their rural landscape were metaphors for amorous lovers, scholar-poets and aristocrats in exile. These poets gave the primacy to courtiers who led a shepherd-like existence or merely treated the rural environment as a background to the amours of shepherds and shepherdesses who in their love-behaviour resembled the refined noble-men of the court. ‘As You Like It’ also has these love-lorn figures in characters such as Silvius and Phebe. Yet, it can be clearly seen from their marginalized status in the play that Shakespeare has clearly departed from the convention of ‘pastoralisation’ of the courtly people.1. The people in Shakespeare’s pastoral are not the dainty shepherds and shepherdesses of the golden world. They are uneducated, plain-spoken, not much concerned with romance, poetry and etiquette. The reason for this far-away-from-reality portrayal of the country people in pastoral romances and poetry was the fact that the authors/poets were a part of a class belonging to the town and court. Their anxieties and pre-occupations with their own socio-politico-economic conditions necessitated the construction of an idyllic space, free from all the troubles and tensions. And it was to fulfil this need to escape that they created an almost Eden-like rural world. The pastoral, therefore, became one of the literary forms best suited for an expression of disgust with the court and an admiration for the ‘simple pleasures’ of the country. 2. “They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and many a merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world”, says Charles in Act 1, Scene 1 of the play. This sure raises our expectations about the Forest of Arden as a place where life is like a never-ending holiday. In Act 2, Scene 1, Duke Senior also describes the Forest as a place where he finds “good in everything” and compares it to the Garden of Eden. But in the very same dialogue, he refers to the “icy fang/ And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind”. This brings to our notice the less-than-perfect nature of life in Arden. Even when away from the strifes of courtly life, the courtiers and the duke have to bear the “penalty of Adam”. Each of the character that enters the Forest of Arden considers it as a refuge from the iniquity, restriction, oppression and corruption of the life at court. Rosalind and Celia run away from the court to escape the patriarchal domination of the tyrant Duke Frederick. Orlando and Adam come to the Forest in search of a new life away from the injustice meted out to him by his own brother. Duke Senior and his courtiers remain in the Forest as exiles, having been wronged at the hands of Duke Frederick. But even here Shakespeare inverts this notion by giving each one of them their share of trials and tribulations. It certainly is not an escape into a utopian world as we would like it to be. Each of them reaches the Forest in a state of physical exhaustion and it is not the end of their troubles, what with hunger, extreme weather conditions and struggle for survival staring them in the face. The play also deals with the...
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