The Forest of Arden in The Play As You Like It

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      Critics have differed about the whereabouts of the forest of Arden. They dispute whether Arden is a duchy on the confines of France and Germany, or whether it lies north of the Avon in Warwickshire.

      Some critics think that the forest of Arden refers to the Ardennes in France. It is the scene of the incidents in Lodge’s Rosalynde. Furness thinks that the forest of Arden, was no forest in far away France but the enchanted place of the poet’s own native district, Warwickshire. He writes that's You Like It is, “through and through an English comedy, on English soil, in English air, beneath the English oaks; and it will be loved and admired, cherished and appreciated by Englislimen as long as an English word is uttered by an English tongue.” Some critics think that it does not lie anywhere but in the mind of the poet. It is the figment of the playwright’s imagination. Dowden says, “Here was this woodland scene, where the palm-tree, the lioness, and the serpent are to be found; possessed of a flora and fauna that flourish inspite of physical geographers.” Allardyce Nicoll thinks that these different opinions are not contradictory to each other. While comparing As You Like It to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says—

      “In a A Midsummer Night’s Dream the moon’s beams fall mysteriously down the enchanted forest; the forest in As You Like It is bathed in mellow sunlight. Both introduce us to a double world. The wood outside Athens welcomes into its glades fairies and Elizabethan artisans; the Forest of Arden is at once in France, in Warwickshire, and in the realms of the fancy”

      While the term urban would not be coined until 1619, at the beginning of the seventeenth century London was without doubt an essentially urban locale, with a total population of some two hundred thousand. Thus life in the city would have been remarkably different from life in the countryside, with the residents of the respective milieus perhaps perceiving one another as virtual foreigners. Shakespeare drew on these differences heavily in As You Like It, juxtaposing aristocrats and philosophers from the upper echelons of the dukedom like Jaques and Touchstone with simplistic woodland folks like William and Audrey. The conversations between the educated and the uneducated are some of the most comical of the play. Overall, the importance of the setting may have been relatively small, as the stage would not have been decorated with any backdrop or props conjuring the feel of the forest; only the actors' words and costumes and the spectators' imaginations would have placed the action in the fictional forest. Further, Shakespeare focuses foremost on the love stories, not on the practicalities of forest life.

Forest of Arden: A Comparison

      The Forest of Arden is as lovely and haunted as the ‘wood near Athens’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, It also ranks with Prospero’s island as a place set apart. The only difference between the Forest of Arden on the one hand and the ‘wood near Athens’ and the Prospero’s island in The Tempest is that the latter are ruled by magic while the former is free from it.

An Ideal Place of Idyllic Happiness

      It is a place of romance, a dreamland. It is a forest with its strange fauna and flora, its possibilities of a lioness beneath every bush, its olive-trees and its osiers, its palms and its oaks growing together. It is here that men live like the old Robinhood of England, fleeting the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.

      Here lie simplicity and innocence. Arden is a heaven for the troubled souls. Time is passed here leisurely. Life is lived in communion with Nature. Man has nothing to fear here except the churlish chiding of the cold wind. Even the lions and snakes are there only for the villains like Orlando. A wickedman carries his wickedness with him. And snakes and lions are nothing but his own wickedness, if we take them symbolically. The golden age with its peace, happiness and innocence has perhaps come to this forest.

The Forest of Arden is Not an Elysium

      Really speaking the Forest of Arden is not heaven-like. It is not perfect, and has many short-comings. Shakespeare could see all the happiness of the world concentrated at one place. E.K. Chambers has written in this connection, “Shakespeare’s judgment of life is, indeed too sane to let him even maintain the pretense that the perfection which is lacking at court will be found in the forest.” The shepherdess Phebe is as vain and disdainful and wanton as any other lady may be. She is remorseless in the persecution of her selfish aim. She; no less than Oliver and Frederick, must learn her lesson. As You Like It is much more than an essay in pastoralism and quizzical side glance and comment upon it. It is much more than a lovely poem on the theme of the Forest of Arden”

      The Forest of Arden may look like the gay greenwood of Robinhood only when compared with the court life. It is not, however a place of idyllic beauty. It contains some unamiable characters. Corin’s master is churlish. William is dull and Audrey graceless. Its weather is not always sunny. It has a bitter winter. To hungry Orlando it is an uncouth forest’, it is a desert where the air is black. Touchstone does not like the place. He says, “When I was at home, I was in a better place.” Arden is not free from the “penalty of Adam”. It is not such place where roses are without thorns. If Duke Frederick has usurped Duke Senior, Duke Senior has usurped the deer. If man here does not kill man, he kills innocent animals. Here the herd abandons the wounded deer, as a rich man abandons the poor. It is in Arden that Jaques presents his joyless picture of human life, passing from futility to, and culminating in, nothingness - sans everything. And it is here that the song is. sung, “Most friendship is feigning most loving mere folly.”

Life in Arden Not Wholly Idyllic: Yet a Place where Happiness is Discovered

      And here we must stop in painting the Arden in dark. If Jaques sucks melancholy in the Arden, Orlando also enters the forest with Adam in his arm, who although sans teeth has virtue, service and love. And the play is full of persons who do not forget benefits. There are Adam, Celia, Touchstone and others. What Jaques has left out of his picture of man’s strange eventful pilgrimage is love, companionship, sweet society and the banquet under the boughs to which Duke Senior welcomes Orlando and Adam. “Although life in Arden is not wholly idyllic and this place set apart from the world is yet touched by the world’s sorrows and can be mocked at by the worldly wise, the image of life which the forest presents is irradiated by the conviction that this earth is a place where men can find happiness in themselves and in others.” Arden is a place of discovery where the truth becomes clear and where man finds himself and his true way. The discovery of truth by feigning and of what is wisdom and what is folly by debate, is the center of As You Like It. The temporary Arden is a midsummer night’s dream.

The Role of the Forest of Arden in the Play

      Splendid as is Rosalind’s role there is even a greater role in As You Like It. And this is the role of the Forest of Arden. “We are always conscious of the forest in As You Like It. It is something more than a mere scenic background.” It is a spiritual force and brings medicine to the hearts and souls of men. The banished duke says:

Hath not old custom made this life more street
Than that of painted pomps? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court.

      Though it is not a magic place like the "wood near Athens’, and Prospero’s island, it has its own magic. It has the magic to transform the wicked into the virtuous. It has transformed Oliver and Duke Frederick, the villains of the deepest dye. It has filled the heart with the nectar of content.

University Questions

Describe briefly the significance of The Forest of Arden in the play As You Like It.
Where does Forest of Arden lie?

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