The Edenic World of ‘As You Like It’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

As You like It is considered to be the Bard’s greatest comedy. Imagine that you are sitting in a theater and the performance is about to begin. What would you expect in this comedy? Would you expect a block of power and authority? Would see harmony at the end? Let us see if we can find answers to these questions by analyzing the play.

The photo shows a quill pen and an inkpot being kept on an old book.
As You Like It has the typical elements of Shakespearean comedy. All the conflicts in the play end in reconciliation. (Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

The Banished in As You Like It

When the play begins, we see that the duke has already banished his brother and usurped the dukedom. The banished duke’s daughter is Rosalind, the heroine of the play. She lives with Celia, her cousin and the usurping duke’s daughter. Rosalind is in love with Orlando, whose father was sympathetic to the banished duke.

Soon, the evil duke exiles Rosalind from the dukedom because everyone loves her so much. Orlando, too, is banished from dukedom by the duke. Celia refuses to leave Rosalind alone and is determined to go into exile with her. To avoid attack on the road, the two girls decide to dress as men.

So, what is happening in the play and how can we understand it? The power of law and authority has created the block, the brother has betrayed his brother, the cross-dressing will ensure that no one harms the women. By using the tools of same-sex friendship and friends-to-lovers we can further understand the typical elements of a Shakespearean play.

Learn more about the comic tools in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Forest of Arden in As You Like It

The banished young people find their way into the green world of the Forest of Arden. This event reminds of the two couples fleeing into the woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rosalind’s father is already living in the forest with his band of followers in apparent bliss. He tells his followers that life in the forest is far better than the one in the corrupt court:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, [he proclaims]
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?

Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,

Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say,
“This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.”
Sweet are the uses of adversity,

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.

People often feel puzzled that this duke, who, like Prospero, has lost everything because of an evil brother, is actually more happy in the forest without any of the advantages of civilization. Why is it so? We can use our tools to help us to see why this is so.

The photo shows Fleay's Etching of the Forest of Arden.
The Forest of Arden is the place of true reality, where nature is fundamentally harmonious to humanity. (Image: Folger Shakespeare Library/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The court is the realm of mere appearance, of corruption and seeming, of fair is foul and foul is fair, of politics as theater; but the forest is the place of true reality, where there is no flattery, but a greater meaning. The trees have tongues, the brooks speak like books, the stones themselves deliver sermons, and every thing shows goodness. It’s an Edenic vision, an idea of nature as fundamentally harmonious to humanity, the sort of vision that would inspire Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau, Hemingway, and so many other poets of nature.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Reconciliation in As You Like It

As the lovers come into this forest, they are, as we would certainly predict, tested in various ways. Ultimately, they confess their love, throw off their disguises, and unite in harmony and marriage. The two dukes also resolve their conflict and unite. The true duke has the final words, stating as the marriage festival commences:

Proceed, proceed. We’ll so begin these rites
As we do trust they’ll end, in true delights.

It’s a lovely ending to a beautiful play, and it’s fitting to end with those words. The rites referred to are not merely the wedding ceremony—it’s the entire ritual of a life lived in harmony with the principal of regeneration and amity.

Learn more about the key principles for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare’s comedies.

Experts Weigh In

As Shakespeare scholar Russ McDonald summarizes the comic impulse, “Comedy moves from confusion to order, from ignorance to understanding, from law to liberty, from unhappiness to satisfaction, from separation to union, from barrenness to fertility, from singleness to marriage, from two to one” (Bedford 81). Comedy is a much larger, more inclusive pattern than that of tragedy, finally harmonizing with the patterns of the seasons, the cycles of nature, and the great religious systems.

The formula for Shakespeare’s comedy according to C.L. Barber is this: “through release to clarification.” (Shax’s Festive Comedy). This is the release Puck asks for at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; this is the release Prospero requests at the end of The Tempest; it’s the release for which Hamlet longs, and perhaps finally attains. And it’s the release, finally, that Shakespeare grants his own audience.

For the rites referred to at the end of As You Like It are not just the marriage rites; they are also the rites of the theater, a place of ritual and meaning not unlike a church. Shakespeare provides these rites for us, and hopes that, as they began, so shall they end, in true delight.

Common Questions about the Edenic World of As You Like It

Q: Why does the banished duke have a court in the forest in As You Like It?

The banished duke has a court in the forest in As You Like It because he has been exiled by his evil brother from dukedom.

Q: Does the banished duke like to live in the forest in As You Like It?

Yes, the banished duke in As You like It likes to live in the forest. For him, the forest represents a far better world than the corrupt world of the court. The changing seasons and the icy winds in winter do not effect him.

Q: Why do Rosalind and Celia dress up like men in As You Like It?

In As You Like It, When Rosalind is banished by her uncle from dukedom, Celia, her cousin, decides to join her in exile. To avoid being attacked on the road, the two girls decide to dress up as men.

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