Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Welcome to the Forest of Arden

  Shakespeare’s Arden mixes up real forests with exotic fauna and pastoral fantasy. It’s a place of sexual fluidity and transgression

6 minute read

If we wanted to visit As You Like It’s Arden, where would we go?

The French setting of the play suggests that Shakespeare was thinking of the Ardennes, the vast forested region in modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg and France. That’s certainly the location specified in Shakespeare’s source, the prose romance Rosalynde by Thomas Lodge. Audience members in Early Modern London will also have thought of the Forest of Arden, an expanse of woodland in the Midlands that stretched from Stratford-upon-Avon in  Warwickshire to Tamworth in Staffordshire. Shakespeare, born and brought up on the fringes of that great wood (and whose mother’s maiden name was Arden), must have felt at home there – it’s probably no accident that in As You Like It the country fellow who is hopelessly in love with Audrey is given the playwright’s own first name, William.

A group of actors onstage in front of an audience

Shakespeare’s Arden is an imaginatively formidable forest, drawing on worlds that are both realistic and fantastical, ancient and present-day.

The company of As You Like It (2023). Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

But the play’s forest isn’t just a compound of French Ardennes and Midlands Arden – it’s got a hefty strain of fantasy, too. In neither France nor England would we expect to find lionesses and lethally venomous snakes, creatures which pose a threat to life in As You Like It’s Arden. And although many of the courtiers bear French names, the forest-dwellers (other than the English-sounding William and Audrey) are altogether more exotic: Silvius, Corin, Phoebe. These are people who trace their heritage to the literary pastoral, a rural-themed genre that originated in the classical world and enjoyed a revival in the 16th century. So although it might be tricky to visit in person, Shakespeare’s Arden is an imaginatively formidable forest, spanning terrain in France, Flanders and England, and drawing on worlds that are both realistic and fantastical, ancient and present-day.

Bluebells in a woodland

Audience members in Early Modern London will have thought of the Forest of Arden, an expanse of woodland in the Midlands that stretched from Stratford-upon-Avon in  Warwickshire to Tamworth in Staffordshire.

The conventions of pastoral literature emerged in the first century BCE. As Rome underwent a turbulent transformation from republic to empire, poets including Virgil and Ovid developed literary fantasies set in a peaceable Golden Age. Inspired by Theocritus’s Idylls, Virgil’s Eclogues (or ‘Bucolics’) were a series of verses featuring the rustic inhabitants of Arcadia, an imagined land named for a secluded Greek province. If the disturbances of political life were never entirely banished from Virgil’s Arcadia, they were kept at a sufficient distance to allow the population of shepherds and goatherds to concentrate on their romantic affairs. From the start, the pastoral mode incorporated implicit comparison between the corruptions of public life and the virtuous simplicity of the countryside. Shakespeare’s Arden captures just this sense of a fantasy land sharpened with realism: the forest offers a liberation from the terrors of Duke Frederick’s court, but as the old shepherd Corin explains, Arden is still subject to the vagaries of the rural economy (Corin is a hard-pressed tenant shepherd, facing the loss of his home).

An etching of a shepherd walking through fields.

‘All so my lustful leaf is dry and sere’: January, from Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheard’s Calendar, 1579. Credit: Topfoto

The pastoral mode had another important role in early modern culture. It offered writers a decorous literary context within which to explore sexual desire, both
heteroerotic and homoerotic. The English poet Edmund Spenser, most famous for his fantasy epic The Faerie Queene, had an earlier hit with his romantic eclogue series The Shepheard’s Calendar (1579). His shepherd-boy Colin Clout is hopelessly in love with a country lass called Rosalind (appropriately enough), and in the ‘January’ poem Colin compares the wintry trees and hard ground with his own sadly untilled soil: ‘All so my lustful leaf is dry and sere, / My timely buds with wailing all are wasted… I love the lass (alas, why do I love?) / And am forlorn (alas why am I lorn?).’

The playwright Christopher Marlowe was also an exceptional pastoral poet, and his verse The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, published posthumously in 1599, infuses the pastoral mode with unmistakeable erotic allure as the speaker offers his beloved a series of material temptations to take up the  shepherding life:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

For some poets, one of the most attractive things about the pastoral form was its convenient gender indeterminacy. The Latin antecedents included countless poems in which the lover was a humble country swain, and the beloved a beautiful shepherd boy. Shakespeare’s contemporary Richard Barnfield was the most unabashedly homoerotic pastoralist of the 1590s, but he wasn’t at all unusual in seeing the queer appeal of the form. Barnfield’s The Tears of an Affectionate Shepherd Sick for his Love, or, the Complaint of Daphnis for the Love of Ganymede makes the intentions of the lovesick shepherd abundantly clear:

Scarce had the morning star hid from the light
Heaven’s crimson canopy with stars bespangled,
But I began to rue the unhappy sight
Of that fair boy that had my heart entangled.
Cursing the time, the place, the sense, the sin,
I came, I saw, I viewed, I slipped in.

A detail of a script from the Early Modern Period.

Queer union: ‘his’ for ‘his’ or ‘his’ for ‘hir’ (‘her’)? Act V of As You Like It. A detail from the ‘Munro’ First Folio, 1623. Photographer: Pete Le May

Shakespeare was working in an established mode when he developed Lodge’s novel Rosalynde into a dramatic pastoral fantasia. His characters with the Virgilian names of Silvius, Corin and Phoebe live up to their ancestors’ reputations for romantic self-expression and alluringly transgressive eroticism. And in the central pairing of the suggestively-pseudonymed ‘Ganymede’ and Orlando, Shakespeare acknowledged the pastoral form as one of the conventional places in early modern English culture to articulate same-sex desire. Rosalind isn’t a man, but in her wooing of Orlando as the boyish Ganymede Shakespeare was staging a recognisably homoerotic seduction (all the more so because Rosalind-as-Ganymede was originally played by a boy).

Gender flexibility is at the heart of As You Like It, both thematically and on the printed page of the earliest authoritative text of the play. As You Like It was first published as part of the collected works of Shakespeare known as the First Folio in 1623, and that edition includes an apt quirk in the final scene (spoiler ahead). When Hymen enters with Rosalind in her ‘proper’ form, the marriage-god guides Rosalind and Orlando to the restored Duke, telling him that he must betroth his daughter to her lover. But Rosalind’s long performance as Ganymede has evidently left its mark: Hymen commands that the Duke ‘must join his hand with his, whose heart within his bosom is’. Perhaps the printer mistook a manuscript ‘her’ (usually spelled ‘hir’) for ‘his’, and every subsequent edition has ‘corrected’ this apparent error. But perhaps we can also allow that the First Folio’s As You Like It culminates with the image of two male hands joined in marriage: a queer union closing Shakespeare’s queerest comedy.