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A Heightening of Pastoral Conventions

By Diana Major Spencer

Shakespeare’s As You Like It, like his other comedies, begins by dispatching one or more characters to unfamiliar turf where old uses (customs) no longer apply. The comedies feature disguises (often a nubile female clad in page’s garb), mistaken identities and recognition scenes, love at first sight (usually more than one instance), exchanges of love tokens, and multiple marriages involving two or three distinct social levels–all proclaiming the theme so splendidly articulated by Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Thus, as one might expect, at the end of act 1, Rosalind and Celia, in disguise, leave the court for the Forest of Arden.

Unlike Shakespeare’s other comedies, though, As You Like It frequently appears alongside Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar and Sidney’s Arcadia as examples of pastoral literature, popular in England from Spenser to Milton. Sometimes Shakespeare’s source, Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, is included. Commentaries on Shakespeare’s debt to Lodge regularly describe a reduction of romance/adventure and a heightening of pastoral conventions—without identifying those conventions.

Pastoral literature originated with Theocritus’s Bucolics. In Eclogues Virgil introduces Arcadia, the symbolic location of any pastoral, idyllic, bucolic paradise inhabited by peaceful shepherds living a simple, happy life. Pastoral, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “of shepherds”; appropriately, the genre features shepherds—cowherds if the work is bucolic (from Greek for “cowherd”).

Lodge composed Rosalynde as a pastoral romance. Shakespeare followed his model closely, but omitted the violence. In Shakespeare’s version Oliver hates Orlando for his handsomeness and kindness, not for his property as in Lodge’s version. Frederick exiles Rosalind for the same reasons, not because he actually suspects her of treason. Lodge provided a limb-from-limb execution for the usurping king, while Shakespeare’s Frederick repents and joins a monastery. Charles the wrestler merely injures the three brothers who precede Orlando as challengers, whereas in Lodge he kills them. Orlando, besides demonstrating his own strength, avenges the old father’s loss. Shakespeare also eliminated the razzle-dazzle band of robbers who kidnap Rosalind. In short, he further pastoralized Lodge’s adventure/romance.

Phebe and Silvius, shepherdess and her (whether she likes it or not) shepherd, not only appear in Lodge’s novel, but are also stock pastoral figures—even to their names. In classical pastoral, conventional shepherds and shepherdesses occur in pairs with names like Phoebe and Silvius (or Phoebus and Silvia). The shepherd is lovelorn, and the shepherdess disdainful. Phebe and Silvius perform these roles perfectly, as do Orlando and Rosalind (Ganymede).

The lovelorn shepherd laments the loss or disdain of his lady, either in solo lyric or eclogue (a dialogue between shepherds about the simple life): Silvius complains to Corin; Orlando hangs lyrics on trees. Phebe supplies the customary elegy for a dead shepherd by quoting Marlowe: “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, / ‘Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?’” (3.5.81 82; all references to line numbers are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]).

The pastoral represents rural life as idyllic, idealized, and sweetly picturesque. No one feels hunger or cold. A few pure white, woolly lambs gambol among the flowers dotting the verdant hillside, at the base of which meanders a gurgling, tumbling brook. Rural life is unsullied, and therefore superior to urban. Lest the sweetness cloy, however, Shakespeare, himself a country lad, tempers the idyll with the “adversity” of Jaques, the malcontent, and Touchstone and Audrey, most unlikely lovers. Shakespeare’s additions, all “touchstones” in their own way, ensure that neither court life nor pastoral idyll is too sweet or too adverse.

In Lodge’s original, the two cousins head for the forest without a man. Shakespeare gives them a male companion. Touchstone, a “clownish fool,” embodies the sophistry of court. Both court and country, compared to Touchstone as quality test, seem more genuine than he. Language is supposed to be a means of communication, polite forms marking civilized, courtly relations; yet Touchstone obfuscates, pontificates, and equivocates. In his “eclogue“ with Corin (3.2), he attempts neither good sense or consistency, only verbal victory. Ironically, this master of pretense to courtliness, sniffing prettily at country ways, finds his love-match in the swills and becomes one of the “country copulatives.”

Audrey, the goat girl of small brain and thick tongue, is better suited to a georgic, a poem that depicts the labor of the farm, than to a pastoral, as is Corin’s realistic description of rough, tarred hands from treating the ailments of sheep—which Touchstone refutes. Audrey provides a third social stratum for the marriage-mill and a flip-side to Phebe, the disdainful pastoral beauty who woos Rosalind in blank verse. Audrey also, in her utter failure to understand the linguistic acrobatics of Touchstone, demonstrates the uselessness, not only of his talent for equivocating, but of language itself when lust prevails.

The original Audrey was a seventh-century saint from East Anglia. At the fair on St. Audrey’s Day, one might purchase lace neckerchiefs, over the years progressively more cheaply made and sold. To distinguish this lace from more respectable varieties, it was called St. Audrey’s lace, which, with a slurred first syllable, becomes ’t Audrey’s lace, or tawdry lace. Touchstone’s lines, “Come sweet Audrey [sweee-tawdry?] / We must marry or we must live in bawdry,” certainly suggested rustic life, and very likely suggested a tawdry character for Audrey to go with her reeking goats.

Shakespeare’s third adverse addition is Jaques. G. B. Harrison, editor of a Complete Works (New York: Harcourt, 1980), believes Jaques is Shakespeare’s first experiment in deep character study, which culminates in Hamlet (776). Conversely, Jaques may have been created to accommodate the latest theatre fashion: comedies of humor were now more popular than pastorals. Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour had appeared, with Shakespeare in the cast, just a year before As You Like It. Jaques is a “man in his humour,” his personality determined by an imbalance of bodily fluids, or humours.

Jaques is “Monsieur Melancholy,” suffering a preponderance of black bile (black = melan, bile = choler: melancholy), cold and dry like earth, the heaviest element and the heaviest humour. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a medical treatise from about 1400: “Another substance [engendered] . . . is somewhat stinking and is called melancholy.” The consequence of this condition (which seems to resemble constipation) is “irascibility, ill-temper, anger, sullenness,” as well as “sadness and depression of spirits,” and in pastoral spirit, “a tender or pensive sadness.” Jacques displays all those moods in his various encounters. Before he appears, the lords in Arden describe his maudlin empathy with the weeping deer. 

From music he “sucks melancholy like a weasel sucks eggs” (2.5.13). The nearest he comes to enjoyment is observing the motley fool, Touchstone, while, ironically, the sheer quantity and inaccuracy of his own nay-saying makes him foolish to other exiles.

Jaques is not organic to the plot; no action requires him; the play coheres without him. Still, Shakespeare gives the conventional pastoral singing match and shepherds’ discourse on the transitoriness of life to Jaques in his encounters with Orlando, Touchstone, and Rosalind. Jaques serves the “sweet use of adversary” to others. He answers Amiens’s “Under the Greenwood Tree” with “If it do come to pass / That any man turn ass” (2.5.51 59). Further, he gets the Seven Ages of Man speech, which Harrison considers magnificent (775-76), but which Anne Barton finds “banal . . . generalized and demonstrably untrue” in the play (Riverside Shakespeare, 367).

Moreover, Jaques, the malcontent, is the reality-check for the optimistic Duke Senior, who in exile–bereft of his daughter, his property, and his power—emotes a classic pastoral speech: “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 not the penalty of Adam, / The seasons difference, as the icy fang . . . / Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say, / ‘This is not 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 everything” (2.1.1 17).

Pastoral has no room for melancholy. In the end, Jaques joins ex-Duke Frederick in a monastery, Oliver decides to turn shepherd (with Celia), and everyone else returns to court. Shakespeare replaced much of the action of Lodge’s original with encounters and cross-encounters of the various characters who inhabit the Forest of Arden. His “touchstones” test other characters by reminding us of mis-uses of adversity; they temper the idyllic pastoral by reminding us of goats and gross ignorance; and they temper court life by displaying its equivocating one-upsmanship and rhetorical tyranny, its incessant cynicism and melancholy, and its equally useless “painted pomp” (2.1.2). Perhaps the greatest use of adversity will be to preserve a measure of pastoral simplicity in the “happily ever after.”

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