The forest is strewn, literally and figuratively, with lovely wordplay in this comedy set largely in the fictitious forest of Arden ( a play on “Ardor”, perhaps?). The language is the thing in As You Like It. Not much happens. In parallel plots, a Duke, a brother and a niece find themselves banished. They frolic and fool each other in the forest, where Nature serves as the great resolver. Rosalind spends most of the time disguised as a man (this cross-dressing is a common device in the Comedies). The donning of this persona, she feels, will allow her to shed the shackles of the female stereotype. But while dressed as a man, she acts with the compassion and empathy most often attributed to women and serves the needs of the many and the few. Maybe she simply would’t have had the liberty to do so so freely had she went through the woods as a woman. The title “All’s Well That Ends Well” applies more in Arden than in that play itself- The bad repent, the good triumph, and the lovers unite.
Mostly what “happens” is some very beautiful, clever, and witty repartee on love, marriage, society, and the sexes. All outside of the walls of the estates, towns, and villages of society. The play begins and heads back toward civilization in the end, but Nature elicits the most eloquent words and highest thinking.
Jacques famously asserts “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players;/They all have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time may play many parts” (II,iv,139-142). This rings so true in this play itself. While the characters may describe stereotypical sex roles in their speeches, the action belies these “roles” at every turn, and men act like “women,” women act like “men,” and the heroine takes charge and controls much of the action dressed, initially as a man, but ultimately as herself. Celia and Adam are equally as tired and cranky as they trudge through the forest, begging for respite. Adam’s “I can go no further. O, I die/for food! Here lie I down, and measure out my grave.” (II,vi,1-2) echoes Celia’s “I pray you bear with me, I cannot go no/further.” (II,iv,9-10). He’s no tougher or more energetic than she. The good Duke Senior exhorts Orlando that his “gentleness shall force/More than your force move us to gentleness.” (II,vii, 102-4), in the Elizabethen version of “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” This sounds an awful lot like he’s suggesting Orlando act more “womanly,” not more “manly.” And while Touchstone claims that beauty and brains are too much to expect from a woman: “for honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey a sauce to sugar.” (III,iii,30-31), most of the women in the play possess both. The women shine both in form and substance here; the bad guys are both guys.
Nature, in the form of the forest, provides the elixir to cure all ills. It serves as sanctuary to those exiled and the fresh air allows for clearer thinking and conflict resolution. Rosalind tells Celia “now thou goest from Fortune’s office/to Nature’s. Fortune reigns in gifts of the world, not in the lineaments of Nature.” (I,ii,440-42). There seems to be more value placed on nature’s “gifts” here (beauty, intelligence, honesty), than on fortune’s (wealth, status). Duke Senior stops to smell the roses: “Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,/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?” (II,i,1-4) Orlando declares his love for Rosalind in and on nature: “these trees shall be my books,/And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character,/That every eye which in this forest looks/Shall see thy virtue witness’d every where” (III,ii,5-8). Most significantly, though, is the fact that the forest serves as the setting for the resolution of the two main conflicts, between two sets of brothers: Oliver and Orlando and Dukes Senior and Frederick. In both case the icy impasse off fueled by jealousy, quest for power, and suspicion that ignited the estrangements thaws in the loamy woods.
This should come as no surprise. Much research has shown that the “natural high” exists; that nature certainly does positively impact our physical and mental states. The sun provides the catalyst that allows our bodies to manufacture vitamin D. Thoreau told us that “Nature spontaneously keeps us well.” Anne Frank claimed that “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside.” Conversely, power struggles and materialism often lead to discontent. The Buddha asserted that the only way to escape the loop of life’s suffering is to let go of the attachment to stuff and the outcome of our actions. Lord Acton warned that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
So this wise cast of characters shed their societally-imposed roles and environs and find truth, beauty, and love in the forest. The question is, will the “true delights” (V,iv,198) discovered in the woods endure back home? When they return to civilization will they don their more traditional garb and roles, or will the enchanted forest truly have enlightened and changed them? The Epilogue may provide a clue. Rosalind panders a bit to the audience and focuses specifically on the differences between the sexes. But perhaps most significant is just the fact that she is on stage after “exeunt omnes”. She herself notes that “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue” (Epi, 1-2). So maybe her presence itself leaves us with some hope that some of the changes will stick back in the brick and mortar world to which they return.
So often we have epiphanies – after a tragedy, an illness, a close call- that force us to examine ourselves, our motives and our priorities. But, so often, like forgotten New Year’s Eve resolutions we forget them soon after the moment passes, and we return to our own”brick and mortar” lives. I wonder what enchanted forest it’d take to make some of those life lessons stick…