Attempting to explain the transformation of the immigrants in the new world of
America, the colonial émigré Crevecoeur wrote: “Men are like plants; the goodness
and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the particular soil and exposition in
which they grow.” Human nature, corrupted by the decaying social and political
world of Europe, was not altered by this new land—it was purified and revealed.
Humanity has often dreamed of an escape from the evils of society into a natural
world that would free people to be the best version of themselves. It is the
psychological equivalent of alchemy—the belief that all matter, whether metal
or moral, contains within it an element of gold, which the right conditions
will bring to the surface. This transformative vision is at the heart of As
You Like It, contained in the portrait of Arden, that forest where Rosalind,
Orlando and the exiled court of the Duke find their several ways.
As he does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare presents us
with a vision of wilderness as a place to which stifled humanity escapes, only
to discover its true identity. But where Midsummer depends on the
supernatural influence of immortals to work its changes, As You Like It simply
requires nature itself, an environment that necessitates abandoning familiar
conduct, and which therefore demands self-awareness in speech, thought and
deed. The wise shepherd Corin puts it best: “Those that are good manners at
the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is
most mockable at the court.” And though some, like the courtly Touchstone,
may bemoan the loss of some of civilization’s conveniences, the disposition
of those who immigrate to Arden seems to be one of cheerful rebirth.
Not without some pains, of course; Shakespeare reminds us that nature is often
red in tooth and claw. Courtiers must make do with rough beds. Food is scarce
and starvation a real possibility. Beasts abound and threaten unwary sleepers.
But in the face of serpent and lioness, two brothers are reconciled. In feeding
two lost souls, the Duke’s exiled court shows its true nobility. The adversities
of nature are part of its magic; even something as simple as a chill wind inspires
the Duke to compare this discomfort to the treacheries of the court: “When
it bites and blows upon my body, even ’til I shrink with cold, I smile and
say, ‘This is no flattery. These are councilors that feelingly persuade me
what I am.’”
Always interested in humanity’s hidden dimensions, Shakespeare often sends
his characters into strange environments that test and reveal their inner selves.
And it is this particularly romantic notion—that nature reveals what we truly
are—that is at the heart of many of Shakespeare’s plays. But while this scenario
is played to dark effect in King Lear, As You Like It provides one
of Shakespeare’s sunniest views of the potential of humanity in a new world:
given the freedom to change, nearly all of them choose to do so, and for the
better. Orlando, whose stubbornness and impulsive nature cause him no end of
trouble, is willing to be tamed into a patient and gentle husband. His brother
Oliver, from a vengeful villain, becomes a humble penitent, worthy of a good
woman’s love. Even the arch-skeptic Touchstone, whose profession as a jester
keeps him at arm’s length from the world (the better to mock it), finds himself
engaged to a country wench, whose charms he is helpless to resist. Without
the structure of a society that tells them what to do or how to feel, the new
arrivals to Arden awake to a truer sense of their potential for kindness.
Rosalind’s transformation is the most profound; her assumption of a masculine
persona disguises a greater change in her character. Free to act as a man,
she is forced to realize the maturity that such freedom demands. From an impulsive
girl who loves at the mere sight of Orlando, she finds what it means to be
the more mature partner of a couple; her dual role as Orlando’s muse and tutor
places her in an unusually powerful position for a woman of her time. And under
the freeing influence of Arden, she rises splendidly to the occasion.
But of course, Shakespeare cannot make a rule without an exception: the melancholy
Jacques. Where others see and seize the opportunity to change, Jaques sees
only an eternal recurrence of folly. For the man who mourns excessively over
the hunted deer, Arden is the victim of civilized man, not his redeemer. And
to be sure, he seems at times to be right—where man is, there will folly be,
even in Arden. But when Orlando tells Jaques to look in a reflecting brook
to find a drowned fool, it is a true word spoken in jest. Looking into Arden,
Jaques can only find his unchanged self, and thus more occasions for his melancholy.
Even his famous speech about the seven ages of man suggests that man can only
change as the seasons change, a cycle that brings us back to our original state
of infantile folly. But the speech is immediately followed by the entrance
of Orlando and Adam, welcomed to the feast and sheltered by those who embrace
them simply because they are fellow strangers in a strange land. In the end,
with all set right at home and the quartet of marriages ready to begin, Jaques
stands alone, ready to seek out another place of isolation. The alchemy of
Arden is not universal, but this is as it should be—the gold of our natures
will only reveal itself if we are willing to search for it. All Arden can do
is to offer us the opportunity.