Symbolism in William Shakespeare's As You Like It

Seminar Paper, 2000

16 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II Scenery and setting in As You Like It
i) The description of the court and its Predominating mood
ii) The Forest of Arden and its message

III Concrete symbols in the play and their meaning
i) Symbols describing and opposing court and forest
ii) Symbols of love
iii) Worldly symbols

IV Conclusion

V Bibliography

I Introduction

This is a paper on symbolism in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I will especially emphasise the symbolic meaning or rather ‘allusion’ of The Forest Of Arden, and intend to go much further than to maintain that ‘ The Forest Of Arden is an unreal place because there are and were no palm trees in England’. This is of course out of question and totally insignificant to the eventual aim of this paper.

At first, I will examine the different representations of court and forest in the play, which is supposed to support the assertion that the courtiers have to leave the wicked court in order to find again what has gone lost there: love and human warmth. Thus, I want to show that the forest has to be seen as a feeling, a spirit of love and self-knowledge.

Moreover, I am going to put forward concrete symbols in the play and their meaning in the context and with regard to the understanding of The Forest Of Arden. There is a wide range of different symbols, natural and worldly symbols, and of course symbols that are connected with love, which all contribute to the final message of the play, that is, that there is no clear message to it, which I hope I will be able to explain in this paper.

On the whole, the question that has to be answered looks simple but is to my mind very intricate and distinct since it is far too complex in its deeper meaning: ‘What is The Forest Of Arden ?’ I want to impart the idea that The Forest is not meant as a symbol of something, but rather as a feeling, an attitude towards life. Thus, it is neither symbolic of love nor forgiveness nor renewal, but rather impersonates those qualities. It is not symbol but representative and epitome of, which is much more intensive.

However difficult an answer to the question above seems to be, answering it is unexpectedly easy, and this for one simple reason: everyone has to decide for him- or herself. I can only give suggestions, but what Arden means to oneself differs from person to person. Therefore, The Forest Of Arden is As You Like It.

II Scenery and setting in As You Like It

i) The description of the court and its predominating mood

In order to find a satisfactory answer to the question ‘What is The Forest Of Arden?’, it is to my mind necessary to find out what it is not. It is certainly not the court, on the contrary, it is everything but the court. But hold on, is this really true? Is the court really the opposite of the forest? I suppose that it is not as easy as that, especially as, in the end, nobody stays in the forest and the whole lot of let me call them ‘excursionists’ return to the court, except of course those in need of morality, that is Duke Frederik, and Jaques whose position in life is not established and who succumbs to his melancholy and depressions. I think that the relationship between court and forest is not of contrary but rather of alternate and complementary character. The forest can render what slowly but surly gets lost at court after some time: harmony and contentment. Instead, there are now discontent, envy, mistrust and malevolence. These bad qualities that gradually come to light tend to destroy the natural order ‘ordained by God’, the old order of succession and position is trampled upon, which is demonstrated by the banishment of the righteous duke and the suppression of the younger brother. However, there is one relic left at court that reminds us of a Golden Age of honour and generosity that has long since gone: the self-sacrificing loyalty and love of Adam the servant. Furthermore, there are Rosalind and Celia, whose self-sacrificing devotion for her cousin is also a last gleam of hope that prevents us from assuming that there is no place for good-will and tolerance at the court.

In this state of pent-up tension the curtain to As You Like It opens. We are at the court, or at least near the court, and right from the beginning there is an awkward feeling and unpleasant presentiment about it. Banished dukes, suppressed brothers, abused servants and hated nieces – this cold, degrading atmosphere slowly becomes unbearable, for the characters as well as for the audience. I may say that one is almost glad when Orlando with faithful Adam, and Rosalind, Celia and the fool set out to leave this coldness behind in order to find warmth and a “better world than this” (Le Beau, I, 2, 273) in the Forest of Arden.

“Now go we in content

To liberty and not to banishment.” (Celia, I, 3, 135-36)1

ii) The Forest of Arden and its message

Now the scenery gradually turns away from the court and the forest gains the upper hand in the play. This contrast between the two main settings and their different moods contributes considerably to the serene effect of the whole play. Rosalind’s exclamation

“Well, this is the forest of Arden.” (II, 4,13)

is like a sigh of relief for the audience, even though it does not radiate much euphoria yet.

It is strange how Shakespeare succeeds in arousing these feelings of aversion to the court and security of the forest, especially as he gives only little concrete description of the forest and the court themselves. Only by means of the qualities of the characters, the differences between the good forest and the wicked court are established. The bad and deluded banish and expel the good and sincere from the court into the forest. What stays behind with the audience is the picture of the court as an evil place, a prison with dark and confining rooms, cold buildings and heart- and ruthless people, whereas the forest, not at first sight but step by step, reveals itself as a place full of merriment and ease, a haven and place of refuge from the worries of the world, where everyone can regain a positive and unselfish outlook on life. Duke Senior makes this clear when he states that the forest is

“…like a toad, ugly and venomous, [but]

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;” (II, 1, 13-14)

As far as the representation of court and forest is concerned, it is vitally important to see that the understanding of and attitude towards the two settings is established by the different features of the characters. Thus, on the pretext of informing the audience about the events at court and developing some kind of plot, Shakespeare biases us from the beginning on against the court and those who stay there. The only motive of this is to define good and evil and evoke the impression that something has gone lost at court which has to be brought back again. This something is in my opinion love and sympathy for the fellow being as well as general tolerance.

The fact that the ‘plot’ developed in Act I can only be understood as frantic and, moreover, a farce, is to my mind highlighted when the women and Orlando enter the forest, for from then on any ingenious action ceases to exist. It becomes rather arbitrary and artificial, and Shakespeare makes no secret of the fact that the superficial action that takes place in the forest is not meant to convey any deeper meaning but rather to amuse the audience and stress the reviving effect the forest can have on worn-out and discontent souls. As P. Swinden suitably puts it: ‘The plot is very thin. It has no work to do because there is no intrigue […]’[1]

A lot of people are now thronging in the forest, and all they do is meeting each other in turn, indulging in some complicated conversation about their different problems and state of minds and, not least, singing songs and being merry.

This lack of a proper plot after Act I and the total ignorance as to a sensible explanation concerning the sudden purification of the two villains contribute to my assertion that the forest is meant to be understood as a feeling, an introspection into one’s own self. Reasonable plot is now only secondary.

However, for the moment, it is my intention to expose Arden as a certain kind of spirit, a spirit that is carried and lived by those that are ‘infected’ with it. To my mind, it has to be understood as a flame that is given from candle to candle and spreads from heart to heart. This image can be supported by Jaques’ demand to

“… give me leave

To speak my mind, and I will through and through

Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world,

If they will patiently receive my medicine.” (II, 7, 58-61)

The forest is a statement, an invitation to see life in a new light and to question and redefine one’s moral standards.

Another important aspect that has to be borne in mind is the fact that the courtiers do not only enter The Forest Of Arden but also a realm of pastoral existence. Silvius, the poor shepherd who adores and worships his shepherdess Phebe with the utmost intensity, seems to be the very epitome or representative of this pastoral life. His character is like a homage to a ‘Golden Age’ of pastoral conventions, he impersonates all noble and gentle features of character that have gone lost with the courtly people and which they, unconsciously, hope to get back in the pastoral surrounding. Thus, the flight into The Forest Of Arden is mainly a journey back to the ‘Golden Days’ when people lived in the country and there was no envy and cruelty amongst them. But it soon becomes clear that the courtiers do not fit into the pastoral conventions, which is for instance shown when Touchstone scoffs at William the admittedly stereotype country-lad and tries to outwit Corin for no obvious reason. The courtiers are apparently superior to the simple country folk, at least in matters of language and general knowledge, but the question is: why do they have to show them their superiority? Does that not make them the inferior ones?

“You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her…? […]

…’tis such fools as you

That make the world full of ill-favour’d children…” (III, 5, 49-53)

Here it is Rosalind who criticises Silvius for his blind devotion to Phebe. She poses as judge over other people’s feelings, which seems to be something very typical of the courtiers, mocks Silvius and tries to show him how stupid his behaviour is, but she is unable to see things from Silvius’ point of view: he is desperately in love with Phebe. It is Silvius himself who gives an answer to Rosalind’s accusations, not to her but to Corin, when he maintains that

“If thou remember’st not the slightest folly

That ever love did make thee run into,

Thou hast not lov’d…” (II, 4, 31-33)


1 Unless otherwise stated, all page references given parenthetically within this paper refer to W. Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Oxford School, ed. R.Gill (CUP: Cambridge, 1997)

[1] P. Swinden, An Introduction to Shakespearian Comedies (The Macmillan Press Ltd.: Landon & Basingstoke,

1973), p.114.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Symbolism in William Shakespeare's As You Like It
Technical University of Braunschweig  (English Seminar)
Shakespeare's Comedies
2+ (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
451 KB
single text
Symbolism, William, Shakespeare, Like, Shakespeare, Comedies
Quote paper
Benjamin Foitzik (Author), 2000, Symbolism in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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