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Lex Nelson “Shakespeare’s Yosemite: The Forest of Arden in As You Like It”

Lex Nelson

My name is Alexandra but I go by Lex—yes, as in Luthor. I’m a senior and will be graduating in May with a  bachelor’s in English Writing and a minor in Sustainability. I was born in Texas but also lived in New Jersey, Kentucky, and Montana before settling down in Idaho to finish my degree at Boise State. Like most of the other English majors I know, I chose to pursue this degree because I’ve always loved reading and writing. I’m told that as a toddler I dazzled my babysitters with compound sentences and big words like “precipitation”; now I want to use those big words to get into graduate school and earn my Creative Writing MFA. Eventually I hope to work for a company promoting sustainability and to write creative nonfiction about food and environmental issues on the side. When I’m not attached to my laptop, you can find me at the farmer’s market or at my day job pouring coffee.

Shakespeare’s Yosemite: The Forest of Arden in As You Like It

In her essay “’Here at the Fringe of the Forest’ Staging Sacred Space in As You Like It,” Helga L. Duncan describes the fringe of the Forest of Arden as a “’heterotopia’,” (123) a place where two different spatial conceptions of the sacred come together.  These two conceptions, she writes, are “locative” space and “utopian” space. According to Duncan:

Locative space is ‘centripetal,’ spatially fixed and bounded as well as administratively hierarchical, while Utopian space is ‘centrifugal,’ unbounded, undefinable, potentially anarchic… The etymological root of the word Utopian, Smith notes, is the Greek ou topos or “no place,” which signifies a faith defined by physical and spiritual exile, yet, at the same time, also by release from the pressures of spiritual emplacement and the subsequent striving for transcendence—in contrast to a spatially centralized, locative belief which anchors and shelters but may also theologically limit the faithful. (123)

While Duncan focuses in her essay on how these two ideas of space and their religious connotations come together in the sheepcote in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, what they indicate about the heart of the forest is just as worthy of investigation. While locative space is often associated with civilization and modernity (spaces like churches or mosques), utopian space―being “unbounded, undefinable, potentially anarchic” (Duncan 123) ―is the space of the wilderness, where the sacred runs unchecked by either walls or the less tangible boundaries of propriety. Utopian space is not the city or the forest’s edge, but its heart.

Although the Forest of Arden has long been associated with peaceful pastoral images and ideas of friendly nature, I would agree with critic A. Stuart Daley that the opposite is true. Daley argues in his essay “The Dispraise of the Country In ‘As You Like It’” that the images of the forest that Shakespeare presents are not hospitable ones. The Forest of Arden is not a place where men should aspire to live; if it were, why would Shakespeare have represented it as a place of exile? Duke Frederick would not want to banish his enemies to a perfect life of leisure; better to send them to a “’no place’” perfectly suited to their banishment because it “signifies a faith defined by physical and spiritual exile” (Duncan 123).  The Forest of Arden is precisely the kind of place that John Muir and the National Parks Movement in America advocated saving: a place of reformation and self-discovery, a place of adversity and awe (in the Old Testament meaning of the term) that reminds the characters of the play of what it means to be human.

Within the performance of As You Like It, the characters go to the heart of the forest, are transformed, and then return to build a better society; they have overcome their societally-born demons and been instilled with ideals similar to those that the American national parks were meant to inspire in American citizens when they were set aside three hundred years after Shakespeare’s time. In the play, it isn’t until the nucleus of society (Duke Senior and his attendants, the exiled sons and daughters, and eventually even Duke Fredrick) moves to the wilderness that virtue and order can be restored to society as a whole.

While the Forest of Arden might not be a friendly place in As You Like It, it is one worth valuing and protecting because of what can―and, in the play, does―happen within it.  As parks advocate John Muir said of the utopian space of Yosemite National Park: “no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man” (97). This conclusion can be supported with three main arguments: that the Forest of Arden functions as a utopian space, that the American national parks also function as utopian spaces, and that because they are utopian spaces both the forest and the parks are transformative and restorative for those who venture into them―and ultimately also for society.

Duke Senior’s banishment, Shakespeare’s descriptions of the forest as a dangerous desert, and Orlando’s early attempts to infuse the forest with civilization through writing all support the idea that the Forest of Arden functions as a sacred utopian space in As You Like It. Duke Senior’s banishment, as mentioned above, is fitting because utopian spaces are said to be places of physical and spiritual exile. In this case, the exile is physical, although a spiritual conflict between the two brothers cannot be ruled out, given the religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants at the time, which informed many of Shakespeare’s plays. The idea of the forest as a place of banishment is enforced whenever it is referred to as a “desert,” a description which appears in the play six times (Daley 308).

In Shakespeare’s time, a desert wasn’t necessarily the stretch of sand and cacti that comes to mind today. According to an encyclopedia published in 1582, a desert could be any place “forsaken of manye men to dwell therein, . . . desart is not laboured, & is full of thornes and pricking bushes, and is place of creeping wormes and venimous beasts, and of wilde beasts, and it is the lodges of banished men and of theeues” (Daley 308). In other words, by calling the Forest of Arden a desert Shakespeare is basically calling it a utopian space; a place for “banished men” like the Duke and his attendants, that is “not labored”, in other words farmed, or colonized like the locative cities and bottomlands, but rather left wild. The descriptions of the desert as a place of “wilde beasts” and “theeues” (thieves) also recalls Duncan’s description of a utopic space as one that is “potentially anarchic” (123), and Shakespeare’s descriptions of the forest include allusions to cold, hunger, eating and sharing food, hunting, and wounds that make it clear that this is not a locative space that “anchors and shelters” (Duncan 123) as proponents of the pastoral theme would have readers believe.

The forest is also utopian because it lacks identifiable sacred sites. When Touchstone declares that he and Audrey would like to be married in the forest, Jaques protests, saying: “And will you, being a man of your breeding, be / married under a bush like a beggar? Get you to church, / and have a good priest tell you what marriage / is” (Shakespeare 3.3.72-75). Similarly, Orlando calls Arden an “uncouth forest” (Shakespeare 2.6.6), remarking that because it lacks civilized features like churches he “thought everything was savage here” (Shakespeare 2.7.107). Both men clearly feel destabilized by the transition from a locative sacred space, where the places and customs of worship are clearly outlined, to a utopian space where the sacred is “unbounded” (Duncan 123), and every bush is like a pew. Orlando tries to avoid this troubling transition by carving words into the trees and hanging poems from them, as though he can single-handedly merge the forest with civilization. His actions are perfectly in line with how Lynn Ross-Bryant describes sacred spaces in her essay “Sacred Sites: Nature And Nation In The U.S. National Parks.” Ross-Bryant writes:

…meanings are embodied in the place—and the people—through an ongoing process in which people (bodied and with ideas) participate with place (bodied and with potentialities) and “inscribe” their meanings into the space…Both unifying and contesting symbols are thus written into the space, producing a heterogeneity that creates interaction and possibilities for change— and for continuity. (34)

By writing on the trees, Orlando engages in a conversation with the sacred, attempting to bind the unbound and impose order on the anarchy of the forest. He is “bodied” with the idea of his obsessive love for Rosalind, and the forest is “bodied” with potentialities for that same love because Rosalind is living within it. By writing on the trees, Orland is literally inscribing his meaning into the space. This interaction does indeed produce “possibilities for change” within the play; while Orlando’s attempts to civilize the forest are stilled by Jaques, who restores anarchy when he requests that Orlando “mar no more trees with writing love / songs in their barks” (Shakespeare 3.2.247-248), it is the poems that ultimately bring Orlando and Rosalind together, making the rest of the interactions and value changes that happen in the play possible.

America’s national parks are as much sacred utopian spaces as the Forest of Arden was for Shakespearian England in As You Like It. As tourists and scientists enter the parks, they engage in conversations with the sacred in much the same way that Orlando does, often making similar attempts to merge the parks with civilization that some people, sharing Jaques’s view, see as criminal. Also like the forest, the national parks remain spaces set apart from civilization in which the anarchy and inherent conflicts of nature have largely been preserved. Civilization encroach on the borders of the parks in the same way that it does on the Forest of Arden, but it can’t survive within them; while people can visit the parks and converse with the sacred, just like the banished men and women in As You Like It take up temporary residence in the forest, they must ultimately return to the sheltering locative spaces of civilization.

The rhetoric of the sacred has long been used to describe America’s national parks. James Hutchings, who led the 1855 expedition into Yosemite, described the park in terms of the Book of Revelation, asking “Can this be the opening of the Seventh Seal?” (Ross-Bryant 37), and parks activist John Muir described the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite as “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples”, saying that if a dam was built there the American government might as well “dam for water tanks people’s cathedrals and churches” (Muir 97). Continuing the theme, Park Service Director Stephen Mather wrote in a publicized report in 1921 that “there is no finer opportunity in the Americanization movement than to spread the gospel of the parks far and wide” (Ross-Bryant 31).  Drawing on this kind of historical evidence, Ross-Bryan takes the rhetoric of the sacred a step farther when she claims that “the ‘tourist’ and the ‘pilgrim’ are not easily distinguished” (33) when it comes to the national parks, implying that tourism of Yosemite or Yellowstone is as sacred an experience for a U.S. citizen as performing the Hajj is for a Muslim.

There seems little doubt that the parks are sacred spaces; however I would argue that they are utopian spaces as well because they are the few spots left in America that have retained their anarchic potential. This potential stems from the heterogeneity that arises within them when visitors attempt to communicate with or control their sacred spaces. That conversation “creates interaction and possibilities for change— and for continuity” in the national parks in the same way that it does in the Forest of Arden; however in the case of the parks, it’s the American ideals and values that they represent that can either be changed or reinforced as the parks themselves change. Ross-Bryant writes:

Central to the symbolic power of the national park has been the connection between the actual site and the idea of a changeless pristine America and an understanding of the sacred that is coincident with this unchanging reality. The discourse surrounding this symbol, however, is constantly changing, as are the parks. (53)

While the parks are often described as an escape from modern society and they retain the image of “the true “America,” (Ross-Bryant 50) as it was before it was settled by Europeans, they are actually often “civilized” in even more dramatic ways that puts the idea of their perfection into question. This “civilization” comes in many forms, including the building of roads and hotels, controlled burning of the forests, dredging of the lakes, and either culling or protecting the wildlife populations within the parks (Ross-Bryant 50-51). Other cases more closely mirror Orlando’s, for example James Mason Hutchings reported seeing tourists dancing on the stump of a felled Sequoia tree in 1859 in Sequoia National Park, and called their destruction of the tree a “sacrilegious act . . . an act of desecration.” (Ross-Bryant 38), and Horace Greeley claimed that those who stripped the Sequoia bark and sold it in London were “vandals” (Ross-Bryant 38) of the sanctity of the park.

While such statements underscore the fact that the parks are seen as sacred spaces, I would argue that acts like those Hutchings and Greeley witnessed aren’t in fact sacrilege, but simply a part of the ongoing conversation between humanity and the sacred that is constantly taking place in utopic spaces, giving them their heterogeneity and enlarging their possibilities. By attempting to control and civilize the parks, the American people have actually cemented their position as utopian spaces. While the alterations to the sequoias and the building of roads and hotels are clearly attempts at civilizing the parks, other changes―the controlled burns, lake dredges, etc.―are also significant because they are attempts to preserve the “timelessness” of the parks by reversing or controlling nature’s change over time. This contradiction between the image of the parks as timeless and the reality of their subjection to the ravages of time and human innovation adds the utopian aspects of the parks, making them even more “undefinable” and “potentially anarchic” (Duncan 123) by confusing their place in time.

This dilemma also recalls the contradictory comments made about time in As You Like It. On the one hand, Rosaline she reminds Orlando that “the poor world is almost six thousand years old” (Shakespeare 4.1.86), a statement that places the forest in a specific location in time and implies that it has evolved and changed with time’s passage. On the other hand, the wrestler Charles comments that Duke Senior and his men spend their time in the forest “carelessly as they did in the golden world” (Shakespeare 1.1.110-111), which indicates that the forest belongs to the mythical and distant past. This brings up the same chronological anarchy in the Forest of Arden as is present in the national parks. The contrast between Rosalind clearly dating the forest and Charles insisting that it is timeless mirrors the struggle between those who insist that the national parks need to be developed and altered because the world is changing, and those who believe that they are sacred because they are the “‘real,’ ‘true’ America outside the world of time and change that make up the actualities of nature and nation” (Ross-Bryant 50).

Regardless of the position of the parks in time, Americans seem to agree on the fact that they are places of transformation, with the ability to reform those who enter them and instill American democratic values. If Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and other figures of the American government are to be believed, a pilgrimage to one of the national parks can have repercussions as important as a banishment to the Forest of Arden, both for individuals and for society. Roosevelt claimed that “The wilderness experience is the last outpost in the maintenance of a rugged citizenry needed for the work of progress itself,” (Ross-Bryant 47-49), and Lincoln is said to have set aside national parks during the Civil War because he thought that they were necessary for “the healing of the torn but chosen people” (Ross-Bryant 41) of America.  In a collection of essays on Christian pilgrimage, John Eade and Michael Sallnow describe pilgrimages as arenas for “drives towards consensus and communitas and for counter-movements towards separateness and division” (Ross-Bryant 33). While the national parks focus on the former and the Forest of Arden seems to be a mix of both movements, as utopian sacred spaces both sites change those who venture into their hearts.

In “The Dispraise of the Country In ‘As You Like It’,” Daley calls the exile of Duke Senior and his attendants to the Forest of Arden an “unnatural banishment” (303), but I would argue that their exile and subsequent return from the forest provides a strong argument for its status as a sacred space of reformation. There are few traditions more documented than the cycle of going off into the wilderness and returning to society changed (and ready enact change). Multiple religions―Buddhism and Christianity foremost among them―include figures who withdraw into the wilderness and live in isolation in order to connect with God or come to terms with humanity. It’s for this precise reason that monasteries like the Monasteries of Meteora in Greece and the Taung Kalat Monastery in Burma are in such remote natural locations as cliff sides and mountain tops. As Duncan writes, “the move not only to the fringe of society but to the wilderness, to profoundly nontraditional sites as loci for the sacred, became a key gesture of spiritual power as well as reformatory zeal” (125). Christianity, which would have been most relevant to Shakespeare, has a hermetic tradition that can be traced back to Saint Anthony, a Christian monk renowned for his retreat into the wilderness only a few centuries after the death of Christ (Duncan 126).

It is not a stretch to think that Shakespeare’s portrayal of the various banishments in As You Like It was influenced by Christianity’s “tendency to relocate and reinvent itself in new spaces of imagined potentiality” (Duncan 125). When she is banished to the forest, Rosalind reinvents herself as Ganymede and explores the potential of her love for Orlando. Duke Ferdinand too reinvents himself when he comes to the forest, and is drawn by the sacred utopian space to leave the court behind and “put on a religious life” (Shakespeare 5.4.175) in the fashion of the Christian hermits.

In addition to revealing personal virtue by way of religion, sacred spaces―particularly utopian ones―are places where one might, as Philip Sheldrake wrote in Spaces for the Sacred, “encounter one’s inner and outer demons” and overcome them (Duncan 134). The anarchy of a utopian space make it the perfect testing ground for such demons, which are symbolized in As You Like It by the snake and lion that Orlando must “give battle to” (Shakespeare 4.4.131) to save his brother’s life.  The lion and snake are symbolic not of nature’s wildness, but of the darkness and vice within society and within the human mind and spirit that a man must venture into the wilderness to overcome. Duncan writes that in fighting the creatures, “Orlando wrestles with his conscience and finally overcomes the disgust he feels toward his brother, that ‘sleeping sinner, lost in the Edenic forest of Arden blighted by the flaws of the seasons, landlordism, and predatory beasts’” (135). Only in the forest are the demons that wrack Oliver and Orlando’s relationship made solid flesh, and thus only there can they be vanquished and the brothers reconciled; the snake retreats and the lion is defeated. Interestingly, at that point in the play the references to the forest as a place filled with sickness, hunger, hunting, and wounding disappears, as though Orlando has overcome even those challenges (Daley 305).

Taking it one step further, it is possible to see Orlando’s encounter with the lion and snake as representative of not just his own personal grudges and discomforts being overcome but also as foreshadowing the eventual abdication of Duke Ferdinand and reinstatement of Duke Senior.  Louis Montrose puts it cleverly when he writes that “what happens to Orlando at home is not Shakespeare’s contrivance to get him into the forest; what happens in the forest is Shakespeare’s contrivance to remedy what has happened to him at home” (Duncan 126-127). Again, it must be noted that it isn’t until the nucleus of society moves to the wilderness that virtue and order can be restored to society as a whole. When the court had become a place of sin, a place where “all gentlemanlike qualities” are “obscure[ed] and hidd[en]” (Shakespeare 1.1.63-64), it turns out that it is a trip to the utopian sacred space of the Forest of Arden and not an increased allowance that is “such exercis[e] as may become a gentlemen” (Shakespeare 1.1.66-67). When Orlando bemoans the transgressions of his brother against him, he is by extension protesting the pressure to accrue wealth and status at the expense of others that has gradually emptied society of virtue. It logically follows that when Orlando and Oliver reconcile, it foreshadows the reconciliation of society with virtue: Duke Senior regaining his rightful place.

The idea of discovering virtue and reforming society with a trip to a sacred utopian space can be found in the national parks as well as in the Forest of Arden. The national parks have long been seen as the breeding grounds of virtue and democratic values. Park Service Director Stephen Mather writes that the parks “are the first in the worthwhile things in our national life that make for better citizens”  (Ross-Bryant 31) and Gale Norton, a past Interior Secretary, claims that they are places to “reconnect with the values that have made this nation [America] great” (Ross-Bryant 31). Even more significantly, Yosemite and Yellowstone were both established by Congress “for the people” (Ross-Bryant 40), a phrase which places them within the same highly patriotic, democratic rhetoric as the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.

This idea of a pilgrimage leading to progress can perhaps best be seen in the tourism of the parks, both for personal and scientific reasons. Both kinds of tourist-pilgrims engage in a conversation with the space when they enter the parks, whether it’s by building a fire at a campground (reminiscent of Orlando writing on a tree) or taking samples of vegetation to analyze. This kind of communion with nature has an effect on both the people and the parks, contributing to their ever-changing heterogeneity. However, while touring the fringes of the parks can incite change, hanging out at the visitor’s center does not have as powerful of an effect as spending the night in the trees. Just like in the Forest of Arden, it is the heart of the sacred space where change is truly consummated, because the heart is truly utopian.

In As You Like It, the fringe of the forest, inhabited by shepherds, is still a part of society to a degree―it is where society is beginning to fray, but it is not yet a truly transformative utopian space. Shepards like Corin can live there in ease and contentment, which indicates that it is not truly wilderness or truly separate; a utopian desert must have fields that can’t be farmed.  Rosalind becomes symbolic of this day-trip idea; she is the tour guide in the play who bridges civilization and nature: “Rosalind serves as a gatekeeper, facilitator, and mediator between the locative realm of the sacred and the wild” (Duncan 133) because she lives on the fringes of the forest but eventually journeys into its heart before returning to the locative space of civilization to incite reform with the help of her new husband.

Unlike the fringe, the heart of the Forest of Arden is not the home of the characters in A You Like It, any more than are the national parks the homes of tourists. Would a Muslim ever claim to live in the sacred mosque that surrounds the Kaaba in Mecca? No, because it is “a place set apart, even though it is set apart for them. In a second way, it is not their home because it can only exist without their presence” (Ross-Bryant 50).  In order to build virtues one must simply go on a pilgrimage, one must be a tourist: to stay in a utopian sacred space forever would be to become a part of it; to become “unbounded, undefinable, potentially anarchic” (Duncan 123) ―in other words, to be so changeable as to cease to really be anything. Better to simply stay on the designated trails, keep to the term of one’s banishment, and then head home wiser for your communication with the sacred to change the world for the better. This is the message of both the American National Parks and the Forest of Arden, and it is this message more than anything else that establishes them as utopian sacred spaces.

Works Cited

Daley, A. Stuart. “The Dispraise of the Country In “As You Like It”” Shakespeare Quarterly 36.3 (1985): 300-14. Web.

Duncan, Helga L. “Here At The Fringe Of The Forest”: Staging Sacred Space In As You Like It.” Journal Of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 43.1 (2013): 121-144. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 June 2016.

Muir, John. “The Wild Parks and Forest Reservations of the West and Hetch Hetchy Valley.” Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions. Comp. David R. Keller. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 96-97. Print.

Ross-Bryant, Lynn. “Sacred Sites: Nature And Nation In The U.S. National Parks.” Religion & American Culture 15.1 (2005): 31-62.Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 June 2016.

Shakespeare, William, and Alfred Harbage. “As You Like It.” Complete Pelican

Shakespeare. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 243-273 . Print.