a darker As You Like It

    CELIA: I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire,

    And with a kind of umber smirch my face;

    The like do you; so shall we pass along,

    And never stir assailants.

    ROSALIND: Were it not better,

    Because that I am more than common tall,

    That I did suit me all points like a man?

    As You Like It, I.iii. 109ff.

Celia and Rosalind are about to hide in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind will receive silly, lovesick poems, tease her besotted admirer, and arrange rustics’ marriages in disguise. It will all be very merry under the greenwood tree, which makes As You Like It a perennial choice for high school productions.

Except that painting one’s face black and going into the forest or common land was a traditional mode of peasant revolt, later specifically made a capital offense by the Black Act of 1723. There was also an old tradition of peasant women leading rebellions dressed as men. Maid Marion, the mythic model, had real imitators, such as the “troop of lewd women” who blocked the enclosure of Rockingham Forest in 1602. To these two traditional modes of insurrection–black-face and cross-dressing–could be added poaching deer (a way of punishing gentry who had evicted tenants to create deer parks), wearing antlers, and marching through the forest making deliberately cocaphanous music as a threat.* Exactly that combination is enacted in Arden, where Jaques associates it with ancestral traditions:

    JAQUES: Which is he that killed the deer?

    LORD: Sir, it was I.

    JAQUES: Let’s present him to the duke, like a Roman conqueror; and it would do well to set the deer’s horns upon his head for a branch of victory. – Have you no song, forester, for this purpose?

    LORD: Yes, sir.

    JAQUES: Sing it; ’tis no matter how it be in tune, so it make noise enough.

    SONG: What shall he have that kill’d the deer?

    His leather skin and horns to wear.

    Then sing him home:

    Take thou no scorn to wear the horn;

    It was a crest ere thou wast born.

    Thy father’s father wore it;

    And thy father bore it;

    All. The horn, the horn, the lusty horn,

    Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.

Wearing the horn was not a thing to laugh at, because it could precede violence. Peasant violence had occurred as recently as 1596, a famine year. (As You Like It was probably written in 1599-1600.) The Queen’s own Privy Council acknowledged that the “raysing of the prices of graine” had driven the poor “to very great myserie and extermitie.” Some of the poor believed that the cause of these rising prices was the enclosure of common lands to raise sheep for the international wool market. “Shepe and shepe-masters doeth cause skantye of corne.” In a typical complaint, they charged that a gentleman had “inclused much of our Comon, .. converted all his ground which he had by exchange to pasture ground. … He turns out his tenents as soon as their Leases are expir’d, and setts out ye land at rackt rent to others; and he hath depopulated the Town.” The leaders of the 1596 rising set out to “cutt off the heads” of such gentry and knock down their fences.**

In As You Like It, Celia and Rosalind are disinherited. So is Orlando, forced to flee by his rapacious landowning brother Oliver. Oliver also dismisses the old retainer Adam, treating his labor as a commodity and ignoring his family tie. The Old Duke is in Arden because he has been cast off his land. Even Corin the shepherd has lost his ancestral rights. He succinctly describes Karl Polanyi’s “Great Tansformation” from the old economy based on family bonds, inherited status, and gifts, to the new one based on private property, contracts, profits, and exchange:

    CORIN: But I am shepherd to another man,

    And do not shear the fleeces that I graze:

    My master is of churlish disposition,

    And little recks to find the way to heaven

    By doing deeds of hospitality:

    Besides, his cote, his flocks, and bounds of feed,

    Are now on sale; and at our sheepcote now,

    By reason of his absence, there is nothing

    That you will feed on; but what is, come see,

    And in my voice most welcome shall you be.

Many of these people are hungry. “I almost die for food,” says Orlando. The hunger of Act II could be played lightly: townsfolk out in the woods forget to pack enough food and really want their dinners. But I don’t think their hunger would have seemed a laughing matter in 1599, especially in conjunction with all the lines about enclosure and disinheritance. People were starving and taking to violence, as Orlando does in Arden. (“He dies that touches any of this fruit.”) As You Like It is closer to Lear than to Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Arden is not the “desert” that Orlando first takes it for. It is populated with cottagers and outlaws from the town. The Elizabethan map-maker William Harrison said that all England was divided between champaign ground, where each house was connected to a road and the land was fenced, and woodland, where “the houses stand scattered about, each one dwelling in the midst of its own occupying.”* Arden is woodland. But it is under threat, subject to enclosure. Carin’s farm, for example, is now “a sheep-cote fenc’d about with olive trees.” That is the future of the forest, unless the various denizens can resist.

As You Like It is a comedy. Despite the grievous social ills it evokes in Acts I and II, everything ends well. Rosalind buys Corin’s enclosed farm and treats him as a generous landlady should. The two main usurpers have amazing conversion experiences and yield their ill-gotten lands. In one rite that symbolizes a restoration of the communal order, Duke Senior is able to marry four couples who span the English social spectrum.

Some authors* see Shakespeare as reactionary. He replaces injustice with a fantasy of upper-class generosity. And that may be. But I wonder …

First, what to make of the preposterous ending (which requires a hungry lioness, among other improbabilities). Isn’t the middle part of the play more “real”? That’s where a few motley exiles uphold ancient carnivalesque folk norms against the relentless market.

Second, what to make of Jaques. He is the one character who refuses to go back to the realm of markets and laws when the carnival ends. He opts to join “the religious life,” not in an organized monastery that might own land, but hermit-like, in a cave. He likes fools and riotous poachers. He is partial to economic metaphors: “tax any private party”; “a material fool.” Seeing a flock of deer abandon a wounded member of their company, Jaques chides those “fat and greasy citizens” for leaving the “poor and broken bankrupt there.” This sounds like a metaphor of city-dwellers’ inhumanity to those who fail in the market. Is Jaques a “materialist” critic of the Great Transformation? He cannot envision any satisfactory alternative for the society as a whole, but he wants no part of it himself. Perhaps the play makes his final choice an alternative worth respecting. In that case, the end is hardly comic.


*Richard Wilson, “‘Like the Old Robin Hood”: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 1992), pp. 1-19.

**John Walter, “A ‘Rising of the People’? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596,” Past and Present, No. 107 (May, 1985), pp. 90-143.

This entry was posted in Shakespeare & his world. Bookmark the permalink.