This post is part of my series on Shakespeare's comedies. The goal is to explore the philosophic themes in the plays. The series is very much my own take on things. I do, however, consult with a limited amount of Shakespearean scholarship when preparing these (a lot of which is, to be frank, dross).
I am currently looking at As You Like It. Above all else, the play is Shakespeare's take on the pastoral. This is a common literary motif, famously present in the Eclogues of Virgil. This post covers three aspects of the pastoral. First, it looks at the general ideal of the pastoral life. Second, it considers Shakespeare's presentation of the pastoral life. And third, it deals with the overarching question: is the pastoral life desirable?
1. What is the Pastoral Dream?
Pastoralism is the lifestyle of animal husbandry. Pastoralists tend to flocks and herds, and move them about a landscape in accordance with seasonal needs. The quintessential example of a pastoralist is the shepherd. And indeed, most pastoral poetry and literature uses shepherds and shepherdesses as the main characters.
In pastoral literature, the lifestyle of animal husbandry is romanticised. It is presented as the ideal, simple, and uncomplicated existence. Pastoralists live in harmony with the natural world: they do not exploit it and they do not suffer because of it. The most famous presentation of this ideal state of existence is, of course, the Garden of Eden in Genesis. As I read it, pastoralism is not quite the equivalent of Eden, but rather is a more attainable approximation of it. The pastoral metaphor or idyll always smoulders beneath the surface of Christianity (the Lord is a shepherd; a congregation is a flock).
The pastoral existence is usually imagined as being wholly undemanding. There is little attention paid to the actual hard graft that might go into animal husbandry. Instead, there is thought to be ample leisure time available in which to explore romantic love. It is this exploration of romantic love in a rural setting that is most distinctive of pastoral literature.
2. Shakespeare's Presentation of Pastoralism
The Forest of Arden in As You Like It provides the pastoral backdrop against which four different visions of romantic love are explored (more on this in future posts). Shakespeare took his story from Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde. Lodge's story is about as straightforward a presentation of the pastoral dream as one can get.
Shakespeare was slightly more nuanced in his version. He displays a willingness to challenge and question the realities of pastoralism. That said: the play definitely closes with the sunny-side facing in the upward direction.
The nuances of Shakespeare's presentation are most clearly visible in Act II, Scene I. It is our first glimpse of the forest and it begins with Duke Senior giving a short speech on the virtues of pastoralism. As background, it should be noted that the Duke was forced to flee to the forest after being usurped by his younger brother. His speech suggests he is better off for it:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.Shakespeare's reluctance to embrace the pastoral dream is present even in this speech, which is perhaps the most glowing endorsement of pastoralism to be found in the play. The speech suggests that there are hardships in pastoralism, but that they are outweighed by the simple pleasures.
The reluctant nature of the endorsement becomes transparent almost immediately. The Duke ends his speech by turning to the grim business of survival. He calls for the killing of a deer. This is where we are introduced (by a report from a third party) to the character of Jaques: the cynical realist who is quick to point out the cruel and unforgiving side of the natural world. For Jaques, nature is red in tooth and claw: something to be transcended, not embraced.
3. Is the Simple Life Desirable?
The question we are forced to ask is whether the pastoral dream is something we can share. One could, of course, agree with the old-fashioned pastoralist literature and think that it truly is an earthly paradise. But that would seem naive after reading As You Like It: Shakespeare's carefully chosen barbs really do seem to skewer the traditional pastoral dream.
I think there are three more credible positions one can adopt on this question:
- The Pastoral Dream is a Myth: the idea that the life of the shepherd is simple and devoid of hard labour is absurd. A careful study of pastoralist living will reveal that it is an endless struggle to survive. One of the most compelling illustrations of this that I have run across can be found in Jacob Bronowski's famous documentary The Ascent of Man. In Episode 2, Bronowski spends some time following the Bakhtiari, a simple goat-herding community in Iran. Bronowski's certainly paints a grim picture of this type of existence. You can watch it here.
- Our Present Life is the Dream: If we are concerned with a simple existence that leaves plenty of time for leisure activities, then perhaps we need look no further than our present mode of existence (I refer exclusively to Western civilisation). We live longer; we eat better; we have access to innumerable technologies that make our lives simpler; we are better educated; we have time to explore and live life to its fullest. Now, it may not seem that way to many people, and there may be plenty of room for improvement, but it is still a damn sight better than pastoralism.
- The Pastoral Dream is Attainable: there are those who think our present mode of existence is unstable, that our over-reliance on environmentally harmful technologies is a recipe for disaster. The simple-minded among them might advocate a direct return to the grim pastoralism of the past; the fatalistic among them might think this to be unavoidable. But perhaps there is an alternative to both. Perhaps we do not need to return to the ignorance of the past. Perhaps we can use the knowledge we have gained, and the technological base which we have established, to develop a more harmonious relationship with nature. Maybe then we will have attained the longed-for state of existence that Virgil imagined and Shakespeare equivocated over.