‘Young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world’ – How does Shakespeare explore the notion of an idealised past in As you like it Shakespeare constructs the world of the Forest as a representation of a golden past; the ‘golden era’ in which man can ‘fleet the time carelessly’. This falls in line with classic pastoral mode by suggesting an absence of time within the Arcadian space.
In addition, the ‘Gentlemen’ become ‘merry men’ and ‘live like the old Robin hood of England’, suggesting an attempt to emulate and romanticise the fact that they, like Robin Hood, are both outlaws and in the wilds like Robin Hood. The fact that Shakespeare chose the English folk-legend of Robin Hood suggests a degree of focus on the nature of a conscious, nostalgic desire in the men to see themselves as noble outlaws who reject the modern offerings of the ‘pompous court’. It also arguably suggests an element of fantasy, a construction, the fact that Robin Hood is but a myth might also infer that their escape into the past is also one.
Another example of how the Forest shuns the modern world of the court is through the supposed abolition of hierarchy; Duke Senior refers to his comrades as his ‘brothers in exile’. This crucially means that the relationship between Duke Senior and his ‘merry men’ is one of necessary friendship, as compared to the court in which ‘Most friendship is feigning’. This suggests that in the ideal world of the forest, the relationship of man is equal and without artificial dominance/subservience.
Indeed, this is exemplified by the character of Adam (Appropriately named because his name connotes the origins of mankind) who provides ‘the constant service of the antique world, where Servants sweat for duty and not for mead’. What this essentially conveys is the fact that Adam, being a product of the past (Of the antique world), assists Orlando because he wishes to (duty), and not out of material want (mead). In contrast, the court is a place where it is ‘not for the fashion of these times’, suggesting that time in the court is both arbitrary and transitory (Fashion connotes only skin deep ‘painted pomp’).
The forest, as a representation of the past, is a path to freedom for those in the court. It is not Duke Senior who has been banished there, for he is now free; ‘To liberty and not to banishment’. The forest further represents an Arcadian past because it offers an alternative source of wisdom. Orlando remarks that ‘the trees shall be my books’ and that Duke Senior believes ‘the winds are my (his) counsellors’. In this sense, Shakespeare is trying to emphasise that the forest presents an all-together more primal, prehistoric form of knowledge. What use are books when the forest can teach me?
There are ‘sermons in stones’ (A sermon pertaining to a form of moral code) and there is ‘good in everything’, as opposed to the court where the only metaphorical fauna are ‘Briars of the working day world’ which only serve to entrap, rather than to empower. Shakespeare is very keen to point out the two-dimensional nature of this pastoral illusion however. The lack of a hierarchy in the Arcadian past for example is immediately undermined by the fact that Duke Senior is referred to as ‘your grace’. This enacts the fact that there is still a presence of higher authority in the character of Duke Senior, despite trying to escape it in the forest.
Another crack in the nostalgic illusion of the forest is the character Corin, who serves to remind us of the true reality of existing in the Forest by virtue of the fact that he does not ‘shear the fleeces he grazes’; he does not reap the reward of his efforts because of his master who possesses a ‘churlish disposition’. This reflects that the forest (and therefore the past) is infact not the peaceful coexistence of ‘merry men’ who ‘sweat only for duty and not for mead’, but rather a place where the efforts of some are ‘usurped’ much in the same fashion as the court.
This is reflected elsewhere; ‘we are mere usurpers and tyrants’ who ‘kill up animals in their assigned and native dwelling place’. This links the courtly desire to usurp to the idealised past, suggesting that the modern, courtly values of the court persist and even corrupt the idealised past of the Forest. Indeed, there is a parallel between the foresters and the deer, which is described as having a ‘leathern coat’ (A coat being a humanising quality by virtue of the fact that it is a piece of clothing).
Shakespeare at this point appears to be attempting to convey the notion that the idealised past will always be subject to the values of the present reality, corrupting it as a result. Another interesting interpretation of Shakespeare’s writing suggests a certain futility in the need to differentiate between the courtly reality and the nostalgic world of the forest. One can argue that the quote; ‘All the worlds a stage’ suggests that all is constructed, both reality and the illusory.
Indeed, it is alluded to that time pervades all (‘From hour to hour we rot and rot’) and that ultimately we end up ‘sans everything’, perhaps alluding to the fact that there is no net ‘gain’, a memento mori of sorts. Although one can argue that this is ultimately just an extension of the previous point; that courtly values persist throughout the present reality and the nostalgic past. The stage after all is a product of the court, and so is time (Arguably suggesting that the idealisation of the past will always be tainted by the reality from which it is conceived).