If there’s one idea, for me, that’s central to As You Like It, it’s freedom. I think of this play – first performed in 1599 – as Shakespeare’s most verdant (even more so than The Winter’s Tale). Having studied it 30 years ago, I thought I knew it, but a re-read (appropriately, in the garden) threw up more questions than it answered. ‘Why does almost nothing happen?’ I thought. ‘What is Shakespeare trying to tell us about nature?’

I remained baffled for a few days until I picked up Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory. This got me thinking about the forest in British culture and the historical context for the play, both of which have helped me to unlock some meanings.

Firstly, the history. Because of their Protestantism, England and Scotland (joined by the union of the crowns in March 1603) have tended to regard their monarchy differently from the people of Catholic Europe. Catholic monarchs commanded their subjects absolutely, putting great emphasis on the idea of divine right (i.e., the monarch is God’s representative on earth and can do as he/she pleases). In contrast, English/Scottish monarchs ruled by the grace of God and with the consent of their subjects. Queen Elizabeth I’s tub-thumping speech at Tilbury distils this idea very nicely:

Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects.

Here, the monarch is both the instrument of God and the servant of her people – but note that she also uses the word safeguard. This is because British monarchs not only rule by consent, but they are also expected to protect their subjects’ individual rights. Monarchs who ignore these rules are characterised as tyrants.

How did these rights manifest themselves in Shakespeare’s time? We might look at marriages and think that the law was draconian (women surrendered everything they possessed to their husbands on marrying – how is that liberating?) However, many English/Scottish women considered themselves freer than the women of Europe. This is because the family was seen as a microcosm of the state. Under a liberal monarch who inspired tolerance and mutual respect, it was only natural (hold that important word in your mind!) that married women had a degree of freedom instead of expecting them to submit to the absolute rule of their husbands.

Now I think about it, this could explain a lot about the ending of The Taming of the Shrew, but let’s stick to As You Like It… You will remember that there’s a spirit residing over Shakespeare’s play – our old friend Robin Hood. He’s name-checked very early on, when Charles the wrestler likens Duke Senior and his exiled courtiers to Robin:

They say he [the Duke] is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world. (Act I, Scene I).

Robin shoots with Sir Guy from Louis Rhead's novel Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest (1912).

This reference may not mean a great deal to us now, simply because the Robin Hood legend has subtly changed over time. Today, we think of him as a kind of lawless bandit, but as Simon Schama explains in Landscape and Memory, we have forgotten that Robin actually symbolised loyalty. In the version of the story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Robin was a supporter of Richard the Lionheart and went into the forest, not by choice, but because of an act of usurpation by Richard’s brother, John, while the King was away at the Third Crusade. Explains Schama:

… though he may be an outlaw, he’s no rebel. In fact, he is a passionate and nostalgic conservative who yearns for the restoration of a just, personal monarchy and who wants a social order dislocated by rogues and parvenus to be set right in its proper ranks, stations, and portions.

You will recall that As You Like It opens with similar acts of usurpation by two sets of brothers. Firstly, there’s a younger brother, Duke Frederick, who usurps his elder, Duke Senior, by seizing his dominions. Secondly, there’s an elder brother, Oliver (son of Sir Rowland de Boys) who usurps his younger, Orlando, by denying him his rights of inheritance after their father’s death. (Just to make that relationship even more unnatural, Oliver has a hatred for Orlando that drives him to towards fratricide.) If the family is a microcosm of the state, something is seriously rotten in the de Boys family.

Once the natural order has been overturned, the protagonists, including Orlando, Rosalind (Duke Senior’s daughter), her cousin Celia and Touchstone the clown, are quickly forced – Robin-Hood-like – into the forest. Yet, the move can only be a positive one; an escape from tyrannical rule to the liberty of the greenwood. As Celia puts it: ‘Now go we in content/To liberty, and not to banishment’ (Act I, Scene I).

This seems a good place to ask: What kind of forest is it? We are given no geographical clues about the Forest of Arden. Based on the play’s French names, are we in the Ardennes? Or is it Eardene (north of Worcester)? If so, why are there lions, snakes and olive trees? Perhaps Shakespeare was referencing the maiden name of his mother (Mary Arden) and his youth growing up beside a real forest of that name? Some of its trees, shrubs and bracken can still be seen today at the end of Anne Hathaway’s garden.

The Forest of Arden is, of course, all and none of these things – because it’s a forest of the imagination. But as Schama explains, there are important differences between the forest in, say, the German cultural imagination (dark and scary) and that of the English.

In the English Renaissance mindset, the forest is almost always a place of escape and liberation. Robin Hood’s retreat into Sherwood Forest was a necessity, but it was also an opportunity to re-set the balance. In the forest, things are turned upside down – Robin is a Lord of Misrule who is paradoxically both a virtuous man and a robber. In the Forest of Arden, Rosalind is paradoxically the boy Ganymede and Orlando’s perfect wife. If we see Rosaland as a Lady of Misrule – a female Robin Hood – we begin to understand how Elizabethan audiences perceived her. Meanwhile, Shakespeare adeptly mixes in elements of pastoral literature so that we understand that Arden is a kind of Eden before the Fall.

I admit that I found Harold Bloom’s essay on the play in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Genius far too adoring of Rosalind to be much use, but he is right about a couple of things. Firstly:

Chesterton said that ‘Rosalind did not go into the wood to look for her freedom, she went into the wood to look for her father.’ Though I worship Chesterton, that would have surprised Shakespeare… The search for the father has little importance in As You Like It, and Rosalind’s freedom is central to her. [My emphasis].

Bloom also observed that ‘Orlando, as all of us know, is not Rosalind’s equal, but Shakespeare’s heroines generally marry down’. Indeed, many now regard the ending of the play (with its rather artificial masque) as a let-down. Why does the marvellously liberated Rosalind happily stick her neck through the marital noose? Yet, if we keep in mind the idea of greenwood liberty, we understand that Rosalind’s cross-dressed persona must be a temporary situation; in the end, her happiness is crowned with the conventional reward: marriage. Elizabethan audiences would have understood this marriage to be a supportive one, where – back under the enlightened rule of her father – Rosalind will have scope to retain her witty individualism. (And the couple will be rich too!)

Not everyone can or wants to be healed by the power of nature. At the end, the melancholy Jaques (an urbanite poser par excellence) decides he prefers his hair-shirt and joins Duke Frederick, who has gone into monastic retirement. Earlier in the play, Jacques had stumbled on Touchstone, and, describing his encounter to Duke Senior, remarks:

I must have liberty Withal, as large a charter as the wind, To blow on whom I please, for so fools have; (Act II, Scene VII).

But Touchstone’s is only a licensed foolery, not true freedom. At the end, Jacques opts to keep his cynicism and carry on the old way. After all, in the Forest of Arden you can be who you want to be; you can laugh and play… or be happily miserable… just for a time, while everything is turned upside down and wrongs are righted.

As You Like It is a hymn to the playhouse: a place of transformation – if you want it to be. The ending seems to ask: ‘Who will you be: a Rosalind or a Jaques?’ If ‘All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players’ there’s a choice involved in the parts you adopt and the ways you respond to both the play and the world. Are you lost in the drama (‘There’s no clock in the forest’) or are you like Touchstone, getting your watch out of your pocket; letting a jaded observation slip? The forest – and the play – can reboot your life, or it can change nothing. The point is, you’re free to choose because that’s the way things are in the English greenwood.

Life is exactly what you make of it.