How does Shakespeare contrast pastoral life against courtly life in As You Like It?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One significant difference Shakespeare portrays between pastoral life and courtly life, which is actually also a central theme, is that courtly life is corrupt, while there is a lack of corruption in the country.

We especially see this claim made by Duke Senior and his courtiers. In his very first speech, Duke Senior claims that despite the harshness of winter weather, pastoral life is much better than courtly life because there is nothing artificial about country life, while courtly life is full of "painted pomp," or "artificial ceremony" (II.i.3; Shakespeare Navigators). Furthermore, he argues that country life lacks the same artificial flatterers that one is subjected to at court. Even Amiens later in a song praises country life for being absent of "man's ingratitude" and false friendship. Amiens even argues that while nature may be harsh in the country, especially at winter, winter's "sting is not so sharp / As a friend remember'd not" (II.vii.188-89).

However, while it is common for pastoral literature to claim that pastoral life is a utopia, Shakespeare uses As You Like It to point out that even the country is not free of corruption, especially so long as man is there. When we first meet Duke Senior and his courtiers, we learn that Jaques has been seen crying over a hunted deer that has been wounded and taken a fall. Jaques' argument is that mankind has no right to kill the deer simply because man needs food. He further argues that the deer has a right to experience its own utopia in the forest and that Duke Senior and his courtiers are usurping the deer of its natural claims to the forest, much in the same way that Frederick usurped Duke Senior, showing us that Jaques' claim is that mankind is no less corrupt in pastoral life than he is in courtly life.

Hence, while Shakespeare points out that there is a natural absence of corruption in pastoral life, he also asserts that no life containing man can be truly devoid of corruption.


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