William Shakespeare's As You Like It is seemingly set in two worlds: the court of Duke Frederick and the Forest of Arden, which serves its role as a place of temporary respite from the troubles of the court.
The Forest of Arden is often interpreted symbolically as the idyllic counterpart or alternative to an oppressive court. The court is certainly oppressive. Prior to the beginning of the play, Duke Frederick usurped the dukedom of his brother, Duke Senior, and banished Duke Senior from court. Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden with a number of his followers.
In act 1, scene 3, Duke Frederick banishes Duke Senior's daughter Rosalind from court for being Duke Senior's daughter and possibly for falling in love with Orlando, the son of Duke Frederick's hated enemy, Sir Rowland de Boys.
At her cousin and best friend Celia's suggestion, Rosalind decides to join her father in exile in the Forest of Arden. Celia decides to accompany her there and to take the court jester, Touchstone, with them. At Rosalind's suggestion, and as a practical matter, Celia and Rosalind disguise themselves in order to travel safely to Arden, because, as Rosalind says, "Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold."
Act 2, scene 1 is the first scene in the play that occurs in the Forest of Arden. Duke Senior and some of his followers are walking through the forest, "like forester," says the stage directions in the First Folio. Duke Senior tells his followers how much he enjoys living in the forest, but it doesn't sound like a particularly pleasant place for those who don't have Duke Senior's optimistic, accepting attitude.
DUKE SENIOR. The seasons' difference: as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold.
(act 2, scene 1, lines 6–9)
Duke Senior also mentions "ugly and venomous" toads, but he seems to find "good in everything," and his follower Amiens agrees, remarking, "I would not change it."
Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone arrive in Arden in act 2, scene 4. When Rosaline says "Well, this is the Forest of Arden," Touchstone puts the forest into perspective.
Ay, now am I in Arden: the more fool I;
When I was at home I was in a better place; but
Travellers must be content.
(act 2, scene 4, lines 15–17)
Orlando calls the forest "uncouth" and finds that "there's no clock in the forest," but aside from those two observations, nothing more is said about the forest during the rest of the play.
The Forest of Arden serves as a refuge for Duke Senior and his followers, as well as for Celia and Rosalind—if not quite so much for Touchstone—and for Orlando and his old servant, Adam, when Orlando flees to the forest to escape from his abusive brother, Oliver.
The forest is also a place for meditation (Jaques and Duke Senior), self-discovery (Rosalind and Orlando), self-renewal (Duke Senior and Oliver), and for fantasy and make-believe, in the sense of a person being able to indulge their make-believe fantasies—Rosalind, disguised as a man, teaches Orlando how to love Rosalind—not in a sense of the forest itself being fantastical.
The Forest of Arden serves as the setting for the play and as a backdrop for the action of the play. If it weren't for Duke Senior being exiled from court and choosing to live in the Forest of Arden, the forest scenes could easily have been set anywhere in the countryside around the Duke's palace, in much the same way that the scenes in A Midsummer Night's Dream are set in the forest outside Athens, and The Tempest is set on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Magical, spiritual, and fantastical things happen in each of these places, but the forest or island itself isn't particularly magical, spiritual, or fantastical.
When order is restored in act 5 of As You Like It and Duke Senior regains his rightful place at court, the true identities of Rosalind/Ganymede and Celia/Aliena are revealed, and all lovers are properly paired up with the help of Hymen, the god of marriage, and it appears that everyone except those who originally lived in the forest plans to return to court—except for Jacques, who chooses to join the newly-enlightened Duke Frederick in a cave with "an old religious man"—and not another thought is given to the Forest of Arden.