William Shakespeare Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works

Pastoral, a popular Renaissance literary genre, influenced a number of Shakespeare's works. The pastoral genre depicts an idealized vision of a simpler, rural life and a longing for a lost world of innocence. The pastoral mode was an integral part of the Renaissance debate between the virtues of the active versus the contemplative life, often expressed as the opposition of negotium, involvement in business, civic, and social life, and otium, ease or idleness. Commentary on pastoral in Shakespeare's dramatic works frequently involves references to writers who generated and developed the pastoral mode. These include the Greek poet Theocritus; the Latin poet Virgil; authors of the Italian Renaissance such as Sannazaro, Guarini, Tasso, and Mantuan; and English Renaissance pastoral writers, including Spenser, Greene, Lodge, and Sidney, whose Arcadia is considered to be one of the greatest pastorals. Many critics argue that pastoral is a way of looking at life, art, and nature—an attitude and a system of values rather than a set of formal literary conventions. However, there is general agreement regarding the three-part structure of pastoral drama—flight or exile from the court or city, retreat to a rural setting, and return. The sojourn in the countryside supposedly provides an opportunity to gain new insights and perspectives, leading to personal education, growth, and renewal. Scholars have explored Shakespeare's use of this dramatic structure, and the evidence in his plays of pastoralism and anti-pastoralism, with particular reference to As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.

Scholars who write about As You Like It generally agree that the play does not represent the Forest of Arden as a lost, golden world. There is, however, a range of opinions regarding whether this comedy is anti-pastoral or merely ambivalent about the literary pastoral tradition. Laurence Lerner (see Further Reading) views Arden as having a great deal in common with the court and the city, especially with respect to social and political divisions. Similarly, Peter Lindenbaum (1986) describes the forest in As You Like It as not a golden world but a fallen one, which provides “only limited relief from the concerns of everyday life.” Alastair Fowler (1984), characterizing Arden as only a temporary reprieve from the ordinary concerns of daily life, emphasizes this play's pastoral setting as a representation of the progression of seasons and the theme of mutability. Several critics assert that As You Like It challenges conventional literary pastoralism. Lindenbaum, for example, calls attention to the different views of pastoral expressed by disparate characters in the play. Fowler describes the play as a “complex departure from pastoral,” and Brian Gibbons (1987) argues that it mocks the absurdities of the pastoral style and effectively subverts it. Gibbons, like Keir Elam (see Further Reading), pays particular attention to Shakespeare's departure in this comedy from his literary forebears, particularly Sidney and Lodge. Elam regards As You Like It as an anti-pastoral play, remarking on its freshness of style, its ironical tone, and its playfulness. Paul Alpers (1996) focuses on Colin as a descendant of the traditional literary shepherd, noting that unlike his prototype, he has a realistic view of pastoral life and values. A number of critics have addressed the issue of pastoral elements in other Shakespearean comedies. Writing about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lindenbaum describes the forest in this early comedy as a fantasy, a place where no ordinary rules of society apply; he attributes this depiction as evidence of Shakespeare's “unthinking or automatic acceptance of a pastoral romance structural scheme he adopted from pastoral writers before him.” Alpers addresses pastoral elements in another early Shakespearean comedy, Love's Labour's Lost, focusing on Costard as similar to shepherds in the literary pastoral tradition...

(The entire section is 121,110 words.)