The French Court and the Forest of Arden
The play begins at the French court, but most of As You Like It goes down in the Forest of Arden.
At the court, backstabbing and treachery are the names of the game. This is where the scheming Duke Frederick has usurped his older brother's (Duke Senior's) title and where Oliver encourages a professional wrestler to snap his little brother's neck. You did notice that neck-snapping and bone-crushing are considered entertainment at the Court, right? Enough said.
The Forest of Arden (Or, "Ardenne" If You Want to Be Fancy)
Since life at court can be pretty dangerous, most of the cast hightails it to the Forest of Arden by Act 2. Because Arden is full of shepherds living the simple life, it's considered a "pastoral" setting. Before we get to the part where we talk about what life in the forest is like, you should know a few things about the significance of the name. As literary critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, the name "Arden" is loaded with meaning (source).
As it turns out, there's an old forest in France called "Ardenne," which makes sense for the play because As You Like It takes place in France. For Shakespeare's 16th-century English audience, the setting of the French Forest of "Ardenne" might have seemed like a dreamy, far-off place with fairy tale qualities. However, there was also a "Forest of Arden" near Shakespeare's hometown in Warwickshire and this may have encouraged the audience to associate the forest in the play with good old England.
Finally, the word "Arden" combines the names of Arcadia (an earthly paradise from classical Greek mythology) and Eden (the Biblical paradise). Gee. How convenient is that? According to Marjorie Garber, because of all these connections, Arden becomes a kind of "repository [...] of earthly paradises from literature, myth, and personal history" (Shakespeare After All 440). OK. We agree with Garber that the name "Arden" makes us associate the play's setting with France, England, Eden, and Arcadia.
Is Arden Really a Paradise?
Wait a minute! Is Arden really a paradise? Hmm. Let's think about this for a minute. Arden is cold, windy, and full of dangerous animals (like the mama lion who nearly devours Orlando). Plus, if you want a job, your only option is taking care of sheep. (As old Corin reminds us, taking care of smelly, "greasy" sheep is no picnic.) So, what's so great about a place like that? Well, according to Duke Senior, Arden is a harsh environment but that doesn't matter because it's so much better than the fake and treacherous court:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel not the penalty of Adam,
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, I smile
I would not change it. (2.1.1-9, 18)
OK. We get it. Even though the weather is seriously lousy, Arden is a place of refuge and freedom, which makes it all worth it. Like most Shakespearean wildernesses (like the woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Prospero's Island in The Tempest), Arden is also place for self-discovery, renewal, and fantasy. Where else could Rosalind dress as a boy and tutor her future husband on how to be a good lover? In the forest, desire rules and characters have the freedom to be and say and do as they please... until it's time to go back to the court, that is.