I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger. (1.1.143-144)
Did we mention that neck-breaking is considered entertainment at Duke Frederick's court? Did we also mention that Oliver's desire to see the court wrestler kill his little brother speaks volumes about how dangerous life at court can be?
OLIVER Where will the old Duke live? CHARLES They say he 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. (1.1.112-115)
Because Duke Senior lives in exile with his crew, he's associated with the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, flipping the bird to those in power every chance he got. The play's Forest of Arden, then, becomes associated with England's Sherwood Forest (Robin Hood's neighborhood) and opposition to corrupt authority figures.
CHARLES There's no news at the court, sir, but the old news. That is, the old duke is banished by his younger brother the new duke, and three or four loving lords have put themselves into voluntary exile with him, whose lands and revenues enrich the new duke. Therefore he gives them good leave to wander. (1.1.97-103)
Dang. Life at court sounds pretty treacherous, what with Duke Frederick usurping his brother's title and sending him into exile. So, where exactly did the old Duke Senior flee? Keep reading...
They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world. (1.1.115-118)
When Charles compares Arden to the "golden world," he implies the Forest of Arden is like a paradise on earth for the exiled Duke Senior. (In Greek mythology, the "golden age" is the first "stage of man," when the world enjoyed peace, happiness, prosperity, and perfect weather.) The court, though it is more civilized, has its own failings when compared to the freedom of the forest.
Act 2, Scene 1
Here feel we 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 and say "This is no flattery. These are counselors That feelingly persuade me what I am." (2.1.5-11)
Even though the weather in Arden is not ideal, Duke Senior says he barely notices the "icy fang" of the "winter's wind." Duke Senior seems genuinely happy out of the court, especially because it was a source of such pain and treachery to him. What's interesting about this passage is how Duke Senior likens the forest to Eden before man's fall. (In Genesis, Adam and Eve are booted out of Eden and the earth is cursed. Like a lot of people, Duke Senior interprets this curse to include lousy weather.)
P.S. Did you notice how the word "Arden" combines the names of Arcadia (an earthly paradise from classical Greek mythology) and Eden (the Biblical paradise)?
DUKE SENIOR 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? (2.1.1-4)
Duke Senior's been exiled, but he makes the most of his new life in Arden. According to the Duke, country life is "more sweet" because it offers safety and freedom from the court, where everybody seems to be two-faced and untrustworthy.
Act 2, Scene 4
TOUCHSTONE Ay, now am I in Arden; the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place, but travelers must be content. (2.4.15-18)
Hmm. Looks like Touchstone has already decided the court is superior to the countryside.
Act 2, Scene 5
JAQUES I'll give you a verse to this note that I made yesterday in despite of my invention. AMIENS And I'll sing it. JAQUES Thus it goes: If it do come to pass That any man turn ass, Leaving his wealth and ease A stubborn will to please, Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame; Here shall he see Gross fools as he, An if he will come to me. (2.5.44-55)
Jaques points out the failings of the pastoral ideal. Still, he notes that anyone who came to seek this ideal in the forest would find him there, too.
SONG [All together here] Who doth ambition shun, And loves to live i' th' sun, Seeking the food he eats, And pleas'd with what he gets, Come hither, come hither, come hither. Here shall he see No enemy But winter and rough weather. (2.5.36-43)
The Lords who have left the court are singing here and they cast the forest as the opposite of the court. The court is characterized as a cutthroat place, full of ambitious people who are never satisfied and must watch their backs for enemies. In contrast, the forest is a place where people can live in the sunshine, have no enemies other than foul weather, and find true contentment.
Act 2, Scene 7
ORLANDO Speak you so gently? Pardon me, I pray you. I thought that all things had been savage here, And therefore put I on the countenance Of stern commandment. (2.7.111-114)
Orlando assumes everything in the forest is brutal, so he tries to be brutal too. He means to contrast the court to the forest, but the irony is that the court has proved more brutal to him than the forest could ever be.
Act 3, Scene 2
CORIN Not a whit, Touchstone. Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at the court. You told me you salute not at the court but you kiss your hands; that courtesy would be uncleanly if courtiers were shepherds. TOUCHSTONE Instance, briefly. Come, instance. CORIN Why, we are still handling our ewes; and their fells, you know, are greasy. TOUCHSTONE Why, do not your courtier's hands sweat? And is not the grease of a mutton as wholesome as the sweat of a man? Shallow, shallow. A better instance, I say. Come. CORIN Besides, our hands are hard. TOUCHSTONE Your lips will feel them the sooner. Shallow again. A more sounder instance. Come. CORIN And they are often tarred over with the surgery of our sheep; and would you have us kiss tar? The courtier's hands are perfumed with civet. TOUCHSTONE Most shallow man. thou worms' meat in respect of a good piece of flesh indeed! Learn of the wise, and perpend: civet is of a baser birth than tar, the very uncleanly flux of a cat. Mend the instance, shepherd. CORIN You have too courtly a wit for me. I'll rest. (3.2.45-69)
Corin argues that the attitudes and social conventions of the court have no place in the country. The custom of hand-kissing, for example, wouldn't work in the country because everybody's hands are always greasy and smelly from handling sheep. Touchstone, as usual, says that's not a good enough reason and argues with Corin until the old shepherd gives up and says Touchstone is too witty for him.
Act 5, Scene 4
First, in this forest, let us do those ends That here were well begun and well begot, And, after, every of this happy number That have endured shrewd days and nights with us Shall share the good of our return'd fortune, According to the measure of their states. Meantime, forget this new-fall'n dignity And fall into our rustic revelry.—
Wait a minute here. If life in the country is so great, why does everyone decide to return to court when they find out their old titles and fortunes will be restored? Because Arden isn't exactly the "real world," it seems like the forest can only ever be a temporary refuge.