Author: Fiona O’Brien
Fiona O'Brien (she/her) is a third-year student at the University of Toronto, specializing in History with a minor in Renaissance Studies.
Why do so many of us feel that desperate call to nature deep within our souls? Perhaps it is a deep-seated need that has been evolutionarily embedded through the generations to return to a lifestyle at which we feel most at peace, to flee our neck-straining, eye-twitching desk jobs. Or maybe the outdoors are just… pretty. But perhaps there is something more, something that we can recognize about the appeal of nature throughout all of history. In the woods, in the fields, mountains, and lakes, we are permitted to cease the rigamarole of our daily lives without worrying that the world will move on without us. In a sylvan state, we return to childlike innocence, shedding all responsibilities that tie us to this modern world. No laws govern the woods but those of nature, twisting and bending as we grow.
The opposite of this natural freedom is, of course, some variety of man-made prison: perhaps the best example is the Dickensian schoolroom, in which every word uttered has a strictly ordained meaning and each student an even more specific role. There is no room for imagination or the exploration of one’s gendered and socially assigned position. There is merely fact. It is the fantasy world of very few, the darker side of education and reality that chains the enlightened mind forever. In the Gradgrindian schoolroom — or, quite often, simply in the world around us — the dialectic is simple: student makes a claim, teacher disputes incorrect claim, and teacher’s claim stands as fact. Play is a fruitless pursuit here, seen as frivolous in the eyes of mathematical jurisdiction. One could, and many do, consider this world to be inseparable from our own. So what existed before?
Some cultures imagine this concept of the “before;” a time preceding an act of human folly that led to some kind of punishment that permanently shaped the world we live in today. Abrahamic religions focus on the foundation of human sin through the etiological tale of Eden and temptation of Adam by woman, Eve (via Satan). For the Ancient Greeks, a comparable period is ruined by the selfless donation of fire to humanity by Prometheus, a crime punished by the introduction of Pandora and her pithos, or jar. However, perhaps it is key to focus on the period before the fall. The Abrahamic prelapsarian and Greek period of gods and nymphs were periods devoid of rules, save for the necessary obeisance to the highest power, be it Zeus or the Almighty. Arguably, this period is when the ultimate play can take place. Shame is nonexistent, as beings human and deity alike lounge nude and imbibe themselves in far too much ambrosia and nectar as time flows seamlessly around them. Is this not the perfect playground?
No, it’s not. Not to be blunt. In fact, the prelapsarian world, although valuable and very fun to play around in, is the worst place for real play to take place. Perhaps it is a dismal perspective to some, but the reality of play is that it involves rule-breaking. In a world without rules, there can be no violation of rules. When no ridiculous pre-ordained roles exist, we cannot transgress by exiting those roles and entering others. When play is the norm, it loses its value. Instead, worlds in which rules do exist, and bind us tightly, are the best environments in which to play. One can easily reference Prince Hal’s sun soliloquy at the end of Act 1 of Henry IV:
“If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come.”
To demonstrate this fact further, let us jump to (or perhaps remain in) Renaissance Europe. Whether one focuses upon plague-ridden Florence or execution-prone Tudor England, there is no shortage of rules in place, rules which govern the very movement of citizens. Roles are strictly ordained, perhaps more so than today. It is essentially criminal to challenge these roles, yet it is still done. How? Through a medium that can be denied as reality by its author: literature. Through literature, Renaissance authors begin a tradition of creating landscapes in which their characters can play. This landscape must be natural and pastoral, free of all institutions that block the free-roaming of its characters. But most of all, it must be a liminal space in which perceptions of one’s role exist, but no desire or requirement to fulfill it does. One could list any number of works in which these phenomena take place: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Sir Phillip Sidney’s Old Arcadia, Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, or even, nasty as the author may be, Thomas More’s Utopia. However, for the sake of time, let us examine only one: William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
The roles of gender in the Court of the Duke are proscribed and understood intensely. Turn to the deceptively picturesque scenes of the Forest of Arden, a space in which the perception of roles, specifically gender roles, exists, but the actual performance of those roles is fluid. There, no claim is indisputable. In fact, almost every single one is shot down, whether it regards pastoral beauty, gender roles, or what it means to be idle. Within this dialectic, a playground for gender is created. Roles reach a level of fluidity, and women gain the power to absolutely shatter the absurd worlds created by the male imagination (worlds that would have been allowed to be concrete in any other situation). This is essentially the ideal place to play, far better than any prelapsarian environment. The tradition of Shakespeare and others of avoiding didactical writing, ensuring that essentially every claim or idealism is met by a counterclaim, and allowing nothing to escape doubt crafts an environment in which humanity is undeniably “real.” So real, that it could have been perceived as uncomfortable when presented in a package such as theatre or literature, which was intended to be an escape. Standardized hierarchies, such as ruler to subject, man to woman, child to parent, are challenged. Even idealized comments on the beauty of love or nature are shot down nearly instantaneously. Often, the counterclaim does not become the dominant one, but if it does, a new dominant paradigm replaces the old. Regardless, the world remains reduced to either/or. Two are simply placed side by side without declaring a victor. The vitality is in the interplay or fluidity.
In Arden, Duke Senior takes the temporary place of Pyrocles in praising beautiful nature, proclaiming to his sylvan court: “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 we not the penalty of Adam […] and this our life, exempt from public haunt, / finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / sermons in stones, and good in everything” (Shakespeare, 2.1.5-19). His romantically idealized view of the natural world is indeed charming, reminiscent of the scene set in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (a tale which at the time of Shakespeare’s writing was widely circulating). He harshly shuns the outside world that he was so ingrained in previously, preferring to find his previous comforts (“tongues,” “books,” “sermons,” and “good”) in the pastoral forest. His reference to Adam suggests that the harsh wind should serve as instruction rather than punishment, the heaviness of the human condition washed away via forced shinrin yoku (i.e forest bathing). However, despite its tranquility, by the laws of Shakespeare’s forest dialectic, this remark cannot stand. It is shot down swiftly by the gloomy Jacques, who reminds the men of the court that they are “mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse,” who “fright the animals and to kill them up in their assigned and native dwelling place” (Shakespeare, 2.1.60-64). The beauty and cleansing nature of the forest may exist, argues Jacques, but they who have invaded do not belong; they are vile colonizers, interrupting a natural ecosystem. Truth be told, he has a point. Here, Jacques does the very thing that Musidorus considered doing, shooting down an idealist vision of the world and setting up the dialectic that carries throughout the rest of As You Like It, if not with a bit more subtlety. However, this point made by Jacques is shared to the reader via Amiens, one of the courtiers; perhaps, the telephonic nature of the passage of the criticism leads to it being less trustworthy than we are led to believe. This is still characteristic of the circulation of Arden, in which the ideas of lords can be echoed back to them and potentially debunked. In Duke Frederick’s court, however, Orlando was forced to suffer in silence, grumbling and complaining to himself or to his servant, Adam.
So perhaps here is why we value the escape to nature: it is a dual return to play and the natural world, and an environment in which we can dance through the expectations society has thrust upon us. Fiction is the best setting in which one can play. To play is to explore, and for this to happen, there can be no rules. The schoolroom is the rulebook, with punishment for those who do not accept fact. William Shakespeare’s Arden is the very opposite of this schoolroom space. By reclaiming the classical pastoral space, they remove all remnants of human creation except for the humans themselves, then allow those who remain to play. Without those human institutions, objective fact cannot exist. No argument, or even observation, can be raised without a counterpoint being presented. This dialectic that both authors create allows for the exploration of invented human institutions as well, such as gender. This exploration creates a space in which gender is fluid, allowing characters to seamlessly shift into another identity in which they are capable of saying and doing acts that would not previously have been accepted, and prove that the preconceptions of gender are far from biological. However, all good things must come to an end, and Shakespeare closes his fantastical world before the reader shuts the book, neatly wrapping up the forest playrooms with gendered pairings between lovers, and returning them to the real world of the schoolroom.