What is pastoral?

“Pastoral” is a term referring to a specific type of literature that glorifies the rural life of shepherds in a highly idealized and unrealistic manner and was popular during the Elizabethan age. It is based on ancient Greek literature and because of this the shepherds and shepherdesses often have Greek names. One of the most often cited example of pastoral poetry is Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield. 

There will we sit upon the rocks,
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals. 

There I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle; 

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love. 

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me. 

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

In it we see an idealized version of life in the country, a kind of unspoiled simplicity where very little work seems to be done and shepherds are poets. It was often held up in contrast to court life: the quiet leisure of the country versus the bustle and noise of court, the wholesomeness and honesty of country people versus the scheming and politicizing of courtiers, freedom from care and responsibility. Additionally, by placing stories in a pastoral setting, a distance was created wherein authors could comment on political situations with a degree of freedom.

The idea of “country” was not unfamiliar to the courtiers and playgoers of Shakespeare’s time. London was a largely migrant city whose population had boomed during Elizabeth’s reign, so for Shakespeare’s audience rural life was something very real; not an idealized way of life but something a large number of them had only recently left behind. Likewise, most of those at court possessed large country estates which they would either retire to or political advantage or were exiled to were they to displease Elizabeth. There were, of course, other reasons to retire from court, but more than using the country as a voluntary rest from courtly life it was used as a punishment for poor political behavior.

Marlowe’s poem first appeared in print in 1599, most likely right around the time that Shakespeare was writing As You Like It, published under Shakespeare’s name in The Passionate Pilgrim. Being such a perfect example of pastoral imagery, it’s no wonder then that it also became a jumping off point for pastoral parody. Many poets penned responses, including Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”: 

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love. 

Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come. 

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring but sorrow's fall. 

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten, -
In folly ripe, in reason rotten. 

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love. 

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Raleigh takes the typical conventions of pastoral poetry and the lover and turns them around by pointing out the flaws in the ideas to Marlowe’s poem: love can be feigned, the seasons change and spring turns to harsh winter, the delicate creations crafted of flowers will whither and crumble.

What are the conventions of pastoral that Shakespeare upends?

According to Marjorie Garber, pastoral conventions included: “shepherds who are also poets, writing poems and playing upon pipes; the good old shepherd, poor but eager to give hospitality to strangers and to those in need; the “savage” man or men who lacked courtly upbringing but possess an innate gentleness and gentility… the beautiful shepherdess; the pastoral elegy, mourning the death of a shepherd or shepherdess who was often also a poet; the pastoral debate on topics like nature vs. nurture, or country vs. city.” In As You Like It, much like Raleigh did with Marlowe, Shakespeare takes these recognizable conceits and plays with them. Let’s look at each one and examine how Shakespeare uses it in As You Like It.

First, and most commonly, is the idea that shepherds in a pastoral have very little work and instead of caring for flocks, spend their time in the field writing elegant poetry. This is one of the most central ideals of the pastoral, and the one Shakespeare most obviously flaunts, as the people of Arden are actually presented as laboring. Diana Major Spencer explains in her article for Midsummer Magazine that “Audrey, the goat girl of small brain and thick tongue, is better suited to a georgic, a poem that depicts the labor of the farm, than to a pastoral, as is Corin’s realistic description of rough, tarred hands from treating the ailments of sheep.” Silvius, our one traditional shepherd-lover, quotes no poetry to Phoebe, and they fulfill their respective roles as devoted shepherd and disdainful shepherdess, they do so sans poetry. The one poet of the forest is the displaced Orlando, a man from a noble family (regardless of his keeping by his brother) who stands in for the role of shepherd-lover and fills that role in a ludicrous fashion. When presented with Rosalind at the beginning of the play, he finds himself unable to speak, and thus the passionate wooing in elegant language is nowhere to be found. It isn’t until he moves into Arden that he finds his voice, and once he does, we wish he hadn’t as the poetry he writes is abysmal and a source of ridicule for those that come across it.

Besides poetry, shepherds are also supposed to be imbued with an innate hospitality. Rosalind, Touchstone and Celia are luckily enough to come across Corin early on into their venture in the forest, but rather than offering them sustenance and shelter he unhappily most deny them because of his poverty. The sheep he tends are not his, but his master’s, and he has nothing to offer them. This glance into poverty could be seen as a reflection of the predicament of many in Elizabeth’s England, as enclosure laws across the country had severely limited the grazing areas and driven previously self-subsisting farmers into poverty and tenancy.  Celia soon buys Corin’s property, but this is less the liberation of the old shepherd and more the transfer of his services from one master to another.

Rather than the shepherd offering hospitality in the woods it’s the Duke’s band of merry men who offer comfort to strangers in Arden. Orlando exclaims in surprise that “quote”, but we know before he does that it is not the forest offering examples of gentility but the court displacing it. As Garber points out, the clearest example of a true “Savage man” comes in the guise of Charles, the court wrestler, and it can be argued that Duke Frederick and Oliver, the heads of the “civilized” communities we see, are two further examples.

Structurally, pastoral literature also would include debates on subjects such as country vs. city or nature vs. nurture, and while As You Like It contains these discourses, they are presided by Touchstone, the fool. Touchstone’s inclusion therefore perverts them from sensible discourse to a showcase for his wit and “In his “eclogue“ with Corin, he attempts neither good sense or consistency, only verbal victory” (Spencer).