Shakespeare begins his play with a pair of dueling brothers, an amendment of his source material—Thomas Lodge’s popular prose romance, Rosalynde—that allows him to establish, with great economy, the corrupt nature of so-called civilized life. Oliver’s mistreatment of his brother spurs Orlando to journey into the curative Forest of Arden as surely as Frederick’s actions did his own brother Duke Senior, which immediately locates the play in the pastoral tradition: those wounded by life at court seek the restorative powers of the country. But fraternal hostilities are also deeply biblical and resonate with the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, an act that confirmed mankind’s delivery from paradise into a world of malignity and harm. The injustice of Oliver’s refusal to educate or otherwise share his fortune with Orlando seems all the more outrageous because it is perfectly legal. The practice of primogeniture stipulated that the eldest son inherits the whole of his father’s estate so that estates would not fragment into smaller parcels. Primogeniture was not mandated by law in Shakespeare’s England, but it was a firmly entrenched part of traditional English custom. With such a system governing society, inequality, greed, and animosity become unfortunate inevitabilities, and many younger sons in Shakespeare’s time would have shared Orlando’s resentment.
In this opening scene, Shakespeare begins to muse on another theme common in pastoral literature: the origins of gentleness. As scholar Jean E. Howard makes clear in her introduction to the play, “gentleness” refers to both nobility and a virtuous nature. Elizabethans were supremely interested in whether this quality could be achieved or whether one had to be born with it, and Orlando shows himself to be a man of the times. Though Oliver has denied him all forms of education and noble living, Orlando nonetheless has a desire for gentleness. As he assails Oliver, he claims that his “gentleman-like qualities” have been obscured, but feels confident that he could develop them still. Of course, Oliver’s behavior suggests that gentleness has little to do with being born into nobility. Though he has the vast majority of his father’s estate at his fingertips, he proves lacking in the generosity and grace that would make him a true gentleman. The audience, then, looks optimistically to Orlando, who vows to go find his fortune on his own.
The episode with the wrestler Charles is important for several reasons. First, it provides further evidence of the prejudices that rule court society. Charles visits Oliver because he worries about defeating Orlando. Although Charles is paid to be a brute, he fears that pummeling a nobleman, even one so bereft of fortune as Orlando, may win him disfavor in the court. Such deference on Charles’s part speaks to the severe hierarchy of power that structures court life. Charles also provides necessary plot explication. Through Charles’s report to Oliver, Shakespeare sketches the backdrop of his comedy: the usurpation of Duke Senior by Duke Frederick, Rosalind’s precarious situation, and the qualities of life in the Forest of Arden. Although set in France, the forest to which Duke Senior and his loyal lords flee is intentionally reminiscent of Sherwood Forest, the home of Robin Hood. It is, in Charles’s estimation, a remnant of “the golden world,” a time of ease and abundance from which the modern world has fallen. Thus, before we ever see Arden, which cannot be located on any map, we understand it as a place where Orlando will find the remedy he so desperately seeks.