Although we learn of the romance between Audrey and Touchstone rather late in the game, the relationship is important to the play for many reasons. First, it produces laughs because of the incongruities between the two lovers. Touchstone delights in words and verbiage. He obsesses over them, wrings multiple—and often bawdy—meanings from them, and usually ends up tangling himself and others in them. That he chooses to wed Audrey, a simple goatherd who fails to comprehend the most basic vocabulary—the words “features,” “poetical,” and “foul” are all beyond her grasp—ensures the laughable absurdity of their exchange. Indeed, the play offers few moments more outrageous than Audrey’s declaration of virtue: “I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul”.
The rustic romance between Audrey and Touchstone also provides a pointed contrast with the flowery, verbose love of Silvius for Phoebe or Orlando for Rosalind. Whereas Phoebe and Silvius are caught up in the poetics of love—with the man in agonizing pursuit of an unattainable but, to his mind, perfect lover—the attraction between Touchstone and Audrey is far from idealized. Indeed, if Audrey cannot grasp the meaning of the word “poetical,” there is little hope that she will be able to fulfill the part dictated to her by literary convention. Ideals have little to do with Touchstone’s affections for Audrey. By his own admission, the clown’s passions are much easier to understand. In explaining to Jaques his decision to marry Audrey, Touchstone says, “As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires”. Here, Touchstone equates his sexual desire to various restraining devices for animals. Sexual gratification, or “nibbling,” to use Touchstone’s phrase, will keep his otherwise untamed passions in check.
Although Silvius and Phoebe’s and Touchstone and Audrey’s are two very different kinds of love relationships, taken together they form a complete satire of the two major influences on the play—-pastoralism and courtly love. In pastoral literature, city dwellers take to the country in order to commune with and learn valuable lessons from its inhabitants. Audrey represents a truly rural individual, uncorrupted by the politics of court life, but she is, in all respects, far from ideal. In her supreme want of intelligence, Audrey shows the absurd unreality of the pastoral ideal of eloquent shepherds and shepherdesses. Silvius aspires to such eloquence and nearly achieves it, and his poetic plea for Phoebe’s mercy conforms to the conventions of the distraught but always lyrically precise lover. But Phoebe exposes the absurdity of Silvius’s lines by dragging romance into the harsh, unforgiving light of reality. When taken literally, his insistence that his lover’s eyes are his “executioner” seems hopelessly lame when Phoebe demands, “Now show the wound mine eye hath made in thee”.
If Audrey and Touchstone’s and Phoebe and Silvius’s relationships stand at opposite ends of the romance continuum, then -Rosalind, in her courtship of Orlando, struggles to find a more livable middle ground. Although Phoebe wisely points out the literal flaws in Silvius’s verse, she cannot help falling into the same trap herself regarding Ganymede. In the entire play, only Rosalind can appreciate both the ideal and the real. Although she possesses the unflinching vision required to chastise Phoebe for her cruelty and Silvius for his blindness to it, she cannot help but indulge in the absurdity of romantic love, allowing herself to have a fit over Orlando’s tardiness. This inconsistency may explain why Rosalind is such a seductive, winning character: in her ability to experience and appreciate all emotions, she appeals to everyone.