March 7, 2011

Introduction to the Forest: As You Like It and the Pastoral

As You Like It is peppered with pastoral ballads that characterize the forest as a sanctuary of subsistence and justice and a passing reference to "old Robin Hood of England" marks off the Forest of Arden as a potentially dangerous space of economic redistribution. While Shakespeare was busy writing the play, the actual forest of Arden was experiencing acute demographic problems, as timber was cleared for mining, industry, and convertible farming, and squatters vied with commoners for land.

With the Forest of Arden, Shakespeare also draws on a longstanding cultural tradition that dates back to the Norman invasion. Indeed, forest law goes back to the Norman conquest, indicated, as I’m sure many of us are aware, in the "Rhyme of King William." Not only a space of animal refuge, forests also became an asylum for English noblemen dispossessed of their lands and rights: many who could not accept subjugation or work the land as labourers, and who were too proud to beg, took to the forests and lived their as they could, hunting animals and harassing the Normans. Originally a juridical term for land that had been placed off limits by royal decree, the forest lies “outside the common juridical sphere." In his book on forests, Robert Harrison draws our attention to a treatise on forest law composed in 1592 by John Manwood. During this time of environmental degradation and enclosure, Manwood’s treatise set out to define the forest, in contrast to other natural habitats and explain the ancient laws that had seemingly been forgotten. For Manwood, writes Harrison, "a forest is a natural sanctuary [granted by the king]. The royal forests [gave] wildlife the same sort of asylum that the Church granted criminals or fugitives who entered its precincts. Forests and churches thus become equivalent in their authority to offer asylum, one to men or outlaws and the other to beasts of pleasure." From the external perspective of the forest (and, we might add, the fool!), "the institutional world reveals its absurdity, or corruption, or contradictions, or arbitrariness, or even its virtues." In this way, the outlaws of the forest, such as Robin Hood, were more interested in reformation than revolution. According to Harrison, the inverted world of the forest, as well as the ruses of deception its outlaws employ have an instrumental purpose in that they expose the deception and unlawfulness of society: "As a guardian of the law’s ideal justice, he takes to the forest to wage his war, but his happy ending lies in vindication—his repatriation within the system." 
In The Magna Carta Manifesto Peter Lindebaugh notes that the Magna Carta defined the limits of privatization and spoke to the customs that defined the commons. Citing Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, Lindebaugh argues that, “Enclosures were not the only force in the creation of the land market but they destroyed the spiritual claim on the soil and prepared for the proletarianization of the common people, subjecting them to multifaceted labor discipline” (51). As You Like It emerges from this milieu of transition; a crisis between old and new forms of production, and with them the emergence of a new noble class. 

No comments:

Post a Comment