Summary: Act 1, Scene 1

Orlando, the youngest son of the recently deceased Sir Rowland de Boys, describes his unfortunate situation to Adam, Sir Rowland’s loyal former servant. Upon his father’s death, Orlando was bequeathed a mere one thousand crowns, a paltry sum for a young man of his social background. His only hope for advancement is if his brother, Oliver, honors their father’s wish and provides him with a decent education. Oliver, as the eldest son, inherited virtually everything in his father’s estate, yet he actively disobeys his late father’s wishes. Although he arranges for his other brother, Jaques, to attend school, Oliver refuses to allow Orlando any education whatsoever, leaving the young man to lament that his upbringing is little different from that of livestock. Orlando has long borne this ill treatment, but he admits to Adam that he feels rising within himself a great resentment against his servile condition, and he vows that he will no longer endure it.

Oliver enters, and the hostility between the brothers soon boils over into violence. Orlando claims that the system that allows the eldest son to inherit the bulk of a father’s estate does not reduce the ancestral blood in the other sons. Oliver, offended by his brother’s insolence, attacks Orlando, while Orlando seizes Oliver by the throat. Adam tries to intervene, seeking peace in the name of their father, but the brothers ignore him. Orlando, undoubtedly the stronger of the two, refuses to unhand his brother until Oliver promises to treat him like a gentleman, or else give him his due portion of their father’s estate so that he may pursue a gentlemanly lifestyle on his own. Oliver hastily agrees to give Orlando part of his small inheritance and, in a rage, dismisses Orlando and Adam, whom he chastises as an “old dog” (1.1.80).

Oliver bids his servant Denis to summon Charles, the court wrestler, who has been waiting to speak to him. Oliver asks Charles for the news at court, and Charles reports that Duke Senior has been usurped by his younger brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled with several loyal lords to the Forest of Arden. Because the noblemen have forfeited their land and wealth by going into voluntary exile, Duke Frederick allows them to wander unmolested. When Oliver asks if Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, has been banished, Charles says that the girl remains at court. Not only does Duke Frederick love Rosalind as though she is his own daughter, but the duke’s daughter, Celia, has a strong friendship with her cousin and cannot bear to be parted from her.

Charles then admits his real reason for coming to see Oliver: he has heard rumors that Orlando plans to disguise himself and enter a wrestling match at the royal court. Because Charles’s reputation depends upon the brutal defeat of all his opponents, he worries that he will harm Orlando. He begs Oliver to intervene on his brother’s behalf, but Oliver replies that Orlando is a conniving and deceitful scoundrel. He convinces Charles that Orlando will use poison or some other trick to bring down the wrestler. Charles threatens to repay Orlando in kind, and Oliver, pleased with Charles’s promise, plots a way to deliver his brother to the wrestling ring.


Analysis: Act 1, Scene 1

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 will soon spur Orlando to journey into the Forest of Arden as surely as Frederick’s actions did his own brother Duke Senior. This motif of retreat into the forest immediately locates the play in the pastoral tradition: those wounded by the political machinations of courtly life 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 exile 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, which in turn ensured 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 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 desperation and resentment.

In this opening scene, Shakespeare begins to muse on another theme common in pastoral literature: the origins of “gentleness,” or gentility. This concept refers at once to nobility and virtue. Elizabethans were supremely interested in whether this quality could be developed or if one had to be born with it, and Shakespeare presents Orlando as a test case. Though Oliver has denied him all forms of education and noble living, Orlando nonetheless has a desire for gentleness. As he quarrels with Oliver, he claims that his “gentlemanlike qualities” have been obscured, but he feels confident that he could develop them still (1.1.68–69). By contrast, Oliver’s behavior suggests that gentleness has little to do with being born into nobility. Though he has most of his father’s estate at his fingertips, he lacks 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 the optics of 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 harm his reputation at 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 for the action to follow, including Duke Frederick’s usurpation of Duke Senior’s position, Rosalind’s precarious situation, and the flight of political exiles into the Forest of Arden (sometimes spelled in the French fashion, “Ardenne”).

Although set in France, the forest to which Duke Senior and his loyal lords flee is intentionally reminiscent of Sherwood Forest, the home of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood. This figure first appeared in the medieval poem Piers Plowman, and references in other later poems followed. By Shakespeare’s time, Robin Hood would have been a name made common by numerous ballads, tales, and even plays. The audience of As You Like It would thus have associated the Forest of Arden with the redistributive justice for which Robin Hood was known—that is, taking money from the rich and redistributing it to the poor. Yet the Forest of Arden is also linked to the classical pastoral tradition that idealized rural life. Populated by shepherds who tend their flocks, sing songs, and woo beautiful nymphs, the pastoral landscape is a place of abundance, leisure, and pleasure. Charles references this pastoral idealism when he describes Duke Senior’s men “fleet[ing] the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (1.1.116–18). Arden thus represents a lost “golden world” of ease and abundance. This is where Orlando will seek his fortune.