Orlando is a young man of noble birth who, due to his father’s untimely death, suffers in a state of arrested development. As the youngest of three sons, living in a time when the tradition of primogeniture prevailed, Orlando inherits virtually nothing. Instead, his father’s estate goes to the eldest son, Oliver, who detests Orlando for his natural intelligence and charm and so denies him the education that befits a noble. In the play’s opening act, Orlando, fed up with the limits of his situation, makes a decisive break from his brother and enters the Forest of Arden. Though officially an act of flight into exile, Orlando’s sojourn in Arden also doubles as a quest to determine whether his noble birth does in fact guarantee a nobility of spirit. In short, Orlando seeks to discover if the secret to gentility is birth or education—which is to say, nature or nurture.

The answer given by the play is, unsurprisingly, both. Orlando certainly displays a natural degree of compassion and wit. The care he shows for his loyal servant, Adam, clearly indicates a capacity for care. Later in the play, his decision to save Oliver’s life from a prowling lioness again demonstrates an innate goodness. Likewise, he shows an innate sophistication when, in love with Rosalind, he turns his affections into verse. Yet however good and intelligent Orlando may naturally be due to his birth, he still requires an education to reach his full potential. In his love for Rosalind, he quickly moves to excess, resulting in verse that lacks aesthetic refinement and relies uncritically on absurd love tropes from treacly romance poetry. Recognizing that Orlando remains somewhat lacking as a lover, Rosalind takes his romantic education into her own hands, reforming him into a more moderate lover who’s no longer preoccupied with unworkable ideals. By the play’s end, Orlando’s forest education enables him to become the nobleman he was born to be. Not only does he get to marry his beloved, but he gains an adoptive father—Duke Senior—who makes him heir to the dukedom.