Orlando, the youngest son of the recently deceased Sir Rowland de Bois, describes his unfortunate state of affairs to Adam, Sir Rowland’s loyal former servant. Upon his father’s death, Orlando was bequeathed a mere 1,000 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 not only neglects this charge but actively disobeys it. 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 the treatment of a piece 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 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, assails Orlando, while Orlando seizes Oliver by the throat. Adam tries to intervene, seeking peace in the name of their father, but the brothers do not heed 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” (I.i.69).
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 a number of loyal lords to the Forest of Ardenne. 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 great friendship with her cousin and cannot bear to be parted from her. Charles asserts that two ladies never loved as Celia and Rosalind do. Charles then admits his real reason for coming to see Oliver: he has heard rumors that Orlando plans to disguise himself in order to enter a wrestling match at the royal court. Because Charles’s reputation depends upon the brutal defeat of all of 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 in order 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.Read a translation of Act I, scene i →
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 Ardenne 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 (p. 1591). 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 (I.i.59). 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 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 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 (I.i.103). Thus, before we ever see Ardenne, which cannot be located on any map, we understand it as a place where Orlando will find the remedy he so desperately seeks.