Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Orlando’s Poems

Orlando’s poems are a testament to his love for Rosalind, but they ultimately symbolize the ridiculous and even harmful nature of romantic love. The poems themselves compare Rosalind to the romantic heroines of classical literature, such as Helen, Cleopatra, and Lucretia. In making these extreme comparisons, Orlando takes his place among a long line of poets who regard the love object as a bit of earthbound perfection. Much to the amusement of Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone, Orlando’s efforts are far less accomplished than, say, Ovid’s, and so bring into sharp focus the silliness of which all lovers are guilty. Orlando’s “tedious homil[ies] of love” stand as a reminder of the wide gap that exists between the fancies of literature and the kind of love that exists in the real world (3.2.158). In addition to being tedious, the poems are literally destructive. Orlando nails his verses to trees and in some cases carves words into their trunks. His aim is at once to naturalize and immortalize his love for Rosalind, ensuring that “every eye which in this forest looks / Shall see thy virtue witnessed everywhere” (3.2.7–8). But as Jaques points out, Orlando does little more than “mar” the forest’s trees (3.2.264).

Read about poetry as commentary on love in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

The Slain Deer's Horns

In act 4, scene 2, lords in Duke Senior’s party kill a deer, and Jaques proposes to “set the deer’s horns upon [the hunter’s] head for a branch of victory” (4.2.4–5). To an Elizabethan audience, the slain deer’s horns would have signaled more than just a trophy for an accomplished archer. As the song that follows the lord’s return to camp makes clear, when placed on top of the hunter’s head, the deer’s horns become a symbol of cuckoldry. In early modern iconography, horns were used to represent a man whose wife had committed adultery. The idea that the unfaithful wife would shame on the man shows that female sexuality was a dominant anxiety of the age. The notion of cuckoldry arises at several moments in As You Like It, as in act 3, scene 3, where Touchstone claims that cuckoldry happens all the time, creating a host of “horn-beasts” everywhere (3.3.49). Rosalind echoes this sentiment in act 4, scene 1, where she earns Celia’s ire by suggesting that women use their inherent cleverness to sneak around behind men’s backs. These references to cuckoldry represent an idea that women’s lack of sexual control is a key threat to lasting love.

The Forest of Arden

Most of As You Like It takes place in the Forest of Arden, a symbolic space that represents the pastoral ideal. Shakespeare’s Arden is a combination of real and imaginary geographies. The play is set in France, so the most obvious real referent for the setting is the Ardennes Forest that stretches along the northeastern borders of the kingdom. However, in the Elizabethan period there was also a Forest of Arden that existed in Warwickshire, near where Shakespeare himself grew up. Moreover, Shakespeare’s mother’s maiden name was Arden, suggesting that the name might have carried a nostalgic ring for the playwright. And nostalgia is very much the point here. The pastoral tradition, with all its various conventions, centers on a fundamentally nostalgic idea of rural life as simple and characterized by abundance and leisure. In classical antiquity, the chief example of such an idealized pastoral landscape was Arcadia. However, for a Christian world like Elizabethan England, the chief example would have been Eden, that original paradise from which Adam and Eve were expelled in the Bible. As a combination of both these names, and an amalgamation of English and French geographies, “Arden” is a multilayered symbol for the pastoral ideal.