The make-believe action and perfunctory exposition of As You Like It, notoriously attenuated, 1 are obviously designed to throw the emphasis of the comedy on the rural setting and on the variety of characters and attitudes that can meet, converse, and interact in the forest of Arden. The haste with which Shakespeare maneuvers his figures into the woods may suggest the escapist impulse that underlies much pastoral literature, but Shakespeare's play, as has often been observed, is anything but an evasion of reality. What the dramatist gives us in addition to the contrivances of fairy tale and the richly varied characters, ranging from dukes to country bumpkins, is a subtle web of contrasting attitudes and values that comprise the real interest and substance of the play. The apparent simplifications of pastoral become devices for isolating certain kinds of complexity and focusing them with the precision of a finely ground lens. Arden, then, is a carefully prepared context in which multiple perspectives or points of view may compete for our interest and attention and can modify each other through contact, intersection, and reciprocating patterns of stimulus and response. Like most pastoral settings, it is conceived mainly as a place of temporary rather than permanent residence, the literal geography being less important than the emotions, stances, or verities for which it becomes the symbolic backdrop. Shakespeare makes his green world a place of growth-- ethical, psychological, and spiritual as well as merely vegetative--but he is more interested in how the human heart may internalize this landscape than in the landscape for its own sake.
The assured yet delicate equipoise of As You Like It may be illustrated with reference to four sets of contrasting, complementary, but sometimes overlapping perspectives that emerge from an overview of the comedy. These may be expressed under the headings Nature versus Grace, Life versus Art (or naturalness versus artificiality), Time versus Timelessness, and Subjectivity versus Objectivity. In combination all are symptoms of the thematic fullness and intricacy of the play, and they point to a comprehensiveness of vision characteristic of Shakespeare's mature art, a comprehensiveness to which Norman Rabkin has applied the term "complementarity." 2 Indeed inclusiveness appears to be one of the several significances embedded in the play's rather casual title--a signal, so to say, of the recognition that there are many ways to look at experience and that no single attitude can contain the whole truth.