Austen Saunders

William Shakespeare and the pursuit of human happiness

‘Under the greenwood tree’ from As You Like It

AMIENS: Under the greenwood tree Who loves to lies with me, And turn his merry note Uno the sweet bird’s throat, Come hither, come hither, come hither. Here shall he see No enemy, But winter and rough weather. Who doth ambition shun, And loves to live i’th’ sun, Seeking the food he eats, And pleased with what he gets ALL: Come hither, come hither, come hither. Here shall he see No enemy, But winter and rough weather.

In As You Like It, a French duke has been usurped by his brother. He lives now in exile with his followers in the Forest of Arden (or Ardennes). There, as rumour in the new duke’s court has it, ‘they live like the old Robin Hood of England … and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.’  Amiens is one of the old duke’s men and his song draws on old poetic traditions contrasting the corruption of life at court with the innocence of life in the country.

This is an idea which defines pastoral poetry. Over the past two thousand years writers from Virgil to Rousseau and beyond have been drawn to the idea that modern life (i.e. the way of life the writer is used to) is oppressive because it forces people to obey the conventions which keep complex societies functioning. The pastoral urge is fed by a conviction that our only natural needs are those required for modest bodily comfort.  Living in society, however, we are conscious of a far wider range of needs. iPhones, for example.  These artificial desires pit us against each other as we compete for the relatively small number of iPhones to go round.

For Amiens, life at court was defined by ‘ambition’ and constant struggle for prestige.

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