Satire in the English Renaissance Pastoral

Pastoral literature from the English Renaissance may remind today's reader more of fairy tales and fables than pieces of great literature. Examples from this period could be relegated to the world of kitsch alongside porcelain shepherd and shepherdess salt and pepper shakers or the mediocre oil paintings of impossibly idealized bucolic country sides, second cousins to oil-on-velvet paintings of sad clowns and Elvis Presley. At first glance, the pastoral's ruffle-clad shepherdesses and pan-flute-playing shepherds generally fail to garner much literary respect or stir much interest; however, "first glance" may not be a worthy inspection of this particular genre. These seemingly quaint fables may not be what they first seem; the very fact that pastorals occupied some of the greatest poetic minds of the English Renaissance could imply the form at one time spoke to something deeper and more substantial than a pan flute, courtly shepherd, or velvet Elvis ever could.

The English Renaissance pastoral might be better understood within the context of rich literary traditions that preceded it since, in the real world, a literary genre never springs forth fully developed like Venus in the half shell. The development of a literary genre requires the complex process of evolution, with each step in that evolution entirely dependent upon what has come before. To remove a genre such as English Renaissance Pastoral from its place within the context of history compromises our ability to understand that genre and its manifestation at any particular stage of its development.

Current literary scholarship routinely attaches the English Renaissance pastoral to its ancient roots, a rebirth of the genre brought about by the influential Renaissance humanism movement. One central feature of the Renaissance humanism movement was a commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was summarized in the Renaissance humanists' motto "ad fontes," which means "to the sources." Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations and sought to both imitate and reincarnate the ideals of ancient literature. With this commitment, Renaissance Pastoral emerged as a direct descendant of works by the Greek writer Theocritus, who may have, in turn, drawn on authentic folk traditions of Sicilian shepherds.

Theocritus' bucolic poetry represented the life of Sicilian shepherds living in an idealized natural setting reminiscent of the Golden age of Greek mythology, the highest in the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden ages.  Theocritus' shepherds lived in a time of peace and stability.  He wrote in the Doric dialect but in dactylic hexameter, which had previously been associated with the Greek's most prestigious poetic form, epic poetry.  This melding of simplicity and sophistication would later play a major role in the history of pastoral verse in the hands of Renaissance writers.  The devices of these early pastorals were later adopted by the Roman poet Virgil, who adapted the genre into Latin with his Eclogues.

Virgil wrote about a more idyllic vision of rural life than Theocritus had done and was the first to set his poems in Arcadia.  Arcadia, although an actual location, became highly idealized within the realms of literature and developed into the most popular location for ancient pastorals.  Virgil presented a rural life more idyllic than what Theocritus had given; a distinction which gave the pastoral a foothold in the world of fantasy and opened the door to the use of allegory.  He implemented the practice of exploiting the pastoral form to make clandestine insinuations about contemporary problems. Virgil's Eclogues contained a blend of visionary politics and eroticism, and his work was met with popular success in the Roman theatre, catapulting Virgil into fame and establishing him as a celebrity and a legend among his contemporaries.

In its simplest form, a pastoral represents a shepherd's life in a conventionalized manner.  However, the Renaissance pastoral model was more involved than that.  Its features included:
  1. A fantastical world where the constraints of geography, nature, gender and time may become irrelevant and subverted.
  2. Exiles from urban life who are outsiders from the Pastoral situation form the focus of the Pastoral Romance. Shepherds are not the primary focus.
  3. When the exiles arrive in the countryside, they converse with the shepherds.
  4. The urban characters often disguise themselves as country folk or shepherds.
  5. Advantages and disadvantages of court and country are discussed; differences between the natural and the artificial are fundamental to the genre.
  6. Pastoral Romances include songs, masques and disguises.
  7. The Pastoral Romance celebrates rural simplicity, but in a highly stylized and artificial manner.
  8. Discussion and examination between the concepts of nature and nurture are present throughout the Pastoral genre.
  9. Pastoral figures are used to examine the evils of greed, cruelty, deceit, corruption and bribery through actions or discourse.
  10. By the culmination of the play, the exiles are reintegrated into the urban life and order has been restored.
  11. By providing an artificial realm through the imaginary forest and Shepherds, the Pastoral Romance provides its characters with an opportunity to see more clearly and therefore gives them the opportunity and freedom to change.
William Shakespeare made frequent use of the Pastoral, both through brief examples within works such as Love's Labor's Lost ("When icicles hang by the wall") and the Shearer's feast in The Winter's Tale or sustained examples like the play As You Like It.  Other plays by Shakespeare contain individual pastoral scenes, such as the bandits in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The Pastoral influence is also found within A Midsummer's Nights Dream and The Tempest.

Shakespeare drew from classic pastoral literature for the subject matter in As You Like It, specifically Lodge's pastoral romance, Rosalynde.  Lodge's 1590 novel had adapted "The Tale of Gamelyn," a narrative poem from the 14th Century.  Shakespeare's version gave characters greater depth than Lodge; he introduced humor into the story, and created new characters such as Jacques, Touchstone, William and Audrey.

The play's Phebe and Silvius appeared in Lodge's novel, but are stock pastoral figures as well.  Within the classical pastoral, conventional shepherds and shepherdesses had occurred in pairs with names like Phoebe and Silvius or the alternate Phoebus and Silvia.  In these traditional roles, the shepherd is lovelorn while the shepherdess is disdainful.  The lovelorn shepherd laments the loss or disdain of his lady, either in solo lyric or eclogue (a dialogue between shepherds about the simple life).  In As You Like It, Silvius complains to Corin about his love's rejection and the lovelorn Orlando hangs lyrics about his own love from all the tree branches.  Again true to the classic pastoral form, Phebe supplies the customary elegy for a dead shepherd by quoting Marlowe:
Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
"Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?"
As may be expected, Shakespeare was not content to merely use the Pastoral in his works but his contribution further developed the genre.  As You Like It utilizes many of the thematic and dramatic requirements of the Pastoral:
  1. Corruption of family and court forces several characters into exile and the Forest of Arden, thereby creating a platform where questions of nature, nurture and nobility may be raised.
  2. Cross-gender disguise is employed and allows Rosalind to freely discuss love and relationships with Orlando.
  3. As You Like It contains more songs than any of Shakespeare's other plays.
  4. The play features a wedding masque with the god of marriage, Hymen. Supernatural elements were important to the Pastoral genre.
  5. Social (and gender) order is restored at the end. Duke Senior resumes his place at Court and the brothers Orlando and Oliver reunite. Rosalind casts off her male alter-ego (Ganymede) as well as the freedom of speech which accompanied that role.
For all its merit as an example of the Pastoral genre, the interpretation of As You Like It is not without problems.  While some scholars have rated the play among Shakespeare's best, others do not see it as an equal within the Shakespearean canon.  Critic such as Samuel Johnson and George Bernard Shaw did not believe As You Like It was a good example of Shakespeare's high artistry. Several scenes in As You Like It are essentially skits made up of songs and joking banter.  Accenting the "You" in the title, Shaw theorized the play may have been written as a mere crowd pleaser, but one which did not particularly please Shaw.  Even Leo Tolstoy remarked about the characters' immorality and took issue with Touchstone's constant clowning.  On the other hand, American literary critic Harold Bloom believed Rosalind was one of Shakespeare's greatest and most fully realized female characters.

As You Like It, although neglected in performance for more than a century after Shakespeare's death in 1616, has been a popular play on the stage ever since.  It was revived in England for the first time in 1723 in an adaptation called Love in a Forest.  This version of the play interpolated passages from other Shakespearean dramas and comedies, notably A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Shakespeare's original was restored to the theater seventeen years later.  In the 19th century As You Like It was staged by a number of eminent English actor-managers including Charles Kean and William Charles Macready.  In late nineteenth century America, especially, the play became a favorite with audiences.  Rosalind found noteworthy interpreters in Helena Modjeska, Mary Anderson, Ada Rehan, and Julia Marlowe.

But perhaps Shaw's observation about the play's title does provide insight and Shakespeare's play is a commentary on the theatrical tastes of Elizabethan England.  For all its Pastoral elements As You Like It does not strictly adhere to conventions of the genre, but in fact appears to satirize them.  The Forest of Arden is a place where Dukes have been usurped, brothers are deadly enemies, starvation, lions and deadly snakes lurk.  For all the idyllic Pastoral qualities, Arden marries fantasy with a harsh reality.  As a departure from the pastoral form, in As You Like It Shakespeare tempers the idyll of the sweetly picturesque pastoral scene with the adversity of the malcontented Jacques, as well as the unlikely pairing of Touchstone and Audrey, ensuring neither court life nor pastoral idyll is presented as either too sweet or too adverse.  The play provides opportunities for its main characters to discuss love, aging, the natural world, and death from their particular points of view.  It presents us with the worldviews of a chronically melancholy pessimist preoccupied with the negative aspects of life (Jacques), and Rosalind, who recognizes life's difficulties but holds fast to a positive attitude that is kind, playful, and above all, wise.  Whatever Shakespeare's intent may have been for As You Like It, its composition does mark a turning point in his output as a playwright since; Shakespeare abandoned comedy soon after its completion and turned to the composition of his major tragedies.

So although current scholarship routinely attaches Renaissance Pastoral Literature to its ancient roots, and these connections are certainly valid, they stop short of realizing the influence of literature between the classical period and the European Renaissance. While it is evident Virgil introduced political allegory into his tales, this might not directly explain all the the techniques employed by Renaissance writers. To understand the English Renaissance pastoral it seems important to attach this genre to the body of literature immediately preceding it. Without this important link in the genre's evolution, we are apt to overlook its most important influences, and our interpretation of works within this genre will not reflect their possible deeper meanings and purposes.

Before the pastoral gained widespread popularity, satire had already been established as a staple of Medieval English Literature. If we give Renaissance Pastoral its proper place in the history and evolution of literature, the genre may seem less an enigma, relegated to that world of kitsch, and more a continuation of the rich satirical tradition of Medieval and Early Renaissance writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Thomas More. Ignoring the satire's popularity in Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe may cause us to forget how the stage had been set when the pastoral rose to popularity in the 16th century. When viewed as a continuation of the satirical tradition, Renaissance Pastoral may be greater appreciated, and its sense of wit, style, and daring may come into clearer focus.

Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in Chaucer's time although little has survived.  Examples of such poetry may still be seen in the bawdy lyrics of Carmina Burnana, set to music by Carl Orf in the 20th Century.  The Canterbury Tales served as Chaucer's platform to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day.

Chaucer created "The Prioress' Tale" to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day.  Chaucer lived in a time when religious stories thrived among a largely illiterate population.  These stories were Saint's tales where the villains were impossibly bad and the heroes impossibly good.  The line between "good" and "bad" people was drawn by their religious beliefs; anyone who believed in the Christian church was good, and everyone else in the world was bad.

Knowing nothing else of him, we can deduce from the rest of The Canterbury Tales that Chaucer is a talented writer, skilled in both subtlety of character and storytelling. So why would his Prioress tell a story so obviously shallow, improbable, and bigoted unless Chaucer labored behind some hidden agenda? Judging from his other stories, Chaucer doesn't seem squeamish about poking fun at hypocrisy in religion; he points to gullibility in religious devotion through "The Miller's Tale" as well as through those who purchase the Pardoner's "relics" in "The Pardoner's Tale."  Further, history tells us Chaucer was part of a group of intellectuals who opposed the prevalent anti-Semitism of his time; in reality he would have been against characterizing Jews as "Satan's Hornet Nest".

Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire in Utopia (1516). Modern readers have come to understand a "utopia" as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion.  As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled.  But in fact, the word "utopia" (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as "no place".  By calling his dreamland "Utopia" More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not and presumably cannot, exist.  He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story.

Thomas More wrote Utopia as a satire on his contemporaries' religious and political thoughts.  The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More's satiric intent.

The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in Utopia, disagreed with More's celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof.  The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer.  Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.

Because Renaissance humanist movement, which glorified the ancient civilizations, had already established an influence during his time it seems possible More could have been tipping his hat to them by setting his work in Latin and telling of an ancient idyllic civilization built on "superior" ideals. If this was More's intent, and if the tale of a perfect communal society was a reference to New World legend (although in reality Amerigo Vespucci's Incas practiced cannibalism), then this would be further proof that More viewed Utopia to be seen as a satirical work.

In Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham argues the pastoral is a literary form especially designed:
Not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort.
In The Making of a Poem, Strand and Boland note how the pastoral spoke to poets of the Renaissance period and their "deep European unease about power, urbanization, and the demands made for a new centralization," citing the pastoral as "one of the true intellectual engines of [Elizabethan] poetry".

First in Latin with the work of Petrarch, Pontano, and Mantuan, and then in Italian vernacular with the works of Boiardo, Italian poets led the way in a 14th Century revival of pastoral form.  The pastoral became fashionable throughout Renaissance Europe.  Because of the satire's popularity in England during Medieval and Early Renaissance times the pastoral's appearance there may have simply represented a new incarnation of the satire.  In 1579 Virgil's Eclogues inspired Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar (a series of twelve eclogues, one for each calendar month) and ushered the pastoral form further into fashion, but Spenser's creation was more than just a collection of colloquialisms.  A study by Robert Lane interprets The Shepheardes Calendar as criticism of the Elizabethan hierarchy and how society exploited and neglected society's underprivileged.  According to Lane, The Shepheardes Calendar undermines the courtly role assigned to Elizabethan poetry and capitalized on such pop culture mainstays as woodcuts, proverbs, fables and the calendar format to further drive its point home.

Understanding the connection between the English Renaissance pastoral and the satirical literature which preceded it, it is easier to see how William Shakespeare used the pastoral form to explore the realms of political and social commentary.  Shakespeare frequently exploited poetic form and theatrical convention to provide a vehicle for his legendary wit, so it may be safe to assume his use of the pastoral was also intended to "glaunce at greater matters".  He made frequent use of the pastoral both through brief examples within plays and as the framework for complete works, riding on the shoulders of the public's love for satire, to transport the pastoral into the world of social and political commentary.

The main plot of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is derived, somewhat more loyally than Shakespeare is usually inclined, from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto (1590). Perhaps the most apparent pastoral element of the play is how pastoral life in Bohemia offers a sharp contrast to the world of the Sicilian court. Although the idealized character Perdita may be the primary spokesperson of the pastoral world and its values, Shakespeare does not romanticize the play's pastoral world itself. As a matter of fact the typical pastoral vision is undercut by sadness and ambivalence throughout the length of the play.

Historian Eric Ives has argued the play is actually a parody of Queen Anne Boleyn's fall, the wife of Henry VIII who was beheaded in 1536 for charges of adultery.  Ives states numerous parallels exist between the two stories, including how Sir Henry Norreys, a close friend of Henry, was beheaded as a supposed lover of Anne, refusing to confess to save his life on the grounds that everyone knew of the Queen's innocence.  Following this theory about the play, Perdita could represent Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.  An understanding of the play in this light further strengthens the connection Shakespeare made between the pastoral and satire.

His poem "When icicles hang by the wall" from the play Love's Labor's Lost may at first glance appear quaint.  In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter.  They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold.  But the owl represents more than a common bird; Shakespeare's owl represents the wealthy of society who watch over the poor, oblivious of the plight and singing a "merry note".

It is no stretch to assume Shakespeare's owl played an allegorical role in this pastoral.  Shakespeare frequently used the owl for similar purposes. As Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
Hark! - Peace!
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern'st good-night. [Macbeth - II, 2]
Prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar an owl was reported:
The bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking. [Julius Caesar - I, 3]
Further, Puck says of the owl:
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud. (A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1)
Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use here may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as cataloged within the poem.  Also noteworthy is the owl's disregard for their situations throughout this poem, singing his merry song in spite of their toil. Given the possible satirical heritage of the Renaissance pastorals, the owl could easily represent the wealthy officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man's trials.

Understanding the connection between the English Renaissance pastoral and the satire, the interpretation of Shakespeare's As You Like It becomes less problematic.  In the Arden Shakespeare edition, As You Like It is represented as a multi-layered chronicle of late English Renaissance culture and of all the various social and political conflicts marking the final decade of the sixteenth century.  Dusinberre outlines how the play functions to "glaunce at greater matters".  She cites Jaques's indebtedness to the period's vogue for satire and the faction-ridden politics occasioned by the Earl of Essex's career and his rivalry with Sir Robert Cecil. In the Arden Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare's pastoral play As You Like It, editor Juliet Dusinberre comments:
Social and political realities would not have been far from the minds of its first audiences in 1599, whether at court or in the public theatre.  Beneath an impeccably sunny surface 'As You Like It' touches on troubled territories.
The work of other Renaissance writers such as poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe may also be understood when a connection is made between the English Renaissance pastoral and its satirical heritage.  Marlowe made the pastoral his own by introducing exaggerated imagery and sexuality to the form.  Shepherds in the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil had expressed love as a deep longing without sexuality, but in his pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" Marlowe's shepherd asks a woman to share an idealized romantic relationship.  However, the shepherd's proposal is actually more ridiculous than idyllic, possibly indicating Marlowe's intent to satirize the traditional pastoral form.  The shepherd offers his love:
Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold . . .
While a pretty promise, these and other claims in this poem are far from anything an actual shepherd could afford to bestow upon anyone.

The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard had previously utilized the country life as a refuge for rejected suitors, but Marlowe's shepherd is not concerned about rejection or whether his social or financial status is acceptable to the girl; his only concern is the desire for immediate pleasure:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.
Today's America lives in little or no fear for ridiculing the government or speaking out against "progress". But the pastoral provided those less fortunate a venue to play with questions "which verged on a philosophical subversion of traditional religious themes in poetry" (Strand and Boland, 208). The works of Renaissance writers like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare provide compelling evidence pastoral literature of that period was often used as a vehicle for political and social commentary, and this intent becomes more clear when the satirical elements of these works' lineage are not overlooked; following in the shadows of the popularity of such well-loved writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas More, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the pastoral would naturally have received a satirical interpretation by Renaissance readers and audiences. With this in mind, and although the references may likely be obscured with the passing of time, interpretation of the pastoral poem enters a new realm of understanding; instead of relegating these pieces to the world of kitsch and quaint, we may now be compelled to dig below the surface, blowing away the dust to uncover a treasure, and in doing so are likely to at least appreciate, if not enjoy, the wit of the pastoral form's most famous practitioners.

Works cited.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003. Print.

Moore, R..  "As You Like It: Introduction." eNotes: As You Like It. Ed. Penny Satoris. Seattle: Enotes.com Inc, October 2002. eNotes.com. 24 June 2009. Print.
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003. Print.

"Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works: Introduction." Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 89. Gale Cengage, 2005. eNotes.com. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009. Web.

Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare As You Like It. Edited by Juliet Dusinberre. London: Thomson Learning, 2006. Print.

"Shepheards Devises: Edmund Spenser's 'Shepheardes Calendar' and the Institutions of Elizabethan Society." Renaissance Society of America, 1995. The Free Library. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 . Print.

Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.

"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love: Introduction." Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 31 January 2009. Web.

"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Style)." Notes on Poetry. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers.com 01 Feb. 2009. Web.

"The Winter's Tale: Pastoral Elements." Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 30 June 2009. Web.

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