Orlando and the Golden World: The Old World and the New in As You Like It
Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September 2002) / Special Issue 10
This essay argues that As You Like It not only shows a considerable interest in the classical past, but does so, paradoxical though this may seem, specifically in the context of the New World. In Shakespeare’s play, a setting which hovers with suggestive indeterminacy between England and France holds up a mirror in which the audience can see itself facing both a newly discovered continent in relation to which early modern Europe is the old world, and a classical past in relation to which it is itself new. In this confusing slippage of newness and oldness, Shakespeare seems to introduce a comforting absolute by his repeated references to the concept of a golden age. However, disturbing ironies and instabilities accrue to the word “gold” as the quest for the ideological ‘gold standard’ proves to be fissured by a conflict between the classical definition of the golden age as a time of spiritual excellence, and the far more materialistic lust for the literal gold of the new world. At the same time as it shows how European attempts to establish dominance in the New World of the Americas are underpinned by pride in a classical heritage, As You Like It thus also charts a growing gulf between the values and attitudes of early modern Europeans and that authorising classical culture.