Where was Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden?
Forests are traditionally considered to be places of magic and mischief, of outlaws and intrigue, and nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in Shakespeare’s work. From the topsy-turvy Athenian woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the fateful Birnam Wood in Macbeth and the ‘mighty oaks’ of The Merry Wives of Windsor, forests and woodlands fill Shakespeare’s plays with a sense of wildness and rebellion, inverting social norms and providing a touch of fantasy.
‘This uncouth forest’
Perhaps the most famous forest in the Shakespearean canon is the great Forest of Arden in As You Like It. First performed in 1599, As You Like It presents a revolutionary rural court held in an ancient woodland. This fantastic forest is full of surprises: girls dress as boys, fools offer wise advice and royal courtiers behave like Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men. The forest is clearly a work of fantasy: when the characters encounter a lioness at the end of the play, we see that this is a storybook wood rather than a real place.
In part Shakespeare draws on the French Forest of Ardennes – the setting for the story in his source – for inspiration: but Shakespeare’s imaginative woodland also echoes with the real Forest of Arden in the playwright’s native Warwickshire. So, what do we know about Shakespeare’s local Arden?
Finding ‘tongues in trees’
The English Forest of Arden stretched from Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire to Tamworth in Staffordshire, covering vast swathes of land including the present cities of Coventry and Birmingham.
Born in Stratford in 1564, William Shakespeare spent his formative years on the doorstep of Arden and, although its size had begun to decrease, the Forest of Arden remained intact throughout the Bard’s life.
Local Warwickshire place names reflect the importance of the forest: not only the repeated suffix of ‘-in-Arden’ which dominates local village names, but also the presence of the suffix ‘ley,’ referring to the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘forest clearing.’
Arden and the Shakespeare family tree
However, Shakespeare’s connection to the Forest of Arden lies deeper than purely the proximity of his birth. His mother’s maiden name was Arden, an ancient Warwickshire surname which is presumed to be derived from the forest itself.
The Arden family had pre-Norman Conquest roots in the area, and many members were staunchly Catholic – with Warwickshire being a Catholic stronghold even after the Reformation.
Moreover, the Arden area had been populated with Shakespeares since the Middle Ages, with branches of the family living in Arden villages such as Temple Balsall, Packwood, Baddesley Clinton and Snitterfield. Despite William Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford-upon-Avon, it is clear that the rural Arden landscape would have played an important role in the Bard’s geographical heritage.
‘Now am I in Arden’
Although we cannot definitively assume that Shakespeare’s sole inspiration for As You Like It was his local forest, his proximity to a real Forest of Arden does suggest his native Warwickshire’s influence on the play.
Shakespeare’s forests provide his characters with a space for playing with gender roles and renegotiating social mores, often allowing the worlds of reality and fantasy to collide. It is perfectly possible that the seeds of these themes developed in Shakespeare’s youthful rambles around the Warwickshire countryside.
Although little remains of the great Forest of Arden in Warwickshire today, pockets of trees, field boundaries and several ‘mighty oaks’ proclaim the heritage of the original forest. Perhaps in these elusive snatches of woodland, Shakespeare’s Arden can be glimpsed.