In Act II, the longest of the five Acts in the play, we are redirected to (presumably) the Forest of Arden where Duke Senior praises the innocence of the noblemen’s new idyllic life. He calls it “sweet”, “free from peril”, and without the “penalty of Adam”. He hearkens a golden age, but not in a suffering for a long-gone antiquated world. Instead, he praises the harshness of the natural world -“Sweet are the uses of adversity” (Scene 1, 12).
However, being far from the “painted pomp” of court, the noblemen, including Duke Senior, lament the need to murder deer for venison. This is especially true of the lugubrious Jacques, who equates deer in the forest with citizens of a city. He calls Duke Senior a worse usurper than his own for his upsetting of the natural ‘political’ order of the Forest by murdering the deer. Jacques’s brooding begins with his failure to distinguish between politics and nature. Meanwhile, the usurping Duke Frederick decides to follow after his daughter who is sure to be among the company of the youth who foiled Charles, the wrestler. In Scene 2, we are first exposed to the juxtaposition between the city and the country as Duke Senior and his Lords live a pastoral life, hearkening to the “golden age” alluded to in Ovid. However, the humans are still confused about their place. They know the country only insofar as it is in reaction and contradistinction to the “pomp of court”. Trees become like books and brooks like poetry, the stuff of the city, and the denizens of the forest can only best be compared to the city’s citizenry.
Orlando and his family servant, Adam, flee into the Forest of Arden as Adam laments: “O what a world is this, when what is comely envenoms him that bears it” exposing the tyrannical nature of Orlando’s older brother, Oliver, who is expected to come and burn down the swelling of Orlando. Adam persuades Orlando to leave with his meager retirement savings, also justifying his robustness, despite his age. Orlando tells him: “Thou art not for the fashion of these times, where non will sweat but for promotion, and having that, do choke their service up even with the having” (Scene 3, 59-62). Both Adam and Orlando demonstrate their virtue – Adam says,”Yet fortune cannot recompense me better than to die well and not my master’s debtor” (75-76). Adam is praised for his “duty” not his sweat for “meed”.
Exhausted, Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) and Celia (disguised as Aliena) tramp through the Forest with Touchstone. They come upon Corin (perhaps borrowed from the name of a shepherd in Virgil’s 2nd Ecologue) and Silvius (meaning “of the woods” in Latin -a lover, as are most in the woods), two shepherds, Corin is scolding Silvius for his affliction of love. quietly Touchstone says: “as all is mortal in nature, so all is nature in love mortal in folly” (51-52). Rosalind is drawn to Silvius’s “passion”. With the shepherds, they use their gold to buy a remote cottage.
The Lords, including Amiens and Jacques, are singing about the merriness of the Forest, though it makes Jacques melancholy. Jacques decides to remain alone while Amiens goes to the banquet of the Duke.
Adam lies down saying he cannot go on any longer. He asks Orlando to leave him to die, but Orlando rushes to find food in the forest.
The Duke comes upon Jacques in the woods and asks him about why he has become so brooding and melancholy in their pastoral Eden. Jacques responds that he came upon a “motley fool” who lamented the time, as each hour passes we “ripe and ripe” meaning we also “rot and rot”. Jacques is recognizing the aimlessness of the pastoral life, from the fool he recognizes the closing imminence of death. The impressionable Jacques, like Ivan from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, longs to be the somber, reflective, saddened fool he met earlier. Self righteously, he long to be a disillusioned Diogenis of the Forest’s noblemen, in order to “cleanse the foul body of th’infected world, if they will patiently receive my medicine” (60-61). To this, the Duke rebukes him and his foul illness he seems to have caught. To try to justify himself, Jacques defends the need for one to attack pride and vices that are ever-present in the city. He lives his life in praise of reason, thanks to his exposure from the motley fool he met at an unknown earlier time.
Suddenly, Orlando storms the scene and demands that no man eat until necessity has been served (devoid of food, justice is served ‘each according to his needs’ as the Marxist saying goes’). The Duke instructs him to be gentle and civilized, his gentleness can force more, than force itself. He then invites Orlando to the table to eat, embarrassing Orlando who apologizes for disgracefulness, puts away his sword, and ‘blushes’.
The Duke Senior uses this scene in an attempt to educate Jacques, showing that in this “wide and universal theatre” not all people are alone and unhappy. The Duke makes the case for the goodness of traditional conventions, while Jacques, the reasonable pessimist, remains disillusioned with any kind of custom. Orlando then returns with Adam where they feast together, enjoy music, and the Duke pleasantly learns that Orlando is the son of Sir Rowland de Boys.