Literature

A Short Analysis of the Shakespeare Song ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ is a song taken from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, and its leafy theme is in keeping with the setting for this romantic comedy, the Forest of Arden. Here’s the text of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ followed by a few brief words of comment and analysis. Note: Amiens sings the first two verses, and a different character, Jaques, responds with the third, which he has written and hands to Amiens to read/sing.

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto 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’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

If it do come to pass
That any man turn ass,
Leaving his wealth and ease,
A stubborn will to please,
Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame:
Here shall he see
Gross fools as he,
An if he will come to me.

Although Shakespeare almost certainly wrote the words to ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, he didn’t write ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ itself: that is, the phrase ‘under the greenwood tree’ predates its use in As You Like It. This is worth highlighting, because the phrase originated in the Robin Hood ballads: ‘We be yemen of this foreste / Vnder the grene wode tre’. In the fifteenth-century Middle English Gest of Robyn Hode, we find the following quatrain:

‘Whan shal mi day be,’ said the knight,
‘Sir, and your wyll be?’
‘This day twelve moneth,’ saide Robyn,
‘Under this grene-wode tre.’

So, the phrase ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ would have immediately suggested to Shakespeare’s original audiences the world of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest (or perhaps Barnsdale Forest: his original home), and thus reinforce the notion that the Forest of Arden in the play is an idyllic and romantic world set apart from the rest of society.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ appears in Act 2 Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It; Amiens, a lord who follows Duke Senior, sings the song, which can be analysed as a celebration of the Edenic pastoral setting for the play, encouraging people to leave the bustling world of the court to come and enjoy paradise in the woods. The line ‘Who doth ambition shun’ addresses itself to those who are sick and tired of the one-upmanship and meddling people do at court to try to curry favour and win powerful positions; forget all that, Amiens sings, and come and live a simpler life in the woods. You’ll have to forage for yourself (‘Seeking the food he eats’), but it’s a more rewarding existence than the cutthroat world of the royal court. Nearly three centuries before Thoreau went into the woods, Amiens is advocating for a Walden-like existence apart from the rigours and struggles of modern society.

However, Jaques, the pessimist who provides the final verse in counterpoint to Amiens’ earlier verses, offers a somewhat less upbeat view. To leave behind a world of ‘wealth and ease’ for a life in the woods is silly (you’re an ‘ass’ or fool if you do it) and ‘stubborn’. The repeated word ‘ducdame’ baffles Amiens, who asks Jaques to explain it: Jaques replies, ‘’Tis a Greek invocation, to call fools into a circle.’ By ‘Greek’, Jaques means ‘nonsense’ (compare Troilus and Cressida: ‘it’s all Greek to me’). According to Juliet Dusinberre in her notes to the excellent Arden edition of the play, “As You Like it” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare) , ‘ducdame’ is trisyllabic, and is merely a nonsense word to summon the lords, a variation on ‘Come hither’.

You can listen to ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ being sung here.

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