Back when I first read this play for university English I didn't think all that much of it because I had simply thrown it in with that collection of boring Shakespearian plays called 'The Comedy's' (not that I found all of the comedy's boring, just most of them because there were, in my opinion, simply romantic comedy's which me, as a young adult male, really didn't appreciate). However, it wasn't until later when the theatre group that a couple of my friend's were members of decided to put on a production of this play that my opinion of it changed (as well as coming to understand what my English lecturer was saying about it).
In a way it seems that Shakespeare has taken a number of older poems (including a poem by Thomas Lodge called Rosalynde) and created what can be considered a pastoral play. The idea of the pastoral in Shakespeare's day is an idyllic country setting where the inhabitants live in peace and prosperity without the rigours of the daily city life of the political machinations that large groups of people inevitably create. In a way it is very much like our ideal of living in a country cottage with a white picket fence. It is the ideal lifestyle where one not only lives off the land, but lives a peaceful life in beautiful surroundings.
This is illustrated in this play with the opening scene in the court of the local duke, who has just usurped the previous ruler (Duke Senior) and sent him into exile. The rest of the play is set in the mystical forest of Arden. There has been some debate as to were this forest is located, either being a forest near where Shakespeare's family lived, or whether he means the Ardennes in France. However I suspect that the forest of Arden is a picture of the pastoral world where one escapes the political machinations of the royal court, as is the case here. Duke Senior, upon being usurped from his throne, flees to the forest where, in a way, his authority is restored.
The interesting thing that I have noticed is the similarities between Robin Hood and Duke Senoir. While the story of Robin Hood seems to change depending on which version you are reading, there is some similarities in that Robin Hood appears to have been a noble that had been dispossessed of his lands and he lived in a forest with his allies. Shakespeare even makes a direct connection between Duke Senior and Robin Hood within the play itself. However, the difference between this play and Robin Hood is that the Duke Senior plotline is actually more of a minor plot than the major plot, which involves Rosalind and her interaction with Orlando (though as Shakespeare is prone to do, he does weave these plots together quite seemlessly).
The idea of gender was discussed heavily in my English subject namely because you see a single character playing multiple, and concurrent, gender roles. For instance, at one stage, Rosalind has four different gender identities – namely a boy would be playing Rosalind's character (because women were not allowed to act on stage at the time) who then pretends to be a boy as she flees from the Duke, and when she is in the forest, she then, as the boy in disguise, pretends to play herself (therefore we have a boy playing a girl, playing a boy, who in turn is playing a girl). However, unlike my university lecturer, I do not necessarily see Shakespeare exploring the role of gender but rather using the number of layers that is overlaid to create a very interesting scene.
As with most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the comedy mostly revolves around the idea of courtship, where one party is trying to persuade the other party to marry them. However, there seems to be this idea of curing Orlando of the sickness of 'being in love'. I'm not sure if you can call it a sickness per se, however having been a teenager (and even a young adult) I can understand how 'being in love' can affect somebody, such us sitting down thinking of one's beloved and not being able to do anything else (which is the case with Orlando because he seems to spend his time carving love poems into the trees).
The other interesting thing about this play is that I believe it is the play which has the most number of people getting married at the end (I believe there are four couples all getting married at once), and we even have the appearance of Hymen, the Roman God of marriage, to preside over the ceremony. However I note that the ceremony does not take place on stage, but off, probably because what we are seeing is in effect a pastoral wedding – one that is not held in a church but rather outside in a forest - and with the appearance of Hymen, suggests that maybe this is looking back at a more idealistic (and possibly pre-Christian) age where the rigours and struggles of the modern world have been left behind.