In Act 2, Scene 1, the First Lord, a comrade of Duke Senior, describes a deer dying on the side of a riverbank in the Forest of Arden. In his description of the deer, he anthropomorphizes it:
To the which place a poor sequestered stag
That from the hunter’s aim had ta’en a hurt
Did come to languish. And indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heaved forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting, and the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase.
In the course of a conversation with Duke Senior about the morality of hunting, the First Lord reveals that he and Lord Amiens came across a crying stag that morning. The deer, injured by a hunter’s arrow, “languish[ed]” by the riverbank. The animal groaned with pain, and began to cry “big round tears.”
The First Lord’s account literally attributes human emotions and behavior to the stag. In a place like the Forest of Arden, anything is possible, so the audience could take the lord at his word. However, Shakespeare’s choice to give the animal human traits is a strange one. It encourages the audience to treat this animal’s suffering as if it were as serious as the suffering of any person in the play. Why?
Earlier in his story, the servant repeats Jaques’s opinion about hunting to Duke Senior, that in killing a deer one “do[es] more usurp/ Than doth your brother that hath banished you.” In other words, coming into the forest, the deer’s habitat, and murdering it is the equivalent of Duke Frederick banishing his brother from his own lands. In Jaques’s estimation, hunting is an act of violent displacement. Duke Senior expresses a similar view. It pains him, he says, that these “native burghers” (inhabitants) of the forest are shot down in “their own confines.”
The whimpering, crying deer provides a striking visual metaphor for the condition of the exiles in the play, who are equally pained and vulnerable after their families’ betrayal. Like Duke Senior, Orlando, and Rosalind, the deer has gone to “languish” for an untold amount of time in a new setting, watched over by concerned spectators, who despite their compassion cannot change its lot.