The forest in literature has a long humanist history. It dates from classical Greek and Roman writers to Hellenistic/Jewish philosophers and is reiterated through subsequent Christian texts and allegories. The space of the forest as a setting was a popular place on the Elizabethan stage. The anonymous Mucedorus, in which the forest is central to the drama, was played frequently during the 1590s and revised in 1610; there are numerous references to ‘trees’ in the accounts for the Office of the Revels; and the tree or collection of trees often appears in plays that do not demand such scenic props. Many of the allusions in Shakespeare's forests are Ovidian and particularly refer to Books iv and vi of the Metamorphoses and the tales of Pyramus and Thisbe and Tereus and Philomel. But the forest can also represent a version of the pastoral, as exemplified in Mucedorus, as a place that supports the exploration of antithesis (the savage and the civilized), and the juxtaposition of containment and imagination. Although Shakespeare's forests are much indebted to this tradition and its translation by other contemporary Elizabethan writers, including Spenser, this article argues that there is something more parochial, more urgent, at work in Shakespeare's forests on stage. Such parochialism draws us back to how Elizabethan forests were being used, as well as abused, and how the forest stood in relation to the rest of the social community. The forest is not a comprehensive landscape; rather, it emerges as a habitat for multiple voices, which occupy a transitional space – literally and metaphorically – between action and thought. This space is haunted by the forest's history of danger, punishment and pleasure. The following argument maintains that the Elizabethan forest is defined not as a physically bounded space but as a discursive construct, a linguistic practice that was subject to shifting civil and legal pressures. An examination of an influential Elizabethan treatise on the forest suggests that the concern is primarily with the use of and behaviour within the forest, rather than its organic matter. Shakespeare's shady landscapes are not dependent on their allegorical precedents but belong to an emerging, Elizabethan preoccupation with language: of orientation, of order, of emotion and of possession. The forest space trials a moral economy that will, as we move into the seventeenth century, become much more defined as a social landscape. For the Elizabethans, however, the forest was a place of exploration that stood in conversation with the social world but also in conflict with it.