Rosalind, the Gender-Sensitive Fulcrum
Around Which As You Like it Revolves
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
It is generally acknowledged that As You Like It, along with Twelfth Night, is one of Shakespeare’s two most widely appreciated romantic comedies. It was written just prior to Shakespeare’s major tragedies, perhaps because he felt secure in having finally mastered the genre of comedy, and it was officially registered as a distinct play in 1599. I feel that it features a strong central female character, Rosalind, who seems to dominate much of the comic action occurring on stage.
The story line, based on power politics within the Ducal Palace, commences with the removal of the Duke, Rosalind’s father, from the throne by his own brother. With several faithful servants, the Duke, exiled from the palace, hides in the nearby Forest of Arden, while back in the court Rosalind falls in love with the handsome orphan, Orlando, and is also eventually thrown out of the palace.
Rosalind then disguises herself as a man, a very typical variation made famous by Shakespeare, and takes on the false and ludicrous name of “Ganymede”, harkening back to the boy cupbearer of the gods with whom Jupiter fell in love. This underlying homoerotic theme foreshadows the humorous and mistaken girl-girl love relationship that will briefly occur in the following scenes. Rosalind invites a female friend into the forest with her for emotional support and with them comes Touchstone, the court jester, whose purely comic job it is to enter into a fanciful romance with Ganymede. However, during this superficial playfulness, characterized by merriment and song, Phebe, a young woman shepherd, really falls in love with Rosalind, disguised as a boy. A comedy of gender-based errors ensues; but everyone, as is the case in many other Shakespearean comedies, eventually gets the proper boy or girl of his or her dreams. Rosalind ends up with her beloved Orlando and, as the central character, is responsible for delivering the play’s Epilogue.
The Epilogue is an important segment because it reveals and encapsulates Shakespeare’s (and Rosalind’s) intentions in writing and staging the entire play. The purpose of this play is to amuse, certainly, but also to inform spectators about the plots and power-plays of men and women. Certainly, this behavior is visible on the scale of the Dukes and Power Brokers in this play, but it is also echoed in the fun and frolic that takes place, at a lower social level, in the forest, under mistaken gender conditions.
While the play is intended as amusement, Rosalind, who would easily pass for the protagonist if this were a novel, communicates, in the Epilogue, to all female spectators her desire that only as much of this play as they would actually like to enjoy, in the name of their love for men, should be enjoyed.
“I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you…”
She then tells her male admirers that they have probably had enough of her as it is, although (we infer) their attendance at this play should also have amused the men, and then bows out swiftly. The fact that Rosalind concludes As You Like It and that she dominated much of the beginning, mid-portion, and final scenes of this play is indication enough of Shakespeare’s emphasis on the humor of gender-confusion and demonstrates his concern with the importance of women, defined in terms of their relationships both with men and with other women.
Neilson, W. As You Like It, Scott, Foreman and Company, New York City, N.Y., 1919
Traversi, D. An Approach to Shakespeare, Doubleday-Anchor and Company, Garden City, 1969.