As You Like It
96-97 Season Season

Playing Her Part

JOAN K. ANDREWS

One of the best things that ever happened to Rosalind was being banished on a whim by her all-powerful uncle, Duke Frederick, from the court he had usurped from her father. Casting away her skirts and donning doublet and hose, Rosalind frees herself of the restraints imposed on women at court--and further a Vichy-like court with a distinct smell of collaborators and quislings.

Abandoning confining corsets and stifling court intrigues, Rosalind/Ganymede embarks on her journey of self-discovery to the Forest of Arden. A place with its own dangers swept by "the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter's wind" its woods are nevertheless "more free from peril than the envious court." That Arden is no ordinary forest is evident from Shakespeare's six references to Arden as a "desert." It is to this unpeopled place, an almost empty space, that Rosalind comes in her many-layered disguise, easily taken on and off, free to play any games or roles she chooses. No longer does she see herself as others saw her at court--as just her "father's daughter." Here in Arden she has the room, both literal and metaphorical, in which to become, discover, and transform.

Rosalind's male disguise and cross-dressing is far more significant than in other comedies. The original excuse of the safety factor becomes null and void once she has escaped her uncle. When she meets Orlando in the forest she has already had enough of a taste of independence that she continues the game simply because she wants to. She not only revels in her new-found power and control, but as shown by her masterful manipulation of everyone else, she knows how to use it. A fast learner indeed, Rosalind. From being a sideliner at court, she becomes the center of all the action.

In her first scene the melancholy Rosalind, appearing somewhat slow in speech and thought, seems a foil for Celia's liveliness; as the witty and articulate Ganymede, she far outtalks and outpaces any other character, female or male. Certainly her tongue-tied lover Orlando accurately sizes himself up when stating: "What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue? / I cannot speak to her." However, Rosalind/Ganymede has no trouble speaking to Orlando. Pragmatic and romantic at the same time, the wooing Rosalind pokes fun at Orlando's romantic fancies at the same time she laughs at herself. When told by her lover that he would love her "for ever and a day" Ganymede responds practically: "Say 'a day' without the 'ever.' No, no, Orlando; men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives." Yet the skeptic Ganymede never persuades Rosalind to give up her plan to marry Orlando, and cries to her cousin Celia: "O coz, coz . . . that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love."

In getting to know herself by acting out various roles, Rosalind travels a long way from her opening speech, a study in inaction and apathy: "Unless you could teach me to forget a banished father, you must not learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasure." The words of this docile, mourning daughter do not prepare us for the later casual dismissal of the meeting between Rosalind and her father, Duke Senior: "But what talk we of fathers, when there is such a man as Orlando?" Nor are we ready for the sexually alive, confident youth who charges the man she loves in the forest: "Come, woo me, woo me; for now I am in a holiday humor, and like enough to consent." Through her male disguise she becomes stronger and more aware of her capabilities as a woman. Rosalind/ Ganymede's new voice speaks not only for her own sex. She is both male and female, and in this union of seemingly two different mentalities, learns she has courage and resources she never knew she had.

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about the sexual possibilities inherent in Rosalind/Ganymede and the significance of the boy actor who played the part in Shakespeare's time. Is Rosalind bisexual? Or lesbian? Is Orlando homosexual? Such questions seem beside the point because sexual orientation is and was not the point.

In Rosalind we see a highly intelligent, witty woman who not only discovers much about herself, but also about the society in which she plays her part. This she learns through her male disguise, which enables her to view and be viewed both as a man and woman. In this androgynous approach to life lies Rosalind's lasting strength, as a daughter, as a maid, as a wife, and what matters most, as a human being.

Joan K. Andrews
Literary Consultant

9/19/2005

 

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