by Wendy Doniger
There really is today, and was in Shakespeare's time, a large forest called the Forest of Arden, west of Shakespeare's home at Stratford-upon-Avon, but he may have made the name up by combining the classical region of Arcadia (a rustic, idyllic paradise, whose inhabitants were thought to be simple and blissfully happy) and the biblical garden of Eden (ditto). In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of magical transformation, where nature and culture trade places, and gender turns out not to be natural at all, but purely cultural.
In both As You Like It and King Lear, composed a few years later, the protagonists flee from the court to the world al fresco. In Lear, human nature seems polite enough at court but is soon revealed in all its Hobbesian savagery, stripped naked on the naked heath. The beginning of As You Like It, at court, is Lear-like in its human darkness and bleak, brutal hypocrisy; but the rest of the play depicts nature as Rousseau saw it, when life in the sheltering forest brings out a noble savagery that is kind and gentle, and Duke Senior insists, "Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court?" If the truer self is discovered through the masquerade in nature, when artifice is stripped away, then all of the characters in As You Like It are really at heart forest people who usually pretend to be courtiers and now pretend to be (courtiers pretending to be) forest people.
The very first scene sets the stage for a reversal of (cultured) humans and (natural) animals, when Orlando tells us that his brother Oliver feeds and educates his horses better than he treats him. Then we see Oliver call the good old servant, Adam (Adam! Shades of Eden!), an "old dog." Soon after, in Arden, the good Duke Senior speaks of "books in the running brooks, sermons in stones"—a metaphor that Orlando later seems to take literally, proclaiming, "O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books," as he carves his rather lame poems on their bark. Corin, a country rustic, argues that human behavior is inevitably reversed from court to country: "Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at the court." But something deeper than mere behavior is transformed in the Forest of Arden.
At the end of the play, a snake and a lion conspire to kill the wicked Oliver; the animals remain in their natural state, cruel and fierce, but Orlando's intervention makes them the fable-like instruments of the sudden, miraculous conversion of the cruel and fierce Oliver. Near the end, the forest similarly reverses, miraculously, the cruel character of Duke Frederick the moment he sets foot in its outskirts. The ending is pure carnival, mocking its own too-easy resolutions, its unbelievable instant conversions of all the villains. Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass depicts a magic forest in which creatures forget their names and therefore their natural enmity. I wonder if he had Shakespeare's Forest of Arden in mind.
In this protean world where evil can instantly be transformed to good, female can easily be transformed to male and back again. Rosalind, pretending to be the male page "Ganymede," asks Orlando to pretend that s/he is Rosalind—in effect, a double drag. Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind is bolder, more playful, more confident than Rosalind tout court (or Rosalind-as-Rosalind), emboldened both by the double mask and by the masculinity embedded in the mediating personality. She cannot become herself except by going through Ganymede.
Angela Carter's novel The Passion of New Eve invokes Rosalind in the magic forest when her Eve (a transsexual transvestite, formerly a man, now a woman wearing a man's costume) looks in the mirror and sees "an endless series of reflections":
It seemed at first glance, I had become my old self again in the inverted world of the mirrors. But this masquerade was more than skin deep...a mask that now I would never be able to remove, no matter how hard I tried, although I was a boy disguised as a girl and now disguised as a boy again, like Rosalind in Elizabeth Arden.
Makeup becomes a mask that becomes a face, and Carter's Eve in Eden becomes, like Rosalind in the Forest of (Elizabeth) Arden, her true self.
For his part, Orlando, tongue-tied when he faced Rosalind as Rosalind, can express his love to her only when she is in this double drag; it is to Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind that he can say, "Why blame you me to love you?" The "you" is meant for the presumably absent Rosalind but said to the very present Ganymede. We might view this moment, and the play as a whole, as expressing the view that gender is natural, rather than cultural: Orlando knows, somehow, that underneath the clothing there really is someone of the opposite sex. But we might, on the other hand, view it as just the opposite, exposing gender as a purely superficial cultural construct: Orlando takes the culturally constructed Ganymede to be male, and loves him, or loves the male aspect of Rosalind. None of Orlando's lines, except that one, confused, "Why blame you me to love you?" indicate that he knows that he loves Ganymede, or even Rosalind-as-Ganymede. But eventually he comes to understand that he loves that person, male or female, in a way that makes gender irrelevant.