by Michael Shapiro
What could be more natural than falling in love? And what could be more unnatural than how we act upon it or explain it?
No sooner do Oliver and Celia meet but they like, love, woo, and decide to marry. And who is there to stop them? The pastoral world of Arden, unlike the court, contains no parental figures to block their ascent up this "pair of stairs to marriage." But it is a staircase, Rosalind says, "which they will climb incontinent, or else be incontinent before marriage," which implies that their "natural" progression must be sanctioned by others, if not sanctified by religious ceremony. Similarly, Duke Senior's arcadian fantasy of the forest is challenged by the need to kill and eat deer, by a class structure that defies his egalitarian gestures, and by the intrusion of snakes, lions, and stage rustics.
If As You Like It pokes fun at the inevitable interplay between cultural practices and natural impulses, it really goes after the tension between courting and mating. Touchstone, the court jester, would damn a shepherd, who makes his "living by the copulation of cattle." But Touchstone himself lusts after Audrey, who holds out for marriage, and the jester, hoping to seek annulment so he can jettison her before she betrays him, agrees to pay her price. Silvius and Phebe, as supplicating lover and reluctant lady, are frozen in attitudes first etched by Renaissance poets and still current. Rosalind's curt advice to Phebe, "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets," ironically makes Phebe fall in love with Rosalind, or rather with the aggressive male persona that Rosalind adopts once in male disguise. Theatrical representation of sexual attraction was especially complicated on Shakespeare's stage, where all female roles were played by young male apprentices.
The plot doesn't require Rosalind to remain in male disguise once she reaches the forest, but how else can a woman get to know the man she has just fallen in love with, but who remained tongue-tied at their first and only meeting? He professes undying love in bad verse, but poetry—good or bad—cannot guarantee the depth or duration of that love. Playing the "saucy lackey" with him, she teases Orlando about the folly of loving a woman he barely knows but whom he idealizes as a paragon of feminine virtue. As one "man" to another, she can test the authenticity of his love and even educate him by pretending to be "his very Rosalind," another role she constructs out of still another set of stereotypes—the spoiled princess and the shrewish scold, with a hint of the unfaithful wife. These lessons alarm the naively lovestruck Orlando, all the more as they are offered by a youth called Ganymede, the name of "Jove's own page" and occasional male lover.
Rosalind's gender identity remains in flux. Her love for Orlando is so "many fathoms deep...it cannot be sounded," and thus easily repels Jaques' sterile cynicism. When Orlando, discovering he "can live no longer by thinking," that is, no longer enjoy courting the illusion of Rosalind, she produces her true self by appearing once again in female garb. But from then on, Shakespeare's most voluble character is silent, as her father gives her in marriage to Orlando. Still, our lasting impression, especially when a production uses the Epilogue written for "the lady," is not of the mute bride but of the mercurial and multilayered female page, the woman who gets away with assertiveness by becoming her lover's male buddy, and through whom Shakespeare articulates the deepest impulses of romantic love—even as he mocks the conventions we use to express it.