by Beth Charlebois, Ph.D.
Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. A man in a dress is Hollywood's sure-fire recipe for comedy. But in Shakespeare's day, when boys or young men played all the female parts, audiences presumably weren't rolling in the aisles as Juliet or Lady Macbeth took the stage. As Shakespeare in Love reminds us, real women on stage were taboo and all-male casting the standard in Renaissance England. But theatrical cross-dressing still stirred up trouble with the authorities by intimating that gender is a role that can be performed, not preordained by God and fixed at birth. The fact that a lower-class actor could impersonate a woman—or even the king or queen—endangered a social order that depended on people knowing—and keeping—their place. Elizabethan law made it a crime to dress up in clothing of the opposite sex or even of another class, and the practice was only tensely tolerated on the stage.
Despite the serious implications of cross-dressing, Renaissance playwrights took comic advantage of the theatrical convention in plots featuring a cross-dressing heroine—a male actor played the part of a female character, who then disguised "herself" as a man. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare tapped the gender-bending potential of this role; in As You Like It, he positively exploits its comic and erotic possibilities. More than any of her cross-dressing counterparts, Rosalind reminds us of her dual gender identity and delights in the freedom her masculine disguise affords her in Arden.
The play flirts with a provocative question still with us today: Are gender and sexuality determined by biology or culture? When Rosalind says that she'll be able to pass as a man simply by donning the expected doublet and sword and walking with a swagger, she suggests that the differences between men and women are a matter of costume, props, and good acting. Despite its advantages, Rosalind's masculine role seems at crosspurposes with her womanly desires when she meets up with Orlando. But for Renaissance audiences familiar with Greek mythology, Rosalind's adoption of the name Ganymede (the handsome boy adored by Jove) would have inflected her scenes with her male lover with unmistakably erotic overtones.
Rosalind attempts to straighten out this suggestive same-sex script by staging a more conventional courtship where she, as the boy Ganymede, instructs Orlando to woo Ganymede as if "he" were Rosalind. But the Rosalind that Ganymede impersonates is yet another familiar literary persona—a parody of the fickle mistress featured in the sonnets Orlando writes and pins on every tree in Arden. Rosalind's skill at performing these multiple roles makes it difficult for us to locate the "real" Rosalind behind the theatrical facade. She is the quintessential actor and the play's internal playmaker, gleefully meddling in other love plots and puncturing clichés of courtship with a dose of realism.
Rosalind's role-playing shows us how confining traditional notions of gender and courtship can be. But as the characters head back to the court from the playground of Arden, we are ultimately presented with theatrical evidence a natural difference between the sexes when Rosalind faints at the sight of Orlando’s blood. Careening headlong toward a conventional comic resolution (with four nuptials and even a cameo appearance by Hymen, the god of marriage), the play ends as Shakespeare's audiences would presumably have "liked it." But Rosalind in the play's epilogue reminds us that she—or he—is only playing the woman's part. If "all the world's a stage," as Jaques famously contends, then are all the men and women "merely players"?