As You Like It

December 5, 2010

March 6, 2011

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Gary Griffin

Lovers, Lasses and Playing with Gender

In most modern printed copies of As You Like It, Rosalind's Epilogue bears a footnote in the spot where she says, "If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleas'd me, complexions that lik'd me, and breaths that I defied not." The text has to be footnoted because in the twenty-first century we tend to forget that Shakespeare's plays were written for a company consisting entirely of men, and the person who first spoke the Epilogue was not, in reality, a woman. However, the fact that only men originally acted in Shakespeare's plays did not prevent Shakespeare from creating sympathetic and powerful female characters. A few critics may disagree, but Shakespeare's characters ring true to women and men alike.

As You Like It in particular communicates some noteworthy insights into the nature of, and the relationship between, the sexes. It also features what many consider the best role for women in all of Shakespeare. Rosalind is often named as a favorite Shakespearean heroine by viewers and actresses alike. By assuming a disguise, Rosalind becomes known to virtually everyone else as "Ganymede," and her personality and perspective change almost instantly with her attire. The curious cross dressing incident reveals a new wisdom about gender that replaces the conventional.

Presumably, Rosalind adopts her new look because she is worried about safety as she and Celia journey to Arden. "Alas," she says, "what danger will it be for us, / Maids as we are to travel forth so far! / Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold." And yet, she does not abandon her plan for disguise when it is decided that a man, the court jester Touchstone, will accompany them. Nor does she resume the role of Rosalind once they are safe in Arden. Rosalind keeps her alter-ego—in part because she wants to see what it's like to be a man.

In the beginning of As You Like It, characters act pretty much according to the expectations of their respective genders. Orlando's trip to the court, in which he hopes to demonstrate his virtue by means of a wrestling match, is a very "male" thing to do. He will enter a competition, show himself the stronger of the two contestants, and prove his manhood.

Similarly, Rosalind plays the role of a quiet, well-behaved female (although this does nothing, unfortunately, to prevent Duke Frederick's irrational behavior toward her). It is only when she is alone with Celia that she can defy the restrictions of the court upon women and be sassy, loud, and playful. For the time being, Rosalind and Orlando are restricted by conventional gender roles. Even when the girls decide to dress up as they run away, their stereotypes of how men (and women) behave are firmly in place. Rosalind makes fun of male bravado, declaring, "We'll have a swashing and a martial outside, / As many other mannish cowards have / That do outface their semblances."

What Rosalind finds in her disguise, however, is a rare sort of freedom. She is free from the restrictions society places upon women (though Arden itself is more free than the regular everyday world) and also from Orlando's recognition—enabling her to do a great many things she couldn't do before. Paradoxically, the disguise that makes Rosalind appear to be someone else in fact allows her to become more herself. Shakespearean scholar Robert Kimbrough says, "Just as an actor's role is a disguise, so also is gender a disguise, and all disguises must be removed for people to be themselves." With her female "disguise" removed, Rosalind as Ganymede is free to "try on" new behaviors and other aspects of her personality.

Actress Juliet Stevenson, who played Rosalind in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in the 1980's, says she can identify with the freedom Rosalind must have felt when she became "Ganymede":

Literally and figuratively the disguise releases her: you have to imagine her going into doublet and hose from Elizabethan petticoat and farthingale and a rib-cracking corset. To get out of that corset must be such a relief! (In fact I know it's a relief: I loved getting out of that Vogue gown into trousers, having tottered around in tight skirts and heels for the first hour.) Rosalind can stretch her limbs, she can breathe properly, and so she's able to embark on increasingly long sweeps of thought and expression that take her ever deeper into new terrain.

Suddenly, Rosalind can say whatever is on her mind and take the initiative where once she may have been afraid or forbidden by society. In addition, Orlando no longer has to assume a traditional macho role. Rosalind, in Ganymede's guise, convinces Orlando that it's not showy sonnets that make a man a good lover, but constancy and passion. In the words of Peter Reynolds, "It is Rosalind's acting—being false in pretending to be Ganymede—that gives Orlando the chance to be natural and to display to his love what he truly feels in his heart...Orlando is given the opportunity—rare for a man—to take an essentially passive role in courtship. The traditional roles here are fundamentally reversed."

When the lovers take up their respective roles and act out the wooing of "Rosalind," a kind of transformation takes place. Without the expectations—and limitations—that society typically places upon their genders, they can be easy and natural with each other, and discover that they're a good match. There is a parallel between what happens in As You Like It and what happens in the world of acting: people adopt new and increasingly complex identities, while a willing audience accepts the illusion as reality. Whoever plays Rosalind must play a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl—and in Shakespeare's day the player went one step further: he was a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl! Yet despite the complexity of the role that is put on, what comes through is something quite simple. A person is more than his or her gender; a person is a human being—whole and capable of many possibilities.

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