As You Like It can be viewed as a play that masterfully taps into popular thought, exposes cultural perceptions of love and gender, and challenges religious and social anxieties. Much attention has been placed on Rosalind as an image of androgyny and sexual fluidity, as well as the homoerotic implications (both male on male and female on female) created by the cross-dressed central character, which, if understood through the lens of Shakespeare’s contemporary society, reveals both an interest and anxiety associated with sexual desire. I’d like to argue that Shakespeare does in fact play with issues of sexual desire (both socially appropriate and subversive), gender roles, gender identity, and the ambiguous line between homosocial behavior and homoeroticism. At the same time, I’d like to posit that Shakespeare is not primarily focused on a single one of these issues; rather, his focus ultimately lies on exploring and challenging the very notions of representation itself.
To provide structure in discussing these points, the progression established will flow from an examination of Shakespeare’s influences and sources, their connection to the social-sexual climate of Renaissance anxiety, the role of the actor and his celebrity, and the influences of theatrical representation itself.
Much of the critical discussion of As You Like It focuses on the exploration of Rosalind as the quintessential androgynous figure. As a character, Rosalind is a female that uses a male costume to, as Peter Erickson points out, “[expand] her identity so that she can play male and female roles” (70). Her cross-dressing is the center of the play, and as a plot device, it creates both humor and tension in that the audience is immediately aware of the disguise while all the male characters of the play are entirely ignorant of her utilization of it. However, her disguise is more than the use of a male appearance; it is also the employment of male power. She uses her disguise to woo and win Orlando, the reversal of the tradition where the male woos and wins the female. It is the use of this normative male power, in contrast with her true sexual identity, that makes Rosalind a truly androgynous character.
In fact, Rosalind herself is directly aware of her own androgyny. When she first takes up her disguise she points out the mixture of male and female qualities she physically possesses, stating:
Were it not better,
because that I am more than common tall,
that I did suit me all points like a man?…
A boar spear in my hand, and—in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will—
We’ll have a swashing and a marital outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances. (1.3.112-20)
While drawing attention to her manly height, and likewise her “woman’s fear,” she makes a distinct connection between her androgyny and appearance in general, attacking its simplicity by pointing out that many men hide their own woman’s fear behind their outward “semblances.” Her disguise from the get go, is a conscious parody of male and female perception, tasking her awareness of rigid gender appearances to influence the men around her as a way to be seen or to be invisible—to be heard or ignored, as she pleases.
Not only so, but Rosalind’s androgyny becomes even more evident through the analysis of the imagery that surrounds her. Marta Powell Harley identifies Rosalind as a “sexual chameleon,” implying that she has the ability to blend into her gendered surroundings as she sees fit. This ability is seemingly Rosalind’s second nature. Yet the parallel between Rosalind and chameleon is made even clearer by examining Shakespeare’s own animal metaphors associated with Rosalind.
Shakespeare uses references to both rabbits and hyenas in reference to Rosalind. Harley points out that both animals have historically enjoyed reputations equivalent with either bisexual or homosexuality. She points out that “rabbits and hares have long enjoyed, in Beryl Rowland’s terms, ‘a reputation for extreme lasciviousness,’” not only copulating constantly, but actually constantly, physically changing between male and female forms (Harley 335). In As You Like It, Rosalind may not be having constant sex, but she is constantly code switching between genders.
On top of this connection, Harley points out an even deeper, if not more direct connection between the representation of the hare in the thirteenth century poem “Ganymede and Hebe,” and the same use of its representation by Shakespeare in reference to Rosalind. In the poem, “…Hebe laments the shameful state of the heavens since Ganymede’s usurpation of her place; [stating], ’a hare hunts hare” (337). The implication in the poem is Ganymede’s sexual pursuit of another man. Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, is not a man seeking a sexual desire for another man (she is a woman seeking a sexual desire for Orlando), however, she must utilize a male costume to pursue that desire. In terms of social perception, Rosalind must switch into a male form to pursue a man, and switch back in order to fulfill that sexual pursuit through marriage. The line in “Ganymede and Hebe,” “a hare hunts hare,” mimics Rosalind’s line to Silvus in reference to Phebe, “Her love is not the hare that I do hunt,” (4.3.19). The similarity is too analogous to be a coincidence, in which case, it points out Shakespeare’s acknowledgement of his Rosalind-Ganymede character as synonymous with sexual duplicity associated with the hare.
In a similar fashion, Shakespeare draws a parallel between his Rosalind-Ganymede character and the popular perception of the hyena. Rosalind-Ganymede makes reference to the hyena when discussing marriage with Orlando, stating “I will laugh like a hyena, and that when thou art inclined to sleep” (4.1.147-8). Disguised as Ganymede, Rosalind plays with the notion of how men and women change when they are married, and how women’s emotions are perceived as constantly variable. Added to this context, it was commonly believed in Shakespeare’s time that “…the hyena could ‘counterfeit a man’s voice’ and thus lead men, to destruction” (Harley 336). On top of this, hyenas were also thought to be able to change their sex and become male or female, as they liked. It’s easy then, to see the connection between Rosalind and the hyena; Rosalind “imitates, attracts, and captures” Orlando by imitating a man (Harley336).
Rosalind emerges as a powerful character that uses her androgyny to influence the men around her. It’s important to note, however, that the Androgyny of Rosalind is not solely centered on the male disguise or the imagery associated with it. Shakespeare really draws out Rosalind’s androgynous power through the employment of dramatic irony. The audience is aware of Rosalind’s disguise, and the only characters in the play that are aware of the disguise are Rosalind and Celia; meaning all of the male characters in the play are absolutely ignorant of it. Through all of this, Shakespeare creates a feminized audience that has no choice but to participate in the female, homo-social realm of Celia and Rosalind. Knowing that Rosalind is in disguise traps the audience in the very same disguise, which in turn forces the audience to see the ambiguity between the line separating male and female. The androgyny is not in the disguise itself then, it’s in the social interaction and conflict the disguise creates.
Another lens in which to view Shakespeare’s Rosalind-Ganymede character is that of the discourse of lovesickness. Carol Thomas Neely points out that lovesickness was actually considered a medical condition from the second to the seventeenth century and was “associated with melancholy… and characterized as a disease of the head, heart, imagination and genitals” (101). The cure for such disease was termed “therapeutic intercourse,” or, in laymen terms, sex. Neely points out that if sex with the object of desire was not possible, “…available substitutes [were] traditionally recommended: with prostitutes, slaves, widows—preferably more than once or with more than one partner so as to evacuate both sperm from the genitals and the beloved’s image from the brain” (Neely 102).
The second phase of treatment included the doctor or a friend physically revealing the ugliness, flaws and shortcomings of the love object. In this light, the disguise of Ganymede can be seen as participatory in this medical practice, where Ganymede sets out to cure Orlando’s melancholy and lovesickness. Of course the logical progression of the treatment also included the substitution of sex object, not just the derailing of Orlando’s ideal conception of Rosalind; and while the play stops short of presenting this substitution, Rosalind, Orlando, and the play’s contemporary audience would be very aware of how close they actually do get. This awareness is explicitly stated by Orlando, “I can live no longer by thinking” (5.2.49).
It is funny then, how Rosalind-Ganymede pretends to offer a cure for Orlando’s lovesickness, but really has every intention to stimulate it. Her male disguise and her cure bring out stronger sexual desires within Orlando. Rosalind would not have the power, nor the access to bring out these very same desires if she employed the normatively coded actions appropriate for her sex. And while the end result may be in product, a heterosexual union, the devices to draw out and establish that union are homoerotic in nature.
The homoeroticism of As You Like It pinpointed by some critics is a much-debated issue. Some accuse homoerotic readings as being strictly modern interpretations with little basis or relevance to the play’s historical period. However, much evidence in literature and law from Shakespeare’s time seems to support the idea that much attention and anxiety was, in fact, paid to issues of same sex desire, much of which falls under the pretext of sodomy and buggery disputes. In fact, Denise Walen points out that around thirty plays between 1580-and the mid 1600’s utilize the narrative technique of cross-dressing to depict homoerotic desire (411). As You Like It was part of a larger social trend that attempted to make sense out of religious fear in contrast to explicit sexuality. At least this seems to be the implication if one attempts to understand the play through Neely’s lens of lovesickness discourse, which does not define the line between “acceptable and unacceptable sexuality” based on “gendered object choice” (meaning that a man falling in love with another man or a woman for another woman was not viewed as classically abnormal or abhorrent). Instead, plays like As You like it can be seen as works that place “…homoerotic desire in an ambiguous context,” in an attempt to “evoke the pleasure of female homoeroticism without engaging the moral censure applied to non-normative sexual practices” (Walen 429). This perspective is similar to Valerie Traub’s outlook, in which sexuality and gender roles need not be connected (Sanders 134). Instead, gender coding through dress becomes a way to discuss the limitations of understanding gender identity based on normative desire. It also becomes an avenue to discuss contradictions within the social values of the time period, that on one hand demonized same sex acts but normalized same-sex desire.
Charles R. Forker insists that “buggery,” (anal penetration between two men), “was officially equivalent to Satanism… and therefore demonized by civil and ecclesiastical authorities alike” (1). Yet, he also points out that “it was normal for two men—apprentices, travelers, students, gentlemen and their pages… to occupy the same bed,” hence the term bedfellow (2). The implications Forker makes is that while Renaissance society strongly condemned the act of anal penetration between two men, it can also be accused of promoting it simply because common social practice provided nightly opportunities for it to happen. The important thing to note here is that buggery was not considered a sin or temptation that was limited to a “subcategory of the population with specialized appetites” (i.e. homosexual men), but rather, “theoretically tempting to all males” (Forker 2).
It’s also important to note that buggery was a crime that fell under the larger category of sodomy, not a term synonymous with it. Sodomy, was a category that included any sex act that did not have reproductive opportunity, including “…bestiality; sex of ‘man with man’; sex ‘in the married state, where an opposite part is used from that which is lawful’; masturbation…” (Neely 111). This is important to note because some have labeled As You Like It as a play that deals with sodomical anxieties and desires, spanning beyond the limitations of the Rosalind-Ganymede-Orlando interactions. For instance, one cannot ignore the attraction Phebe feels toward the disguised Rosalind, and some critics have even pointed out the extreme closeness between Rosalind and Celia. This attraction and supposed closeness can definitely be understood using the sodomical anxieties of Shakespeare’s time.
Anxiety is the appropriate term to describe the Elizabethan/Jacobean view one sex simply because there is much literature (fiction and non-fiction, of and around the time), that reveals the mixture of fear, magnetism, and ambivalence toward sex and sexual desire.
Because of religious leanings and influence, much of the nonfiction coming out during the time took a moralistic approach that condemned same sex intercourse. Yet, seemingly the opposite is true when it comes to the fiction of the time. Many fictional works explicitly describe same sex attraction and same sex acts with little or no condemnation. Denise A. Walen points out one fictional work by Pietro Artino as a primary example of the treatment of same sex attraction and same sex acts in fiction. The work is titled Ragionamenti, and it is a fictional autobiography of a nun-wife-courtesan. The work describes in detail several same sex experiences that the main character, Nanna, participates in; one in which her and another nun satisfy each other with a glass dildo after finding a small book of pornography. Quoting from Artino’s work, Walen accounts:
My little friend arranged it so nicely between her thighs, that one would have thought it was a man’s machine pointed before the object of his temptation. I threw myself on my back,… my legs placed upon his shoulders, and she, putting it sometimes in my proper opening, sometimes into the smaller one, soon made me finish what I had to do; then, in her own turn, she took the place I was in, and I rendered her a thousand for one. (414).
This work is erotically explicit, but also characteristically romantic in that it carries with it no notion of judgment or condemnation. This excerpt reveals a crosscurrent in opposition to the conservative religious opinions of its age, while exposing a deep cultural interest in female sexuality and homoerotic desire.
Walen insists that in general, “women in male disguise… when encountered by other female characters can also signify the representation of same-sex attraction” (411). The fact is, at least part of Shakespeare’s audience was probably aware of the hints of homoerotic tension within the subplots of the Phebe—Ganymede attraction and the Rosalind—Celia homo-social interactions. Yes, its true that Phebe thinks that she is in love, and pursuing a man, but the audience knows that Phebe’s attraction is placed on someone of the same sex. Not only that, but the qualities and characteristics Phebe seems to adore are the very qualities that demark Ganymede’s femininity. The conclusion is a complicated mess where Phebe’s desire seems “constructed as both homoerotic and hetero-erotic,” becoming (like the character of Rosalind herself) a sort of “dual [eroticism]” (421).
The relationship between Rosalind and Celia has also sparked much debate as a relationship that hints at same sex attraction. They are described as two women whose love for each other is uncharacteristic. They have a bond that is interminably close, and only “…give up their affection for each other to become lovers of men” (Neely 122). What seems implied here is that when the homo-social becomes dauntingly close to the homoerotic, there is a normative switch to the heterosexual.
The same sort of switch also seems to explain what ends the Ganymede—Orlando interaction; what starts off as a supposed homo-social role-play where Ganymede pretends to be Rosalind and Orlando pretends to woo him (her?) begins to tread uncomfortably close to the homoerotic, which, in turn “…provokes Orlando to declare an end to [the] innocent pastimes, [in] fear of what they may lead to” (Shapiro 131).
The anxiety and issues of same sex attraction up until this point, is not unique to Shakespeare’s treatment of Rosalind. In fact, the direct source for As You Like It, Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590) includes the same suggestions of explicit androgyny and same sex desire. However, what makes Shakespeare’s Rosalind different than Lodge’s is the mere fact that Shakespeare includes the male actor playing the role of Rosalind-Ganymede into the already complicated equation of gender identity (Shapiro 122).
Robert Pierce identifies four distinct versions of the Rosalind-Ganymede character; “the real Rosalind, exuberant in her assurance of Orlando’s love; Ganymede, the cynical boy untouched by his love; Ganymede the moral physician; and the mock-Rosalind created by Ganymede, who manifests the consequences of idealizing passion without civil controls” (176). Bridging the gaps between all four versions of the he-she Rosalind-Ganymede character lays the conscious and subconscious awareness that all versions of her are played by a boy actor.
Some critics disagree about the importance of the Rosalind-Ganymede character being played by a male actor. For instance, Robert Kimbrough confidently states that, “people going to the theatre check their literal-mindedness at the door and willingly believe anything they are asked to believe… An actor in a role is whatever sex, age, and cultural origin the playwright asserts” (17). And to some extent this is true. Characters like Phebe and Celia don’t amass much attention based on the fact that, during Shakespeare’s time, male actors played these female roles. Yet, something about who or what the Rosalind-Ganymede character stands for seems to draw attention to the fact that the he-she presented on stage is being played by a feminine looking and acting male. Rosalind’s character is about the layering of gender roles and identity. Therefore, a direct parallel between Rosalind and the actor himself is easily made by the viewer. In contrast to Kimbrough’s assertion that “we do Shakespeare a disservice not to accept his women as women,” I’d posit to say that, with Rosalind, we do Shakespeare a disservice to not see the male actor behind the he-she Rosalind (17).
Not only is it important to note that the role of Rosalind was played by a male actor, its also important to note that Shakespeare’s audience probably was also familiar with the actor’s name. Michael Shapiro states that, “It must have been difficult for spectators to separate the play-boy from the pert and cheeky adolescent, even if the pert and cheeky adolescent, in the world of the play, is a disguise adopted by a female character” (125). If this is true, then the Ganymede version of Rosalind probably most closely resembled the physical semblance of the male actor, which means, for a good chunk of the play, because of this sort of celebrity identification, the audience’s (real) world, in many ways, becomes indistinguishable from the fictional world of the play (125). To push this idea one step further, if the actor is synonymous with Ganymede, then like Ganymede in the play, Shakespeare might be insisting that at least part of the actor’s identity and origin comes from what is strictly identified as female.
Shakespeare’s Rosalind seems directly a manifestation of the anxieties associated with actors during his time. Many “understood that the player was a dangerous anomaly in a hierarchical society,” a creator of anti-structures” that has the ability to “undermine as well as reinforce existing social hierarchies” (Rackin 35). In As You Like It, Rosalind does just that. She is a series of male and female layers that are simultaneously separate yet connected; these layers“…generate instability in [other characters],” but, most importantly, in the viewer (Neely 122). The character of Rosalind then, forces the viewer to navigate one’s own conception of the two opposites at play (Beckman46-7).
To make this navigation even more complicated, on a very basic level, Rosalind (the female in the relationship) takes on the traditionally male task of pursuing and wooing. Beckman states, “As a couple, then, Orlando and Rosalind represent a coincidence of opposites, but the coincidence is made doubly paradoxical by the fact that the two lovers often switch traditional sexual characteristics” (47). Like the male actor in the female identity, the reconciliation of these opposites becomes paradox.
It is this concept of reconciling opposites that seems to be at the heart of all of the tricks and devices Shakespeare uses in As You Like It. The play ultimately becomes an exercise that discusses “oppositions between melancholy and laughter, country-life and court-life, humble and high estate, danger and safety, time and timelessness, limit and freedom,” male and female, yet instead of deposing one with the other, they become one in the same (Beckman 50).
Charles Forker suggests that “the dramatists of the period were groping intuitively toward a concept of sexuality as determined less by biology than by psychology” (16) Rosalind can certainly be interpreted this way. Forker continues to state, “If we pursue such parallels between our own perceptions of sexual identity and those represented on the Renaissance stage, we come close to acknowledging a kind of sexual universalism… between our own age and Shakespeare’s” (16). If this is true, than Rosalind is not only a metaphor for the reconciliation of opposites, she becomes a representation of humanity, one in which we begin to understand that we are all more human when we set aside the disguises of gender (Kimbrough 27).
If Rosalind is a metaphor for humanity, than the implications are that humanity is, at a basic level, bisexual (Forker 17). Gender roles, sexual identity and even sexual desire, are disguises, both in opposition with each other but also fluid, as one sees fit.
This concept is best illustrated by examining the epilogue. The epilogue opens with Rosalind addressing the audience, “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue” (epilogue, 1). Here, Rosalind takes on a normatively male responsibility, but as the epilogue progresses, she sets aside that responsibility and transitions into the role of the male actor:
My way is to conjure you; and I’ll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you. And I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women—as I perceive by your simpering none of you hates them— that between you and the women the play may please. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bit me farewell. (10-22)
Here, the bisexual flirtatiousness is either “a homoerotic come-on,” or “a movement back toward the fictive female role (Shapiro 133). Either way, it’s still sexually suggestive. Whether it’s Rosalind or the male actor that takes curtsy at the end doesn’t really matter because, seemingly, Shakespeare might be insisting that the line between the two, paradoxically, need not exist. Both Rosalind and the boy actor become a personification of Tracey Sedinger’s definition of cross-dressing. She states, “…the cross-dresser is not a visible object but rather a structure enacting the failure of a dominant epistemology in which knowledge is equated with visibility” (64). Here, the implication is simple, Shakespeare uses the disguises and distractions of androgyny, gender duplicity/fluidity, and sexual desire to present a larger creative concern that focuses on tasking a dissection of representation and perception in general. As You Like It, therefore, is less a play about gender roles or identity than it is a play that acknowledges and present the limits and failures of representation itself. The ideological costumes (constructs) of androgyny, sexuality and gender become the same sort of fabric Rosalind, and for that matter, the male actor himself, utilizes in his-her disguises.
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