Rosalind has been my favourite Shakespearean heroine from the first time I read As You Like It. That was shortly after the Beatles had disbanded, when soft rock was ruling the airwaves and there were no such things as PCs and the World Wide Web. The world has changed utterly since then even in its reading of Shakespeare. As You Like It now turns out to be not just a romantic comedy, which was what I thought it was, but a play with homoerotic elements.
That is the view expressed in the authoritative Arden Shakespeare edition of As You Like It, edited by Juliet Dusinberre.
I love Rosalind because she is high-spirited, witty, passionate, impulsive. Orlando also falls in love with her when he sees the young woman. But is he also attracted to her when she appears before him as the young man, Ganymede? Dusinberre discusses that.
The encounter takes place in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind has escaped with her cousin Celia and the clown Touchstone after being banished from the court by Celia’s father, Duke Frederick. Orlando is also in the forest with his old servant, Adam, to escape from his murderous elder brother, Oliver. There he writes poems on trees about his love for Rosalind, not knowing she, too, is in the forest. The poems are seen by Celia and Rosalind, who meet Orlando. But Rosalind, who is disguised as Ganymede, does not reveal who she is. Instead, she asks Orlando to call her Rosalind and woo her. And he does.
Orlando and “Ganymede”
I thought the play-acting was youthful high jinks, Rosalind having fun. But why does Orlando do as he is told? He does not know Ganymede is really Rosalind. Is he attracted to the youth?
I did not think so, but such possibilities do exist in Shakespeare. After all, most of his sonnets are addressed to a young man including the famous Sonnet 18, which begins: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Dusinberre discusses the homoerotic element in her introduction to As You Like It. She writes: “The audience of As You Like It fall in love with Rosalind. One must wonder whether her creator also did so. But with whom does one fall in love? A girl? A boy?”
“As You Like It conjures into its orbit multiple sexualities; the homoerotic, whether in the courtship of Orlando and Rosalind, or in (the shepherdess) Phoebe’s passion for the scornful Ganymede, is in dialogue with heterosexuality. If the play finally celebrates and affirms heterosexuality, in the process it traverses the gamut of emotions and impulses,” says Dusinberre.
She is stating the obvious when she says “the play finally celebrates and affirms heterosexuality”, for that is how the play ends. Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, appears on stage to proclaim the marriage of not one but four couples. Rosalind marries Orlando; Celia, a reformed Oliver, who repents his earlier wickedness after being saved from a lion by Orlando; Phoebe marries her shepherd lover Silvius; and Touchstone the clown takes the goatherd Audrey for his wife.
As You Like It, to me, is a pure romantic comedy, without any homoeroticism in Orlando’s courtship of Rosalind disguised as Ganymede or in the shepherdess Phoebe’s attraction to Ganymede. After all, Phoebe does not know Ganymede is a woman – and Orlando is only play-acting, and not really wooing, Ganymede.
Women dressing as men are a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies. We see Portia dressed as a lawyer in The Merchant of Venice and Viola in male disguise in The Twelfth Night. Rosalind disguises herself as the youth Ganymede when she goes to the Forest of Arden because, as she tells Celia:
Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel so far!
Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.
Rosalind’s male disguise is central to the comedy. Phebe mistakes her for a man and falls in love with her while Orlando does not realize she is the woman he loves. But does that make the play homoerotic? I am not so sure.
Yes, there is a bawdy element, as in Shakespeare’s other plays. Boy-actors played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s time. His audience knew they were watching a boy acting as a woman. The play ends with a joke about that.
Rosalind, appearing in the epilogue, says: “If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me…”
That would have made the audience chuckle, for they knew the actor playing Rosalind was not a woman but a boy. The joke may be naughty, but homoerotic? No.
It may be because I have not read the play closely enough that I see it as a pure romantic comedy. But Paul Dean was probably right when he wrote in an article published by the University of Leicester: “Much — possibly too much — has been written about the use of male disguise by Shakespeare’s female characters, and critics have become obsessive about the homoerotic possibilities of boys dressed as girls. The degree to which these speculations would have made sense to an Elizabethan audience can never be known…”
The Arden Shakespeare edition of As You Like It edited by Dusinberre, published in 2006, is an invaluable guide to the play for its extensive annotations, explaining words, phrases and the context in which they are used. But the long introduction is her interpretation of the play – and cannot be the last word on the subject. There was an earlier Arden edition of As You Like It edited by Agnes Latham, published in 1975, and plans have already been announced for a new series of Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays.