As You Like It
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Orlando is pining away for love, leaving poems about Rosalind throughout the forest. When Rosalind appears with one such poem, Celia teasingly reveals who the poet is; when he enters, Rosalind hits on a plan. Disguised as Ganymede, she interrogates (the only word possible) Orlando about his love before prescribing to him a possible cure – to be administered by her. Later, the cousins come across Phoebe who falls immediately in love with Ganymede (of course) – despite being strenuously wooed by Silvius.
It’s interesting to note, I think, that Jaques’s bitter comedy is, ultimately and decisively, rejected by the play. The all-inclusive forest delivers the antidote to Jaques’s maudlin satire, as Rosalind discovers for herself when she finds Orlando’s love poems pinned to the trees. She does so, not as herself, but in her male camouflage, the unraveling of which takes up a good deal of the remainder of the play. Although she is forced to dress as a man in order to travel into the forest, Rosalind’s initial panic about how exactly to approach her lover in disguise (“Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose!”) turns into a realization that in fact she can use it to her advantage. Dressing as a man seems to liberate her to explore the quality of her love – and her lover – in a way she would never be able to do as a woman.
And while the gender of Lodge’s disguised Rosalynde was always clear (even to Rosader), Shakespeare’s Rosalind takes full advantage of the sexual ambiguity of her costume. With breathtaking boldness, she even proposes to Orlando an outrageous scheme whereby she will stop him pining for love by imitating Rosalind herself. She explains, breezily, that she has already tried out the “cure” on another man:
He was to imagine me his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to woo me. At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles; for every passion something, and for no passion truly anything, as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour – would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then foreswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him, that I drave my suitor from his mad humour of love to a living humour of madness, which was to forswear the full stream of the world and to live in a nook merely monastic. And thus I cured him…
How marvelous is that?
In my last post, I quoted from Harold Bloom on his not quite buying Camille Paglia’s argument for Rosalind as a Dionysiac figure, nor her notion to a “bisexual ideal in Shakespeare.” So I thought, in all fairness, I should give Ms. Paglia (who I tend to admire a great deal) equal time:
“Shakespeare is the most prolific single contributor to that parade of sexual personae which is western art. The liberated woman, I said, is the symbol of the English Renaissance, as the beautiful boy is of the Italian. In Shakespeare, liberated woman speaks, irrepressibly. Wit, as Jacob Burckhardt suggests, is a concomitant of the new ‘free personality’ of the Renaissance. Western wit, culminating in Oscar Wilde, is aggressive and competitive. It is an aristocratic language of social maneuvering and sexual display. The English and the French jointly created this hard style, for which there are few parallels in the Far East, where cultivated humor tends to be mild and diffuse. The Faerie Queene’s arms and armour turn into wit in Shakespeare’s Renaissance Amazons. Rosalind, the young heroine of As You Like It (1599-1600), is one of the most original characters of Renaissance literature, capsulizing the era’s psychological changes. The play’s source is Thomas Lodge’s prose romance, Rosalynde or Eupheus’ Golden Legacy (1590), which contains most of the plot. But Shakespeare makes the story a fantasia upon western personality. He enlarges and complicates Rosalind’s character by giving her wit, audacity, and masculine force. Rosalind is Shakespeare’s answer to Spenser’s Belphoebe and Britomart, whom he spins into verbal and psychological motion. Rosalind is kinetic rather than iconistic. She too is a virgin. Indeed, her exhilarating freshness depends on that virginity. But Shakespeare removes Amazonian virginity from its holy self-sequestration and puts it into social engagement. Rosalind, unlike the high-minded Belphoebe and Britomart, has fun. She inhabits newly reclaimed secular space.
In her transvestite adventure, Rosalind seems to resemble Viola of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but temperamentally, the two women are completely unalike. In her authority over the other characters, Rosalind surpasses all of Shakespeare’s comic heroines. Productions of As You Like It rarely show this. Intrepid Rosalind is usually reduced to Viola, and both parts are marred by summer-camp pastoral sentimentality. Rosalind’s whole meaning is lyricism of personality without sentimentality. These roles, written for boy actors [MY NOTE: Which we need to constantly keep in mind!], have ambiguities of tone which modern actresses suppress. The androgynous Rosalind is prettified and demasculinized. Shakespeare’s Portia is momentarily transvestite in The Merchant of Venice, where she wears a lawyer’s robe for one act. But Portia’s is not a complete sexual persona; that is, the play’s other characters do not respond to him/her erotically. Rosalind and Viola are sexual instigators, the cause of irksome romantic errors. In many tales available to Shakespeare, a disguised woman inspires another woman’s unhappy love. Most such stories were Italian, influenced by classical models, like Ovid’s Iphis. The Italian tales, like their English prose counterparts, imitate the droll Ovidian manner of sexual innuendo. As You Like It and Twelfth Night depart from their sources in avoiding bedchamber intrigue. Shakespeare is interested in psychology, not pornography.
Both Rosalind and Viola adopt male clothing in crisis, but Viola’s predicament is grimmer. She is orphaned and shipwrecked. Rosalind, on the other hand, banished by her usurper uncle, elects a male persona as whim and escapade. Both heroines choose sexually ambiguous alter egos. Viola is Cesario, a eunuch, and Rosalind Ganymede (as in Lodge), the beautiful boy kidnapped by Zeus. Rosalind is brasher than Viola from the start, arming herself with swashbuckling cutlass and boar-spear. Viola, with her frail court rapier, makes a girlish and delicate boy at best. She is timid and easily terrorized. Rosalind relishes trouble and even creates it, as in her malicious meddling in the Sylvius-Phebe romance. When Olivia falls in love with her, Viola feels compassion toward this victim of her sexual illusion. But Rosalind is incapable of compassion where her own direct interest is not at stake. She can be hard, disdainful. Rosalind’s lack of conventional feminine tenderness is part of her lofty power as a sexual persona. There is intimidation in her, uncaught by modern productions. Unlike Viola, Rosalind acts and conspires and laughs at the consequences.
Twelfth Night’s plot resolution depends on the mechanistic device of twins. Viola surrenders her uncomfortable male role to a convenient brother, who uncomplainingly steps into her place in Olivia’s affections. As You Like It, however, is centered on the more ambiguous Rosalind, who subsumes both twins within her nature. Viola is melancholy, recessive, but Rosalind is exuberant and egotistical, with a flamboyant instinct for center stage. The difference is clearest at play’s end. Viola falls into long silence, keeping the joy of reunion to herself. Her decorous self-removal is the opposite of Rosalind’s lordly capture of the finale of As You Like It. Dominating her play better than her father has dominated his own realm, Rosalind asserts her innate aristocratic authority.
Shakespeare rings his double-sexed heroines with rippling circles of sexual ambiguity. Olivia’s infatuation with Viola/Cesario is as suspicious as that of Spenser’s Malecasta with Britomart, for the disguised Viola strikes everyone as feminine in voice and appearance. Twelfth Night begins with Duke Orsino savoring his sexual submission to the indifferent Olivia, whom he describes with outmoded Petrarchan metaphors of coldness and cruelty. Since the narcissistic Orsino is of dubious masculinity, Viola’s ardor for him is problematic. In both Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the transvestite heroines fall for men far inferior to them…
Like his counterpart in Twelfth Night, the male lead of As You Like It has severe dramatic shortcomings. Orlando, with whom Rosalind instantly falls in love, is adolescent-looking, barely bearded. Shakespeare undercuts his athletic prowess by making him the butt of constant jokes. The slow-witted Orlando is an unimpressive exponent of his sex in a play ruled by a vigorous heroine. Bertrand Evans calls him ‘only a sturdy booby.’ Like Orsino, Orlando is more manipulated than manipulating. There may be a homoerotic element in his prompt consent to Rosalind/Ganymede’s transsexual game. In As You Like It, Shakespeare reduces the Renaissance prestige of male authority to maximize his heroine’s princely potency. Rosalind is intellectually and emotionally superior, sweeping all the characters into her sexual orbit. There is a lesbian suggestiveness in Phebe’s infatuation with the disguised Rosalind, whose prettiness she swells on and savors. Rosalind as a boy is, in Oliver’s words, ‘fair, of female favor.’ Her maleness is glamorously half-female.
The childhood liaison of Rosalind and Celia is also homoerotic. Shakespeare puts the girls into emotional alignment from the first moment Rosalind is mentioned and before she has even appeared. ‘Never two ladies loved as they do;’ they have been ‘coupled and inseparable,’ even sleeping together. This amorously exclusive friendship functions in the first act as a structural counterpoise to the adult marriages of the last act, which ends in a vision of the wedding god. In an essay on the use of ‘you’ and ‘thou’ in As You Like It, Angus McIntosh remarks that ‘you’ often carries ‘an overtone of disgust and annoyance.’ After they encounter Orlando in the Forest of Arden, Celia, with ‘a note of huffiness,’ begins to ‘you’ Rosalind, indicating ‘the intrusion of Orlando into the cosiness of their hitherto undisturbed relationship.’ I find evidence of Celia’s jealousy even in the first act, when Rosalind holds back to compliment Orlando and Celia says sharply, ‘Will you go, coz?’ In the forest, Rosalind tries to get Celia to play the priest and marry her to the duped Orlando. ‘I cannot say the words,’ Celia replies. She must be prodded three times before she can bring herself to give away the bride. That Shakespeare intends this subtext of sexual tension seems proved by the fact that in his source in Lodge it is the Celia character who merrily invents and urges on the sham wedding ceremony.
Because of the premodern prestige of virginity, the union of Rosalind and Celia is purely emotional and not overtly sexual. Their intimacy is that female matrix I found in Bristomart’s bond to her nurse. In As You Like It the matrix is an early stage of primary narcissism from which emerge the adult heterosexual commitments of the finale. Midway through the play, Rosalind exclaims, ‘But what talk we of fathers when there is such a man as Orlando?’ Family and childhood alliances must yield to the new world of marriage. This is a characteristic English Renaissance movement: exogamy reinforces the social structure. Rosalind undergoes a process of increasing sexual differentiation. She splits from Celia by psychic mitosis. Their friendship is an all-in-all of gender, a solace for that motherlessness which Shakespeare curiously imposes on his maidens, leaving them defenseless in Hamlet and Othello. At the end of As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia sacrifice their relationship to take up the fixed sex roles of marriage. A choice is made, not necessarily inevitable. Hugh Richmond was, to my knowledge, the first critic to freely admit Rosalind’s ‘capacity for bisexuality.’ Unlike Viola, Rosalind is borderline. She could go either way. One of the unnoticed themes of As You Like It is Rosalind’s temptation toward her outlaw male extreme and her overcoming of it to enter the larger social order. She is distinctly flirtatious in her prank with Phebe. Rosalind as Ganymede pretends to be a rakish lady-killer and, at her assumption of that sexual persona, actually becomes one. A superb language of arrogant command suddenly flows from her. She is all sex and power. It is a complex psychological response to erotic opportunity, which she may or may not consciously recognize. In the scene in Spenser where she romances the dismayed Amoret, Britomart’s actions are divorced from her thoughts, which are on her future husband. So Spenser and Shakespeare prefigure the modern theory of the unconscious, which Freud said was invented by the Romantic poets. Britomart and Rosalind drift into an involuntary realm of lesbian courtship. Male disguise elicits wayward impulses from the socially repressed side of their sexual nature.
Are there any fixed coordinates for masculinity and femininity in Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies? Commentary on sex-differences can be fatuous…Rosalind’s maxims on the sexes are usually satirical. In these clothes, plays make the man. By fixing the social persona, costume transforms thought, behavior, and gender. The one distinction between male and female seems to be combat ability. Viola is afraid to duel, and Rosalind faints at the sight of blood. Viola’s twin, Sebastian, on the other hand, is hot-tempered and slaps people around. So Shakespeare gives men a physical genius that will out. Aside from this, Shakespeare seems to view masculinity and femininity as masks to put on and take off. He makes remarkably few allusions to sexual anatomy here: in the two plays I find one explicit remark and two or three puns. Viola, quailing at a duel, cries, ,’A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.’ Man minus ‘little thing’ equals woman. Rosalind’s resolve to ‘suit me all points like a man’ hints at the obvious qualification that one male point isn’t ordinarily available to army supply. A clown parodies Orlando’s love verse: ‘He that sweetest rose will find/Must find love’s prick, and Rosalind.’ To consummate his love for Rosalind, the moping Orlando must recovery his manly autonomy. Like Artegall in drag, he must straighten up and take charge. Second, Rosalind as rose is both flower and thorn. Disguised as an armed male, she has dual sexual attributes, the phallic ‘love’s prick’ as well as the female genital ‘rose.’ One expects more bawdiness in cross-dressing Renaissance imbroglios. In a source of Twelfth Night, Barnabe Rich’s Of Apolonius and Silla (1581), Silvio, Viola’s precursor, reveals her sex at the end by ‘loosing his garments down to his stomach,’ showing ‘his breasts and pretty teats.’ An arresting moment in boudoir reading, ill fit for the stage! Shakespeare’s treatment of sexual ambiguity is remarkably chaste.
Shakespeare’s characters often fail to read the correct sex of their colleagues or even to recognize their own lovers onstage. The motif of twins mistaken for one another comes from Plautus and Terence, who took it from Greek New Comedy. But in classical drama, the twins are the same sex. The Renaissance, with its attraction for the androgynous, altered the theme to opposite-sex twins. As if sparked by the zeitgeist, Shakespeare managed to father boy-and-girl twins. The use of virtuoso boy actors in all female roles conditioned Elizabethan playgoers to a suspension of sexual disbelief. The textual ambiguities of the transvestite comedies would be heighted by the presence of boys in the lead roles. The epilogue to As You Like It, which some thing not by Shakespeare, demands audience recognition of the theatrical transsexualism. The actor playing Rosalind comes forward in female dress and addresses the audience: ‘If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beard that pleased me.’ A touch of male homosexual coquetry. At the end of performance, modern female impersonators similarly step out from the dramatic frame, revealing their real sex by tearing off wig and brassiere or emerging in tuxedo. Male portrayal of female roles in Elizabethan theater was inherently more homoerotic than the same custom in Greece or Japan. Greek actors wore wooden masks; Japanese Kabuki employs heavy schematic makeup. Greek and Japanese actors could be any age. But Elizabethan theater used beardless boys, probably with wigs and some makeup. But there were no masks. A boy had to be facially feminine enough to pass as a woman. The erotic piquancy must surely have led to claques of groupies, like those dogging the castrati of Italian opera.
Earlier, I spoke of the androgynous beauty of adolescent boys and the religious purity of their singing voices. The boy-angel inhabiting the stage Rosalind added his own hermaphroditism to an already sexually complex role. As You Like It and Twelfth Night played by boys would be shimmering spectacles of the mystery of gender. The quality of spectacle is evident in the last act of Twelfth Night, where the twins protract the traditional recognition scene to hypnotic length, a technique of cinematic slow motion I found in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece. London’s National Theatre attempted an all-male production of As You Like It in 1967, the costumes Sixties mod. The director sought ‘an atmosphere of spiritual purity.’ The episode where Rosalind as Ganymede to mock-woo her would specially benefit from such idealizing treatment, for it is a dazzling series of impersonations: we see a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl. A reviewer said this production was ‘as simple, stylized and, in fact, as cold as a Noh play.’ Still, these actors were young adults, not boys. Roger Baker claims boys as Rosalind and viola would be ‘really unnerving’: ‘Boys can act with a natural gravity and grace.’ Transvestite boys, we saw, led the Greek sacred procession of the Dionysian Oschophoria. Their unmasked presence on the Elizabethan stage reproduced the archaic ritualism and cultism of early drama.
Like Michelangelo’s poetry, Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to two love-objects: a baffling, forceful woman and a beautiful boy. The unidentified fair youth was evidently highly androgynous in appearance. Shakespeare calls him ‘angel,’ ‘sweet boy,’ ‘beauteous and lovely youth.’ Most blatant is Sonnet 20, where Shakespeare called the youth his ‘master mistress’ and says he has ‘a woman’s face’ and ‘a woman’s gentle heart.’ Meaning him to be a woman, Nature ‘fell a-doting’ and mistakenly added a penis. This is like Phaedrus’ drunken Prometheus getting human genitals wrong. Sonnet 20 anticipates modern hormonal theory, where a fetus with male genitalia may retain female grain chemistry, producing an inner conviction of womanhood and a longing to change sex. The youth of Sonnet 20 is a hermaphrodite, facially and emotionally female but with the sexual superfluity of a penis – from which Shakespeare explicitly abstains. I suspect Shakespeare, like Michelangelo, was a Greek homosexual idealist who did not necessarily seek physical relations with men. G. Wilson Knight says Shakespeare’s sonnets express ‘the recognition in his adored boy of a bisexual strength-with-grace’ and identifies this view with Plato’s, calling it ‘the seraphic institution.’ Knight writes brilliantly about erotic idealism, which transforms libidinal energy into aesthetic vision, ‘a flooded consciousness’: ‘You must have a maximum of ardour with a minimum of possible accomplishment, so that desire is forced into eye and mind to create.’
The beautiful boy belongs to the sonnets and must remain there. He cannot enter the plays. Rosalind is the beautiful boy reimagined in social terms. References to homosexuality are rare in Shakespeare’s plays. There may be homosexual overtones to Iago’s behavior in Othello and Leontes’ in The Winter’s Tale or to Antonio’s devotion to Sebastian in Twelfth Night and Patroclus’ to Achilles in Troilus and Cressida. But Shakespeare never dwells on homosexuality or constructs a play or major character around it like his contemporary Marlowe, who opens Dido, Queen of Carthage with Jupiter ‘dandling Ganymede upon his knee,’ and Edward the Second with the king’s male lover reading a mash note in the street. That play ends with the anal execution of the homosexual king with a red-hot poker.
I see in Shakespeare a segregation by genre, which diverts homosexuality into lyric and keeps it out of drama. I spoke of the Greek-invented beautiful boy as an Apollonian androgyne, silent and solipsistic. He is an object d’art, brought into being by the admirer’s reverent eye. Silence is a threat to drama, which thrives by voice. Northrop Frye speaks of ‘the self-enclosed world of the unproductive and narcissistic beautiful youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a ‘liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.’’ Frye is using an alchemical image from Sonnet 5, where summer flowers are distilled into an alembic of perfume, like love and beauty transformed into art. The beautiful boy of the sonnets is asocial, self-absorbed. Shakespeare exhorts him to marry and beget heirs lest his patrician line end (Sonnets 1-17). Ironically, as I see it, if the youth were to make the social commitment of marriage, he would immediately lose his glamorous narcissistic beauty, which is produced by his removal from time and community. I have stressed that the Apollonian mode is harsh, absolutist, and separatist. Apollonian beings are incapable of Dionysian participation: they cannot ‘take part,’ since Apollonianism is coldly unitary, indivisible. The transvestite Rosalind inherits the marriage obligation of the fair youth, whose refusal of social integration confines him to the sonnets. A beautiful boy in the plays would seem shallow and small. In Shakespeare’s drama, the only Ganymede is a woman. In Rosalind, the beautiful boy makes the choice for others rather than self.”
So…what do you think? Does Paglia make a compelling case? Want to see more from her?
Our next reading: As You Like It, Act Four
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.