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In Act IV Scene 1 of As You Like It, what does Rosalind mean to say when she makes the...

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topperoo | Student, Grade 10 | Salutatorian

Posted March 3, 2013 at 3:02 AM via web

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In Act IV Scene 1 of As You Like It, what does Rosalind mean to say when she makes the speech "Why horns; which such as you are fain to be beholding to your wives for: but he comes armed in his fortune and prevents the slander of his wife."

(I want to know what the "horns" means and the full line also.)

Act IV Scene I

ROSALIND
    Break an hour's promise in love! ...

ORLANDO
    Pardon me, dear Rosalind.

ROSALIND
    Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight: I
    had as lief be wooed of a snail.

ORLANDO
    Of a snail?

ROSALIND
    Ay, of a snail; for though he comes slowly, he
    carries his house on his head; ... besides he brings
    his destiny with him.

ORLANDO
    What's that?

ROSALIND
    Why, horns, which such as you are fain to be
    beholding to your wives for: but he comes armed in
    his fortune and prevents the slander of his wife.

ORLANDO
    Virtue is no horn-maker; and my Rosalind is virtuous.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted March 8, 2013 at 12:16 AM (Answer #1)

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The context of the lines you ask about is the quoted passage added above. The specific reference you ask about is one of Shakespeare's puns with sexual innuendo.

  • pun: a play on words that gives a different senses to the same word
  • innuendo: a subtle or subtle expression that implies of suggests rather than states outright

In this pun, Shakespeare is punning off the word "horns" giving it a non-literal, figurative meaning. In normal language usage, horns are the projections on the heads of some animals, like cows and goats ... and snails. In Shakespearean innuendo, horns are the mystical ornamentation that men whose wives have strayed in faithfulness are said to be plagued with. In other words, if a husband is unfortunate enough to have a wife who strays in her attentions, he is said to be a "cuckold" who has been "cuckolded." Cuckolds are to be recognized by the mystically appearing horns upon their heads.

What Rosalind is saying in this otherwise nonsensical exchange of low humor is that Orlando is late for their meeting: she would rather be courted by a snail than by someone who breaks love's promise by being late. Orlando wonders why a snail would be better. Rosalind says it is because (1) he carries his house with him, thus (in punish theory) his wife is always with him and because (2) he already wears horns so no one can ever accuse his wife of secret infidelity (or him of being a cuckold) by the sudden appearance of horns on his head (horns cannot suddenly appear because he already has them, and they have nothing to do with his wife).

The conclusion of this ribald word play is that Orlando declares that a wife's virtue will prevent any husband from being cuckolded and horned and that Rosalind is virtuous. In sum: "horns" are the mystical result of a cuckolded husband after his wife's infidelity. Ganymede/Rosalind would prefer to be courted by a snail than by a late suitor who breaks love's promises because, being horned already, a snail can never slander a wife (no matter what she does, the horns can never reveal her behavior). To this Orlando replies that virtue prevents horns, and Rosalind is virtuous. Seemingly, this entire pun is for the purpose of characterizing Rosalind as virtuous so we know in what light to understand what is to follow between Rosalind and Orlando in their role play.

ORLANDO
    Virtue is no horn-maker; and my Rosalind is virtuous.
...

ROSALIND
    Come, woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday
    humour and like enough to consent. What would you
    say to me now, an I were your very very Rosalind?

ORLANDO
    I would kiss before I spoke.

ROSALIND
    Nay, you were better speak first, ... for lovers lacking ... [talking] matter, the cleanliest shift is to kiss.

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