Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1091
It is now past two o'clock, the appointed hour of Rosalind and Orlando's meeting, but Orlando has not appeared. Celia teases Rosalind by telling her that Orlando is so deeply in love that he has probably fallen asleep.
Silvius enters and presents Ganymede with the letter Phebe has written to her. He confesses that he does not know the contents, but tells her that he believes the letter was written in anger, judging by Phebe's expression while she was writing it. Rosalind pretends to Silvius that Phebe has been harsh in her criticism of Ganymede. She playfully accuses Silvius of writing the letter himself and comments that it appears to be in a man's handwriting. But Silvius innocently denies any knowledge of the letter's contents.
Rosalind reads the letter aloud, insisting all the while that Phebe is insulting Ganymede. However it is actually a love letter, and when Silvius hears Phebe's impassioned sentiments he realizes the truth and is heartbroken. Celia feels sorry for Silvius, but Rosalind comments that he is foolish to love a woman as false of Phebe. She commands Silvius to return to the shepherdess to inform her that Ganymede will love her only when she loves Silvius. She also tells him to deliver the message that Ganymede will "never have her" unless Silvius pleads for her cause. Silvius exits meekly to do her bidding.
As stranger enters immediately afterward, inquiring as to the whereabouts of "that youth" whom Orlando "calls his Rosalind." It is Orlando's brother Oliver, and he is bearing a token from Orlando: a bloody handkerchief. He explains why Orlando was unable to keep his promise to return at two o'clock. While wandering in the forest, Orlando had come across "a wretched, ragged man, o'er grown with hair" sleeping beneath an ancient oak tree. A snake was entwined around his neck, but seeing Orlando, the snake slithered away. Greater peril lay nearby, however, for a hungry lioness was lurking in the bushes. Orlando saw the lioness, yet approached the sleeping man and discovered that it was his brother who had plotted to take his life. Twice, Orlando thought about leaving Oliver in peril, but his kind nature, "nobler ever than revenge," led him to wrestle with the lioness, whom he quickly killed.
Oliver admits to Rosalind and Celia that he is the man Orlando rescued, the same man who had often contrived to kill his younger brother. He tells them that he is no longer the villain he once was; grateful to Orlando for saving his life, he has reconciled with his brother. After Oliver related to Orlando the story of how he had arrived in the forest, Orlando had taken him to meet Duke Senior. While visiting the Duke at his cave, Orlando discovered that the lioness had wounded his arm. Oliver bound his wound, and Orlando had sent his brother into the forest with the bloody handkerchief to find "the shepherd youth/ That he in sport doth call his Rosalind," and to apologize for his missed appointment. When Rosalind hears that Orlando has been wounded and realizes the handkerchief is stained with his blood, she faints.
Oliver, unaware that Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise, observes that "many will swoon when they look on blood," but he chides her for lacking "a man's heart." Rosalind acknowledges that his last statement is true, but she makes the excuse that she was simply absorbed in her role. She asks Oliver to tell his brother "how well I counterfeited." Yet Oliver observes that Ganymede's passion for Orlando seems real. Celia remarks that Ganymede looks pale, and Oliver and Celia lead her away toward her cottage.
Orlando, as we have seen, is a young man of many virtues, but promptness is not one of them. In the first scene of the act, he was warned by Rosalind that his next lateness would be his last, thus setting up potential complications if he is late to their next meeting. But this time, as we learn, he has a good excuse.
Rosalind, as Ganymede, toys with Silvius in much the same way as she had teased Orlando in Act IV Scene 1. She pretends that Phebe's letter is what Silvius had supposed it to be, and she accuses him of writing it himself. Here again, Phebe is in many ways the "poetic shepherdess" of pastoral romance (her love letter is, of course written in verse), yet Rosalind punctures the convention by making fun of her "leathery" hands. When she realizes how upset Silvius is by the actual contents of the letter, she becomes justifiably irate at his infatuation, calling him a "tame snake." She then institutes a practical plan that may cure Phebe of her false pride and bring the lovers together.
Oliver's conversion seems miraculous. However, such instantaneous changes were a convention of Elizabethan drama, one that Shakespeare's audience would have accepted. The play, as we have seen, contains a number of realistic elements, yet Oliver's transformation is in keeping with the fairy tale nature of much of the story. Even so, his metamorphosis may not have been as sudden as it might seem. Oliver, when last seen in Act III, Scene 1, was banished by a more powerful tyrant than himself, and we learn that he wandered extensively, enduring the hardships of the forest, perhaps giving him reasons to contemplate his actions in the past.
Throughout much of the play, Rosalind demonstrates "masculine" confidence while in her disguise. Yet she loses her courage when she is confronted by the sight of the handkerchief soaked with Orlando's blood. Much of the comedy in the latter part of this scene results from Rosalind behaving in an "unmasculine" manner. The dialogue features a good deal of dramatic irony: Oliver, for example, chides Ganymede for lacking a man's heart, and Ganymede comments, "I should have been a woman by right." Rosalind has "counterfeited" her outward appearance to play the role of Ganymede (and indeed, she claims to Oliver that she has counterfeited a woman so well that she faints at the sight of blood), yet her emotions are genuine.
Oliver, like his brother, is fooled by Rosalind's disguise, although by the end of this scene it is apparent that the disguise is wearing thin. (Note that Celia slips in calling Rosalind "Cousin Ganymede.") Orlando has now been put to the test and has passed; again, we feel the depth of Rosalind's love for him. The masquerade is rapidly losing its attraction, and the events of the play are winding to a close.
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