Susan Carlson (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10140

SOURCE: “Women in As You Like It: Community, Change, and Choice,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1987, pp. 151-69.

[In the following essay, Carlson refutes earlier critics who claim that As You Like It reflects sexual equality. She argues that patriarchal norms persist, especially in the play's ending.]

At the end of As You Like It, when Hymen teases Phebe that she cannot love Ganymede—“You to his [Silvius's] love must accord, / Or have a woman to your Lord” (V.iv.127-28)1—he reminds us of the comic mileage Shakespeare has gotten from Rosalind's disguise as Ganymede. Also, less obviously, he reminds us of the most steady love of the play, that between two women, Celia and Rosalind. His mockery of such love and the uncharacteristic silence of the women which accompanies it are two final indications of the way women are treated throughout the play. We have learned to read As You Like It as a play about the expansiveness of love, the graciousness of fate, and the inevitability of human foible. But it is also a play about women in the comic world. Love's Labor's Lost remains our best evidence of Shakespeare's wariness of the comic form—especially as it affects women—but As You Like It is our best model of how Shakespeare's women function as part of a comic tradition.

H. B. Charlton has taught a whole generation of Shakespearean critics to see comic heroines like Rosalind as “poetic,” “creative” embodiments of “imagination” with powers “to shape the world towards happiness.”2 It has become commonplace to consider women a key to meaning in Shakespeare's comedies. Along with more standard readings of the comedies, even the recent open-eyed, often feminist, criticism by women like Ruth Nevo, Linda Bamber, and Marilyn French grows out of Charlton's equating Shakespeare's comedy with his women.3 To find Shakespearean comedy a haven for women, as Charlton and others do, a critic must focus on the festive liberation of the middle of the plays where, as Mikhail Bahktin explains, we enter the utopian “realm of community, freedom, equality, abundance.”4 Northrop Frye's “green world” and C. L. Barber's “release” are two tidy labels for this decidedly untidy mid-play world where sex roles are reversed, wrongs righted, and problems solved.5 Women characters, who must normally exist in a world where double standards leave them less than equal, fare well in this topsy-turvy world, directing actions and emotions. To emphasize this middle section of the play is, as Charlton, Bahktin, and others make clear, to emphasize a world of female freedom. Shakespearean comedy does not, however, end in this liberated world. The multiple marriages, ritual male-voiced pronouncements, women's silence, and return to order of these plays' endings are signs of a return to a norm suspended during the middle of the play. To emphasize such endings is to emphasize an end to female freedom. Clara Claiborne Park, Shirley Nelson Garner, Nicholas Grene, Anne Parten, Peter Erickson, Carol Thomas Neeley, and others have adopted this second emphasis, and study of the comic ending as a construct full of power to defuse the sexual revolution of Shakespeare's comedies.6 In the analysis that follows, I would like to join this second group of critics, those who qualify Charlton's praise, by showing how As You Like It offers more limitations than possibilities for the women in the play. I will conclude my study with a fuller analysis of the play's ending, but will offer, first, a study of the play's middle, where Shakespeare establishes the world in which his women search for communities, choices, and changes.


The establishment of a “norm”-al world in As You Like It is as basic to Shakespeare's comedy as to others far less daring. We begin in the court of Duke Frederick where, in spite of several evil presences, we have a predictable world governed by civil laws and social mores; we move to a world where those norms are relaxed, often reversed; and we end promised a return to the court world, minus its rankest evils. While critics disagree on the effects of this cycle—do we or do we not reach a new (or better or different) world at play's end?—they generally agree on its presence. The special effect such circular motions have on the women of the play has been most thoroughly studied by Peter Erickson. To reach his conclusion that “As You Like It is primarily a defensive action against female power rather than a celebration of it,” Erickson compiles an extensive list of the signs of a patriarchy present throughout the play.7 Most importantly, he shows that the altered world of Arden is only superficially a release from everyday, patriarchal norms and that in being but a reversible reversal of the norms it is never a threat to them. Although Erickson never makes the connection explicitly, he bases this reading of As You Like It's persistent “norm”-al world on the presence of a sexual double standard. The sexual double standard in Shakespeare's “norm”-al world is not significant because it grants women less freedom and power than it does men. It is significant because in the middle world of the play, where norms are reversed, the power and freedom women do gain is still based on the double standard, and is only a reversal of it. In other words, the middle world of the play does not revoke the double standard, but only invokes a temporary criticism of it. While the social criticism of As You Like It is not negated by the play's reversals, it is continually undercut by the omnipresence of the play's double standard. Such persistent norms complicate a reading of any aspect of the play, but raise the most perplexing questions about those parts of the play generally acknowledged to be sexually liberating, the play's structural foundation in equality, for example.

While the words “equal” and “equally” each occur only once in the course of the play, they are notations of a pattern present throughout the play. Celia and Rosalind, in I.ii, offer us equality as a desirable goal and a standard of judgment, first when Celia finds that the ideal bestowal of Fortune's gifts must be an equal one—“Let us sit and mock the good housewife Fortune from her wheel, that her gifts may henceforth be bestowed equally” (I.ii.29-31)—and later when she counsels Orlando to “a more equal enterprise” (I.ii.161) than Charles the Wrestler appears to be. Most of the play's equality, however, comes not from such obvious pleas as much as from the standards that equality and symmetry become for actions, characters, and language. For example, a standard of symmetry balances one action against another when a conversation on the killing of deer (II.i) is matched by the actual hunting of deer (IV.ii); when Rosalind's first wooing of Orlando (III.ii) is mated to a second (IV.i); when Orlando's triumphant dialogue with Jaques (III.ii) is repeated in Rosalind's similar victory over the cynic (IV.i). The significance of characters is likewise refined when they are considered in pairs—Jacques's cynicism is tempered by Touchstone's loving parody, Silvius's idealism is braced by Corin's realism, one bad brother (Oliver, Duke Frederick) is paired with one good one (Orlando, Duke Senior), and one unrequited love (Phebe's) is upstaged by another one, less vain (Silvius's). And as critics have shown us countless times, the play's language is a comparable series of delicate balances. Orlando's bad poems come coupled with the reassured, regular rhythms of Rosalind's prose, for example. Rosalind, finally, is the crucible for all such equations, symmetries, and balances, acting as a matchmaker for others even as she is self-conscious of her own vacillations between the realistic and the idealistic. By the end of the play, when Silvius leads his litany of love in V.ii and when Hymen and Jaques parcel out their verbal gifts of love in V.iv, Shakespeare has us, also, seeing the play's four marriages as natural extensions of a play full of equations and balances. In the play's final scene, Celia's word “equal” has become “even”; first when Rosalind disappears “To make these doubts all even” (V.iv.25) and second when Hymen elevates her “even” by rhyming it with heaven: “Then is there mirth in heaven / When earthly things made even / Atone together” (V.iv.102-04). “Even,” like the “equal” of I.ii, is meant to assure us that life is orderly and balanced at the end of the play.

While it has been common to link the play's balances to a sexual equality, the play's symmetries are more reflections of the orderly “norm”-al world, double standards and all, than guarantees of an advanced notion of relations between the sexes. The androgyny that critics have praised as the pinnacle of the play's many equalities is not a sign-post of sexual liberation but yet another signal of the play's being founded on norms.

In his study of the androgyny of the play, Erickson points out that a levelling of sexual differences is not possible, even in this play's measured, tolerant world, because the basis for both worlds in the play is patriarchy.8 This limitation makes androgyny of benefit only to the men returning to power at the play's end, not to the women about to give it up:

However, the conservative counter-movement built into comic strategy applies exclusively to Rosalind. Her possession of the male costume and the power it symbolizes is only temporary. But Orlando does not have to give up the emotional enlargement he has experienced in the forest. Discussions of androgyny in As You Like It usually focus on Rosalind, whereas in fact it is the men rather than the women who are the lasting beneficiaries of androgyny.9

Androgyny is not a reality for the women in As You Like It in the same measure it is for the men because the women are never equal to the men; the most they gain in the middle of the play is only a reversal of an inequitable situation. The play's reversals ensure that while men learn their weaknesses and women their powers in the inversion of the play's middle world, norms do not change. In studying the issue of sexual difference in the broader scope of the Renaissance, Catherine Besley finds, contrarily, that plays like As You Like It offer a “radical challenge to patriarchal values by disrupting sexual difference itself.” She offers a dazzling case for the social and sexual instability Shakespeare's comedies threaten in their jockeying of sexual identity. She admits, however, that Rosalind's control of her disguise limits the danger posed by this play's transgressions.10

The play's inequitable “norm”-al world is tested by its free, levelling middle, but scarcely altered by it. It seems likely that Shakespeare was aware of the formal tension between his agenda for social change and his generic constraints, for this play abounds in his self-consciousness of the comic genre. It is so full of references to its own form that Ruth Nevo has dubbed it a “meta-comedy,” a comedy “so self-assured as not to care whether we notice or not that it is talking about its own mode of being.”11 As I study the conventions of the play's middle and end, then, I do so not to berate Shakespeare for attitudes he never considered, but to expand our understanding of the choices he made among the many attitudes he considered—especially those choices influencing his women. As fiercely as any playwright before or since, Shakespeare writes comedy in which he battles against convention even as he nestles his characters into its comfortable, “norm”-al shelters.


The testing of the normal that constitutes the liberated middle of this play allows and encourages great power and control in the female characters. But the continuing though inverted presence of the “norm”-al helps explain the patterns discernible in the women's language and friendship.

Rosalind commands the special linguistic world at the center of As You Like It, yet her mastery of language is continually undercut. In our introduction to the cousins Rosalind and Celia in I.ii, such contradictions establish the women's linguistic pattern. Most immediately, we are struck with the women's facility with a language flexible enough for them to move from sadness to joy and intimate enough to encourage the trust and love equalled nowhere else in the play. After the straightforward discussion of Rosalind's sadness that introduces us to this direct, though playful, way the women trust one another with their emotions, we are introduced to the strategies the two women have had to develop to protect such linguistic loving and giving. In the sport they make of falling in love we notice, first, their verbal versatility: they banter with the good nature of two who indulge often in such matches (ll. 28-40); they feed questions and lines to Touchstone with the deftness of people used to indulging the verbal performances of others (ll. 41-85); and they badger Le Beau with a humane tolerance for his denseness (ll. 86-134). Only belatedly, we notice that such verbal acuity is tarnished by certain sexist assumptions and indirections built into the banter. As Celia and Rosalind discuss the bestowal of Fortune's and Nature's gifts, for example, they rely on traditional stereotypes of women—the fair are stupid and the honest are ugly. As Celia puts it, “for those that she [Fortune] makes fair she scarce makes honest, and those that she makes honest she makes very ill-favoredly” (I.ii.32-34). They depend on such stereotypes even when alone, and despite the fact that—as the rest of the play makes apparent—neither Rosalind nor Celia lacks either looks or brains. Even Touchstone allows for the breaking of such a type by acknowledging ladies “young and fair” and bright (II.vii.37-38). When Touchstone enters, these two non-stereotypical women adopt stereotypical behavior, allowing linguistic control to fall to the male as they feed him the lines he needs to exercise his wit. Later in the scene, as the court witnesses the wrestling entertainment, Rosalind protests she is weak—“The little strength that I have I would it were with you” (I.ii.177-78)—this time directly acknowledging that the world she and Celia inhabit is one where women are seen as less capable than men. While the women take first place with their language skills, they accept second place in society.

In Rosalind, especially, both this female mastery of language and the indirections and inversions it is tied to are traceable through the entire play. While in I.ii Rosalind operates in the familiarity and leisure she and Celia share, in I.iii her language, as well as Celia's, becomes a finely tuned instrument on which she must play the melodies of a range of emotions. First Rosalind matches Celia in playfulness, converting Celia's subject, Rosalind's father, into her own—“my child's father” (I.iii.11). Then she moves beyond playfulness to do verbal battle with her uncle, Duke Frederick. He forewarns her that traitorous acts must be redeemed by more than words, yet is battered by her reply, strong in its repetitions, its sound argument, and its graceful sincerity:

So was I when your Highness took his dukedom;
So was I when your Highness banished him.
Treason is not inherited, my lord,
Or if we did derive it from our friends,
What's that to me: My father was no traitor.
Then, good my liege, mistake me not so much
To think my poverty is treacherous.


Rosalind's language is more convincing to us than to Duke Frederick, of course, and even though Celia follows her with an equally graceful plea to her father, his response shows us he has responded not to the cousins' verbal skill, their reason or their words, but to his distrust of female language. He tells Celia “She [Rosalind] is too subtile for thee” (l. 73) and orders his daughter to silence, “then open not thy lips” (l. 78). These women's language skills carry little weight in the Duke's court.

Yet in III.ii we move to Arden, a world where, without Duke Frederick, the limits Rosalind sets to her language are only her own. Rosalind blossoms enough to recognize the inadequacies of Orlando's verbal celebrations of her, telling Celia of his verses, “some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear” (III.ii.159-60). She can then banter with Celia over the concrete image of “feet” she calls up. She further displays her versatility by matching witty analogies to nature with Touchstone (ll. 111-15) and by making more learned allusions at her leisure—calling up Pythagoras for example (III.ii.168). But her power and control are most obvious in her first conversation with Orlando. From the exit of Jaques in line 281 to Rosalind and Orlando's joint exit at the scene's end, a simple measure of her command of this conversation is the number of lines both characters speak. Rosalind has ninety-eight lines to Orlando's thirty, but even such lopsided numbers only begin to suggest her mastery of their interaction. Orlando, on the one hand, takes on the role Celia and Rosalind had assumed earlier, in I.ii, and feeds lines and questions to Rosalind. In addition, Orlando has brief speeches (usually one line or less) devoid of imagination or wit. Rosalind, on the other hand, is represented by a hearty prose in which form is matched to content, in which the melodies of the language are the melodies of her love. We have had a taste of Rosalind's prose before we see her in Arden, but only in Arden can she use it for power as well as for pleasure.

There continue to be moments when Rosalind's wit and verbal acuity are everything, as she chides Phebe in III.iv or as she directs the others in the recitations of V.ii. But the extent of her linguistic skills is clearest when her heart is in her language, in III.ii and IV.i especially. Rosalind reaches the height of her powers in IV.i. Here the gymnastic playfulness of III.ii is transformed into heart-felt pronouncements on love and marriage. When Rosalind plays the realist in denying to Orlando that one could die from lack of love, the great love she feels for him softens her harsh statement and gives it its graceful rhythms:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all that time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont, and being taken with the cramp, was drowned; and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’ But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.


Her feeling for and use of language in such skillful ways is what we miss so much when Rosalind gives up her language along with her disguise and is silent at the play's end. As the ritual takes prominence in the play's final scene, we experience a falling off in the language. As the emotions and powers of Rosalind's language give way to the comparative shallowness of song and dance, Rosalind takes her silent place in the marriage ritual. Even the Epilogue, in awarding the last words to Rosalind, does not make up for Rosalind's silence. Erickson points out that the Epilogue subverts the woman's world of this play by reminding us of the boy Rosalind-Ganymede and not the woman who has been the linguistic heart of the play.12 I would suggest, in addition, that Rosalind's return as an actor (whether male or female) reinforces the consciousness we have had all along that her power comes only from a suspension of the play's—and the world's—reality. The fact that she still must make her last moment of power depend on her male disguise only increases our suspicion that we must lose the Rosalind of the play's middle because her linguistic command is as dangerous as it is endearing.

The Epilogue and the silence that precedes it are, in fact, only our last indications of the way the women's linguistic powers remain attached to assumptions which undercut them. Let me backtrack through the scenes I have already discussed to suggest how each one of them is burdened with a discrediting of the women's linguistic power. In I.iii, Duke Frederick warns Celia of the deception in Rosalind's language:

She is too subtile for thee; and the smoothness,
Her very silence and her patience,
Speak to the people, and they pity her.


His warning we can dismiss, because he is so despicably evil, but only until we hear similar reservations voiced elsewhere by Rosalind herself. For example, she prefaces her talk with Orlando in III.ii by asking Celia the self-deprecating question, “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak” (III.ii.237-38). She re-confirms her diagnosis of logorrhea by lacing the pyrotechnics of IV.i with similar undercuttings of her skill. Here she warns her future husband Orlando that “certainly a woman's thought runs before her actions” (IV.i.127-28) and counsels him, further, to be wary of his wife's wayward wit:

Make the doors upon a woman's wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and 'twill out at the keyhold; stop that, 'twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney.


Rosalind's comments may be tongue-in-cheek, but they cannot simply be dismissed as comic, for the direct discrediting of female language in these three statements is reinforced by the many indirect and subversive tactics women have adopted as part of their presence in the play.

Even as she is Ganymede and liberated from the restrictions placed on Rosalind the woman, Rosalind accepts limiting stereotypes. One might speculate that Rosalind adopts such deferential behavior to preserve her male disguise, but importantly, she makes the same patriarchal assumptions in I.ii, before she adopts the guise of Ganymede. Of the disguise itself, Rosalind tells us that it will help her hide in her heart “what hidden woman's fear there will” (I.iii.115). Later, while collapsing at the end of the journey into Arden, she blames the weak female in her: “I could find in my heart to disgrace my man's apparel and to cry like a woman; but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat” (II.iv.4-7). She disdains the woman in herself as much as the woman, Celia-Aliena, she feels an obligation to comfort. Even in III.ii, so rich in Rosalind's confidence and control, her doubts about her female self loom large; she tells Celia that she retains the impatience of a woman (III.ii.185-89) and later after teasing Orlando with a catalogue of women's faults—“All like one another as halfpence are, every one fault seeming monstrous till his fellow-fault came to match it” (III.ii.334-36)—she paints a giddy picture of the female lover:

At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, long and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles; for every passion truly anything, as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this color; would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him; that I drave my suitor from his mad humor of love to a living humor of madness, which was, to forswear the full stream of the world and to live in a nook merely monastic.


Rosalind's self-conscious mockery means that we never take such comments at their full value, yet we are inclined to agree with Celia in her charge to Rosalind: “You have simply misused our sex in your loveprate” (IV.i.185-86).

What Celia cannot tell us, however, is that we fail to dismiss Rosalind's comments because so much action in the play validates them. For example, all of the women in the play—Rosalind, Celia, Phebe, and Audrey—do become giddy and rash when in love, just as Rosalind has foretold. Rosalind herself is the most severe case, in IV.i, when she demands a wedding ceremony one moment and warns of cuckolds the next. More numerically overwhelming are the many indirect actions of the women in the play. In her disguise, Rosalind gains strength and control, but her indirect expressions of love pale next to Orlando's direct confessions of being “love-shaked” (III.ii.346). By the end of the play Rosalind has never once told Orlando she loves him. Phebe's description of her love for Ganymede similarly gyrates on its negations and contradictions:

Think not I love him, though I ask for him;
’Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well.
But what care I for words? Yet words do well
When he that speaks them pleases those that hear.
It is a pretty youth; not very pretty;
But sure he's proud; and yet his pride becomes him. …
There be some women, Silvius, had they marked him
In parcels as I did, would have gone near
To fall in love with him; but, for my part,
I love him not nor hate him not; and yet
I have more cause to hate him than to love him.

(III.v.108-13, 123-27)

Audrey's nearly non-verbal reactions operate on the same principles. As we laugh at her gross lack of understanding, we are laughing only at a less practiced indirection than we find in the other women. Celia's love for and relationship with Oliver may be an exception to these female patterns of indirection. But we never have the chance to see Oliver and Celia interact, so speculation about how she may have avoided indirection is useless.

In studying the consequences of such linguistic indirection, Madelon Gohlke and Coppelia Kahn have found the powerful language of comic heroines like Rosalind a reflection of a patriarchal order. Though Gohlke's work focuses primarily on the language of tragedy, she connects the linguistic freedoms of comic heroines to the threat of infidelity the women pose for their mates. Arguing that the indirections of the women's language connote infidelity for the men, she identifies the darkest threat implied in free female language like Rosalind's:

Whereas “honesty” in relations among men may be perceived primarily as a matter of keeping one's word, in relations with women, it is clearly a sexual concern. For a woman to lie is to be unfaithful. For this reason the attribution of complex speech to female characters in the comedies in the form of lies, riddles, puns and statements made in the context of disguise, often involves sexual matters generally or specifically the threat of infidelity.13

While such sexual betrayal remains latent in most comedies, the threat is so real that the linguistic freedom women gain is usually reduced to silence. Touchstone's prolonged digression on lies in V.iv (which not coincidentally coincides with Rosalind's silence) is symbolic of the male recapturing of playful language at the end of As You Like It. Discussing The Taming of the Shrew, Kahn uncovers similar consequences in the indirection of a comic heroine's language. Kahn notes the power of language in Shrew where it serves as Kate's only way of asserting herself in her world and as Shakespeare's only device for calling his male order into question. Yet even so, and despite her ironic reading of Kate's final speech, Kahn finds such language ultimately but one more measure of the patriarchical:

But on the deepest level, because the play depicts its heroine as outwardly compliant but inwardly independent, it represents possibly the most cherished male fantasy of all—that woman remain untamed, even in her subjection.14

I believe, like Gohlke and Kahn, that the language of the women in the play does double duty, acting both as a conduit for female power and an automatic check on it. While through her language Rosalind creates a strong counter universe in As You Like It, her power is as temporary as is her stay in Arden.

While Rosalind's most showy source of power in the play is language, a second, less immediately obvious one is her friendship with Celia. Not surprisingly, the friendship between the two women is as much affected by the cyclical patterns of the comedy as is the language.15

Initially, both the court and the forest worlds of As You Like It seem hospitable to female attachments. Although we first hear of Celia and Rosalind's bond in the hostile environment of I.i, bone-breaker Charles softens while describing what is, even to him, a beautiful, strong, enviable attachment:

… the Duke's daughter her cousin so loves her, being ever from their cradles bred together, that she would have followed her exile, or have died to stay behind her. She is at the court, and no less beloved of her uncle than his own daughter, and never two ladies loved as they do.


When we first meet Celia and Rosalind in I.ii, we are immediately struck by the chasm between the love, trust, and warmth of their woman's world and the harsh world depicted in I.i. In the second scene as in the first, we are told—this time by Le Beau—how deep is the women's love for one another: “[their] loves / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (I.ii.256-57). But more important, we experience the love in the intimate word games that open the scene; here familiarity produces a conversation with two wits in league against the world, not against each other. Such teamwork characterizes the women's verbal games with Touchstone, Le Beau, and even Orlando. Their pleas to Orlando to abstain from wrestling are best described as choric:

The little strength that I have, I would it were with you.
And mine to eke out hers.
Fare you well. Pray heaven I be deceived in you!
Your heart's desires be with you! …
Now Hercules be thy speed, young man!
I would I were invisible, to catch the strong fellow by the leg.
O excellent young man!
If I had a thunderbolt in mine eye, I can tell who should down.

(I.ii.177-82, 192-97)

The third scene stands as the climax of the play's celebration of women's love. Significantly, the voice of the achievement is Celia, not Rosalind. As the crises of this scene necessitate Celia's eloquent defense of her friendship with Rosalind, the two tributes she makes to their love become the touchstones on which we analyze the actions of the rest of the play. First Celia pleads with her father to respect the women's mutual love:

                    If she be a traitor,
Why, so am I. We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together;
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.


That he cannot understand or will not respect the love is predictable. That Celia must repeat the same plea to Rosalind suggests less the depth of their bond than its precariousness:

                    Rosalind lacks then the love
Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one.
Shall we be sund’red, shall we part, sweet girl?
No, let my father seek another heir.


The disguises the two women subsequently put on, one the garb of a man, one the skirts of a country woman, are obvious manifestations of the rift developing between the two. This female-female couple must now become a female-male team to survive. The two can no longer appear (literally) “as one,” as Celia would wish. Thus when Celia and Rosalind set off “To liberty,” they set off without the full strength of the love that has, until now, sustained them. In the next four acts, the chart of their actions shows them moving only further and further apart. They never regain the safe, warm closeness of Act I.

The forces that separate the two women include the stereotypes which account for the undercutting of their language, but most detrimental to their friendship is the assumption in the play that the natural, inevitable pairing is that of woman to man. In II.ii, for example, Duke Frederick assumes either that Celia and Rosalind must have run off with a man in their entourage or that a man is the cause of their running off. Yet as wrong as he is in assuming that they are chasing Orlando, he is only making the same assumption they have made in preparing their disguises—two women could not take off on their own. The rest of Act II reinforces such assumptions. Rosalind, dressed as a male, assumes a protective male role as she transacts the women's business with Corin in II.iv. Jaques, in his seven ages of man speech, does women the courtesy of inclusion when he speaks of “The men and women merely players,” yet he mentions women again only as supernumeraries—nurses and mistresses. Though Celia and Rosalind temporarily gain power in Arden, they have only entered a different sort of man's world than the one they have left at the court, a world which forces one of them into dress as a man and prods both of them to marriage.

In the rich discussions of Acts III and IV, further impositions on the women's friendship accumulate. In III.ii, our first look at the women now happily settled into Arden, Celia teases Rosalind with her (Celia's) knowledge of Orlando's presence in the forest. In a stressful moment, the two are refreshed and comforted by their well-known patterns of banter. Yet as soon as Rosalind begins to woo Orlando, Celia falls silent. Her silence can be partially accounted for by the dynamics of the situation—it is Rosalind and Orlando who are in love, after all, not Celia. But Celia's presence as silent chaperon serves also as a strong visual reminder of the way her friendship with Rosalind no longer remains Rosalind's primary concern. In III.iv, with the two women once again alone together, familiar patterns of conversation return. Celia provides the support Rosalind needs by echoing agreement to each outrageous statement Rosalind makes (III.iv.1-23). She matches her praise for praise, complaint for complaint. But while Rosalind gets the support she needs, she can make no thankful acknowledgment of it. Her mind is all on Orlando, not Celia.

The two women continue to appear together, apparently inseparable, in III.v, IV.i, and IV.iii. Yet we never again have linguistic evidence of the comfort and support the women can provide for one another. While Celia participates in these scenes largely as a silent partner, Rosalind acts more and more on her own. In III.v, for example, Rosalind handles Phebe and Silvius without a single word from Celia. In IV.i, at the height of Rosalind's linguistic control, Celia has only six short speeches (and twelve lines total). And finally, IV.iii is evidence that the two women have come to face the world separately. The most convincing proof of Celia's sudden love for Oliver is the revival in her language in IV.iii, the scene in which Oliver first appears in Arden. Earlier, in her six short speeches of IV.i, Celia had demonstrated a playful distaste for Rosalind's actions, charging her with the misuse of “our sex” (IV.i.185), calling Rosalind's affection for Orlando, pejoratively, “bottomless” (IV.i.193), and responding to Rosalind's announcement of her vigil for Orlando with uncharacteristic unconcern, “And I’ll sleep” (IV.i.202). So by IV.iii Celia is well ready to focus her energy and concern elsewhere. While in the early parts of IV.iii Celia has only two short speeches, once Oliver enters, she explodes into speech and it is Rosalind's turn to be the bystander. In addition, IV.iii marks the first time we have seen Celia pay attention to anyone other than Rosalind. Celia and Rosalind's exit with Orlando at the end of the scene also marks the last time we can count on seeing the two women together. When Rosalind re-enters in V.ii, she appears without Celia for the first time in the play. When Celia next appears, at the opening of V.iv, she is similarly without Rosalind, who enters shortly after with Phebe and Silvius. By the end of the play we look for not Rosalind and Celia, but Celia with her love Oliver and Rosalind with her love Orlando. Hymen's amusement at the coupling of women in his comment to Phebe adds a final, godly consent to the separation of the cousins.

Rosalind and Celia, the heart of the play's joyous women-powered Arden, are only half of the female population in the play. While the cousins are inseparable until the very end of the play, Audrey and Phebe live isolated existences throughout the play. Their separate presences further underline the slim possibilities for female community in this world. It is no accident that immediately after Rosalind's first show of power in III.ii, we meet Audrey, an unforgettable reminder that few of the world's women are like Rosalind. We also meet, in Audrey, a woman effectively speechless in response to Touchstone's verbal battering, a woman outnumbered three to one by men telling her what to do. While she is a healthy reminder of sexuality in the play, by V.i she is no more than Touchstone's sexual possession. She provides concrete evidence that the stereotypes Rosalind and Celia joked of in Act I have a reality—here is a woman honest and ill-favored. The choice of Audrey and Touchstone as the representatives of a lover and his lass in V.iii is also revealing; instead of celebrating headstrong Rosalind and her lover, the two pages celebrate a safer couple, Audrey and her love. Finally, the ways Audrey fulfills our expectations about conventional stereotypes of women is certified by her isolation. The only time Audrey appears on stage with any other women is in V.iv, by which time the business of marriage assures she will be part not of a female community, but of a married, heterosexual one.

Phebe's journey through the inverted world of Rosalind's rule surpasses Audrey's in showing the play's restrictions on female community. We first meet Phebe in III.v when Rosalind, Celia, and Corin are spying on her conversation with Silvius. For the first time, we have three women on stage, and a further attachment developing in that potential female community as Phebe is attracted to Rosalind-Ganymede. But Rosalind entertains Phebe's affection only as sport, and her decision ensures that Phebe's infatuation is cause for laughter—not for alarm or love. One might speculate, on the basis of her love for Celia, that Rosalind would show sympathy for Phebe. Instead, Rosalind shows disdain for Phebe in III.v and belittles her love whenever possible throughout the rest of the play. In IV.iii, for example, when Silvius carries Phebe's letter to Ganymede, Rosalind-Ganymede puts Phebe's love in the harshest terms, telling Silvius, “Wilt thou love such a woman? What, to make thee an instrument, and play false strains upon thee?” (IV.iii.68-69); and in V.ii, when Phebe tells Ganymede of her love, Phebe's desires become the comic link in Rosalind's love chain. As if in payment for her silly infatuation, Phebe is suitably embarrassed in the couplings of the final scene and forced to find her refuge in the man who has picked her, Silvius. While both Phebe and Silvius are silly in their poses, Silvius, through his doggish sincerity, earns a redemption Phebe cannot. There is no place in the play's final order for Phebe's attachment to Ganymede-Rosalind.

Audrey and Phebe serve double duty in the play. First they expose the isolation of the women in the play as Rosalind and Celia—with their long-standing love—cannot. In this way they defuse the threat of women that Shirley Nelson Garner finds responsible for similar isolations in A Midsummer Night's Dream; as Garner puts it, “the male characters think they can keep their women only if they divide and conquer them.”16 Second, Audrey and Phebe serve as a multi-purpose counterpoint to Rosalind and Celia. With the simplistic presences of Phebe and Audrey, the power, language, and love of Rosalind and Celia are undercut. What happens to Audrey and Phebe is especially important because they are women only of Arden. They, and not Rosalind and Celia, are the true representatives of Arden's inverted world. Most crucially then, the presence of Phebe and Audrey assures that Rosalind is not the rule, that women can be separated, even in Arden. The women of As You Like It, besides being no threat numerically (there are only four women in a cast of at least seventeen men), are also no threat to power and order.

Marjorie Garber and George Gordon read positively the movement of women away from each other in the play, each finding a psychic gain in such separation.17 Marilyn French and Carole McKewin are still more optimistic, French designating plays like As You Like It as rare literary sites where female bondage is transformed to female bonding.18 Most recently, however, both Janet Adelman and Carol Thomas Neely have accounted for a view, like mine, which finds the play's female friendships ultimately counterproductive for the women.19 I have limited hope for the women of the play, partly because—as I have shown—the play limits female power and community, partly, and more basically, because in doing so it precludes change. Change does occur in the play; the most obvious and important change comes in Rosalind herself, who matures from a sharp, witty, and probably bored woman into a loving, wise woman ready for the compromises of marriage. Yet her personal change loses its significance in the communal end of the comedy. Rosalind's changes remain hers alone and do not translate into social changes. The world emerging at the end of this comedy is “new” only in that four new couples are forming; the society the eight lovers are being accepted into is as old and predictable as is their acceptance of it. As the actions and cycles of the play have made clear, part of that predictability includes tolerance of traditional sexual stereotypes and acceptance of the double standard. The characters' final acceptance of each other is an acceptance of the limits to women's words, powers, and friendships that the play has enforced. To put it more precisely, in As You Like It the kinds of change possible for women are as restricted as are their language and their friendships. In a play headed irrevocably towards marriage, which As You Like It is as soon as it begins, women, their changes, and their choices are restricted.20

Based on her considerations of the comic genre, Bamber comes to a nearly opposite conclusion—that the dictates of comedy are so flexible that an either-or world is created, that the liberation of this world makes choice unnecessary.21 But her optimistic conclusions hold true only when we consider the free middle section of the comic world without giving due weight to the reversals of comedy's ending. Clearly, as Bamber and others have seen, Shakespeare wants to demonstrate a need for change along with his plan for it—even plays like As You Like It and Twelfth Night are full of questioning of the status quo. Yet in choosing comedy, in guiding his characters between comedy's Scylla and Charybdis of the revolutionary and the reactionary, Shakespeare accepts a limited kind of social change.


The middle of Shakespeare's play presents us with possibilities for female linguistic power and community, but only together with a plan, at the end, for disrupting them. That plan, in a word, is marriage.

Shakespearean criticism abounds with recognition of the blessing marriage bestows on the comic conclusion. Charlton's utilitarian description of such marriage—“Marriage is to the comic dramatist the beneficent arrangement through which mankind achieves a maximum of human joy and a minimum of social disability”—is decorated in various ways by scholars who applaud marriage's reconciliation of male and female, its service as the capstone to a woman's maturation, and its joyful promise of the continuation of a society and a world.22 On the other hand, critics who detect in marriage impositions on comedy's characters remind us that a full consideration of comic marriages must include a study of change.23 The key issue, be it implicit or explicit, acknowledged or unacknowledged, is the relationship between marriage and social change.

In As You Like It, marriage is more an assumption than a visible institution. Although marriage is the goal of at least nine characters in the play (the four couples, plus William), we meet no character in the play who we know is married, though at least Dukes Senior and Frederick can be assumed to have been. Thus marriage exists as an abstract idea with the potential of becoming an ideal. Although the play overflows with critical evaluations of life in the country, life at the court, the age itself, and even love, marriage is rarely spoken of or criticized. In III.ii, as Touchstone's love for Audrey is to be translated into marriage by Sir Oliver Mar-Text, our first image of marriage is one Touchstone embellishes with cuckold's horns (III.iii.42-55). A brief exchange between Touchstone and Jaques adds to this a picture of marriage as a contest of animal desires (III.iii.68-71). Yet when Jaques refuses to let a mockery of a wedding take place, we find, curiously, that the sanctity of the institution is preserved by the biggest cynic in the play. Rosalind is the only other character to fully consider, before play's end, the transformation of love into marriage; her view, like Touchstone's, is mockingly brutal. As she fortells of her life as Orlando's wife in IV.i, her portrait of marriage promises little more than infidelity and animal passions. Orlando's firm response and his love stand as proof against her charges, however, as do Rosalind's own pleas with Celia to “marry” her and Orlando. The play absorbs Rosalind's mockery as it absorbed Touchstone's cynicism. Marriage is rescued once by the realist Jaques, once by the idealist Orlando, and is, in both cases, preserved intact for the play's final scene where the would-be marriages of III.iii and IV.i are transformed into real marriages. Marriage remains an ideal unblemished by example.

The less obvious but more pervasive presence of marriage lies in the long-anticipated happy ending of the play. Familiarity with comic convention has led us to expect an ending in marriage, at least since Rosalind and Orlando fell in love in I.ii, and Shakespeare's only interference with such expectations comes in the teasing of his aborted marriages and his gentle ironies. The drive toward marriage controls much action, as we have seen; friendship between women, for example, must finally take second place to the search for a mate, for the physical possibilities of regeneration. Comic endings in marriage are not simplistically happy—as even Shakespeare's array of comedies shows. And extensive criticism has confirmed that there is no equation between marriage and a happy ending; yet the two remain, even if only ironically, attached and inseparable. The pressing question, however, is what marriage as the ending of comedy symbolizes for the women in As You Like It.

Northrop Frye assures us that the new society created in the marriages at the end of comedy is a changed one where a younger generation triumphs and gains the right to assert its fresh answers to life's dilemmas.24 The joy of the comic ending is affixed to the promise of social change. Both Rosalie Colie and Heather Dubrow agree, noting that because genres like comedy create expectations, writers can use them to question such expectations and create a climate where change is real.25 Yet even if we accept this brightest of readings for comedy, for the women in the genre these possibilities are different than they are for the men, again because of the double standard at the heart of comedy's reversals. Comedy as a genre exists as a paradox; in its middle world the rules are bent, even reversed; but such reversal is acceptable only because we understand its extra-ordinary nature. As we have seen, then, the women who flourish in comedy as they do nowhere else do so only on a temporary basis. And further, the growth which a character like Rosalind does achieve is truncated, both by the isolation of the phenomenon (she may change, but the other women do not) and by the limited choices available to her at the end of the play. What Rosalind learns about love is limited by the fact that she cannot not choose marriage. Her choice becomes a lopsided either-or one. Either she has the illusive freedom and power of a Ganymede or she has the love and predictable comfort of a married Rosalind. Comedy does not allow for the possibility of combining Rosalind's linguistic power, her friendship with Celia, and her marriage to Orlando; we end the play with her marriage to Orlando, with her silence, and with an awareness of her new distance from Celia. While the promise of social change abounds in As You Like It, for Rosalind, Celia, Audrey, and Phebe, participation in that change must be funneled through marriage.

The limitations for female community, change, and choice in As You Like It are a small part of the play, of course, and my study of them is not meant to exclude a recognition of its invigorating freedom and its serious consideration of female power and community. Recent productions of Shakespeare have been instrumental in showing how, in spite of their patriarchal bases, Shakespeare's comedies can highlight sexual freedom and equality. The 1978 Ashland Festival production of The Taming of the Shrew, as Martha Andresen-Thom reports, showed great faith in that play's ability to counteract its own sexism. As Andresen-Thom reports, the action which precedes Kate's final treatise on marriage displays the invention of this production's staging:

In tone and action she [Kate] conveys to us and to the incredulous audience on stage that her alliance is with Petruchio (Rich Hamilton) who attends to her, subdued and moved, until she starts to kneel so as to place her hand beneath his foot. He then goes to her and kneels too, catching her hand in his. Slowly they rise together, face to face, the bond between them enacted in this public ritual and soon to be consummated in the private domain of their bedchamber.26

Such action emphasizes an equality comedy's topsy-turvy world—with its emphasis on inversion—often has difficulty showing. The 1983 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado About Nothing employs a similarly bold ending to announce its refusal wholeheartedly to accept comedy's traditional final couplings.27 The expected male-female coupling of the festive ending is replaced with a series of circle dances where combinations of men, of women, and of men and women make male-female couples only a minor part of a spectrum. In this broadened context of relationship, the final focus on Beatrice and Benedick can come from a new perspective, with the lovers' relationship retaining its romance not because of traditional assumptions but in defiance of them. Such productions stand in marked contrast to the BBC Time/Life production of As You Like It. With its mystical Hymen leading a stodgy, boring, and predictable finale of heterosexual coupling, this production endorses traditional marriage as a cultural centerpiece. What the alternative productions of The Taming of The Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing offer is a possibility for viewing Shakespeare's comedies—As You Like It among the rest—as plays which may provide their own ways of exploding comic sexism. These productions offer a joy and hope that mitigate against the closing in of comic marriage. They demonstrate that Shakespeare's plays, in spite of their encoded sexism, also contain a sensitivity to sex-based roles and conventions. As You Like It especially, with its surprising lack of a definition for marriage, leaves ample room for producers (and scholars) to posit their own definitions.

By focusing on the conventions of the comic genre that Shakespeare adapted to his drama, I do not intend to erase his artistic victories, only to qualify them. As I study the women in As You Like It, I cannot accept the glorious female presences without also acknowledging the parameters of their glory. The men in Shakespearean comedy are burdened with many of the same restrictions that limit the women, but the patterns they grow into accord them power and prestige. The patterns women like Rosalind grow into accord them a loss of freedom, a loss of choice, and an invitation to indirection. When we first meet her in The Merchant of Venice, Portia laments her powerlessness to choose—“O me, the word ‘choose’! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike … Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one, nor refuse none?” (I.ii.21-25). Though Portia is as little a complainer as Rosalind is, she speaks for most comic heroines who find—as she does—lack of choice an overwhelming barrier. As much as Shakespeare attempts to make As You Like It transcend generic barriers, it does not. He creates magnificent women in an enviable free world, but cannot prevent us from responding by noting their losses as much as their gains.


  1. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969). My thanks to Jenny Spencer, Barbara Hodgdon, and Lee Poague for their helpful responses to this essay.

  2. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1938), pp. 277, 285.

  3. See Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980); Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982); and Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981).

  4. Mikhail Bahktin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helen Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978), p. 9.

  5. See Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965); and C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1959).

  6. See Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl can be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 100-16; Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack Shall have Jill: / Nought Shall Go Ill,’” Women's Studies, 9 (1982), 157-76; Nicholas Grene, Shakespeare, Jonson, Moliere: The Comic Contract (London: Macmillan, 1980); Ann Parten, “Reestablishing Sexual Order: The Ring Episode in The Merchant of Venice,Women's Studies 9 (1982), 145-55; Peter Erickson, “The Failure of Relationship Between Men and Women in Love's Labor's Lost,Women's Studies, 9 (1981), 65-81; Peter Erickson, “Sexual Politics and Social Structure in As You Like It,Massachusetts Review, 23 (Spring 1982), 65-83; and Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985). Karen Newman has also recently considered the power that does or does not accrue to women in comedy's inversion and she traces out a middle critical ground contending that the inversion is not always “simply a safety mechanism” but can be an effective intrusion on male “structures of exchange.” See “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (Spring 1987), 29.

  7. Erickson, “Sexual Politics,” p. 82.

  8. Erickson, “Sexual Politics,” p. 77. While Robert Kimbrough argues that the play's androgyny is a sign of sexual equality, Lisa Jardine concurs with Erickson that the gender swapping in the play does not necessarily benefit women. See Robert Kimbrough, “Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (Spring 1982), 17-33; and Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983), pp. 19-20.

  9. Erickson, “Sexual Politics,” p. 77. An interesting gloss on Erickson's feminist conclusion is provided by Barber and Grene, both of whom conclude that the reversals of comedy are benign. Barber assures us “it is when the normal is secure that playful aberration is benign,” Shakespeare's Festive Comedies, p. 245. Grene notes the “inverse proportion between the degree of influence normally associated with a social persona and the degree of influence he or she is accorded in the comic action,” Shakespeare, Jonson, Moliere, p. 45. Louis Montrose, on the other hand, finds the reversals of comedy a “structure for her [Rosalind's] containment” in his “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 32 (Spring 1981), 52. For other more general studies of the women in Shakespeare's comedies as affected by reversals see Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981); Nancy Hayles, “Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 63-72; Martha Andresen-Thom, “Thinking about Women and Their Prosperous Art: A Reply to Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women,Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 259-76; Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men; and Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays.

  10. Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 180, 184.

  11. Nevo, pp. 181-82.

  12. Erickson, “Sexual Politics,” pp. 79-80.

  13. Madelon Gohlke, “‘All that is spoke is marred:’ Language and Consciousness in Othello,Women's Studies, 9 (1982), 167-68.

  14. Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 117. Garber also writes on the role of language in character development, yet studies language only as it applies to male maturation; see Chapter Four.

  15. My study of the women in As You Like It has been informed by several recent feminist studies of female friendship and community, most centrally those by Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), and Elizabeth Abel, “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women,” Signs, 6 (Spring 1981), 411-35.

  16. Garner, p. 61.

  17. See Garber, pp. 140-70; and George Gordon, Shakespearian Comedy and Other Studies (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1944), pp. 31-32.

  18. See French, p. 79; and Carole McKewin, “Counsels of Gall and Grace: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare's Plays,” in The Woman's Part, pp. 117-32.

  19. Adelman summarizes the separation of Celia and Rosalind as she contrasts women's friendships in the play to men's. See her “Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies,” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 82-84. In her study, Neely returns again and again to the conclusion that Shakespeare's plays consistently separate women. For a complementary study of male friendship, see W. Thomas MacCary, Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985).

  20. Belsey, p. 188, is optimistic about the subversive possibilities of the play's ending in a way I cannot be.

  21. Bamber, pp. 117-29.

  22. Charlton, p. 117. See also Frye, pp. 82 and 123; and Garber, Chapter Five.

  23. See Kahn; and David Sundelson, “Misogyny and Rule in Measure for Measure,Women's Studies, 9 (1981), 83-91. For an encyclopedic background on changing Renaissance attitudes to marriage see Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (New York: Knopf, 1984). On the connection between marriage and equality, Neely provides a useful summary of Renaissance and critical attitudes to conclude that marriage was not as equal as some have wanted to make it seem, pp. 8-21. More specifically, Marianne Novy talks of marriage-bound relationships in As You Like It as reflections of mutuality; see Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 25.

  24. Frye, p. 130.

  25. See Rosalie Colie, The Resources of Kind: Genre Theory in the Renaissance, ed. Barbara K. Lewalski (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973); and Heather Dubrow, Genre (London: Methuen, 1982). Leo Salingar, likewise, convincingly notes how the convention of comedy finally limits Shakespeare's options in advocating social change. See his Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 322-23.

  26. Martha Andresen-Thom, “Shrew-taming and other Rituals of Aggression: Baiting and Bonding on the Stage and in the World,” Women's Studies, 9 (1982), 123.

  27. Descriptions are of the performance seen during the summer of 1983 at the Royal Shakespeare Company Barbican Theatre, London.

Kay Stanton (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4603

SOURCE: “The Disguises of Shakespeare's As You Like It,” in Iowa State Journal of Research, Vol. 59, No. 3, February, 1985, pp. 295-305.

[In the following essay, Stanton argues that many of As You Like It's characters disguise their true feelings and nature, a fact which clarifies many of the play's nuances.]

The physical disguise of Rosalind as the male “Ganymede” is one of the most discussed features of Shakespeare's As You Like It.1 Most commentary, however, either completely neglects or minimally addresses the disguises of Celia as “Aliena” and the Clown as “Touchstone.” More than a simple plot device, the disguises of these three characters provide an external manifestation for their internal tensions. Furthermore, several of the other characters disguise themselves in less dramatic ways in response to the image expected of them by those who hold power over them. The use of forms of disguising throughout the play gives Rosalind's physical disguise a context, and the necessity for disguise is one of the play's themes: a variation on the nature/art tension that pervades As You Like It.

In the household of Oliver and the court of Duke Frederick, the characters who are without political power are unhappy, depressed, frustrated, or angry. Orlando feels that his true identity as the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys is obscured by his older brother Oliver's tyranny and unfairness. Similarly, Rosalind must attempt to generate “more mirth” than she is “mistress of,” in order to hide her moroseness over her father's political overthrow. Even the minor characters Charles and Le Beau reveal that their political sympathies are not with Duke Frederick. The court's motley fool (who will become “Touchstone”) must worry about being whipped for offering his criticism of the current regime. Because they cannot feel support for the present rulers, all of these characters must disguise their attitudes somewhat in order to survive. For these characters, “natural” life has become “unnatural,” so they must resort to the art of seeming to be what they are not.

In the case of Orlando, the youth seems to have reached the breaking point of his disguised self-control at the opening of the play. His complaints to Adam show that, rather than actively trying to be what he is not, he had been passively accepting the “disguising” of his true position as Sir Rowland's son imposed upon him through Oliver's treatment of him. His remarks imply that he has endured for some time this condition that hides his genteel self in an enforced disguise of rusticity. At this point, he is not quite sure how to remove the disguise. He also seems to have some difficulty in perceiving exactly who or what he is underneath the disguise; he continually refers to the spirit of his father within him. He can as yet only understand his own identity in terms of his heritage and the qualities in himself that are like those of his deceased father; he has no clear idea of self without the context provided by Sir Rowland.

The means that Orlando settles on as the way to remove the disgraceful disguise given to him from Oliver is to go to court, disguised, in order to challenge Charles, the court wrestler. The point of the disguise is not made clear, and its success is questionable: Charles knows before Orlando even comes to court that this youngest son of Sir Rowland is the wrestler. Although after he has triumphed over Charles, Orlando proudly asserts his identity as Sir Rowland's son, he seems to “mine” his own “gentility” by at first keeping his name a secret. However, the disguise is probably at first merely a device to allow Orlando access to Duke Frederick's court without being turned away at once simply on the basis of his identity as the son of an enemy to the ruler.

Before and during the wrestling match, both Rosalind and Celia are impressed with Orlando, concerned for his safety, and hopeful for his success. Both definitely also find Orlando attractive. But after the match, when Orlando's identity is revealed, Rosalind takes Orlando to be “hers” because of the friendship between their respective fathers. Significantly, immediately before the match, Rosalind says to Orlando, “Pray heaven I be deceived in you!” (I.ii.186).2 Her wish is granted. She is deceived in underestimating Orlando's strength, but she is also deceived in thinking Orlando to be only a good-looking, strong, bold young man. As the son of Sir Rowland, her father's beloved friend, Orlando is her political ally, thus more “hers” than Celia's. Rosalind perceives herself and Orlando to have an immediate and strong bond because of their heritages and their true selves that are being repressed.3

The events of the meeting of Rosalind and Orlando at court rehearse the events of their relationship in the forest, except that at court it is Orlando who is disguised; in the forest it is Rosalind. At court, the unidentified Orlando inspires warm feelings in Rosalind, who has a potential rival for his affections in Celia until Orlando's true identity is known. In the forest, Orlando has warm feelings for Rosalind as “Ganymede,” who is loved by Phebe until “Ganymede” 's true identity is revealed. Thus the use of physical disguise by Rosalind is foreshadowed in the less complicated use of “disguise” of political withholding of identity by Orlando.

In trying to forge Orlando into an unrefined menial, Oliver wishes to make Orlando “disguise” himself as a servant like Adam. Although Orlando rejects the proffered role-model, in his rebellion against Oliver he styles himself in the manner of another character, Charles the wrestler. Some parallels between Charles and Orlando can be noted. Each sees physical strength as his means of making a place for himself in the world. In stressing his physical powers, each diminishes the importance of his other characteristics in the eyes of those who observe him. Charles is often considered to be merely a ruffian by many critics; Rosalind and Celia habitually refer to Orlando as the “wrestler.”

By understanding that Charles is himself also making use of a kind of disguise, we can resolve some of the difficulties seen in his character by several commentators. Although often called by critics an “inarticulate brute,” Charles actually displays considerable nobility of spirit in the concern for Orlando which he expresses to Oliver. Furthermore, Charles' description of Duke Senior's forest life, often read as being merely a crude means for exposition in the play, actually shows that Charles admires Duke Senior and his life of (as Charles supposes) romantic freedom. Rather than being “evidence” of Shakespeare's uncorrected revision, the discrepancy between Charles' behavior with Oliver and his behavior at court should be understood as an indication that, in order to provide for himself, Charles must play a part. Wrestling is an approved form of entertainment at court because it is a metaphor for the political overthrow by force through which Duke Frederick gained his power.4 Seeing that Duke Frederick's court offers a place for someone with his kind of talent, Charles exploits his natural ability and artfully disguises his political antipathy. At court, he acts the brute in order to fulfill the expectations of a brutal ruling class. Orlando sees the same opportunity.5 He wants to succeed at court in order to free himself from one kind of disguising, but he cannot maintain the disguising of his political sympathy as well as Charles does.

Another minor character at court, Le Beau, also disguises his sympathies in his outward show. During his initial conversation with Rosalind and Celia, Le Beau seems to be merely a longwinded, insensitive fop. However, when he converses with Orlando after the wrestling match, Le Beau gives the youth a succinct and comradely warning, hoping to meet him again “in a better world than this” (I.ii.274). His astute warning to Orlando about Duke Frederick's moods suggests his implicit hope for the tyrant's overthrow. Like Charles, then, Le Beau is playing a part, disguising himself in order to provide a place for himself at court.

If Orlando, Rosalind, Charles, and Le Beau are aware of the need to disguise their attitudes at court, so are the power figures, Oliver and Duke Frederick, extremely sensitive to the strategy of disguise. During and after his conversation with Charles, Oliver reveals to the audience his own use of several levels of disguise. While disguising his true feelings about Orlando, Oliver says that he has tried “by underhand means” (I.i.135) to discourage his brother from wrestling Charles. He lies about Orlando's character, disguising the youth's true good nature in a shroud of supposed villainy. Rather than using “underhand means” to prevent Orlando from wrestling, Oliver underhandedly tries to allow the match to proceed and to provoke Charles into eliminating Orlando for him. In his soliloquy following the conversation, we see not only Oliver's true undisguised attitude, but also that he somehow attributes his own lack of popularity to Orlando.

In Duke Frederick, we see another man who is obsessed with the disguising of attitudes. Because he himself had been disguising his negative feelings about Rosalind for so long, he assumes that she is disguising her treason. Again, because he, like Oliver, fails to perceive that naturalness and uncomplicated goodness make for popularity, he suspects those who seem to be natural and good to be putting on a disguise to cover their subversive aims. His excuse for banishing Rosalind is that she disguises Celia's brightness and virtue in the people's eyes, because their attention is distracted by pity for Rosalind. His real reason, made explicit in Shakespeare's source, Lodge's Rosalynde, is that he is worried that Rosalind will marry and that her husband will try to reclaim the power in her name. This reason is implied in As You Like It, because Duke Frederick is not provoked to act against Rosalind until after the son of his enemy has appeared and has caught Rosalind's eye. Duke Frederick, then, not only induces the need for disguising in his subjects, but he also disguises his own attitudes and reasons for his actions. The obsession of both Duke Frederick and Oliver with disguised attitudes sets the tone for the court scenes and creates a context for the physical disguises that result when disguised attitudes are no longer sufficient.

The necessity for the assumption of physical disguise by Rosalind and Celia is a direct result of Duke Frederick's banishment of Rosalind on the grounds that she disguises her political motives. He saw Rosalind as being disguised when she was not. By assuming a disguise, in one sense she then embodies his conception of her. She chooses, however, to become “Ganymede,” the beloved page of Jove. Ganymede's loyalty and love toward his master could not be questioned. By “becoming” “Ganymede,” Rosalind demonstrates that she is a loyal and loving subject. The disguise allows her to be what she is naturally, with the layer of disguise projected upon her by Duke Frederick removed. However, by “becoming” a man, she-he could claim the dukedom. In V.iv.28-29, Orlando reveals that when he first saw “Ganymede,” he thought that “he” was a brother to Rosalind. As her own “husband” or “brother,” Rosalind could become the “traitor” that Duke Frederick suspects her to be: one who could reclaim what her father had lost.

Similarly, Celia's choice of a disguise allows her too to become more fully what she is by nature. At court, she is forced to disguise her alienation from the behavior and attitudes of her father, Duke Frederick. By translating her name from “Celia,” which means “heaven,” to “Aliena,” “the estranged one,” she demonstrates her change from her lofty position of power to her chosen position in banishment from “his Grace,” her father. In “poor and mean attire” and with an umber-besmirched face, Celia shows her voluntary assumption of poverty and her self-conscious besmirching of herself as daughter. She prefers to be alienated, poor, and colored by disgrace in her father's eyes than to seem to be like him.

By recognizing that the disguising of attitudes leads to physical disguise that releases a character's true identity, we can then understand why the Clown seems to change so much from court to country. The change in the Fool's behavior has been unjustly attributed to Shakespeare's supposed haste in composition, his supposed faulty revision, and even to the fact that Will Kempe left Shakespeare's company at about the time that As You Like It was composed. Shakespeare, it is sometimes suggested, had to alter the role to suit the talents of Kempe's replacement, Robert Armin, and the Bard then simply forgot to change the “low” comedy of the Clown at court (composed for Kempe) to match the “high” comedy of Touchstone in the forest.6

Critics concerned with these arguments usually forget that the Clown is never referred to by name at court and that introducing his first appearance in the forest (II.iv.1) is the stage direction “Enter Rosalind for Ganymede, Celia for Aliena, and Clown, alias Touchstone.” “Touchstone,” then, is a newly created identity, just as “Ganymede” and “Aliena” are. The Clown should be granted the liberty to express himself more freely in the forest than in the court which is granted by commentators to Rosalind and Celia.

Although the Clown does not seem to use much, if any, physical disguise (Jaques refers to him as a “motley fool” in II.vii.13), Touchstone is in some respects best equipped for a life of deception. At court, he is sometimes on the brink of being whipped for revealing satirical attitudes toward Duke Frederick's rule; however, we learn after he has departed that the Clown had usually managed to make himself agreeable to the usurper (II.ii.8-9). Also, his speech at court in I.ii.69-70, 72-77 points the way toward the subtleties of disguise that Rosalind will achieve as “Ganymede.” After he is asked by Rosalind to “unmuzzle” his “wisdom” or show his undisguised logic, the Clown tells Rosalind and Celia to stroke their chins and swear by their beards that he is a knave. When they do, swearing by what they do not have, the Clown reveals to them that they have just learned the secret of how to lie successfully: “if you swear by what is not, you are not forsworn” (ll. 73-74). Although Rosalind will not assume a beard as part of her disguise, she will incorporate the Clown's lesson into it. Whatever she swears to as “Ganymede,” even if it is an expression of her most undisguised feelings as Rosalind, she is always protected against being “forsworn” as a disguised maidenly Rosalind by making her statements on the basis of what she is not, a man.

In Arden, physical disguise is also assumed by Duke Senior and his followers and by Orlando. The stage direction for II.i (the first forest scene) tells us that we meet “Duke Senior, Amiens, and two or three Lords, like Foresters.” In II.vii another stage direction reveals that Duke Senior and his Lords enter “like outlaws.” Of course, “foresters” and “outlaws” could perhaps have been used almost interchangeably, but as a stage direction only once specifies the disguises of Rosalind, Celia, and the Clown, it is possible that the Duke and party are dressed differently in the two scenes. When dressed as foresters, the Duke and his followers fit Charles' previous description of them as being like Robin Hood and his men. The audience has its conception of how the group should look realized. However, as they are dressed as “outlaws” in II.vii, the scene in which Orlando encounters them, their appearance justifies his supposition that he is in an “uncouth” forest in which “all things” are “savage.” As the people he comes upon are dressed like outlaws, Orlando acts like an outlaw himself. In III.ii.43 Celia will describe Orlando, as she has just seen him, as being “furnished like a hunter.” By this time, some of the audience's romantic illusions about Duke Senior's party will have been discarded. Presumably, being now part of the Duke's group, Orlando will be dressed as they are. The group is seen to be neither primarily innocent, jolly “Robin Hood” followers, nor villainous outlaws. They can, however, definitely be characterized as hunters—not only after deer, but also after ways to accommodate themselves to their exiled condition. Orlando will also be hunting for the fulfillment of his love, as noted in Rosalind's symbolic interpretation of his costume: “O ominous! He comes to kill my heart” (III.ii.244). The array of the Duke and his group, then, ultimately represents them according to their role in nature. Orlando, specifically, as a hunter, has now assumed an outward semblance that reflects his inner identity better than had the “disguise” forced upon him by Oliver.

Although Orlando takes up the role of lover in the forest, “Ganymede” tells him in II.ii that he is not properly dressed for the part. He is “rather point-device in [his] accouterments” (l. 375.) According to “Ganymede” 's description of the lover, the “hose should be ungartered … bonnet unbanded … sleeve unbuttoned … shoe untied, and everything … demonstrating a careless desolation” (ll. 371-74). Of course, Rosalind plays a role while she describes a role. As “Ganymede,” she satirizes the traditional presentation of a lover; as Rosalind, she tells Orlando that his looks more suggest his loving himself “than seeming the lover of any other” (ll. 375-76), in order to call forth protestations of love from him. Orlando's excessiveness in love is revealed in his poetry, not in his costume. He need not “disguise” himself as a lover, because he is a lover. Ironically, he instead neatly wears the costume of the hunter, while he is unwittingly being hunted by the disguised Rosalind. Beneath her “Ganymede” disguise, Rosalind is evidently pleased that Orlando is not so foolish as to pose as a lover by means of his disguise, while she grants herself the liberty to exploit her own attire in order to test the depth of Orlando's love.

Although commentators often speculate on the reasons for Rosalind's maintenance of her disguise after she is in the forest and has met Orlando, the explanation is quite simple. When she meets Orlando, she has only been in the forest a short time and has not yet found her father. She may consider that she is still in danger—if not from the forest's residents, then from being found by Duke Frederick's men. When she first hears of Orlando's presence in the forest, she is confused about what to do about her disguise: “What shall I do with my doublet and hose?” (III.ii.217-18). As Orlando appears before she can answer this question, she is thus instantly inspired to “speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him” (ll. 291-92). Early in their encounter, she gives Orlando a definite clue that she actually is a woman, by telling him that she dwells “here in the skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat” (ll. 331-32). She seems to be willing to give up her disguise if Orlando can see through it. As he does not, she then makes full use of it in her complicated role-playing that is to follow.

As has been shown, then, Rosalind's physical disguise is echoed by the disguises of Celia and the Clown, and the disguises have their roots in the disguisings of the true self in the unnatural world of the court. The tyranny of Duke Frederick and Oliver resulted in a masking of the natural personalities of Rosalind, Celia, the Clown, Orlando, and even Charles and Le Beau. The tyrants, however, are not in their power free to express themselves naturally but must also resort to the disguising of their motives. The shift in attire in the Duke Senior group in the forest reveals the characters' seeking after the best outward demonstration of their internal reality, as does Rosalind's disguise as “Ganymede.” Orlando undergoes several stages of disguise in his transformations, from being an aristocrat disguised as a menial, to being disguised at court as a wrestler, to being a lover “disguised” as a neatly attired hunter. But it is of course Rosalind who exploits the potentials of disguise most fully. What was undertaken as a necessary response to the false identity imposed upon her became the perfect vehicle for testing and teaching Orlando. While disguised as “Ganymede,” Rosalind then poses as “Rosalind,” in order to pose further as one who will “cure” Orlando of his lovesickness, and this last pose actually masks her truer identity as one who desires the youth's love above anything. She thus constructs layers of disguises, with some reflecting her “true” self more than others, but with all indicating some of her own characteristics. Through this layering, Shakespeare seems to be indicating the levels of real and disguised feelings that an intelligent woman may have toward her lover. She can simultaneously mock his excessiveness and cherish it. She can “identify” with him through her own “masculine” tendencies (and thus gain a larger perspective of the relationship), while at the same time indulging in her “feminine” feelings of passion. The poses of Rosalind, then, can be seen as being enhanced versions of the poses that many intelligent women take in love, with the manifestations here given outward form through disguise.

The disguises of Rosalind, however, also emanate out into the furthest reaches of identity and creativity. By creating “Ganymede,” Rosalind provides herself with a homosexual rival for Orlando's affections, as well as providing Silvius with a homosexual rival for Phebe. Rosalind recreates herself as an actor with parts to play in several pageants, splits herself into a variety of characters. Through her disguises she becomes an artist whose mind shapes several identities. She must then step aside and let her work deliver her meaning, which is why she delegates power to Hymen in the masque that reveals her “true,” if diminished, identity.

The masque of Hymen has often been misunderstood, criticized as a superfluous, gratuitous intrusion into the play. Actually, it is integral to the consummation of the play's statement on the relationship between nature and art.7 The masque simultaneously represents the play's “moment of truth” and its height of artifice. Music, poetry, song, and the unrealistic presence of Hymen compensate for the removal of the artifices of Rosalind and Celia, who become again their “natural” selves through art. In her last moments as “Ganymede,” Rosalind promises “to make all this matter even” and again “To make these doubts all even” (V.iv.18, 25). However, it is Hymen who makes things “even” by presenting Rosalind and Celia as their real selves; he adds that it is he “must make conclusion / Of these most strange events” (ll. 109, 126-27). By this act he seems to usurp Rosalind's role. He is a “new” character; we are not told whether he is Corin or some other character in disguise, which he may well be. The characters and the audience are to suspend disbelief and accept him as the God of Marriage. Yet the characters are less amazed by his presence than by the simple truth of Rosalind's and Celia's identities. Hymen's recapitulation of Rosalind's statements indicate that he is the last identity created by Rosalind. She began by recreating herself as “Ganymede,” the page to a god, and she concludes by creating a god, or at least by making him, or an illusion of him, appear. She gives up artifice after she has finally created a work of art that is larger than herself but that shows her to be a person taking her place in society with others, subject to the laws of nature. The masque epitomizes what the play has suggested throughout: that human beings need art in order to realize their natures fully. It is through art that we are struck by the wonder of nature.

The complexities involved in disguise seem to the “made even,” or resolved, in the masque, but still another layer of the problem of the relationship between disguise and truth or art and nature is uncovered in the epilogue.8 In it Rosalind reveals that “she” actually is a male. The audience members who had enjoyed the dramatic irony of characters' thinking “Ganymede” a boy now see the play as having pulled an ironic trick upon them. Of course, contemporary audiences “knew” that boys played female's parts, but the epilogue forces the audience to acknowledge the truth behind the convention, the “disguise.” But even this revelation is not allowed to be final, as Rosalind in this last speech is really both sexes. She denies being a woman, but by her curtsey at the end, she again seems to be one. She further makes both a heterosexual and a homosexual advance to the audience in offering to kiss some of the men if she were a woman, which she is and is not by being Rosalind. She can only be male and female, character and actor, through art and its disguises. By stripping off her last layer of disguise, Rosalind shows her ultimate identity as the spirit of art, which must use human nature—the artist, the actor, and the audience—as its medium and its subject. Just as nature and art merge in the disguises of the characters of As You Like It, so does the art represented by Rosalind merge with the “nature” of the audience members in her offer of sexual interplay with them.


  1. See F. H. Mares, “Viola and Other Transvestist Heroines in Shakespeare's Comedies,” in Stratford Papers, 1965-1967, edited by B. A. W. Jackson (Hamilton: McMaster Univ. Library Press, 1969), pp. 96-109; Kent van den Berg, “Theatrical Fiction and the Reality of Love in As You Like It,PMLA, 90 (1975), 885-93; Margaret Boerner Beckman, “The Figure of Rosalind in As You Like It,Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 44-51; Nancy K. Hayles, “Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 63-72; and Shirley F. Staton, “Female Transvestism in Renaissance Comedy; ‘A Natural Perspective, That Is and Is Not,’” Iowa State Journal of Research, 56 (1981), 79-89.

  2. All quotations from As You Like It are from the Signet Classic Edition, edited by Albert Gilman (New York: New American Library, 1963).

  3. For speculation on the relationship between Duke Senior and Sir Rowland, see David G. Byrd, “Shakespeare's Familiaritie Between Sir Rowland and Duke Senior in As You Like It,Shakespeare Quarterly, 26 (1976) 205-06.

  4. Ralph Berry interprets the wrestling match to be a strikingly appropriate figure for covert power struggles in the play. See his “No Exit from Arden,” Modern Language Review, 66 (1971), 11-20.

  5. For information on the traditional choices open to Orlando as the youngest son, see John W. Draper, “Orlando, the Younger Brother,” Philological Quarterly, 13 (1934), 72-77.

  6. See, for example, T. W. Baldwin, “Shakespeare's Jester: The Dates of Much Ado and As You Like It,Modern Language Notes, 39 (1924), 447-55; and Charles S. Felver, “Robert Armin, Shakespeare's Source for Touchstone,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 7 (1956), 135-37.

  7. For other views on the meaning of the masque of Hymen, see Sylvan Barnet, “‘Strange Events’: Improbability in As You Like It,Shakespeare Survey, 4 (1968), 119-31; Marilyn L. Williamson, “The Masque of Hymen in As You Like It,Comparative Drama, 2 (1968), 248-58; David A. Griffin, “Deus Ex Machina in As You Like It,American Notes and Queries, 9 (1970), 23-24; and Alan Brissenden, “The Dance in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,Cahiers Elizabéthains, 13 (April 1978), 25-34.

  8. For other analyses of the epiloque, see Alvin Thaler, “Shakespeare and the Unhappy Happy Ending,” PMLA, 42 (1927), 736-61; and R. Chris Hassel, “Shakespeare's Comic Epilogues: Invitations to Festive Communion,” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, 8 (1970), 160-69.

Robert Schwartz (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3693

SOURCE: “Rosalynde Among the Familists: As You Like It and an Expanded View of Its Sources,” in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 69-76.

[In the following essay, Schwartz argues that Shakespeare's emphasis on Familist ideology, a sixteenth-century libertine movement, accounts for the variations between As You Like Itand Lodge's Rosalynde.]

Geoffrey Bullough, considering the ways in which Shakespeare used Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, observed that As You Like It “is more than a pastoral play of escape to an idyllic world; it is rather an inquiry into the different ideas of country life current at the time, and a reconciliation between them.” Actually Shakespeare's play is an inquiry into, and a reconciliation of, quite a bit more than this. Nonetheless, Bullough is correct in stressing, as have scholars since, that, while pastoral in its underpinnings, As You Like It is more significant for the innovations it works on traditions of pastoral than for its wholesale adoption of much that is more superficially conventional in Lodge.1

Beyond the shift in pastoral tone evident both in the reduction in number and importance of ‘shepherd’ scenes as well as the addition of debates on virtually all aspects of love and life, Shakespeare's play differs significantly from Lodge in other ways. There is the addition of Jaques, Touchstone, Audrey, and Sir Oliver Mar-text. Familial parallels are intensified by making Frederick (Torismond) and the Duke Senior (Gerismond) brothers and characterizing the group of exiled “loving lords” as a brotherhood (i.e., Duke Senior: “Now my co-mates and brothers in exile”). Scenes are added which further describe the life of Senior's exiled band (in Lodge merely a “lustie crue,” and we do not see them eating, drinking, singing, and commenting on the human condition) and especially in references to their somewhat pantheistic, perfectionistic, loving, and communal existence. The notion of religious conversion is also added.

These innovations have seemed haphazard and designed merely to expand the scope of debate in the play—to open up the play's comic and serious potential and introduce a broader range of character types. In fact, however, all of these major changes take on a striking coherence when seen in relation to a peculiar bit of information Shakespeare gives us about the background of his most important addition to the play, the character of Jaques:

Duke Senior:
Most mischievous foul sin, in chiding sin.
For thou thyself has been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself;
And all th’embossed sores and headed evils
That thou with license of free foot hast caught,
Wouldst thou discharge into the general world.

(II, vii, 64-69)2

This reference to Jaques' “libertine” past has confused Shakespeareans for a very long time. It has been normal either to see Jaques, in light of this, as “an exhausted epicurean” “long experienced in sin,” a “sated voluptary,” a “blase roue,” one who has had “too intimate acquaintance with the seamier side of life,” or simply to discount the Duke's comment on the grounds that what he says is just not true, but merely an attempt to draw Jaques into an argument. As George Kittredge pointed out in defense of the latter view, “Libertine, to be sure, meant ‘loose liver,’ but it had not become so specialized as in modern English.”3 A closer look at what “libertine” did mean at the time the play was written allows us not only to question Kittredge's judgment about the insincerity of the Duke's comment, as well as the view that Jaques is merely licentious and dissolute, but gives, also, some coherence to many of the changes that Shakespeare made in his major sources for the play.

The primary meaning of “libertine” in the late sixteenth century, and the one most clearly evoked by the context of the Duke's as well as Jaques' comments on chiding and cleansing sin, was one who was a member of an antinomian sect. Libertines, often also referred to as Seekers, Spirituals, Quakers, and, more often, Familists, were condemned as early as 1545 by Calvin (in his attack Contre la secte phantastique et furieus des Libertins qui se nomment Spiritulez) and later very bitterly in England, for example by John Knewstub at Paul's Cross in 1576, by Stephen Batman in 1577, by Lawrence Chaderton in 1578, by John Dyos in 1579, by George Gifford in 1596, and others, well into the seventeenth century.4 The attack on Familists (the libertine sect known as The Family of Love, The Service of Love, The House [or Household] of Love, or The Family) did not come, furthermore, only from the established church, but also from literary circles. Thomas Nashe “sneered at Familism in his Return of the Renouwned Caualiero Pasquill in 1589 and in Pierce Penilesse in 1592. Early in the seventeenth century we find the same mocking attitude in Thomas Middleton's Family of Love and Ben Jonson's Eastward Hoe and The Alchemist.5 The relation between the term “libertine” and the so-called Family of Love was especially close in England toward the end of the sixteenth century. In general, as George Mosse writing about Puritan radicalism tells us, “libertinage … had meant, in the sixteenth century, those who were filled with the ‘Holy Spirit’ and thus thought themselves free from any ecclesiastical discipline.” It was later, in the seventeenth century, that “it came to be applied to those deists who seemed to justify moral laxness.”6 But beyond this, as Alastair Hamilton has pointed out,

The identification between libertines and Familists had been a frequent feature of attacks both Catholic and Protestant throughout the 1560s and 1570s, and the Reformed Protestants, who prided themselves on their moral and political integrity, interpreted all attempts at compromise as the work of this vague, but at the same time ubiquitous, sect … ‘the libertines are increasing, and with them the true atheists’, wrote the Reformed preacher Hendrik van den Corput in November 1579. … In a further letter, in March 1581, Corput made it clear that libertines and the Family of Love were one and the same thing, that they were peddling their books openly and that the Reformed Protestants must do something about them.7

And other historians agree that, as Jean Dietz Moss says, “Familist eventually became synonymous with libertine.”8

Certainly the meaning of the term, its connection with Familism in a theatrical context, and the appropriateness of its application to Jaques—the critic of romantic love in As You Like It—is nicely glossed in Middleton's bitter and relentless attack on the sect in his 1602 (very close in time to As You Like It) play titled The Family of Love, where the romantic hero, Gerardine, answers Lipsalve and Gudgeon (“two gallants that only pursue city lechery”) as they mock men who wish to marry:

Profane not thus the sacred name of love,
You libertines, who never knew the joys
Nor precious thoughts of two consenting hearts!

(The Family of Love I, ii, 15-17)9

When the Duke Senior told the Elizabethan audience that Jaques had been a libertine or Familist he was telling them very much indeed. The Family of Love was founded by Henry Niclaes, a German cloth merchant, who, in his travels, left groups of converts all over Europe. His works were translated into English and disseminated by his disciple Christopher Vittels in the 1570s, perhaps after a visit to England by Niclaes around 1560.10 What is most interesting about the group is that although they seem to have been very well known in their time and almost universally condemned, no one seemed to understand exactly what they believed or stood for. As Alastair Hamilton, the most sophisticated and thorough historian of the sect, has admitted, “the doctrine of the community consisted of a confused, and frequently contradictory, list of tenets.” E. Belfort Bax found Niclaes' central statement of Familist doctrine “nothing but a turgid mass of theological maunderings, which drones on page after page without apparently coming to any intelligible point, and out of which it is difficult to make any coherent doctrine.” While historian Julia G. Ebel adds that “little can be learned about the Family's beliefs, since most of the tangible evidence for their creed comes from defamatory literature.”11

But considerable effort has been made to judge what the Familist creed held, or was thought to hold; and although sometimes muddled and contradictory, the following points have been stressed by church historians: 1) “Believing in the potential goodness of man, [Niclaes] taught that it was possible for him not to be a sinner in his life.” 2) “There was something far more important than the Bible, [Familists] claimed: the Spirit, without whose inspiration the Scriptures would never have been written and whose inspiration continued to function independently of the Scriptures.” And that “… the spiritual formed a group apart in which human learning was of no account but in which divine wisdom was very much present.” 3) “Believing that ‘all things are ruled by nature, and not directed by God,’ they taught that heaven and hell were in this life and defended pre-Adamism.”12 4) Niclaes rejected the “Lutheran sola fide and [urged] man to achieve righteousness by becoming a ‘New Man.’ [Henry Niclaes signed himself “H. N.,” not for his given name but for Homo Novus.] As Luther accepted the fact that the believer continues to sin, but that through faith the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the undeserving sinner as a free gift, Niclaes taught that the believer would, through divine love, experience holiness thus being ‘made … alive, through Christ,’ and being separated from the sinful condition through a sanctification which he described as being ‘godded … with him [i.e. God].’”13

Other beliefs that may have some bearing on our specific interest in the sect for its possible relations to As You Like It are: (1) The principle stated in the Terra Pacis that the Family “do not vow or bind themselves in the Matrimony of Men, nor-yet suffer themselues to be bound therein; but are like the Angells in Heauen.” This alleged doctrinal aversion to marriage, although we know Familists did in fact marry and moreover were pretty orthodox on this point, came to be a popular point of departure for attacks on the Family and the charge of loose moral behavior, a common association with the term “libertine” that explains the literal emphasis on sensual behavior and sexual disease in the Duke's admonition to Jaques and perhaps Touchstone's attitude toward the institution of marriage. (2) Familists followed Niclaes' example of segregating himself from the “impure” and setting out on a journey to the Land of Peace by traveling to spread their beliefs. For instance, Christopher Vittels, it was said, “spent his time ‘wandryng uppe and downe the Countrey’” proselytising. And Familism was spread by “such other lyke which by travailyng from place to place, do get their lyuyng.” And those who, “using such a romyng kynde of Traffique keepe not commonly anyone certaine abidyng place, but runnyng fiskyng from place to place, stay not for the most part any where long together.”14

The fundamental Familist belief that man, regenerated in nature by spiritual awakening, was free from the effects of original sin provides us with the most profound background possible for many of the comments by the Duke Senior added to Lodge's story by Shakespeare: “Are not these woods / More free from peril than the envious court?” he asks at the start of Act II, celebrating the regenerative quality and moral purity of nature—“Here feel we not the penalty of Adam.” Without the background of the antinomian sects, this statement has always been problematic for critics, who don't know how to take the Duke's view in light of the chilling winter wind. But the real pantheism and optimism of the antinomian libertines is most evident in his elaboration:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Freed to pursue the spirit of Christian value through nature rather than through scripture or the orthodox rituals of the church, the Duke Senior's band of outlaws find God not in their books, but in themselves and in the world around them. And that such a process is specifically dissociated from the authority of the church is made clear by the Duke Senior's admission to Orlando that “True it is that we have seen better days, / And have with holy bell been knolled to church …” (II, vii, 119-20), but that, due to circumstances, this is no longer the case.

As far as such connections may take us in understanding the source of Shakespeare's additions to the story of Rosalynde, we must still ask: What does it matter if Jaques was a libertine and the Duke Senior seems, by virtue of his outlaw brotherhood and pantheistic/perfectionistic view, to express, or at least experiment with, Familist ideas?

To begin with, Jaques, once a libertine, is now a thoroughgoing melancholic and a skeptic. Is it because of his past that he continues to value “liberty,” to debunk orthodoxy, to travel “with license of free foot,” as the Familists did in spreading their views, and to remain somewhat the radical reformer? “Jaques, when he is with Touchstone,” Agnes Latham says, “treats him with great courtesy, from which we may deduce that Jaques hits only those his own size.”15 Be that as it may, certainly Jaques' kindness grows more from the fact that he sees his own past in Touchstone, and in fact catches the Fool in his affair with Audrey on the verge of making the same mistake in abusing license under the guise of religiousness (rejecting the orthodox rituals of the church as antinomians were thought to have done) for which the libertines were then being condemned, as Jaques himself has been by the Duke Senior. And like Jaques, Touchstone also makes a practice of chiding ‘sin,’ or, rather, parodies such practice, as in his exchanges with Corin on the evils of fostering the “copulation of cattle.” In fact, almost all of the characters added by Shakespeare—Jaques, Touchstone, Audrey, Sir Oliver Mar-text—help to uncover the basis of antinomian belief and practice past and present against which the Duke Senior, the young lovers, and the newly defined ‘pastoral’ world of the play in general measure their own spiritual development. That Touchstone's desire for “not being well married” by Sir Oliver as an excuse “hereafter to leave my wife” smacks of the popular and cynical view of Familist ethics, we cannot doubt. But even the character of Sir Oliver himself has strong Familist parallels: in reference to a group of “suspected Familists” who in 1574 “had been meeting in a secret conventicle in Balsham. …” it was noted that “the leader of the group appears to have been Robert Sharp, parson of the little village of Strethall. … It was reported of Sharp that he married people in the fields using a rite of his own.” Further, “the unlikelihood of Robert Sharp being an orthodox Puritan minister is apparent from the fact that he was unable to write and had to make his mark at the foot of the confession.”16

Jaques was a libertine, but now, like all good Puritans of the time, looks for sin not in himself, but in others. Touchstone, in his relations with Audrey and Sir Oliver, represents what Jaques would like to forget about his past. The Duke and his co-mates and brothers in exile (Familists greeted one another with phrases like ‘here is a brother in the family’) as well as the other inhabitants of the Forest of Arden, represent what is best about Familist thought: its belief in the potential to redeem fallen man and to become Homo Novus, the New Man spiritually reborn in nature. This accounts not only for Jaques' fascination with what we may call the ‘New Man’ that is Frederick the convertite (which in itself mimicks the spiritual rebirth of Oliver), but for his disinclination to return from the forest to the world of civil authority as well.

This view of what Jaques represents, the function served by Touchstone, et. al., the relevance of comments given to the Duke Senior about original sin and the family of man (in fact the play's general intensification of the role of families and its occasional questioning of what constitutes a proper family), all serve to make the total action of the play a brief but invigorating antinomian fling—almost in religious terms what C. L. Barber discussed in social and ceremonial terms as “release” and “clarification.”17 There is generally a rejection of the corrupt rules of the ‘civil’ world and a simultaneous celebration of the moral purity of nature. The unlimited questioning and testing of values in the forest ends in a reaffirmation of traditional social order and an even more orthodox sense of moral redefinition (a visit to an “old religious” man), the proper ceremony of marriage, and finally the restitution of civil authority.

More so than his source in Lodge (and the less proximate Tale of Gamelyn) Shakespeare asks the question, “What is a proper family?” In spirit some families, as Le Beau tells Orlando, cannot be said to exist:

Which of the two was daughter to the Duke … ?
Le Beau:
Neither his daughter, if we judge by manners.

(I, ii, 261-66)

Later, Adam, too, questions the nature of family ties:

Your brother—no, no brother, yet the son—
Yet not the son, I will not call him son—
Of him I was about to call his father—

And when his own family loyalty is challenged, Orlando firmly defends it:

I am more proud to be Sir Rowland's son,
His youngest son, and would not change that calling
To be adopted heir to Frederick.

(I, ii, 228-30)

Indeed, as Louis Montrose has demonstrated, “It is precisely in the details of inheritance that Shakespeare makes one of the most significant departures from his source,” adding that “Shakespeare alters the terms of the paternal will in Lodge's story so as to alienate Orlando from the status of a landed gentleman. The effect is to intensify the differences between the eldest son and his siblings. …”18

What is striking about Orlando's need to defend his family loyalty here is the degree to which Shakespeare has deviated from Lodge in this small point; for rather than wishing “I would thou hadst been son to some man else” (I, ii, 220), Torrismond in Rosalynde favors Rosader (Orlando) and especially for his parentage: “but when they knew him [Rosader] to be the youngest Sonne of Sir John of Bordeaux, the King rose from his seate and imbraced him. …”19

To Adam's odd questions of Orlando, “Why are you virtuous? Why do people love you?” (II, iii, 5), we may apply Orlando's own observations that although “never schooled and yet learned” (Familists rejected formal education in favor of spiritual illumination), “the spirit of my father grows strong in me …” (I, i, 161-62; 68-69).

Indeed, freed from the rules of the civil world, in the benevolent and nurturing laboratory of nature, all men have found the spirit of their ‘father’—what Familists called the ‘holy spirit’—and thus their social and true Christian selves. That Jaques does not participate in the return to a civil society does not in any way diminish this, since the process of self-discovery is unending and, as he says, “Out of these convertites / There is much matter to be heard and learned” (V, iv, 184-85).


  1. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2: The Comedies, 1597-1603 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), 153. Cf. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: As You Like It, ed. Richard Knowles (New York: Modern Language Association, 1977), 476, which lists among Shakespeare's innovations on Lodge “reducing the pastoral elements;” and Agnes Latham, ed., The Arden Edition of the Works of Shakespeare: As You Like It (London: Methuen, 1975), who notes that “in some ways Lodge is more determinedly pastoral than Shakespeare,” and that the tone of the play runs less to the pastoral frame of mind than to an ethos stressing the “natural turn of events” (xvi and xliv).

  2. References to the works of Shakespeare are cited from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, repr. 1972).

  3. Knowles, ed., 120-21 n. Cf. comments by Gervinus, Fletcher, Skipton, Gray, Kittredge and the editor.

  4. See George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 788-89: “A distinctive feature of the radical movement in England was the close interrelationship of Libertinism, anti-Trinitarianism, Anabaptism of the Melchiorite strain, and Spiritualism.” For English critics of the sect see Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1981), 128, and Jean Dietz Moss, “The Family of Love and English Critics,” Sixteenth Century Journal 6:1 (1975): 44.

  5. Lynnewood F. Martin, “The Family of Love in England: Conforming Millenarians,” Sixteenth Century Journal 3:2 (1972): 100; Hamilton, Family of Love, 134-35.

  6. George L. Mosse, “Puritan Radicalism and the Enlightenment,” Church History 29 (1960): 426.

  7. Hamilton, Family of Love, 109.

  8. Moss, Family & English Critics, 35.

  9. The Works of Thomas Middleton, vol. 3, ed. A. H. Bullen (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1885), 15.

  10. For background on Henry Niclaes and The Family of Love see Hamilton, Family of Love, passim; Martin, Family in England, 78-108; Julia G. Ebel, “The Family of Love: Sources of its History in England,” Huntington Library Quarterly 30:4 (1967): 331-43; Williams, Radical Reformation, esp. 778-90; Moss, Family & English Critics 35-52; Wallace Kirsop, “The Family of Love in France,” Journal of Religious History 3:2 (1965): 103-18; Champlin Burrage, The Early English Dissenters in Light of Recent Research (1550-1641), 2 vols (New York: Russell and Russell, repr. 1967), esp. 1:209-14.

  11. Hamilton, Family of Love, 118; E. Belfort Bax, The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists (London: Sonnenschein, 1903), 359; Ebel, Family: Sources, 332.

  12. For this and above, Hamilton, Family of Love, 4, 7, 118.

  13. Martin, Family in England, 100-1.

  14. Terra Pacis. A true testification of the spirituall lande of peace, which is the spirituall lande of promyse … (Cologne, c. 1574) cited in Hamilton, Family of Love, 37, 55, 119-21.

  15. Latham, Arden Edition, lxxvi.

  16. N. A. Penrhys-Evans, The Family of Love in England, 1550-1650 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Kent at Canterbury, September, 1971) 84-86. Cf. Hamilton, Family of Love, 121.

  17. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), passim.

  18. Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form.” Shakespeare Quarterly 32:1 (1981): 28-54.

  19. Bullough, Sources of Shakespeare, 172.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1364

As You Like It

As You Like It, most likely written in 1599, is one of Shakespeare's most highly regarded comedies and most frequently performed works. Based on Thomas Lodge's prose romance Rosalynde (1590), the play recounts the love story of Rosalind and Orlando. Roughly divided into three parts, the play features a middle section set in the Forest of Arden, where many aspects of Elizabethan social order are turned inside out. This magical place—where gender roles are reversed, social restrictions loosened, and time suspended—has garnered much critical attention throughout the twentieth century. Scholars frequently compare Arden to the setting in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and analyze the ways in which Shakespeare used this environment to address the social problems of his day, including sexual inequality and changes in the traditional English agrarian life. As You Like It introduces many notable characters, including the clown Touchstone and the insightful, melancholy Jaques—the source of the famous line “All the world’s a stage.” Rosalind, who disguises herself as the boy Ganymede, raises many interesting debates on homosexuality, gender blending, androgyny, and sexual identity. With the rising influence of feminist studies and the application of new historicism, scholars have applied a previously unexplored set of questions to the play. Chief among them is the nature of gender relations, the role of eroticism, and the degree to which patriarchal ideals are maintained in the play. In addition, emerging historical data about Elizabethan popular culture has given scholars new insight into the significance of sport and the influence of philosophical ideals in the play.

Critics note that Rosalind's double role as a female pretending to be a male provides rich fodder for gender studies. The issues about sexuality are further complicated by Phebe's love for Rosalind's alter ego Ganymede, Orlando's complex relationship with the “boy” whom he treats as a confidante about his love for Rosalind, and, most significantly, the fact that all the female roles were played by boys at the time when Shakespeare was writing. What has resulted is a proliferation of studies on the formation of sexuality, the social construction of gender, the significance of gender blending during the Elizabethan era, the politics of sexuality, and the role of homosexuality and crossdressing in English society. Susan Carlson (1987) provides an overview of how thought has shifted among Shakespearean scholars about the role of women in comedies and the critical debate which has developed around this issue. The first school of thought includes those who have endorsed the theories of H. B. Charlton. Charlton argues that women represent an ideal in the comedy genre, and that they are embodiments of creativity and the keys to happiness. Critics of this school focus on the middle section of As You Like It where social norms are suspended and women enjoy unprecedented freedom of speech and power. A second group of literary critics, in contrast, argue that in the end the norm is restored, Rosalind and Celia become powerless and voiceless wives, and any gains of insight are enjoyed by the males alone. Carlson counts herself among the latter group of scholars who view As You Like It, not as a radical reform of traditional patriarchal ideals, but as a drama which “offers more limitations than possibilities for the women in the play.” She states that while Shakespeare tried to advance ideas on the politics of gender, he was limited by the conventions of his day. Kay Stanton (1989) echoes many of these same views, stating that she believes the juxtaposition between the freedom of the middle scenes and the loss of options in the conclusion was Shakespeare's way of voicing criticism. Furthermore, Stanton examines the epilogue, a scene which has troubled and puzzled modern critics. In this scene, the actor playing Rosalind professes to be both man and woman in a convoluted display of both genders. Stanton posits that it is only in this mixture of genders that men and women can be equal; however, this gender blending only existed in Shakespeare's eyes through magic. Penny Gay (1999) more fully examines the ramifications of boys playing female roles in Elizabethan times. She argues that Shakespeare produced a more interesting drama than Lodge because Shakespeare capitalized on the fact that boys occupied female roles, creating an intriguing situation of ambiguities and possibilities. Gay believes that although the play lacks plot, audiences find it a favorite because of the erotic possibilities of Rosalind's courtship scenes. Susanne L. Wofford (1994) considers the role of language in establishing meanings about gender in the play.

Another area of interest for scholars is the topic of representation and identity. In many ways this topic is closely related to issues of gender, sexual identity, and disguise discussed above. In her essay on transvestism, Anne Herrmann (1989) discusses the difference between the divided self, as represented by Orlando, and the doubled self, depicted in the characters of Celia and Rosalind. The scholar states that transvestism is not a violation of social norms but highlights social contradiction. She states that merely by donning a disguise Rosalind cannot alter her true nature as a female. The disguise does not signify veiled eroticism but serves as a means of pointing out the arbitrary constructions of social relations, or the means by which we represent ourselves. In her 1985 essay, Kay Stanton also discusses the relationship between disguise and representation, concentrating on the prevalent use of the device of disguise by many of the cast. She states that all the characters have to don disguises in order to mask their true feelings, and all misrepresent who they are. In her explanation of the epilogue, Stanton suggests that it is only through disguise that Rosalind can be both male and female, but, in fact, she represents “the spirit of art,” a necessary component for humans to understand their own identity. In his article on the nature of theater, P. H. Parry (1998) considers the differences between the role of the characters in As You Like It and the audience. He argues that Shakespeare understood the self-conscious nature of theater in the Elizabethan era, which is markedly different from the emphasis on realism in today's dramas. Shakespeare incorporated aspects of his audience into the drama, at times making his characters part of the audience as they observed the actions of other characters on stage. Parry points out that although the epilogue is troublesome to modern casts and audiences, to the Elizabethans it would have made perfect sense.

Emerging historical data about Elizabethan popular culture has given scholars new insights into the significance of sport and the influence of philosophical ideals in the play. For instance, Cynthia Marshall (1993) discusses the role of sport as metaphor, particularly the role of wrestling in As You Like It. She posits that in the Elizabethan theater wrestling played a role both as sport and as spectacle; it was a means of exercise and entertainment and aided in the establishment of the moral order. Stating that Shakespeare was illustrating the ways in which “truth” may be socially constructed, she argues that through the wrestling match even violence can be “socially codified.” In the same vein, A. Stuart Daley (1993) examines the significance of the hunting scenes which take place in the Forest of Arden. While earlier critics have suggested that the scenes may reflect the social prestige and noble background of Senior Duke, Daley analyzes the scenes in light of what scholars now know about upper class hunts for entertainment versus the woodmen's hunt out of necessity. Applying new knowledge about the cultural and ideological developments of the period, Robert Schwartz (1989) considers the role of Jaques, referred to as a libertine by Duke Senior. Schwartz believes that this term refers to the Familist society, an antinomian sect who believed that man could be freed from natural sin through a spiritual awakening linked to nature. Gene Fendt (1995) juxtaposes audience reaction to the play in Elizabethan and modern times in his study of the cathartic role of the comedy. He focuses specifically on the function of the Forest of Arden scenes which he refers to as “the green world,” linking the role of such characters as Jaques and Touchstone with the inspiration of empathy among the audience.

A. Stuart Daley (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10914

SOURCE: “The Idea of Hunting in As You Like It,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 21, 1993, pp. 72-95.

[In the following essay, Daley questions the nature of the hunt in As You Like It, stating that it indicates the desperation of Duke Senior, and that it functions on an allegorical level as well.]

Dr. Samuel Johnson counsels us that, “He who will understand Shakespeare must not be content to study him in the closet, he must look for his meaning sometimes among the sports of the field.”1 This good counsel certainly applies to studying As You Like It, which is in some respects a hunter's play. We learn in the opening scene that the banished duke has taken refuge in the Forest of Arden, and in Elizabethan parlance forest means a spacious habitat for game. Almost immediately thereafter we learn that the hapless duke and his fellow outlaws live like old Robin Hood of England, that is to say by shooting deer for venison. In keeping with this role they will come on wearing, like Robin Hood, the forester's standard summer coat of camouflage green. We are prepared to see why, “in these woods,” the exiles must “go and kill us venison” (2.1.21), and hear them talk at some length about a stag “that from the hunter's aim had ta’en a hurt,” and come “to languish” at a sylvan brookside (34-35).2 Subsequently, the topic appears in three more scenes, culminating in the ancient motif of the princely hero who pits his strength and skill against the royal beast, a lioness. Elsewhere, too, the diction and action of venery supplies symbols, metaphors, and similes for lovers, the jester's shaft of wit, and so on.3

The pervasiveness and centrality of the theme can be indicated by the extent to which it attaches to the core character, Rosalind, when she plans to escape to the forest disguised as a boy, no less a one than “Jove's own page,” Ganymed. It merits attention here since nothing has been made of its significance. For the long, dangerous tramp to the Forest of Arden, Rosalind dresses like a stripling soldier (many then going to the Irish war) or a boyish hunter. Lodge armed his Rosalynde with only a gentlemanly rapier, but Shakespeare gives Rosalind the formidable armament of a “curtle-ax upon my thigh / A boar spear in my hand” (1.3.117-18). The boar spear introduces a fitting symbolism as a traditional weapon for a champion of virtue against intemperance and, more specifically, lust, both being vices represented sometimes by a boar or sanglier.4 Rosalind's boar spear, then, betokens her temperance and chastity, qualities she shares with a “goodlie Ladie clad in hunter's weed,” Spenser's Belphoebe, of whom he declares that “in her hand a sharpe bore-speare she held” (Faerie Queene and 29.1). Spenser's chaste and noble Britomart also yields a puissant spear. Moreover, classical symbolism assigns a spear to the goddess of wisdom and sometimes the virgin goddess of hunting, Diana. On the stage, a trident would have especially suggested the “chaste eyed, thrice-crowned queen of night,” later invoked by Orlando when he rightly identifies “the fair, the chaste, the unexpressive” Rosalind as a huntress of Diana,5 because Rosalind's role, like Belphoebe's, is Dianan as well as Venerean.

In a pleasantly allusive manner, royal Rosalind's hunting spear also relates her to her new namesake, for Ganymed, the puer regius, as readers of Aeneid V. 251-57 (Loeb Classics edition, pp. 462/463) would recall, was pursuing fleet stags with a javelin in his hand when Jove's eagle swooped to abduct him. Rosalind herself has recourse to the hart-heart pun, and she understands the figurative meaning of hunting the hare, the medieval hunt of Venus (4.3.18).6 Then, too, in the forest context, with a slyly lewd rhyme and pun (on hind and lined), the Clown likens Rosalind to an estrous hind and hound bitch (2.2.101-2; 105-6). Altogether, this mélange of allusions and symbols drawn from classical and contemporary venery corresponds to the complexities of Rosalind's character and its dramatic tensions with her predicament, making her both the hunted and the huntress, pursued and pursuer, and a Renaissance Venerean-Dianan figure harmonizing in herself virtues both masculine and feminine.

Merely to notice Shakespeare's allusions to hunting, however, no longer assures our understanding of the sixteenth-century facts he designates by them, because to us, the words convey little exact meaning. A production of A Midsummer Night's Dream 4.1 that turned the royal couple into bird shooters illustrates the problem. The Amazon Queen came on, fowling piece at the ready, looking like, say, a painting of the Electress of Bavaria in Hunting Costume. She, Duke Theseus, and loaders have pushed into the woods, like Puck, through bog, bush, brake, and brier before sunup on May Day, shooting en route the pheasants draped on their aide. Haply, the shooting has not startled awake the charmed sleepers, like russet-pated choughs “rising and cawing at the gun's report” (3.2.21-22). They need to be aroused by a blast of a deer hunter's horn! The date, time (first light), and place of this astonishing pheasant hunt left the audience unperturbed.

Nor did the audience seem puzzled, much less bewildered, by the totally incongruous conviction of Duke Theseus that he was in the woods to set up a stag hunt. The presence of himself, with his forester, huntsmen and a pack of deerhounds in the woods at daybreak means that they have been harbouring, i.e. searching for, a warrantable stag in the covert. (A “palace wood” [1.2.101] is a deer park.) Duke Theseus wants the report without delay so that the chase can be started, as was usually done, in the “vaward of the day” (4.1.105): “Dispatch, I say, and find the forester” (108). The dialogue reports routine preliminaries of a deer chase. The birdshoot innovators believed, or expected us to believe, that the Duke's pack of basset hounds had been brought along in couples to track down, with tunable thunder, the nesting pheasants.7 In the woods! With hunting horn calls! As Theseus says in another connection, “Such tricks have strong imagination” (5.1.18). But the lesson is that in this arena actions now speak louder than words; for the audience, the Duke simply uttered high-sounding phatic patter. For both audience and players, the startling, even hilarious, contradiction between what was seen and what was spoken did not exist.

This passage uses technical details (103-11, 182-83) to account plausibly for the presence of Theseus and Hippolyta in the woods before the lovers awake at sunrise. They are keeping the hunt assembly at which the woodmen will describe the harbouring of the deer so that one may be selected. In short, their “observation is perform’d” (104) apparently for the game and for the rites of May simultaneously, and the Duke now sends impatiently for the forester (103, 108, and cf. 3.2.390-93) to come and report the tokens. Meanwhile, the huntsmen with their horns (138) and the coupled deer hounds (107) with their handlers stand by at wood's edge ready to begin “Our purpos’d hunting” (183). The only birds of note are the lark (94), signalling approaching sunrise, and the still sleeping “wood-birds” (140), whose discovery delays the preliminaries of the intended chase beyond resumption.8

I think it useful, therefore, to discriminate among the usual kinds of Elizabethan deer hunting so that the means of capture can be recognized and, in consequence, their implications about the conditions, purpose, and mood of the participants clarified. These findings can help to solve several interpretive and critical problems. In As You Like It, for example, are the refugees fleeting the time in careless idyllic escape, or eking out their existence in fairly straitened circumstances? Are they killing deer as a noble pastime sport, or are they hunting for survival? Is the Duke the comfortable old humbug invented by Shaw's untutored fancy, or a competent, compassionate, and indeed, ideal figure of the Renaissance governor? Is the hunting an arbitrarily imposed piece of humanistic propaganda against blood sports, or is it, on the contrary, an element artistically organic to the meaning of the play? What is there about the shot the Duke mentions that “irks” him? These and other matters in As You Like It, may be elucidated by reviewing the pertinent Elizabethan hunting practice and terminology.9

Broadly speaking, the Elizabethans pursued or sought for deer (their only big game) either on horseback or on foot, and killed their prey with, respectively, an arme blanche or a missile weapon. For the pursuit on horseback, the two common methods were coursing with greyhounds or chasing with scent-tracking hounds. The present-day British restriction of the word hunt to the use of horses with hounds came in later, but is anticipated as in Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster (1608-10), 4.2, where one woodman declares that the princess will shoot and his fellow denies it, saying, “No, she’ll hunt.”10 Both kinds of mounted pursuit may be called the chase, as was also a private game preserve large enough for enjoying them. Only the landed well-to-do could afford the many servants, horses, scores of hounds, hundreds of deer, appertaining facilities, and the extensive hunting rights required by this royal sport. The Queen spent far more on her hunting establishment than on her Office of Revels.

Coursing was the less complicated kind of horse and hound hunting. One or more dog varlets on foot accompanied the courser, each leading a brace or leash of greyhounds, swift, keen-sighted dogs. When a suitable hart or buck was located and started, they slipped the greyhounds, and the courser tried to be on hand to kill the animal when the greyhounds caught it. References to horses and the crossbow—or “bent” bow—indicate coursing. Since the courser usually shot the animal held by his greyhounds, he carried his crossbow “bent,” i.e. with the string levered back against the powerful steel bow and cocked, ready to discharge the bolt. In contrast, the English longbow, which was bent only in the act of aiming and shooting, could not be effectively handled by a horseman.

A detail in Benozzo Gozzoli's “The Journey of the Magi to Jerusalem” shows a lance-carrying rider pursuing a large red-deer hind, seasonable at that time of year. The dog varlet has just slipped his leash of three greyhounds. Although it was painted about 1460, the detail gives us an easily looked-up picture of this sport if we imagine for the lance a more likely sword or crossbow.11 In As You Like It, however, only the stag's tears “Cours’d one another down his innocent nose / In piteous chase” (2.1.39-40).

A stereotype of the criticism holds that, as R. P. Draper (1958) puts it, the play is concerned with “an ideally leisured existence which gives men and women the opportunity to enjoy life.” Are we, then, to picture the refugees passing the days mindlessly chasing the deer? The commentators have given so little analysis to this question that the New Variorum Edition (1977) has no index entry for hunting. In recent years, Marco Mincoff has announced as if it were self-evident that “the picture develops rather on the background of the Elizabethan chase than on the Robin Hood ballads.” Madeleine Doran assures us that Duke Senior's “companions find hunting and rough weather at least temporarily attractive,” intimating a party of wealthy sportsmen roughing it in the backwoods. Speaking of Jaques' lament for the wounded deer, Claus Uhlig opines that “In As You Like It as a whole this characteristically Shakespearean assimilation of the humanistic topos investigated [the cruelty of hunting], serves, especially since hunting belongs to the trifling pastimes of courtiers, to accentuate strongly the criticism of courtly life which pervades the play and is explicitly formulated by the banished duke (2.1.1-8).”12 For our present purpose, Judy Z. Kronenfeld excellently states this position and some of its interpretative consequences. Along the way, an uneasy sense of an ambiguity amounting to artistic incompatibility reveals itself.

Outside a specifically pastoral setting, hunting is a way to turn a noble's “banishment” into holiday “liberty” (1.3.138). For this reason, the Duke's remarks about hunting, seen in a specifically pastoral context, seem to point to a discrepancy between the social idealism of pastoral (which opposes hunting) and the reality of privilege (which licenses it). It is true that Robin Hood, the hunter who champions the poor, becomes a pastoral figure in Renaissance literature, but his hunting is surely in part a matter of denying noble privilege. In Arden hunting seems not clearly a necessity (in which case it might be excused), for fruit and wine are apparently available (2.6[7]. 98; 2.5.32). So it seems quite likely that Shakespeare is mildly questioning the Duke's position. And if this genuine questioning is muted by the self-indulgent sentimentality of Jaques' anti-hunting sentiments, it is still important to remember that hunting is a specifically non-pastoral activity—the prototype of the exploitation of man by man and of war, and unknown in the vegetarian and communal Golden Age. … Thus the Duke enters into an exploitative relation with the forest—a relation to which our attention is called—by engaging in the specifically noble leisure-time sport of hunting, which is traditionally opposed to the peaceful activities of shepherds who live in harmony with nature.13

This discourse poses the critical points to be examined here. To begin with, the “specifically noble leisure-time sport of hunting” has been understood for centuries as being above all the chase or hunt at force. This is the noble sport that Robert Langham praises for being “incomparable.”14 The author of Turbervile's Booke of Hunting (1576) announces that “I thinke meete likewise to instruct (according to my simple skill) the huntsmen on horseback how to chase and hunte an Harte at force.” (My emphasis.) He several times reminds his reader of this aim. Although a fallow deer (the species described in As You Like It) might be chased, it was, the author points out, “the hart, the whiche is the right chace to yeeld pleasure unto Kyngs and Princes.”15 By a hunt at force (French, à force; cf. Chaucer, slee with strengthe) Turberville's readers understood the pursuit of a deer by a party of horsemen and auxiliaries with as many as fifty or more scenting-hounds across, usually, miles of country open enough for their passage.

In his unfinished play, The Sad Shepherd, Ben Jonson has Robin Hood's woodmen put on (surprisingly) a hunt at force “to kill him venison” for a June feast. The interest to us here is the compression into the dialogue of Scenes 2 and 6 of Act 1 of an epitome—a useful cram—of the textbook stages and technical vocabulary of such a hunt, from the harboring and rousing of the stag to breaking it up and rewarding the hounds and raven. The game is not only a warrantable stag, a hart of ten, but a big wily one which runs for “five hours and more,” a heroic hunt.

It is apparent that this sport partook of elements of a cavalry terrain exercise, and Elizabethans emphasized its value in providing the nobility and gentry with an exciting schooling in cavalry techniques. Indeed, the sport had been considered for centuries as a mimic war, hence a recreation of merit, a duty in fact, for princes and noblemen. Thus Thomas Dekker explains in some detail that “hunting is a noble, a manly, and a healthful exercise; it is a very true picture of warre, nay it is a war in itself.”16

In 1599, the year that As You Like It was perhaps first presented, James VI of Scotland, advising his heir about suitable physical exercises, writes, “I cannot omit heere the hunting, namelye with running houndes; which is the moste honourable and noblest sorte thereof,” and he deprecates the rival sport of hawking partly “because it neither resembleth the warres as neere as hunting dothe, in making a man hardy, and skilfully ridden in all groundes.”17 Near the end of the era, Henry Peacham cites the opinion of Eusebius “that wilde beasts were of purpose created by God, that men by chasing and encountring them, might be fitted and enabled for warlike exercises.”18 Not surprisingly it is the logical source of some of Shakespeare's metaphors for the exigencies of battle. His Forest of Arden was good country for the chase and the hunt at force.

In Poly-Olbion Michael Drayton describes a hunt at force as a representative feature of the Forest of Arden. He devotes seventy-five lines, “Song 13,” 87-161, to a vigorous sketch of a “most princely chase” with its troop of huntsmen, horses, and hounds streaming across the Arden landscapes and raising a bedlam of shouts, horn blasts, and barking as they follow “the noble deer” over pasture and ploughland, through herds and hamlets. Such a hunt began by first light, as noted in the plays, when the lord of the hunt had singled out one of the warrantable stags located by the woodman. Once laid on, the hunt might run across country for many miles before it caught up with the deer; despite his ruses, the animal probably rarely escaped from the “piteous chase” unless night fall intervened. With his “legs then fayling him at length” (140), the beast tried in his simple, instinctive way to find a place favorable for defending himself with his antlers against “The cruell ravenous hounds and bloody hunters neere” (151), e.g., “Some banke or quick-set” (153) to back into, or a pond or river where deep water would hamper the hounds.19

“Such,” marvels Turberville, “is the benefite of nature to give the dumbe beast understanding which way to help himself … and to save its selfe by all meanes possible.”20 As the stag took his forlorn stand “in such a desperate bay of death” (R3, 4.4.233), the “bloody hounds with heads of steel” (1H6, 4.2.51) closed in clamoring, and he was quickly “bay’d about with many enemies” (JC, 4.1.49). Then a hunter dismounted, crept upon the distracted creature and cut its throat, or stabbed it to the heart, the horns winding “the mort o’ th’ deer” (WT, 1.2.118). Beholding dead Caesar, Antony recalls such a scene: “Here wast thou bay’d, brave hart, / Here did thou fall, and here thy hunters stand, / Sign’d in thy spoil, and crimson’d in thy lethe” (JC, 3.1.204-6). After that they field-dressed the carcass and awarded the “fees” to hounds and hunters according to longstanding practice.21

If Shakespeare had intended the audience to blame Duke Senior's party for an excessive indulgence in the chase for no better excuse than their sport, he could have made it known easily and forcefully. On the contrary, he does nothing of the kind. The dialogue avoids mention of any of the unmistakable features of the chase. The beasts are fallow, not red deer. We hear nothing of huntsmen, horns, horses, or hounds. Terms of the chase such as emboss or bay, which Shakespeare uses elsewhere, appear in this play only in their respective medical and geographic senses. Above all, apart from the argument of silence, the sport is, or was, ruled out by its glaring implausibility.

In this connection, it is to be remembered that a great many Elizabethans from the Queen to the ploughman understood the facts of hunting and shooting. Participation in, not to mention observation of, hunting at force, coursing with greyhounds, and shooting driven deer from stands was common enough for a citizen of London, one like Thomas Lodge the son of a Lord Mayor, to enjoy all three pastimes. In Letters Written by John Chamberlain During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. Sarah Williams, Camden Society ser. 1, no. 79 (1861; rpt New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968), pp. 114 and 150, Chamberlain reports from Ascot, 13 August 1601, that at Beckley Park “we coursed, and killed, and carried nothing away,” and at Woodstock “last weeke” had great sport bow shooting, presumably from a stand at driven deer. It must have been a real battue: he likens the volume of shooting to a soldiers' skirmish. Then, a year later, on 2 October, he mentions having been in at the chase of a huge stag “which we hunted at force” over two counties.

The many people familiar with the chase would hardly have imagined that a deposed duke hiding in the woods of a “desert inaccessible” with a few fellow exiles “whose lands and revenues enrich the new Duke” (1.1.102), fugitives who have left their “wealth and ease” (2.5.52) to play in “a woeful pageant” (2.7.138), could have got together the large number of expensive, delicate animals, a retinue of foresters and woodmen, grooms and farriers, stable boys and dog varlets, with carters, butchers, and others, and constructed for them necessary stables, kennels, courts, offices, and lodgings. One did not winter horses on picket lines or bed greyhounds and basset hounds in the rain and snow. In that connection, the Duke would need a number of kennels for the scores of dogs required to enjoy a holiday of several hunts a week, each kennel “a little house or lodge, with a spacious and large chimney in the same, wherein in the wintertime you shal allow fire, before which your dogs returned from hunting may stretch, pick, dry, and trim themselues.”22 The dog varlet lodged on the second floor of his charges' kennel. One does not seriously think that the noble proprietors would have returned from a wintry hunt to crouch in a cave, or that they “endur’d shrewd days and nights” (5.4.173) in woodland hovels. Surely their foresters or dog varlets would have taken them in.

On the grounds of silence and verisimilitude, we may dismiss the speculation of any specific leisure-time indulgence in the chase or hunt at force. The elimination of hunting on horseback now leaves deer shooting to be considered as the method.

Before the different ways of shooting deer are explained, it is useful to understand that they were not classed with the noble form of the chase or hunting at force. In Tudor opinion, the shooting methods had come to be tainted with crass utilitarianism. Elyot writes that, “Killing of deer with bows or greyhounds serveth well for the pot (as is the common saying), and there it must of necessity be sometimes used. But it containeth therein no commendable solace or exercise, in comparison to other forms of hunting, if it be diligently perceived.”23 Turberville simply ignores shooting. In the Basilikon Doron, James warns his heir that “it is a thievish forme of hunting to shoote with gunnes and bowes.”24 In Ben Jonson's The Gipsies Metamorphosed, Part I, lines 215-18, the Captain compliments James for being one who loves “a horse and a hound,” and “hunt[s] the brave stag not so much for your food, / As for the weal of your body and the health of your blood.” William Harrison had reported that the sale of venison by aristocrats excited strong popular disapproval, “infinite scoffes and mockes, euen of the poorest pezzants of the countrie, who thinke them as odious matters,” being one of “such like affaires as belong not to men of honor.”25 Peacham, in turn, cites for his young gentleman reader the example of ancient kings who hunted “not to purchase Venison and purvey for the belly, but to maintain their strength, and preserve their health” (218).

One form of shooting, as will be seen, was certainly a pastime for princes and noble persons, but evidently not a noble pastime in the same sense as the chase. Today, Americans who kill deer for meat and by-products do not think of their activity as primarily a sport,26 and apparently neither did the Elizabethans. The realization of this attitude toward pot hunting gives distinctive connotations to Duke Senior's command, “Come, shall we go and kill us venison?” (2.1.21), meanings that help us to understand the significance of the deer shooting in As You Like It. It is not a matter of noble sport; the Robin Hood type was not a sportsman but a survivor. He killed to eat.

For investigating the subject of shooting deer, two basic means remain to be considered. In one, stand-and-bow shooting, the shooter took a partially screened position (“stand”) in or near a bush where he had unobstructed aim at any animal passing him at close range. The Elizabethans used this arrangement in two very different ways. One I shall explain later, the other provided a fashionable, even spectacular entertainment for grand personages, especially women of high rank and eminent men who had passed their physical prime. In such events, the host's woodmen drove selected deer along a killing ground in front of the stands. Since some of the animals would be wounded rather than killed outright, foresters with greyhounds, and sometimes bloodhounds, stood by to run down and dispatch them. In order to regulate the drive and supervise the shooting, stand-and-bow entertainments took place in a large park, which was by definition enclosed with a “pale” or fence designed to confine herds of deer kept for meat and recreation and managed by the estate forester. The identifying details of such an amusement, put on in a royal park for the visiting Princess of France, are carefully mentioned in Love's Labors Lost. An elaborate one had been given for Queen Elizabeth in August, 1591, by Lord Montacute in his park at Cowdray where refreshments were served to the spectators and musicians played while the Queen shot deer with a crossbow presented to her by a Nymph singing a ditty.27

Almost exactly one year later, two days of shooting were arranged for the heir to the Duchy of Württemberg, Count Frederick Mompelgard, at Windsor Castle, where, his secretary relates, “there are upwards of sixty parks … so contiguous that in order to have a glorious and royal sport the animals can be driven out of one enclosure into another, and so on; all which enclosures are encompassed by fences.” While no such shooting occurs in As You Like It, it does illustrate matters of interest in the play. The secretary's narrative continues:

And thus it happened: the huntsmen who had been ordered for the occasion, and who live in splendid separate lodges in these parks, made some capital sport for his Highness. In the first enclosure his Highness shot off the leg of a fallow-deer, and the dogs soon after caught the animal. In the second, they chased a stag for a long time backwards and forwards with particularly good hounds, over an extensive and delightful plain; at length his Highness shot him in front with an English cross-bow, and this deer the dogs finally worried and caught. In the third the greyhounds chased a deer, but much too soon [cf. 1H4, 1.3. 178, “Before the game is afoot, Thou still let'st slip.”] for they caught it directly. …

[Two days later], August 21st, … his Highness shot two fallow deer, one with a gun, the other with an English cross-bow; the latter deer we were obliged to follow a very long while, until at length a stray track- or blood-hound, as they are called, by its wonderful and peculiar nature, singled out the deer from several hundred others and pursued it so long, till at last the wounded deer was found on one side of a brook [cf. AYL, 2.1. 33, 35, “To which place a poor sequest’red stag … Did come to languish”] and the dog quite exhausted on the other [cf. Shr., Ind. 1.17, “(Brach Merriman, the poor cur, is emboss’d)”]; and the stag, which could go no further, was taken by the huntsmen, and the hound feasted with its blood.28

In passing one notes that this historical example suggests contemporary realities behind some of Shakespeare's hunting images. For example, when Talbot realizes that he and his troops have been trapped by superior French forces, the park hunt metaphor defines his predicament exactly: “How are we park’d and bounded in a pale, / A little herd of England's timorous deer, / Maz’d with a yelping kennel of French curs!” (1H6, 4.2.45-47). More particularly, perhaps, we can see what the Princess of France had in mind when, taking her shooting stand, she said, “But come, the bow: now mercy goes to kill … Not wounding, pity would not let me do it” (LLL, 4.1.24, 26).

More directly to our subject, these examples suggest some of the reasons why it irks the Duke that the deer of “this desert city / should in their own confines, with forked heads / Have their round haunches gored” (AYL, 2.1.23-25). First, his “native burghers” are not captive park deer, such as we have just seen, but free wild animals, the ferae naturae that live under God and the sovereign “In their assign’d and native dwelling place” (63) in keeping with the divine dispensation (a text for this concept was Job 39:1-8). Second, a quick, clean kill largely depended on the physical fitness and skill of the archer. The preferred target was, and is, the heart-region seen broadside, but the cervine's slim, narrow conformation makes this small target just behind the foreshoulder difficult to hit. The other vital areas, the neck and the upper part of the head, present a small and restless mark. These well-known facts lie behind shooting exploits in romance and ballad, as well as incidents in the plays. Thus Robyn makes the perfect shot when he and Gandelayn go to the wood to get them meat: “Robyn bent hys joly bowe; / Therein he set a flo [arrow]. / The fattest der of alle / The herte he clef a to.” Again, the poacher-poet of the Prologue of The Parliament of the Three Ages (ca. 1350) illustrates the well-known fact that even a fatally wounded deer may still run for some distance before it falls, even though the shot had “the herte smote, / And happenyd that I hitt hym by hynde the lefte scholdire” (53-54), i.e., the preferred point of aim.29

In Lodge's romance, Rosalynde comforts Rosader with the thought that wounded game sometimes escapes, saying, “What newes Forrester? hast thou wounded some deere, and lost him in the falle? … 'Tis hunters lucke, to ayme faire and misse: and a woodmans fortune to strike and yet goe without the game.”30 The shot in the rump that Duke Senior speaks of, however, has not only that but other disturbing consequences. He would be further irked for reasons made clear by William F. Hollister, a wildlife biologist and bowhunter: “A rump or rear end shot is undoubtedly one of the worst that can be taken by an archer. Most modern bowhunters with any ethics and concern for the animal will pass up a rump shot. The likely effect on a deer hit with an arrow in [the] rump would more than likely result in a flesh wound in the ‘hams’. If, however, the arrow passes through the ‘hams’ into the intestines and paunch the chances are that animal will die a lingering death.”31 (Cf. AYL 2.1.33-37).

In the dramatic situation, a bad hit resulting in the animal's escape (such as is reported by the First Lord), means the loss of a hundred pounds or more of food, and even if the carcass be recovered, the haunch, which was esteemed to be the choice cut, may be totally spoiled. In As You Like It, “to strike and yet goe without the game” means a calamity. Even though hunting for belly cheer may be demeaning and irksome to a nobleman, the refugees in the Forest of Arden face starvation, and therefore in the play's given circumstances hunting is as natural and needful as it had been for millenniums of human existence. Moreover, an attentive reading or auditing of the play, especially of Act 2, confutes the opinion that “alfresco meals are abundantly provided … and there is no worse hardship than a salubrious winter wind,”32 or, in the criticism quoted above, that “In Arden hunting seems not clearly a necessity (in which case it might be excused), for fruit and wine are apparently available (2.6.98; 2.5.32).” On the contrary, hardships crowd Act 2, including affliction by unsalubrious winds both winter and summer (2.1.7; 5.8; 6.15; 7.174). Shakespeare stresses afflictions in Act 2, but one above all, and that is hunger. Because of the persistent denial of these dark facts, it seems appropriate to state the record of hunger that colors Act 2.

2.1.21. Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
2.3.31. What, wouldst thou have me go and beg my food?
2.3.43-45. Take that, and He that doth the ravens feed, / Yea, providently
caters for the sparrow, / Be comfort to my age! (Biblical allusions; Job 39.3
[Geneva; A.V., 38.41], Ps. 147.9, Matt. 10.29 and Luke 12.6, 24.)
2.4.64-66. … question yond man, / If he for gold will give us
any food; / I faint almost to death. (This distress is Shakespeare's
addition; in Lodge, they have food.)
2.4.73. Bring us where we may rest ourselves and feed.
2.4.80-83. My master is of churlish disposition, / And little reaks
to find the way to heaven / By doing deeds of hospitality. (Allusions are
seen to 1 Sam. 25, and, of course, to Matt. 25.31ff.)
2.4.85-86. … there is nothing / That you will feed on; but what
is, come see, …(33)
2.5.31-32. Sirs, cover the while; the Duke will drink under this tree.
2.5.39-41. [Who] loves to live i’ th’ sun, / Seeking the
food he eats, / And pleas’d with what he gets. …(34)
2.5.62. And I’ll go seek the Duke; his banket is prepar’d.
2.6.1-2. Dear master, I can go no further. O, I die for food!
2.6.16-18. … thou shalt not die for lack of a dinner if there
live anything in this desert. (And more, but no thought of fruit!)
2.7.88, 89. Forbear, and eat no more … till necessity be serv’d.
2.7.105. I almost die for food, and let me have it.
2.7.128-29. Whiles, like a doe, I go to find my fawn, / And give it
2.7.129, 132. There is an old poor man … / Oppress’d with
two weak evils, age and hunger …
2.7.171. Welcome, fall to …

All but one, then, of the seven scenes of Act 2 feature hunger and food, a dramatic fact quite disregarded by the commentators. Yet, as the Duke makes clear at the outset, in the woods one lives not only in hardship, but also in peril. It may be morally commendable to take refuge there from ambition, but it is a risky place to seek one's food. The Duke's opinion has corroboration.

In a possible source, Anthony Munday's The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington, The Malone Society Reprints (1601; Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), 1. 670, Prince John succinctly describes the outlawed earl as “The banisht, beggerd, bankrupt Huntington.” When outlawed Fitzwater, “An aged man … Neere pin’d with hunger,” happens upon Maid Marian in the forest, she gives him wine, venison, and “a manchet fine.” He is welcomed like Adam (ll. 1517-27). Writing from experience, Spenser pictures the fate of the outcast Irish: “Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked like anatomies of death.” When Spenser's vagrant Ape and Fox had “long straied … / Through everie field and forrest farre and nere,” they too “almost sterv’d.”36 The Fox could hardly walk. In a famous scene, 2 Henry VI, 4.10, Jack Cade too illustrates the fate of one who fled to the woods (“Fie on ambitions”), where he fruitlessly sought meat for five days, when, weak and desperate for food, rather like Orlando, he draws upon Alexander Iden, who kills him.

The great dearth of the late nineties would have made hunger of concern (the noted poor relief statute had passed Parliament in 1597). Furthermore, Elizabethans could respond to the subject with a considerable empirical knowledge of diet—Adam gives a brief example in scene 3. Jaques' simile of the “remainder biscuit” (2.7.39) and his jibe about the marriage “but for two months victuall’d” (5.4.183) were not lost on them. They understood that people living north of fifty degrees latitude like themselves need a high energy intake, and the civil and military authorities and the masters and mistresses of large households and holdings gave feeding frequent attention. The protein-rich field rations prescribed for the Queen's troops represent contemporary thinking.37

The commander of an isolated party forced to seek the food they eat would be eager to get protein-rich fresh venison, in Palamon's accurate phrase “lusty meat” (TNK, 3.3.27). Moreover, three literary analogues clarify for us the Duke's situation in these respects. In the source, Rosalynde, the exiled King of France and his outlaws, “frolikt it with store of wine and venison,” with which they feed Rosader and old Adam. Later these two refresh Saladyne with “A peece of red Deere … and a bottle of wine. Tis Forresters fare brother, quoth Rosader: and so they sate downe and fell to their cates.”38 The analogue in the source behind Rosalynde, the romance of Gamelyn, comes closer when Gamelyn tells the outlaw king that he and Adam Spenser are seeking their food “under woode-shawes:”

He moste needes walke in woode                    that may not
walke in toune.
Sire, we walke not heer                    noon harm for to do,
But if we meete with a deer                    to sheete thereto
As men that been hungry                    and mow no mete find
And been harde bistad                    under woode-linde.

(Lines 672-76)

They are then bid to sit and eat of the outlaws' repast.39 Third, Cymbeline, a later play (about 1610) yet one which resembles As You Like It with its deerhunting cave dwellers, who “are held as outlaws” (4.2.67, 138), a starving fugitive from the court and wilderness setting, presents a Shakespearean analogue with the deer hunting in Arden.

In straitened circumstances similar to those in the Forest of Arden, Belarius and the royal youths can kill deer in two ways only. One is the kind of stand-and-bow shooting that I have not yet described, often called still hunting nowadays, i.e., remaining quietly in concealment in a stand beside a deer run in order to ambush passing game. Sometimes a partner of the shooter tries to drive a deer to within range of the stand. An example occurs in 3 Henry VI, 3.1 where two keepers discuss the arrangements. The other way is stalking, i.e. working stealthily into close bowshot range without alarming the extremely wary beast; stalking is the demanding art of the “best woodman,” the tribute awarded Guiderius. Even after the adoption of the long-range rifle for Highland stalking, a Victorian authority described the successful practitioner as a superior type of man: “The model deer-stalker … should be of good proportions, moderately tall, narrow-hipped to give speed, and with powerful loins and well-developed chest for giving endurance and wind … He … should care neither for fatigue, nor cold, nor wet. … The bodily powers are not the only ones which should be well developed, for the brain should be as active and energetic as the body itself.”40 And somewhat more. A man who could fence, wrestle, and pull the powerful long bow must have possessed similar physical qualities.

In any case, physical exertion gets attention in Cymbeline, which excludes hunting on horseback and mentions no dog. They start out at dawn (3.3.4, 7) when Belarius orders Guiderius and Arviragus, “Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill, / Your legs are young” (10-11), and they return with their deer (75) “thoroughly weary” and “weak with toil” (3.6.36-37) to cook their “meat” (38-39), i.e. venison. Here, again, hunting means no trifling noble pastime, but an arduous pursuit of food, on foot with the bow and arrow in the usual way of banished men, outlaws, poachers, and others who “live i’ th’ sun.”

With their assumptions of pothunting and feeding on venison, all three analogues assume the hunters' charity. “If that he be heende and come of gentil blood,” Gamelyn asserts of the outlaw's king, “He woll yeve us mete and drink and doon us some good” (663-64). Moreover, being of “gentil blood,” a true aristocrat, and even more, a prince, was especially inclined to mercy because, unlike a churl, he was graced with a piteous heart, i.e. the capacity for “sacred pity” (2.7.123) which the Duke exemplifies.41

A historical analogue occurs in a book that Shakespeare probably had read, The New Chronicles of England and France by Robert Fabyan where, in Capitulum Clxxii, Alfred (“Alured”) the Great's charity to an old religious man changes his fortunes. Several close parallels between the circumstances of Alfred and Duke Senior are seen.

Alured, being thus overset in multytude of enemyes, as affermeth Policronica and other, ladde an uncertayne lyfe, and uneasy, with fewe folkes aboute hym, in the wode countree … and had ryght scante to lyve with, but suche as he & his people myght purchase by huntynge and fysshynge. [In whiche mysery, he thus by a certayne of tyme contynuynge, … Upon a tyme when his company was from hym departed and besyed in purchasynge of vytayle, … a pylgryme … requyred his almes in Goddes name … Then the kynge anone called his servant, that hadde but one lofe and a lytell whatte of wyne, and bad hym gyve the halfe thereof unto the poore man: … Shortly after his company retourned to theyr maister, and brought with theym great plenty of fysshe that they hadde than taken. …]

That night, in a vision, St. Cuthbert reveals himself as the pilgrim and promises Alfred victory over the Danes. “Than Alured, after this vysyon, was well comforted, & shewyd hym more at large. So … dayly resorted to hym men … tyll … he was strongly companyed.”42

The uncertain, uneasy life of King Alfred and his few followers in the wooded country gives a good idea of that of Duke Senior, for he too would have “ryght scante to lyue with, but suche as he & his people myght purchase by huntynge and fysshynge.” Shakespeare makes abundantly clear in Acts 1 and 2 the impoverishment of the exiles and Orlando and Rosalind by the tyrants' confiscations and embezzlements (1.1.38-39, 102-4; 2.245-47; 3.65; 2.3.31; 5.52). Like the banished men and other fugitives in the sources and analogues examined here, the Duke's men suffer deprivation which forces them to seek their living in the sun like the outlaws idealized in “old Robin Hood of England.” In consequence they give not out of superfluity but out of exiguity.

Presumably the scattered references in 2.7 to the “banket” bill of fare pointed to food-simulating properties to be seen on the stage by the audience. In any case, only fruit is named (98), probably indicating local bush berries. In the circumstances, however, it would be a mistake not to overlook its significance as an attribute of personified Misery, for “His food, for most, was wild fruits of the tree,” Thomas Sackville tells us in The Induction of A Mirror for Magistrates (line 260).43 Apart from fruit, the operative words are simply feed, food, and table. The dialogue supports two conclusions about the banket. First, food can hardly be abundant because the suppliant can only be offered “what help we have” (125), i.e., to the extent available to us. This implication is confirmed when the Duke assures Orlando, leaving to bring back Adam, “We will nothing waste till you return” (134). Second, while their food may be scanty, it must be substantial enough to revive the weak old man. “Let him feed,” urges their host, and “fall to,” expressions that suggest fare more substantial than, say, a bowl of berries. It seems logical that a cut of venison served as the expected pièce de résistance of the outlaws' woodland banket in the play as in the romances and Munday's Robin Hood plays.

We can conclude that they kill venison in As You Like It not for pastime but for food, and like woodmen or outlaws do so by shooting with the bow—probably the old-fashioned English longbow. Apart from Rosalind's “Love's keen arrows” (3.5.31), Celia mentions Orlando's bow and arrows (4.3.4) and Duke Senior speaks of wounding deer with the forked-head model (2.1.24). The deer that languishes by the brook has been shot, not chased. Moreover, Duke Senior has game shooting in mind when he remarks that Touchstone “uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit” (5.4.106-7). These outlaws shoot not for themselves alone, but for the common table of the band. Because for centuries hunters had shared their venison, they could typify on the stage one of the most distinctive human traits, the sharing of food.44 The idea underlies Act 4, Scene 2, where the successful hunter's kill will be taken to the base camp to the Duke, who has not been with the party at all! Critics who accuse the Duke of indulgence in trifling pastime have not explained his absence from the deer kill.

The idea of hunting in As You Like It is to dramatize, first of all, the plight of the noble exiles. The particulars given us prevent our mistakenly supposing that they are carelessly passing the time in a happy, hunting holiday. In contrast, the introduction of the chase as their trifling pastime amidst an idyllic pastoral setting would be to trivialize and even falsify what began as a conflict of the virtuous and the loyal with the worldly unjust and capricious fortune. The first Act solidly establishes the reality of that evil and raises the issue of its remedy. To digress from this challenge into pastoral entertainments and anti-hunting topoi would be an artistically unjustifiable evasion of the dramatic issue that has been posed.

Presenting the deposed Duke and his loving lords as seeking their food with bows and arrows shows them reduced to means of survival that are both primitive and storied. Thus they identify with those outlaws in the analogues who “moste needes walke in woode that may not walke in toune,” and so become “hard bistad under woode-linde.” In the uncouth forest underneath the shade of melancholy boughs, they exist by their skill at pothunting. In addition to effecting this controlling circumstance, the idea of their hunting is to make clear the altruism of their sharing their scanty fare with Orlando and old Adam.

The idea of hunting makes other contributions to the play, of course, one being its rich allusiveness and symbolism.45 But perhaps the essential idea flowers in Act 2, Scene 7 in the stage image of banished men, like outlaws and foresters, who, far from good men's feasts and where all things seem savage, welcome to their table two fellow players in this world's woeful pageant.


  1. “Preface 1763,” in Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 7 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), 86.

  2. My citations of Shakespeare are to The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947).

  3. I discuss the pattern of hunting language in 2.1 (which determines the time of year and the species of deer) in “The Midsummer Deer of As You Like It, 2.1,” Philological Quarterly, 58 (1979), 103-7.

  4. With reference to Rosalind's “martial outside,” cf. Faerie Queene,, “But speare and curtaxe both used Priamond in field.” Her weapons suggest a strong, tall girl. For the spear as an attribute see Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art, trans. Alan J. P. Crick (1939; rpt New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), 55. For boar and spear, James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 49, 247, 288; Guy de Tervarent, Attributs et Symboles dans l’art profane 1450-1600 (Geneva: Libraire E. Droz, 1958): Minerva carries a hallbarde, col. 208, or a javelot, col. 224, as does Philosophy and, col. 225, Diana; also see lance, col. 230; and, col. 335, Sanglier, “Symbole ou Attribut de la Luxure.” Cf. Spenser's Sir Sanglier, the “wild boar.” Also, on boar symbolism, Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee, 1973), 38, and Marcelle Thiébaux, “The Mouth of the Boar as a Symbol in Medieval Literature,” Romance Philology, 22 (1969), 296-98. Ovid's Salmacis, a type of narcissistic lethargy, takes no hunting spear nor does she vary her ease with the hardships of the hunt. Hunting found approval as an antidote to sinful idleness.

  5. Furthermore, Diana has a proprietary connection with the Forest of Arden; she and Apollo were patron deities of Britain (cf. the oaths by Apollo, Lr. 1.1.160). As Diana Nemorensis, or surnamed Arden, the huntress goddess presides over the Forest of Arden, which is above all not a pastoral but a hunting ground. These associations duly appear in Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion, where a nymph with a bow and arrows adorns the map of Warwickshire.

  6. The chace du connin provided a classical hunting metaphor. Thus in the thirteenth century, with Ovid in mind, Jean de Meun speaks of his narrative as a “rabbit hunt” (ch. 81); see John V. Fleming, The Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), 186. D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970) explains this familiar medieval “hunt of Venus,” 113, 263-64, and passim. Rosalind, in character, prefers the virtuous hunt of Diana. B. G. Koonce, Chaucer and the Tradition of Fame (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), 111, n. 46, cites references including the Ovidian source. Marta Powell Harley, “Rosalind, the Hare, and the Hyena in Shakespeare's As You Like It,Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), 335-37, arguing in part belief in the bisexuality of hares, relates the allusion to a latent “theme of homosexuality” (337) in the play. Actual hare hunting, coursing on horseback with greyhounds, was a popular upper-class recreation recommended for gentlewomen.

  7. For the Duke's tracking hounds, slow goers with a true nose and a musical voice, see Henry L. Savage, “Hunting in the Middle Ages,” Speculum, 8 (1933), 36 (the Old Southern Hound or an allied type); C. P. Onions, ed., Shakespeare's England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917), II, 347 (bassets); Sacheverell Sitwell, The Hunters and the Hunted (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 74 (bassets); and D. H. Madden, The Diary of Master William Silence, new ed. (London: Longmans, Green, 1907), 47, 59, 78.

  8. An early morning start adapts to the animal's habits; it often enabled the hunt to avoid the fatigues caused by the heat of the day. (Late hunts were shortened by being confined, as to a park.) The foresters first located one or more warrantable stags in their covert (“harbouring”) and presented the “tokens” of the animals' age and size to the assembled hunt: then, one being selected, it was roused from cover, the scenting hounds loosed on its trail, and the hunt was off. Turbervile's Booke of Hunting 1576, Tudor & Stuart Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908) devotes much attention to these preliminaries. Also, Shakespeare's England, II, 335-36; Madden, ch. 2 and 3; Marcelle Thiébaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974), 28-32. The early rising of foresters and hunters earned them admiring notice. On present-day practice, G. Kenneth Whitehead, Hunting and Stalking Deer Throughout the World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), 16-17, reports that when deer are in open country and can be easily located, “the stalk and shot can be taken during the middle part of the day, even though most of the deer will probably be resting. In dense woodland habitat, however, the shot normally has to be taken when the deer are at feed or on the move, and this is only possible at dawn and dusk.” Tudor bowmen would have followed much the same schedule, with a thought to saving daylight for the slow, arduous task of bringing in a heavy carcass unless they had a cart or pony for the purpose.

  9. Michael Drayton gives an Elizabethan's impression of “that wondrous sport” of chasing the deer in the Forest of Arden in “Song 13” of his Poly-Olbion, and describes the occupation of a forester and the tools of his trade in The Sixth Nymphal. Edward, Second Duke of York, The Master of Game, ed. William A. and F. Baillie-Grohman (London: Chatto & Windus, 1909), apart from five original chapters, is York's translation (1406-1413) of Gaston de Foix, Comte de Foix, Livre de Chasse of which Savage says it “still remains unsuperseded in its knowledge of the habits of European game and its insight into the nature of hounds” (31). Much information about deer hunting ca. 1500 can be found in Margaret B. Freeman, The Unicorn Tapestries (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976). Robert Langham (or Laneham) gives eye-witness accounts of the hunts put on for the Queen at the Kenilworth entertainments, 9-27 July 1575 in A Letter, ed. R. J. P. Kuin (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983). John Manwood, A Treatise and Discourse of the Lawes of the Forrest (London: Thomas Wight and Bonham Norton, 1598) deals with legal and managerial aspects contemporary with the play. T. R. Henn, The Living Image (London: Methuen, 1972) has useful background information, and G. Kenneth Whitehead surveys the subject in Hunting and Stalking Deer in Britain Through the Ages (London: B. T. Batsford, 1980). Turbervile's Booke of Hunting 1576, already cited, reprints the 1576 black-letter edition of George Turberville's Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting. Although a study of German procedures, a valuable reference is David Dalby, Lexicon of the Mediaeval German Hunt (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1965). Tudor writers emphasize the recreational and warlike benefits of pursuing deer with hounds and profess disdain for utilitarian pothunting—a distinction not always pragmatically evident.

  10. Of modern usage Whitehead, World, 13, says, “In the United States of America and in many other countries, shooting—whether it be deer or birds—is generally referred to as ‘hunting.’ In Great Britain, however, the word ‘hunting’ is reserved for any sport that entails the use of hounds.” Sixteenth-century English usage was less restrictive, yet hunting with horses and hounds is virtually the only subject of the early treatises, with regard to deer.

  11. Coursers are seen in the foreground of a painting of the great hunting estate of Nonesuch Palace by David Vinckboens in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

  12. Draper, Mincoff, and Doran are quoted from extracts of their criticism in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: As You Like It, ed. Richard Knowles (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1977), 523, 524, and 525 respectively. This edition is cited hereafter as The New Variorum. Uhlig, “‘The Sobbing Deer’: As You Like It, 2.1.21-66 and the Historical Context,” Renaissance Drama, NS 3 (1970), 103.

  13. Judy Z. Kronenfeld, “Social Rank and the Pastoral Ideals of As You Like It,Shakespeare Quarterly, 29, (1978), 338-39.

  14. Robert Langham, 44-45, describes “the hunting of the Hart of fors,” and asserts that “in mine opinion thear can be none [pastime] ony wey comparabl to this.” For the Queen's ease that particular affair took place late in the day.

  15. Turbervile, 109-10 and 9.

  16. Thomas Dekker, Lanthorne and Candlelight, ch. 4, in The Guls Hornbook and the Belman of London (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1905), 209, and 210; the noblest hunters are those who chase the deer.

  17. BAΣIΛIKON ΔΩPON. or His Majesties instructions to his Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince (1599; rpt. London, 1603), 121-22.

  18. Henry Peacham, Peacham's Compleat Gentleman 1634, Tudor & Stuart Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), 218.

  19. Present-day versions of this sport exist in England and France. In his letter of 10 June 1986, Peter Atkinson, British Field Sports Society, informs me that, “Deer are still hunted with hounds in England as they have been for many centuries. There are three packs of staghounds all centred in and around Exmoor in the counties of Devon and Somerset, and they hunt the red deer. Bucks (male fallow) are hunted by the New Forest Buckhounds.” He adds that, “The coursing of deer is no longer carried out in any form of organized way …” Whitehead, World, reports, “Hunting deer with horse and hound—chasse á courre—is still a very popular sport in France and more than eighty packs are actively hunting either stag or Roe buck—or both—throughout the country” (45).

  20. The Tudor kill and that of the present-day English hunt seem to be significantly different. Atkinson states that, “The hunting of deer ends when the animal stands at bay. It is then shot either with a specifically adapted shotgun or a humane killer. The deer does not stand at bay when it is exhausted. It stands at bay when it discovers that [it cannot] escape the hounds. The hounds know that the deer is capable of putting up a robust defense and stand clear of it …” Drayton's huntsmen, however, run the animal to a standstill, when, like Actaeon's, their hounds lay “their cruell fangs on his harsh skin.” Such an attack may be seen in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings.

  21. The ceremony of “breaking up” the deer and awarding customary portions to particular members of the hunting party, and the hounds, varied from place to place. Turbervile, 127ff, distinguishes between an English and a French procedure.

  22. G[ervase] M[arkham], Countrey Contentments (1615), 14. Cf. Shr. Ind. I, 16, 28-29, where, after a severe run, the Lord gives orders for the recuperation of his pack—but the pack probably ought not to be run again “tomorrow.”

  23. Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London: Dent, 1962), 68.

  24. The King's aversion (121) resembles that expressed by [Charles] Estienne and [Jean] Liebault, Maison Rustique, or, The Countrey Farme, trans. Thomas Surflet (1600), 837, i.e., “The hunting of fower footed beasts … is performed principally with dogs, horses, and strength of bodie,” but the use of ropes, nets, and toils is “more fit for holidaie men, milke sops, and cowards, then for men of valour, which delight more in the taking of such beastes, in respecte of the exercise of their bodie and pleasure, then for the filling of the bellie.”

  25. Holinshed's Chronicles (1807-1808; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), I, 344.

  26. On this attitude, see White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management, ed. Lowell K. Halls (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1984), 710. The Tudor upper-class feeling that for a gentleman pothunting is unbecoming contrasts with their ancestors' uninhibited slaughter of game for food, e.g. the drives cited in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Ballad of Chevy Chase. In fact, the Elizabethans appear to have eaten the deer they killed, whatever the means. The nine hundred or so English game forests and parks had long been a major source of meat.

  27. R. Warwick Bond, ed., The Complete Works of John Lyly (1902; rpt. Oxford: Vivien Ridler, 1967), I, 421-30. Also, E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), IV, 65. Madden somewhat digressively discusses the shooting from a stand, 226, 229-36. In Anthony Munday's The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington, the Queen Mother shoots “Mounted in a stand. / Six fallowe deere have dyed by her hand.” See the Malone Society Reprint (Oxford: Univ. Press, 1965 [1967]), 11. 41-42. The men, with crossbows (13, 68-69), are coursing the stags and bucks.

  28. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, II, The Comedies 1597-1603 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), 47-48. The state of Württemberg had and continued to have good hunting; as late as 1914 grand-veneur was a Court post there as it still was in several royal households of Europe. Details in Lucas Cranach's painting, ca. 1529, “The Stag Hunt of the Elector Frederick the Wise” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, though on a lavish scale, might suggest typical features in the Count's hunting. The activities of the three potentates and their loaders, seen in the foreground, illustrate stand-and-bow shooting of the organized kind that Shakespeare presents in LLL, 4.1.

  29. “Robyn and Gandelyn,” Middle English Literature, ed. Charles W. Dunn and Edward T. Byrnes (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973), 519, lines 20-23. Likewise, The Parliament of the Three Ages, 240.

  30. Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, in Bullough, II, 200. Later, 215, Rosader shoots a deer “that but lightly hurt fled through the thicket.” Also, in The New Variorum, 422, 437.

  31. Principal Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Division of Fish & Wildlife, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, letter to the author, 7 January 1986. In Aeneid 7, Ascanius looses exactly this “worse” shot, striking Silvia's pet stag through the paunch and the flank: perque uterum sonitu perque ilia venit harundo (499). The stricken deer flees and reaches its wonted shelter with fateful results. The Princess of France stresses the need to strike home, “Not wounding, pity would not let me do 't” (LLL, 4.1.27), and mutilated Lavinia, “Straying in the park, / Seeking to hide herself” is like “the deer / That hath receiv’d some unrecuring wound” (Tit. 3.1.88-90).

  32. Harold Jenkins, “As You Like It,” Shakespeare Survey 8 (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1968), 43. Since then, two editors who recognize the need to hunt food are Agnes Latham, The Arden Shakespeare (1975), lxix, and Roma Gill, Oxford School Shakespeare (1977). The latter observes that the duke “makes us aware that this life is not … the pastoral existence imagined by poets; in real life, men must eat meat, and they cannot do this without slaughtering the animals” (xvi). Whether Stoic storm or Adam's penalty, wind and winter are ancient symbols of human afflictions; they teach us to know ourselves.

  33. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery (1935; rpt. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1965), 119, finds that, “The number of food and taste similes in As You Like It is remarkable.” Corin's apology reminds the audience of the laborer's unpalatable diet of black bread, bacon, beans, and peas with milk or whey and cheese, a fact behind Orlando's sarcasm, “He lets me feed with his hinds” (1.1.19). In the hungry years from 1595 to about 1599, it could have been worse. See Andrew B. Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1978), 5-7, and J. C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham, The Englishman's Food, rev. ed. (1939; rpt. London: Jonathan Cape, 1957), 48-54 and passim. The use of fruit and vegetables was negligible; scorbutic ailments were common. The dramatic point is that Corin, the good shepherd, represents charity here (“I pity her”). In contrast, Corin's absent master ignores the Queen's order of 2 November 1596 “to stay all good householders in their countries, there in charitable sort to keep hospitality” for relief of the poor; see Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, Tudor Royal Proclamations, III (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 172.

  34. New Cambridge Shakespeare (1926), 180-81, interprets “to live i’ th’ sun” to mean “to live the life of an outlaw.” The Arden (1975) editor aptly notes “a covert and paradoxical allusion to the distinction between living easily, under a roof, and living roughly exposed to all weather. Cf. the proverb ‘Out of God's blessing into the warm sun’” (43-44). Unsurprisingly we are told at the end that they “have endur’d shrewd days and nights” (5.4.172). The New Variorum does not report these senses which also seem implicit in Amiens' concern that the “stanzo” will depress Jaques (10), and his own reluctance to sing it. Furthermore, Jaques already has his own “verse to this note,” one which ridicules it. He who is “pleas’d with what he gets” makes a virtue of necessity.

  35. The simile fits a period of a fortnight or so either side of Old Midsummer Day (5 July N.S.), and is consistent with Corin's “still handling our ewes” (2.2.53), the bucks being in velvet (1.1.50), and Jaques' charge that his companions “fright the animals” (2.1.62). Fawn habitat was supposed to be left undisturbed at this time, i.e. the “Fence Month.”

  36. As late as 1598, the Stratford district required relief from famine; see my, “The Dispraise of the Country in As You Like It,Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), 310, n. 25. Shakespeare was required to report his holdings of corn and malt at New Place, 4 February 1598. The shortage of food cereals had seriously affected north Arden from 1596. According to V. H. T. Skipp's study of five parishes above Stratford, Crisis and Development: An Ecological Case Study of the Forest of Arden (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978), 37, the crisis there was “characterized by a steady build-up in the number of pauper burials, while after two or three years the deaths of wanderers, strangers and beggars are recorded: unfortunate people whose lives had been unhinged by the severities of the times, leaving them no alternative but to take to the road and ultimately to die on it.”

  37. See C. G. Cruickshank, Elizabeth's Army, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), ch. 5, “Rations,” esp. 82, and 88-89, where an issue of 1598 is given as a typical ration. Entries in the State Papers are numerous. On the necessity of adequate rations, Cruickshank points out that, “Although the bow weighed little, only a strong man could get the best out of it” (86), a fact relevant to the play. Also T. R. Henn, 78, 83. With respect to large households, even the minor landed gentry might feed a score or more of workers and dependents.

  38. Rosalynde, 196 and 220 (New Variorum, 418, 441).

  39. “Gamelyn,” Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 174.

  40. Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh), British Rural Sports, 13th ed. (London: Frederick Warne, 1877), 132. A diet of fruit and wine would soon render even this paragon of stalkers unfit.

  41. Of interest here is J. D. Burnely, Chaucer's Language and the Philosopher's Tradition (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979), where the medieval concept of the association of pitee with gentilesse and the identification of the villain or churl with hardheartedness is explored. Traits of such psychological and moral types, including the tyrant, identify antagonists in the play.

  42. Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, ed. Henry Ellis, rpt. from Pynson's ed. of 1516 (London, 1811), 167. The editions of 1542 and 1559 omitted the bracketed text for partisan reasons.

  43. Sackville's Induction, A Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (1938; rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960), 307, lines 260-62. Fruit sometimes suggests charity, and the angels brought fruit to Jesus in the wilderness (Hall, 134, 298). If Jaques' “reasons” (2.7.100) punningly (reasons = raisins) signifies grapes, as some believe, they might possibly recall Hosea 9.10: “I founde Israel like grapes in the wilderness.”

  44. Glynn Isaac, “The Food-Sharing Behavior of Protohuman Hominoids,” Scientific American, 238:4 (April 1978), 90, writes, “Evidence for food-sharing by early manlike animals suggest it is the essence of being human,” and, 92, “Among members of human social groupings of various sizes the active sharing of food is a characteristic form of behavior.” In Elizabethan terms, sharing food obeys the natural law; in the play's opening scene the “unnatural” brother, Oliver, had denied Orlando a rightful place at his table. The green of the hunters' jackets visually signalled the play's appeal to love, hope, and regeneration, as well as the deer hunter's folklore-hero's role.

  45. For some of the allusions and symbols, secular and religious, associated with stricken deer and the careless herd, see my, “To Moralize a Spectacle: As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1,” Philological Quarterly, 65 (1986), 147-70.

Susanne L. Wofford (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9921

SOURCE: “‘To You I Give Myself, For I Am Yours’: Erotic Performance and Theatrical Performatives in As You Like It,” in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, edited by Russ McDonald, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 147-69.

[In the following essay, Wofford considers the role of language in establishing meanings about gender in As You Like It.]

More than almost any other of Shakespeare's comedies, As You Like It is the play of proxies, of actions enacted in or undertaken by an alternative persona. Whereas in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare's Adriana says, “I will attend my husband … for it is my office / And will have no attorney but myself” (5.1.98-100),1 in As You Like It one can woo, marry, and even die by attorney—indeed, at least in the case of wooing and marrying one not only can but must, or so the play suggests. This essay explores the effect of using a proxy on the performative language necessary to accomplish deeds such as marriage, considering first the purposes of the erotic performance of Rosalind/Ganymede, especially the question of whether it serves to ward off threats to the comic ending, and if so what those threats may be.

The emphasis in Shakespeare studies of the last decade or so on social structure, and its connection to the sexual politics implicit in As You Like It, has led to a concern not only with the attitudes a play may express or represent, but also with the extent to which a play acts as an agent in society (in Shakespeare's own or in ours) either to change beliefs and social possibilities or to reconfirm them. In his 1981 essay “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Louis Montrose suggested some avenues by which to pursue the difficult project of discussing how theater as an institution may act: by providing “compensation,” serving as a “projection,” and mediating ideological contradictions, he argues, the play performs valuable psychological and ideological work. Since it both reflects social conflict and provides “a theatrical source of social conciliation,” the play serves a social function, in this case, to provide apparent resolutions that confirm or strengthen the patriarchal order.2

Many political interpretations, however, have tended not to discuss how theatrical language may gain the power ascribed to it. If it indeed has the power to act beyond the boundary of the stage, perhaps that action can be understood better through an examination of those speeches that have such power invested in them linguistically—illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts in general and, in particular, performative utterances that, by definition, participate in social action such as the performing of a marriage. The question of how marriages should be arranged and who had the right to perform them was, of course, a matter of much argument in early modern England.3 Plays such as As You Like It, with its invocation of the wedding performative (“I take thee Rosalind for wife” [4.1.137]) and its potentially subversive representation of a wedding onstage (a wedding which is not “true”), may in fact be participating in a complex way in a cultural debate about the power of fathers and of the state to control the language that gives such actions a social reality—in other words, that makes the language truly performative. Shakespeare's theater contests the control of the performative utterance by the crown, implicitly claiming for itself the right to do things with words.

These issues can best be addressed through strategies of close reading sometimes sidestepped in criticism that defines its aims as explicitly political or sociological.4 Without closer attention to the workings of language and to rhetoric, such political readings risk duplicating the older thematic approaches they first set out to correct, except that they place a different set of themes in the critical foreground.5 To focus on the rhetorical structure and social force of words uttered in a play is, in contrast, to link a concern with the play's assertions about gender and cultural authority to the kinds of power such assertions have. Moreover, close reading is essential to criticism that aims to indicate the participation of a text in its culture's ideological work, or that aims to find those moments of fissure and disruption where the text marks the limits to the culture's attempts to resolve social and moral contradiction.

My use of the terminology of performative utterances comes in part out of a critical engagement with J. L. Austin,6 whose theories most notably exclude precisely the kind of language under study here: “A performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. … All this we are excluding from consideration.”7 Austin excludes such “parasitic” or “etiolated” examples of the performative because they meet neither the first condition for all performatives—that the act be a conventional act understood as such by all parties—nor the condition of sincerity, for performative expressions onstage cannot be thought to be meant seriously by the speakers. It is precisely these conditions, however, that one might interrogate in order to consider the value of the theatrical performative, and, more precisely, in order to find a language to describe how power is appropriated or challenged in a given society. This essay briefly reconsiders not just the felicity conditions Austin lays out for successful performatives but also the ways in which they are ideologically constrained.8

The speech acts Austin describes in How to Do Things with Words take place in the context of what appears to be a completely static and unchanging society: his is a synchronic analysis (though he makes convincing diachronic arguments elsewhere). Certain people—judges, for instance—are described as possessing the institutional power to perform particular speech acts. Those speech acts are considered more dubious if others try to pronounce them; but Austin is not engaged in describing how one might question the source of that institutional power or the ways in which new institutions might take on such power. Thus, Austin requires for a felicitous performative that “the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked” (p. 34), without analyzing the ways in which such people come to be “appropriate.” The word he uses to describe inappropriateness is “incapacity,” yet he limits his account of this incapacity to stating that the person was not “duly appointed.” Austin's concern is to show that there is no such thing as unconstrained intentionality, as he sees whatever power may arise from such utterances as institutionalizations of linguistic commitments, and the power they commit us to. Nonetheless, he is not directly concerned with the ways in which institutions gain power, nor is his theory about the regulation of action by law or by authorities; rather it treats these questions as an extension of linguistic commitments that precede any individual intention. His taxonomy of speech acts thus needs to be extended if one wishes to describe how the power to perform a given speech act is instituted or modified in society. Since Shakespeare's plays are filled with examples of moments when characters either lose or claim for the first time the capacity to perform certain speech acts, they call for some theorizing about the origin of this “capacity.”

Austin's first requirement—“There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect” (p. 14)—presents similar problems, especially with the question of the meaning of the word “accepted.” If it means more than simply “conventional,” then it raises the difficult question of the extent to which people affirm a given legal or social custom. The example he picks here is telling: “Consider ‘I divorce you,’ said to a wife by her husband in a Christian country. … In this case it might be said, ‘nevertheless he has not (successfully) divorced her. … We do not admit any procedure at all for effecting divorce—marriage is indissoluble.’ This may be carried so far that we reject what may be called a whole code of procedure” (p. 27). It is not surprising that Austin's difficult case comes from the debates about who controls and defines the limits of marriage. His example could be interpreted differently, as describing how social or institutional shaping of meaning may eventually be changed if “we reject … a whole code of procedure.” The question arises how to adjudicate moments when the linguistic commitments implied in performative utterances conflict with legal or governmental regulation, or when the institutional constraints on meaning conflict with other kinds of conventional constraints, such as moral ones. Austin describes how a performative may fail because of social constraints or law, but he does not explicitly focus in How to Do Things with Words on those explosive cultural moments when the felicity conditions of a performative utterance are challenged and perhaps redefined. It is precisely such a moment that As You Like It is concerned to dramatize—“There's a girl goes before the priest,” as Rosalind will put it in act 4 (4.1.131-32).

The question of what is the “accepted” procedure and who is the “proper” person to perform it leads into historical obscurity and to a (logically) ever receding origin, for Austin does not discuss who has the power to make the speech act “I appoint you as someone who has the power to use the performative in this case,” or “I appoint you as someone who may appoint her as someone duly appointed to use the performative in this case.” The moment of empowerment precedes his theory just as the struggle against disempowerment seems to fall beyond its purview. His examples thus consistently evade any explanations that might concern those moments of self-instituting power, or any case in which there may be a contest of power.

Austin's concern is to a large extent with the given, then, and not with the origin of the system, and yet he does seem to imply that the origin of such “capacity” is in language itself and the way people use language, rather than in the codifications that make legal regulation possible. He imagines that institutions determine meanings, and that meanings and successful performatives do not take place as an instance of individual free choice or self-origination. But the range of these institutionalizations of linguistic commitment is large, and the theory leaves open the possibility that differing conventions defining the capacity to utter successful performatives may conflict. Thus, the operative phrase in many of his examples is “it might be said”—but how, one may ask, is it determined whether or not “it might be said”? In this essay I extend Austin's theory in ways that I believe are in sympathy with his project, though not articulated expressly within it.

Austin's exclusion of theatrical language fits well with the way his theory, as worked out in How to Do Things with Words, necessarily marginalizes those moments in which cultural conventions and social expectations are being challenged or reshaped, for art defines one of the cultural spaces in which such challenges are stated and such changes are given palpable form. A theatrical performative presumably functions on at least three levels: within the play, a performative utterance is understood to have its conventional force,9 while the audience understands the staged speech act as a representation of a performative utterance. It does not have a direct power outside the action of the play. The same language, however, pronounces simultaneously a second-order performative, in which the play or the theater as institution claims the right to speak with performative power: “I, the theater, appropriate the power to appoint those who will have the power to say ‘I do,’” or “I, the theater, name myself as an institution that has the power to use the performative,” or even “I, the theater, appropriate the power to take cultural action.” Through its own focus on the kind of validity Rosalind's similar use of the performative may have, As You Like It provides an exemplary text for considering the ways in which the play and popular theater more broadly may contest the implicit claim of the crown to be the sole arbiter of who is the “proper person” to pronounce a culturally powerful speech act.

In interpreting the erotic performance of Rosalind, I consider the ways in which acting can effect a cure, or, to put it another way, the extent to which performance itself takes on performative power. Apotropaic signs or gestures and other representations intended to ward off evil themselves fit the felicity conditions for a performative utterance in all but one sense: the immediate addressee cannot be named as a person who could be judged to recognize or to fail to recognize the conventionality of the acts. They indicate, then, why the presence of the audience of those who can understand such conventional and social force is essential to the “success” of protective signs, for the audience is the addressee of the “serious” second-order performative at issue in the case of ritual or of theater. Thus, Austin's assumption that the audience, “overhearing” (as it were) the speeches made onstage, will always remember that these actions are neither “serious” nor “sincere” is belied in the case of apotropaic representation, the function of which is clearly “serious” in Austin's sense, although independent of an individual subject-enunciator and a self-conscious addressee. A study of the social force of theatrical language can thus link the theory of performative utterances, to which I return explicitly in the final section of the essay, to the dialectic of protection and contamination that studies of ritual, as well as the documents of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debate about the theater, have led us to see at work on the Shakespearean stage.


In Shakespearean comedy, enacted scenes often serve an apotropaic function: they work to ward off the danger that they represent, the representation itself ostensibly protecting the fictive characters (and by extension the actors and audience) from the dangers that usually give the plot its interest. This is notably true in such plays-within-plays as “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the latent tragedy in the story of the four lovers is represented in unintentionally comic form, in order that such a tragedy might be averted. It might be said to be a generic characteristic of comedy that it allows this warding-off function to appear successful, but such plays also generate a dialectic of protection and contamination, to the extent that the enacted scene or representation may express an unspoken threat or complication, inadmissible by the plot but significant nonetheless for the play's cultural force. These admissions are acknowledged by critical insights such as that, for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play within the play may express the nightmare or tragic aspects of the main action—aspects ostensibly dismissed by the comic conclusion.

As You Like It speaks of “curing” an “infection” (“Why do you infect yourself with them” [3.2.111-12]) rather than of warding off an evil—an infection associated with the disease of love and manifested in bad love poetry and in the lovers' tendency to literalize Petrarchan conceits—witness the debate between Phebe and Silvius (act 3, scene 5) about whether or not eyes are murderers.10 The actions of warding off and curing are related but distinct: that which needs to be “cured” cannot be precisely the same as that which needs to be warded off, for in the latter case the threat is only potential, and the play need never openly acknowledge its efforts to protect against it. The need for a displacement from the infection that must be cured to the threat that must be averted is indirectly admitted when Ganymede describes the “cure” s/he has in mind: by playing what s/he considers the woman's part, Ganymede explains, “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” (3.2.405-9). This claim understandably provokes Orlando to say, “I would not be cured,” and indeed the play does not intend to lead the principal characters to the monastic cell (or to the cave of the convertite). Since Rosalind, if anything, wants to test Orlando's love, not cure him of it, it can be argued that neither of them is in fact engaged in a curing. Interpretation has emphasized the importance of Rosalind's teachings, and of her weaning of Orlando from his narcissistic love—“as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other” (3.2.373-74)—but whether Orlando changes very much remains in doubt. Such “curing” of the “infection” of lovers' clichés takes a second seat to the more difficult task of warding off the threatening images that Rosalind enacts in the wooing scenes, images that would truly dispel any possibility of a comic ending. The circularity of such imagery of “curing” is enacted in the chiasmus of “his mad humour of love to a living humour of madness”: if this is to be the result of Ganymede's erotic performance, the play wants nothing of it. The pretense that this performance is all a cure for love, then, may serve rather as a figure for the kind of warding off or protecting against contamination that may be under way. The mirroring in the chiastic phrase strengthens the warning conveyed by the words (“to a living humour of madness”) that such a “cure” may be more contaminating than beneficial, and figures the dialectic of “curing” and reinfecting which will engage the action in the courtship scenes.

In the case of As You Like It, the erotic performance of Rosalind/Ganymede as Rosalind indeed seems to ward off several threats to her promised union with Orlando. Given the allusion to the Ganymede story in her self-naming as male, readers have responded to the not-so-submerged homoerotics of her performance as marking one such threat. The enactment of a homosexual wooing scene—if it works successfully as an apotropaic representation—may thus seem to ward off, by representing it, the danger that either lover might actually be attracted to the “wrong” sex and thus make the comic conclusion of marriage impossible. Indeed, the play does seem concerned to break the close, passionate ties between Rosalind and Celia (“never two ladies loved as they do” [1.1.112]; “whose loves / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters” [1.2.265-66]; “We still have slept together / … And whereso’er we went, like Juno's swans, / Still we went coupled and inseparable” [1.3.69-72]), whereas it favors and advances the apparently homoerotic tie between Orlando and Ganymede, finally concluding in the traditional marriage pattern in which the women's friendship is subordinated while male bonds are reaffirmed (ties between brothers and between suitor and father). Especially given the use of a male actor to boy Rosalind's greatness, critics have seen the play as expressing an unacknowledged but powerful homoerotic aesthetic, if not desire. The breaking of the close bonding of women in the affirmation of a patriarchical order which is itself dependent on an unacknowledged homoerotic bonding between male characters could be described as constitutive of comic closure in Shakespeare—exemplified, again, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.11

If this model is correct, it applies in a somewhat unusual way to As You Like It, where the enactment of what appears to be a homosexual liaison becomes the means to the concluding marriage, as if to literalize and radicalize the pattern. Here homosexuality is denied only at the last moment—or, indeed, made a central component of the resolution—so that the erotic performance seems less to ward off the threat of a homoerotic block to the marriage than to indicate the way in which this marriage system depends precisely on such ties between male and male. The homoerotic performance, then, functions apotropaically at the level of plot—the marriages are not undermined by the homoerotic subtexts thereby engaged—while at the same time it represents the play's unadmitted but (at the level of plot) fundamental allegiance to such ties between men.12

The principal threat that is warded off by Rosalind/Ganymede's erotic performance is of a different nature. What Rosalind/Ganymede acts out specifically are the vagaries of a woman being wooed or a woman won: s/he stresses the stereotypical attacks on women that characterize the literature of misogyny.13 Functioning in an apotropaic manner, then, the play put on by Rosalind/Ganymede could be said to avert the threat that Rosalind herself, once married, will play any of these stereotypical female roles so threatening to men, including most notably that of the scold (the woman who talks too much, who develops a kind of female eloquence in order to extend her power), the flighty, changeable woman with no constancy, and the woman who cheats her husband (especially sexually).14

The allusions to what we might call homoerotic subtexts serve rather to define this other female threat more clearly. In describing the attire she will wear as Ganymede, Rosalind somewhat improbably says that she will carry “a boar-spear in [her] hand” (1.3.114). Although this part of her disguise never appears again, the allusion suggests that the boy Ganymede is also the boy boar hunter Adonis, and leaves open to question whether Rosalind/Ganymede will be wounded by the boar or, in a rewriting of the myth, be victorious over it. In Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, in either case, Adonis is clearly a young man who, like the Bertram of All's Well, scorns love, especially, by implication, love of women: “Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn” (Venus and Adonis, 4). The overpowering, maternal Venus of the poem makes heterosexual seduction into something closer to incest than to love, and female desire into a destructive force that, like the boar, wounds men.

Rosalind/Ganymede's erotic performance may serve, then, to distance or at least contain the threat of this powerful female figure, a threat that is indeed of significance to a play in which a woman takes control over both her own marriage and the resolution of the plot. The unacknowledged force of this female threat also explains in part the many allusions in the play to cuckoldry, which, according to a strict reading of the plot, should not be at issue here. One of the scenes in which Rosalind/Ganymede most explicitly lays out the threat posed by the uncontained, powerful woman begins with a series of exchanges about cuckoldry:

I had as lief be wooed of a snail. … For though he comes slowly,
he carries his house on his head; a better jointure I think than you make
a woman. Besides, he brings his destiny with him
What's that?
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.


These lines laugh ironically at the very activity undertaken by Rosalind/Ganymede, for her performance could also be described as arming the participants against their fortune and preventing the slanderous accusations of cuckoldry. The play plays with the possibility that such enactment (including apotropaic replaying through witty analogy) can actually ward off such a fate, and suggests that another way to read the seasons of love correctly (“men are April when they woo, December when they wed” [4.1.139-40]) is to be forearmed against fate by wit—that wit has an apotropaic function.

Wit is indeed the central culprit in Rosalind/Ganymede's pseudo-indictment of women. The discussion of a woman's wit centers on its power to find excuses to cover sexual wandering but serves also to suggest the ways in which the play's own ambiguities are implicated in the discussion of the threat of adultery. Rosalind first presents a woman whose wit (and, by extension, whose self) cannot be contained:

But will my Rosalind do so?
By my life, she will do as I do.
O but she is wise.
Or else she could not have the wit to do this. The wiser, the waywarder.
Make the doors upon a woman's wit, and it will out at the casement; shut
that, and 'twill out at the keyhole; stop that, 'twill fly with
the smoke out at the chimney.


The double reference at the beginning of Rosalind's speech—“to do this” refers both to the changeable roles that Rosalind/Ganymede claims women perform and to the performance at hand—alerts us to the application of this wafting wit to the play's own status. The description of wit escaping enclosure through any and all available exits reflects uneasily similar descriptions of the deeds of witches, a repressed figure of female power, whose souls were said to leave their houses through the windows or chimneys, spending the night far from their bodies. Here, however, the wit of the passage turns on whether the body is imagined to follow:

A man that had a wife with such a wit, he might say, “Wit, whither
Nay, you might keep that check for it, till you met your wife's
wit going to your neighbour's bed.
And what wit could wit have to excuse that?
Marry to say she came to seek you there. You shall never take her without
her answer, unless you take her without her tongue. O that woman that cannot
make her fault her husband's occasion, let her never nurse her child
herself, for she will breed it like a fool.


The excuse that Rosalind puts in this imagined woman's mouth works in two quite contrary ways: the intended joke is evident, but behind it hover several suppressed homosexual scenes. Since neither the husband nor the wife could be imagined to go to the neighbor's bed if both neighbors were in it, the scene must be reimagined twice, producing either the image of two women or of two men in bed—two men if one imagines the wife coming to meet her male neighbor and finding her husband there instead; two women if the wife's wit is not to be at fault (“she came to seek you there” suggests that it must be the neighbor's wife with whom the wife is dallying, or else she herself has imagined a scene of two men). Rosalind/Ganymede's imagined excuse hints, then, at a different waywardness (or wisdom?) from that of the simple sexual betrayal of cuckoldry jokes, and it also comes to serve as a figure for the workings of metaphor (and dramatic figuration), connected here as always with promiscuity, and specifically with the threat of cuckoldry.15 Wit involves, then, the capacity of one meaning to move from its proper “house” to a neighboring “house,” where it makes new combinations that are “improper.” But a woman's wit specifically claims to be going after the man, going to the nearby house “to seek [him] there,” and thereby leaving no one “at home” in his or her own “proper” house at all—or else the man's efforts to seek out the woman in her improper relation, to contain or control it, itself results in a similar “improper” stance, for again no one is left at home in his or her own bed. The project of control itself leads to impropriety.

If this “waywardness” is to be warded off, then, the play will have to make some fast turns, for the very capacity that allows the woman to escape confinement and that poses the greatest threat to the husband (cuckoldry) is intimately connected to metaphor, and to the imaginative doubleness that characterizes all of the playacting scenes (and, by extension, all theater). By virtue of its wit, the erotic performance of Rosalind/Ganymede is thus threatened by the very figure that it at a different level works to ward off—the figure of the powerful, “improper” woman who will dominate and cuckold her husband. The language points to an unending oscillation between protection and contamination, between apotropaic representation and the return, in imagery that bespeaks a submerged ideological assumption, of that which was averted. If this warding off is fictionally successful, then, it is so only at the cost of implicating the play's symbolic action in a related, “female” metaphoric impropriety.

Rosalind/Ganymede goes on to evoke a rather disturbing image: the only way to control such a woman is “to take her without her tongue.” In one sense, this “taking” is precisely what cannot and does not happen here—Rosalind is never to be without her tongue—and yet “Rosalind” only gains her tongue with her disguise, as she becomes Rosalind/Ganymede. She loses her tongue as she relinquishes her disguise: except for the Epilogue, she has no lines after she has given herself to father and husband, and the previously marginal male characters such as the Duke Senior step forward to take command and finish the action. The lines evoke the alternative story of Philomela, a woman who was literally taken without her tongue and who found nonetheless a way to describe her victimization. If her erotic performance wards off the figure of powerful female language by evoking it, it also presents the threat that this enactment will become contaminated with what it represents—that Rosalind will become this dominating woman—at which point the only way to control her would be “to take her without her tongue.”16

This line also resonates in surprising ways with the cultural ideal of woman, which was, after all, one of silence.17 Rosalind/Ganymede's joke creates a literalized version of this ideal: women should be without tongues; they should all always be taken without their tongues. The literalization makes evident the way in which this “ideal” depends on a lack or an excision, which might be considered a female version of castration, a cutting off of that defining and “improper” thing (“improper” in being associated with the woman's wit). Rosalind/Ganymede's erotic performance serves to ward off the threat of the excision, for as long as s/he is a man, s/he does not need to fear the loss of her tongue. In this latter case, the performance averts the threat in a paradoxical way, for by becoming a man, s/he becomes a “man” without his sexual parts. The hovering sense of the youth as castrated man is brought out in the allusion to the Adonis story, for the wound that the boar leaves in Adonis' “thigh” can be interpreted as a castration wound. Again, the enactment that wards off this threatening alternative becomes itself contaminated by that which it is designed to avert.

The doubled imagery of excision or of castrating wounds—the excised tongue for the woman, the wound of Adonis for the boy—suggests that the roles of Ganymede and Rosalind have become inseparable. The same threat presents itself in both cases, and the question remains whether Rosalind can succeed at averting it through this performance. The doubled threat of excision suggests, then, that although Rosalind thinks she has freely chosen the role of Ganymede and can drop it at will, she in fact becomes contaminated by what it represents in ways that the play measures. Moreover, women who must act as men to have a voice have effectively lost their tongues as women. The character Rosalind as a woman loses her tongue during the scenes in which she must speak as Ganymede even as she averts the threat of the “roaring” or witty woman. The dialectic of protection and contamination leaves the social actor nowhere to stand in gender terms. Being either one gender or the other would leave one open to this threat, so the only solution—the only performance that can be apotropaic—is to remain both genders at once.18 Indeed, Rosalind/Ganymede is in many ways both, and she sports a male tongue in a female body. The many unanswerable questions and comments about identity made in the playacting scenes point to the play's uncertainty about Rosalind/Ganymede's gender: “And I am your Rosalind” (4.1.61); “Am I not your Rosalind?” (4.1.84); “By my life, she will do as I do” (4.1.150). The play needs to reaffirm a form of enacted gender undecidability to avert the threats to the desired ending that it itself evokes. The only way for Rosalind not to become the kind of woman s/he enacts is never to be only a woman, while to the extent that she becomes fully a woman in the conclusion, her erotic performance cannot be seen as successfully apotropaic. As You Like It can perhaps be distinguished in this way from a tragedy such as Macbeth, in which the unspeakable threat, suppressed and repressed in various ways by the protagonists, may well be precisely this undecidability of gender.19 The comedy seems, in contrast, willing to countenance such a doubleness, or in any case requires it for its erotic performances to have their desired end.20

This doubled gender in its turn defines the self as already troped, already a performance. The self protects itself by enacting an “other” that also “infects” it or parasitizes it, gaining and losing a tongue in the same moment. This troped self suggests not only that the “I” can never be neutral in phallocentric discourse—for the woman has no unified position of “I” from which to speak—but indeed that the female “I” always must be double in precisely this way, both and yet neither alone. It also suggests why the stage provides a particularly complex space within which to consider the rhetorical status of the “I,” most notably whether and how it takes on the status of a figure, since all identities onstage are proxy identities, and yet the gender of the actor—the actor's body—as well as the gender of the character remain crucial determinants of this proxy self.21


The principal performative speech acts of As You Like It are the vows taken in the betrothal and wedding ceremonies (though Jaques, too, as we shall see, has his performative moment). The moment in which Rosalind gives herself away both allows the play to end and poses a number of difficulties about what kind of action this troped or doubled self can take. Rosalind reenters the scene with Hymen, and immediately turns to her father and says, “To you I give myself, for I am yours” (5.4.115). This line might not seem problematic, were it not repeated immediately in ritual fashion to Orlando. Giving herself to her husband apparently entails giving herself to her father, and vice versa: although Rosalind earlier had commented, “But what talk we of fathers, when there is such a man as Orlando” (3.4.34-35), now the two seem to imply each other, her relation to each being defined in identical terms. The line conveys something different in each case, something centering on the status of each “I.” To what extent “is” Rosalind her father's? The line might be read as meaning “to you I give myself, for I (the possibility of being an I, or being a subject, especially the subject of a performative utterance) am yours,” a reading marking the marginal position of the female subject in patriarchal discourse. This position is indicated by a simpler thematic interpretation: the only kind of performative that Rosalind as woman can utter is to give herself away to the men who already possess her. The statement is in effect a kind of tautology: if I am yours, then there is no sense in which I am actually “giving” you something you did not already possess. Rosalind's performative utterance can thus be seen as an affirmation of her father's control of her. The repetition of the line—to father, to husband—might thus seem to emphasize what has already been argued in other contexts, that the marriages at the end of such comedies reinforce a restrictive patriarchal order and reinscribe the otherwise rebellious females within it. The repetition also gives an incestuous cast to the final resolution, pointing to the structural dependence of patriarchy as a system on the incestuous doubling of father/husband.22

As we know, however, from research on the capacity of children to decide whom to marry, the power Rosalind appropriates here is certainly significant. Not only does she select her own spouse, using the structure of the drama to ensure that her father will not object, but she gives herself away. The play comments on the unusual nature of this move in the person of Sir Oliver Mar-Text, who, uneasy about the projected marriage of Touchstone and Audrey, reminds Touchstone, “Truly she must be given, or the marriage is not lawful” (3.3.63-64). Agnes Latham, the editor of the New Arden edition, has pointed out that “Christian marriage required no more than the consent of the two persons concerned,” though the custom of “giving in marriage” went back to Saxon times and had its roots in the patriarchal system (p. 134). Rosalind's failure to fulfill this custom seems to go unnoted in the ending of the play, but Mar-Text's comment certainly helps to underline the unusual power exercised by a woman in this final scene—and thereby, perhaps, to emphasize as well the ways in which the comic ending may resemble the structure of wish, dream, or desire. Rosalind's power is real, then, even if it is carefully circumscribed by the fact of male possession and priority.

Moreover, the fictional context gives rise to the question whether the enacted marriage vows of Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede can be understood to have performative force.23 Both of the characters know that they are only “playing”—that they are not speaking “seriously” in Austin's sense—yet for both Rosalind and Orlando the scene seems to mark a shift in their relation and an end to their “courtship.” In addition, a performance can complicate the scene by raising questions in the audience's mind of whether Orlando has begun to suspect the “true” identity of “Ganymede.” If this enacted performative of act 4, scene 1 is only fictional, and does not carry performative force, it undermines Rosalind's concluding performatives, which also are theater, after all, suggesting perhaps a woman can speak only in troped performatives which indicate the secondary nature of her power to accomplish deeds in the world, especially with words (while she still has her tongue). And yet, the play seems to affirm the performative force of such enacted vows, as if to emphasize that troped performatives nonetheless carry cultural force, and may be the only performatives that most subjects can pronounce.

Rosalind “is” Orlando's in another sense too, then, for in act 4, scene 1 the same ceremony that will conclude the play is enacted as part of the erotic performance of Rosalind/Ganymede. Thus Rosalind has already given herself to Orlando:

I take thee Rosalind for wife.
I might ask you for your commission; but I do take thee Orlando for
my husband. There's a girl goes before the priest, and certainly a woman's
thought runs before her actions.


These enacted performatives indicate that the performative that closes the play—“To you I give myself, for I am yours”—was already in effect a repetition, at least in the case of Orlando. The line could then be construed as reading: “To you I [Rosalind] give myself, for I [Rosalind/Ganymede] am [already] yours.” This reading again suggests that some sort of troping or doubling of the self is effected by the doubly repeated performative.

With the double repetition of the line we are already speaking of a fragmented subject, an “I” that is divided and multiple, a ghostly ironizing of the “I” which generates an “I” that cannot easily serve as the subject of a performative utterance. The repetition itself evokes an ironizing, or at least a questioning, of the value of the performative, for, if one repeats a performative, what status does the first statement have? Is it undone by the repetition or reinforced by it? Sense can be made of this repeated performative only if either the “I”s are different or the act of giving is meant differently in each sense. The necessity of this difference suggests that the subject itself—the “I”—is a trope or figure, marking the space of at least two different subjects, possibly of two different genders. Or, to put it another way, the performative itself may be understood as being already troped (though, as we see in the action of the play, in which Rosalind is successfully “given” to her husband, this does not mean that it lacks performative force).

Beyond the problematic status of a woman's power to make performative utterances, the enacted marriage scene (symmetrical with both man and woman vowing, unlike the final scene) raises the broader question of the theatrical performative. Onstage, within the fiction, the line “To you I give myself, for I am yours” has a performative power: Rosalind is understood fictionally as having “given” herself with these words. From the perspective of the audience, however, this performative utterance is understood as being spoken within quotation marks, just like her earlier statement to Orlando (“I do take thee Orlando for my husband”). The potentially radical nature of the scene may seem to be contained, then, by the understanding that this is a representation, and therefore that no woman has in fact achieved this performative power, that no woman goes before the priest (or before the father's legal right to select the husband and give away his daughter).

The limitation on the more socially innovative gestures of the play established by the containing power of theatrical representation is nonetheless not the final level at which this question can be posed. One might speculate that with these performative utterances onstage the theater as institution also claims for itself a performative power, a power to shape or create social norms simply by performing them. What the theater performs in doing so may conserve social norms—as when Rosalind locates herself so clearly as the object, not the subject, of patriarchal discourse—but it need not, as when Rosalind first takes Orlando as her husband. The theater institutionally preserves the power to say that the girl may go before the priest, and this power itself is potentially more disruptive (the power of theater as social institution, appropriating the king's language) than the specific ending that the play represents. Following this logic, one might argue what, indeed, many viewers may feel about the exchange of vows between Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede in act 4, scene 1: that it can be taken as in some degree a real action, that their troths are plighted by this enacted performance, that Orlando is in some sense agreeing to marry someone who is partly a man, that performance can indeed be performative.

The words spoken, when directed toward the right person (“I take thee Rosalind,” not “Ganymede”), come, then, to serve as tropes of themselves. They are both true and fictional at once, just as Rosalind and Ganymede are the same character but exist separately at the same time. The statements Rosalind/Ganymede makes are simultaneously valid for both, but not as man or woman. Neither, one might add, is fully present or absent as man or woman, a situation that offers a critique of the distinction of presence/absence itself. This staged performative thus returns us to the idea of the contagion of role: the comedy affirms generically that the roles played in a wooing game are freely chosen, that one can play them or drop them at will, but the structure of the exchanges between Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando suggest that, for the woman at least, this is not the case. (The role Orlando plays is equally contagious and necessary for him, though it remains less evident because it is given the same name, “Orlando.”) The prosopopoeia of the subject—the taking of someone else's face or mask—rhetorically reveals itself to result in the contamination of the “I.”

The doubling of the wedding performatives suggests, then, a more disruptive cultural statement: that all performatives are staged, pronounced by multiple or troped selves. Embracing this cultural and theatrical contamination of the self need not lead to marginalization or lack, the play argues, but rather to the kinds of empowerment the action seems to present, which, appropriately enough for the institution of theater, draw precisely on those modes of self-presentation (with their accompanying speech acts) that have to do with endorsing and putting into action the capacities of this multiple self.

One final performative utterance deserves a brief, concluding comment, since in fact it concludes the play. As the couples prepare to go happily offstage together, Jaques is left unwilling to join the celebration, and he marks his departure by “bequeathing” to the others his best wishes along with that which, in most cases, they have already attained. His bequest, then, like Rosalind's gift, adds Jaques's best wishes to what is otherwise a tautology. Jaques's statement is odd in that it implies that he possesses these qualities of plot resolutions to bequeath, making him momentarily a figure of the author, who bequeaths the consequences of his plot as a closural gesture. A bequest, moreover, becomes valid only upon death, so Jaques's words suggest that, in turning to the convertite's cave, he “dies” to the social world of the play. From this figuratively soon-to-be-dead Jaques, the plot resolution can be established, as if Jaques takes on himself the costs of the happy ending. Jaques, then, may be said to be the true recipient of Ganymede's cure for love: on him is projected the “intended” ending of the erotic performance of Ganymede and Orlando, that the “cured” person would “forswear the full stream of the world and … live in a nook merely monastic” (3.2.407-9). Orlando's fate is thus projected onto Jaques, while Orlando is allowed to remain in love (which, as we have seen, is not only to remain mad but to remain in fiction, or in trope).

Jaques's bequest can also be said to provide the model for the female performative, since, as we have seen, a woman cannot use language performatively without being at least partly a man. The only form in which a woman as woman can “give” herself is in a bequest, when she has, as it were, died as a woman and taken on a male tongue. Otherwise she can only return herself to those who already possess her, enacting in her performative the social possibility that preceded her utterance. Indeed the humor of melancholy was thought particularly to typify women, so that, like Hamlet, Jaques can be seen to be overtaken by a female mood. Jaques, then, becomes the closing example of the play's penchant for mixed gender, of its structural reliance on an undecidability of gender to pull off its conclusions and to perform them in society.


  1. Quotations throughout are taken from the Arden editions of Shakespeare's plays, notably the New Arden edition of As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham (London: Methuen, 1975), and are subsequently cited in the text. The title quotation is from As You Like It 5.4.115-16.

  2. See Louis Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (Spring 1981): 28-54; the quotation is from p. 54. Many writers have drawn similar political conclusions about Shakespearean comedy. See Sara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Peter Erickson, “Sexual Politics and Social Structure in As You Like It,Massachusetts Review 23 (1982): 65-83, reprinted in Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). For feminist studies of the comedies as affirmative of female power or disruptive of the patriarchy imposed in the ending, see Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 166-90, and Barbara Bono, “Mixed Gender, Mixed Genre in Shakespeare's As You Like It,” in Renaissance Genres: Essays On Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986). See also Lynda Boose's thoughtful review essay “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 707-42; and the helpful introduction to Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986).

  3. See Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1982), pp. 71-84, 87-88. See also appendix B of the New Arden edition, in which Agnes Latham summarizes the legal evidence concerning private betrothals to suggest that “I take thee Rosalind for wife” (4.1.137) is a statement that transforms the mock marriage into something “very near to being a real one” (p. 133). She cites F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I (London, 1898), II:364., on the contemporary validity of the “sponsalia per verba de praesenti,” which takes place if the man and woman “declare that they take each other as husband and wife now, at this very moment.” For an account of the validity of such marriage contracts at the time of As You Like It, see Ernest Schanzer, “The Marriage-Contracts of Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960): 81-89, who cites Henry Swinburne's Treatise of Spousals as evidence of the way the law was interpreted around 1600. Here is the heart of Latham's conclusions: “Marriage per verba de praesenti was still valid in the sixteenth century. The Church disapproved, unless its blessing was subsequently asked, especially if the marriage was consummated before the couple came to church … Nonetheless, the troth-plight marriage, provided the couple were careful about their tenses, was legally valid. They were not free thereafter to divorce or to marry again and the children were legitimate” (p. 134).

  4. I have singled out the work of Louis Montrose precisely because it stands out as an exception to this tendency. Catherine Belsey, in “Disrupting Sexual Difference,” similarly proves an exception, arguing for the importance of close reading in political criticism: “But I want to propose that a close reading of the texts can generate a more radical challenge to patriarchal values by disrupting sexual difference itself” (p. 180). Also, the work of feminist critics such as Madelon Sprengnether Gohlke and Janet Adelman, drawing on an alternative tradition of psychoanalytic interpretation, provides instructive examples of the value of close reading in feminist criticism.

  5. Examples of this more thematic approach can be found in Erickson, “Sexual Politics,” and Bono, “Mixed Gender, Mixed Genre.” I intend here not an attack on these writers for having identified a project different from my own but rather an articulation of the directions in which their work now points us.

  6. I distinguish my project, then, from that of Joseph A. Porter in The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) and Mary Louise Pratt, Toward A Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977). See Wolfgang Iser, “The Reality of Fiction: A Functionalist Approach to Literature,” New Literary History 7 (1975-76): 7-38, for an analysis of the extent to which Austin's conditions for illocutionary speech acts fit literature; and, in response, the criticism by Stanley Fish of such extended applications of Austin in “How to Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism,” Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 983-1025. Fish criticizes Iser for implying that a speech act can “create” meaning: “The only thing that performative or illocutionary acts produce is recognition on the part of the hearer that the procedures constitutive of a particular act have been invoked. … It is simply wrong to think of an illocutionary act as producing meaning in the sense of creating it. Indeed, the meaning the act produces (a better word would be presents, as in presents a compliment) necessarily pre-exists it; or, to put it another way, in Speech Act theory, meaning is prior to utterance” (p. 1003). One could argue about this claim, but it suffices to note that Fish sees the limits of speech act theory as definitive, whereas I use them to indicate ways in which the theory can be challenged and extended.

  7. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 22. Subsequent quotations will be cited in the text.

  8. It is noteworthy that the argument in print between Jacques Derrida and John Searle (in Glyph 1 and 2) centers in part on precisely this exclusion by Austin of the “non-serious” citation (onstage, in a poem, or in soliloquy). In “Signature Event context,” Glyph 1 (1977), Derrida argues that “what Austin excludes as anomaly … is the determined modification of a general citationality—or rather, a general iterability—without which there would not even be a ‘successful’ performative” (p. 191). Derrida's focus on the ways in which the citation exemplifies the structure of language more generally, and his study of the problems in Austin's concept of limiting context, tend in a different direction from my essay (toward a general theory of language and meaning), but they nonetheless helpfully indicate how very problematic is Austin's attempt to exclude the kind of language at issue in a Shakespearean play.

  9. When it does not have that conventional force within the plot, the loss of royal power thereby indicated leads to tragedy, as we see most notably in King Lear and Richard II. This is an old argument, expounded most eloquently and persuasively by Sigurd Burckhardt in “King Lear: The Quality of Nothing,” and “The King's Language: Shakespeare's Drama as Social Discovery,” in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 237-59 and 260-84. I note in particular the value of Burckhardt's early focus on the importance of the performative power of language in Shakespeare.

  10. For an account of the way the play treats romantic love as social sickness, see Thomas McFarland, “‘For Other Than for Dancing Measures’: The Complications of As You Like It,” in Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972). pp. 112-13. The imagery of infection in the play, and the notion put forward playfully that bad poetry is infectious, echoes the language of the antitheatrical tracts which speak of theater itself as spreading its contagion among the audience, adding a metatheatrical dimension to the dialectic of infection and cure.

  11. See Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack Shall Have Jill: / Nought Shall Go III,’” Women's Studies 9 (1982): 157-76, on the breaking of female bonds in the conclusion of Shakespearean comedy; and Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother,’” on the importance of bonds between men, and on the actions of purging and strengthening them in As You Like It.

  12. One sees a similar treatment of a homosexual subtext in plays such as Lyly's Gallathea and The Maydes Metamorphosis, in which love between two women is authorized while the threat of homosexuality is evaded by an actual transformation in the conclusion of one of the lovers into a man.

  13. One possible source for Rosalind's love cure, noted by Agnes Latham, is Lyly's play The Woman in the Moon, where Pandora cures the shepherds of their love by actually behaving as Rosalind says she will behave (see the New Arden edition, p. lix). This source can help a modern reader remember that Rosalind/Ganymede's claims about women were not so far from what could, in another context, seem an acceptable representation of the behavior of a woman.

  14. Thus, this play could be said to protect against the dangers to which Rabelais devoted his third book: whether, when he gets married, Panurge will be beaten, cuckolded, and robbed. In Rabelais, the question of female eloquence does not arise as such, though other kinds of noises become associated with femininity.

  15. See Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 103-13.

  16. The story of Philomela provides an etiological myth for art, suggesting that rape and excision of the tongue can be interpreted as the horror that generates great art, or the beauty in nature (the beauty of the nightingale's song) that becomes a figure for human art. It has been seen as a myth defining the human capacity to create beauty out of suffering, yet such interpretations tend to sidestep the fact that it is a myth of beauty made from female suffering. The suggestion here that women should be taken without their tongues to forestall their wayward wit thus suggests the congruence between the cultural ideal of the silent woman and such myths locating beauty as the aftermath of violence against women. On the Philomela myth, see my essay “The Social Aesthetics of Rape: Closural Violence in Boccaccio and Botticelli,” in Creative Imitation, ed. David Quint et al. (Binghamton, N. Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), pp. 189-238.

  17. See Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 149-92, esp. pp. 178-92.

  18. This same gender undecidability associated with female loudness can be seen in The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker, where the principal character cannot be pinned down by gender and switches roles and costumes throughout the play. As Sir Alexander puts it, “It is a thing / One knows not how to name: her birth began / Ere she was all made. 'Tis woman more than man, / Man more than woman, and—which to none can hap— / The sun gives her two shadows to one shape.” Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl, ed. Paul Mulholland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), 1.2.128-32. The Roaring Girl also provides an example of the problem posed by female eloquence—association of female eloquence with the monstrous and also with the bizarre, the uncategorizable.

  19. For gender undecidability in Macbeth, see Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 87-123.

  20. In The Roaring Girl the comic “happy ending” seems also comfortably to depend on the principal character's continuing ambiguity of gender. There too this ambiguity is necessary for the plot resolution, though in a more blatant and less problematic way—less problematic because the roaring girl herself is finally not one of the lovers who gets married off in the end.

  21. On the ways in which As You Like It, and Shakespearean comedy more generally, call into question the audience's knowledge of sexual difference “by indicating that it is possible, at least in fiction, to speak from a position which is not that of the full, unified, gendered subject” (p. 180), see Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference,” pp. 177-89. See also Mark Bracher, “Contrary Notions of Identity in As You Like It,Studies in English Literature 24 (1984): 225-40, on the play's promotion of an “inclusiveness” of character in which the self accommodates itself to otherness “so as to include the other as other” (p. 225).

  22. One might note also the fairy-tale solution to the financial worries and to the inevitable problem for a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century audience: the younger son. On the role of primogeniture and the social and plot difficulties it poses, see Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother.’”

  23. As my notes to Latham's edition suggest, she concludes that such lines had performative force legally in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English society. See appendix B, pp. 133-34, of the New Arden edition. On the father-daughter bond, and the significance of the linking of father and husband in Rosalind's performative, see Lynda E. Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” PMLA 97 (1982): 325-47, esp. 326-27.

Anne Herrmann (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10300

SOURCE: “Travesty and Transgression: Transvestism in Shakespeare, Brecht, and Churchill,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, May, 1989, pp. 133-54.

[In the following essay, Herrmann examines the role of transvestism in As You Like It, Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, and Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill.]

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither
shall a man put on a woman's garment; for all that do so are an abomination
unto the Lord thy God.

—Deuteronomy (22:5)

                                             This earth that beareth and nourisheth us,
hath been turned into a Stage, and women have come forth acting the parts
of men.

—Francis Rous (1624)

We’re all born stark naked;
To dress is bizarre.
And that's the reason why
Everybody's in drag.

—“You Are What You Wear,” Lynn Lavner (1988)

In Marguerite Duras's The Lover (1984), the first person narrator recalls her image at fifteen and a half crossing the Mekong on a ferry that takes her to school in Saigon. She is wearing a silk dress that used to belong to her mother, gold lamé evening shoes, and a “flat-brimmed hat, a brownish-pink fedora with a broad black ribbon.” “The crucial ambiguity of the image,” she suggests, “lies in the hat.” Like the shoes, the hat must have been a discount item:

But why was it bought? No woman, no girl wore a man's fedora in that colony then. No native woman, either. What must have happened is: I try it on just for fun, look at myself in the shopkeeper's glass, and see that there, beneath the man's hat, the thin awkward shape, the inadequacy of childhood, has turned into something else. Has ceased to be a harsh, inescapable imposition of nature. Has become, on the contrary, a provoking choice of nature, a choice of the mind. Suddenly it's deliberate. Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes, in circulation for cities, journeys, desire. I take the hat, and am never parted from it. Having got it, this hat that all by itself makes me whole, I wear it all the time. With the shoes it must have been much the same, but after the hat. They contradict the hat, as the hat contradicts the puny body, so they’re right for me. I wear them all the time too, go everywhere in these shoes, this hat, out of doors in all weathers, on every occasion. And to town.1

The ambiguity of living in a French colony in Indochina, of belonging to the colonizer yet being poor, of spending afternoons with a lover instead of in school, is figured as a gendered contradiction between the excessively feminine shoes and the necessarily masculine hat. The particular style of the hat cannot be attributed to either historical or cultural differences. The narrator's own invention, it simultaneously splits between viewer and viewed, and makes whole. The shoes contradict the hat, but the hat contradicts the wearer; “the puny body,” an unwanted act of nature, has become a cultural artifact. By putting on the hat, the narrator deliberately inscribes herself as desiring because she sees herself as desirable. She transgresses the boundaries of age, nationality, and sexual difference signified by a single item of clothing meant for someone else. The result is not an androgynous figure by an anomalous one; the object, for her, is not to resolve the contradictions but to proliferate them.

The three plays I have chosen for comparison, Shakespeare's As You Like It (1599-1600), Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (1938-40), and Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine (1979), use transvestism as a dramatic device to figure historicized forms of social transgression. Such transgression never takes the form of travesty itself; that is, cross-dressing as such is not coded as violation. Rather, the vacillation between masculine and feminine serves as a metaphor for a particular social contradiction, the struggle between the natural and the unnatural, the good and the bad, sexuality as sinful and as political. In its historicized context, the conflict takes the form of two competing social formations: in Shakespeare the court and the forest, in Brecht socialism and capitalism, in Churchill hetero- and homosexuality. Structurally, the transvestite functions as mediator between the symbols of these formations—“father” and son, tobacco store and tobacco factory, Victorian and contemporary England.

In addition to mediating between social contradictions, the use of transvestism coincides with the violation of dramatic conventions: As You Like It ends with four comic marriages (instead of the usual one or two) and includes an epilogue which exposes the true sex of the actor. The Good Woman of Setzuan and Cloud Nine both have two endings, depending on the original place of performance.2 In Brecht, gods appear on earth and disappear into heaven through a reverse deus ex machina, and in Churchill, racial as well as sexual boundaries are crossed when a white actor plays a black. In each case the play ends by foregrounding its own open-endedness—suggesting that if beneath the disguise there is a real self it is a sexed one, not an essential but a desiring, sexual subjectivity.

“Motley's the only wear”


On 25 January 1620, John Chamberlain wrote in a letter to Dudley Carleton:

Yesterday the bishop of London called together all the Clergie about this towne, and told them he had expressed commaundment from the King to will them to inveigh vehemently and bitterly in theyre sermons, against the insolencie of our women and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stilettaes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment: adding withall that yf pulpit admonitions will not reforme them he would proceed by another course: the truth is the world is very far out of order, but whether this will mende yt God knowes.3

Why King James I sought to extinguish a female transvestite movement which began in the 1570s, experienced a revival in 1606-1607 and reached its height in 1620, and which was publicly debated in two anonymous pamphlets, Hic mulier: or, The Man-Woman; Being a Medecine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Times and Haec-Vir; or The Womanish Man: Being an Answere to a late Book intituled Hic-Mulier, will never be known.4 What is known is that the king turned to the authority of the church, a church whose members at the beginning of the movement had argued in anti-theatrical tracts against male cross-dressing. The most cited of these tracts are Stephen Gossen's The School of Abuse (1583) which claims that cross-dressing will “adulterate” gender. Men who play the parts of women become like women; and if men become like women, then clothes constitute rather than signify the sex of the subject, suggesting an inherently unstable sexual identity and/or subjectivity.5

In the early 1590s John Rainolds, a learned Puritan, William Gager, the leading writer of academic drama at Oxford, and Alberico Gentili, England's most reknowned jurist, engaged in a debate (in Latin) over whether Deuteronomy 22:5 applied to actors, specifically university actors who played in private theaters. Rainolds argued that it did, Gentili that it did not, and Gager that it was wrong for men to wear women's clothing unless they did so to save their lives or benefit their country.6 Sex differences were seen by all as “natural,” God-ordained. Transgressing natural distinctions meant transgressing social and moral ones. Both women dressing as men (on the streets) and men dressing as women (on the stage) led to unnatural behavior, particularly behavior that was sexually “unnatural.” Women became sexually aggressive and socially undesirable, taking on the identity of “roaring girls,” that is, pickpockets or ruffians;7 men became effeminate and sexually aroused the male members of their theater audience. In the Renaissance, the androgyne was “the erotically irresistible effeminate boy.”8 The object, then, was to contain the contradiction between the essential sex and the lack of an essential gender in order to prevent its proliferation. As soon as female cross-dressers appeared on the streets of London, they ceased to appear on the Shakespearean stage. The first professional English actress made her debut in 1660.9

In As You Like It, even before Rosalind dresses as Ganymede, two forms of doubling without disguise establish gendered subject positions which distinguish between masculine and feminine without relying on sexual stereotypes. Orlando begins the play by lamenting that the unfair treatment he received from his brother Oliver results in a misleading single self which in fact conceals two: the gentleman by birth and the rustic by education. Afraid that the latter will usurp the former, he invokes the natural bond with his father against the unnatural bond between brothers. To Adam, his surrogate father, he says: “the spirit of my father, which I think is within me, begins to mutiny against this servitude,”10 inflicted by the older brother who has usurped the place of the father. The body of Orlando contains the spirit of the father which begins to rebel against the brother, who insists on containing that spirit in a singularly physical existence: “I, his brother, gain nothing under him but growth, for the which his animals on his dunghills are as much bound to him as I” (1. 1. 13-15). Even though Orlando protests against this purely physical increase, his mutiny takes the form of a wrestling match. His brother then reads Orlando's physical superiority as mental prowess by imagining him as doubly devious, precisely because there is no attempt to disguise his desire to repossess his social position.

In contrast with Orlando, caught between man and beast, Rosalind partakes of an external doubling where two appear as one. Rosalind and Celia, although merely cousins, share a love that (unlike the perverted bond between brothers) is “dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (1. 2. 266). Even though not blood-linked, they have been raised together, creating a bond more “natural” and more permanent than kinship. When Celia's father attempts to separate them by suggesting that the adopted daughter has begun to outshine the “real” one, Celia responds:

If she be a traitor,
Why, so am I. We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together;
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.

[1. 3. 70-74]

While the Duke seeks to turn the two girls into rivals, Celia insists that they are one and the same, and therefore indivisible. Not only has Celia already promised to share her inheritance with Rosalind, but she is willing to relinquish it altogether in order to follow her twice dispossessed “sister” into exile.

Here the difference between the masculine and feminine subject position lies in the difference between the divided and doubled self. The divided self rests on a hierarchy of two terms (like Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, the banished ruler and his usurper) where the disenfranchised term must be restored to its rightful place, the rustic must give way to the gentleman. The doubled self, in contrast, has two parts (or “sisters”) which reflect each other and thus become suitable substitutions. In order for the doubled self to enter representation as more than a mimetic repetition, it must divide itself by means of heterosexual difference (thus Ganymede and Aliena). Although both “couples” are banished, the male “couple” requires the restitution of one term, while the female one requires the relinquishment of the bond, figured as the difference between reclaiming and renouncing one's patrimonial inheritance.

For the two women, “falling in love” replaces wrestling as a sport, although, like wrestling, it will divide them since they cannot fall in love with each other. This arrangement is guaranteed by their “naturalized” relationship based on two terms which are not differentiated enough to engage in competition and cannot thus act as complements (except in play or performance in the forest). Instead, Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, prefiguring the verbal match they will have as lovers in Arden. There, the love joust takes place between two men (Orlando and Ganymede as well as two boy players), one of whom plays a woman (Rosalind who dresses as Ganymede in order to play Rosalind). Male homoeroticism, as “unnatural” as the bond between brothers and as “sporty” as the fight between wrestlers, is veiled by the doubled costume of the woman which offers a form of heterosexual legitimation. Rosalind's role as transvestite is likewise prefigured in her dual relationship to “wrestling”: she is both wrestler, when Celia encourages her to “wrestle with thy affections” (1. 3. 21) and wrestled, when she says to Orlando:

Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown
More than your enemies.

[1. 2. 243-44]

Here the other man is portrayed as antagonist (like the brother) in contrast to the “friend” (or lover) Orlando will find in Ganymede. While men function in terms of contradictions, women function as imitations of each other unless they become men.

When Rosalind does put on her male attire (since a woman alone was a woman to be raped), there is division with the aid of disguise. Disguise is less deceptive than duplicity because it relies on visual rather than linguistic signifiers. Unlike the fictions created by Oliver against Orlando and by Duke Frederick against Rosalind—whereby words are used to fabricate lies enforced as truth by the authority of the speaker—visual disguise presents only one view to the viewer at a time. Without deceit, the signs of masculine and feminine take the form of sexual stereotypes. Even though Rosalind says herself that “a swashing and martial outside” (1. 3. 118) provides only the deceptive appearance of manly courage, crying and fainting reveal her as a “true” woman. By suggesting that through her disguise “Rosalind becomes ‘brother’ to herself,”11 Joel Fineman not only privileges the familial bond the play constitutes as perverted (even if finally restored), but also creates a distinction between “feminine” as “natural” and therefore susceptible to mimesis, and “masculine” as deceptive (both politically and dramatically) and therefore suitable for performance.12 It is this distinction that offers a profounder difference between the sexes than the signifiers of social roles, or sexual stereotypes.

In the forest, Rosalind further “naturalizes” the feminine by mimicking the words of the misogynist. In response to Orlando's suggestion that her way of speaking might be too refined for a place so removed from the court, she says:

I have been told so by many. But indeed an old religious uncle of mine taught me to speak, who was in his youth an inland man; one that knew courtship too well, for there he fell in love. I have heard him read many lectures against it; and I thank God I am not a woman, to be touched with so many giddy offenses as he hath generally taxed their whole sex withal.

[3. 2. 338-345]

Rosalind seeks to emulate the paternal figure, who in this case is not the displaced ruler but the scorned lover, and does so as disciple. Thus she imitates her model by “reading his many lectures,” rather than by performing in his place, as son. In the forest the opponent is not another man but woman, made less threatening by the fact that she is played by a man. Rosalind reinforces her disguise through deception—not only is she not a woman but she thanks God she never was one. And in contrast to “man,” who appears as contradiction, whether in love or not, corruption contaminates the entire “weaker sex.”

If Rosalind breaks her “sisterly” bond with Celia in order to establish an “unnatural” one (both false and homoerotic) with Orlando, what role does Celia play, once one concludes, as Sue-Ellen Case does, that: “The fictional ‘Woman’ (the character of Rosalind) simply mediates and enhances the homoerotic flirtation between two males.”13 Celia, the one who relinquishes her inheritance but not her sex, is the one who questions Rosalind's identification with and appropriation of masculinist values. This begins even before Rosalind cross-dresses, when she falls in love with Orlando and justifies her feelings by saying: “The Duke my father loved his father dearly.” Celia responds: “Doth it therefore ensue that you should love his son dearly? By this kind of chase, I should hate him, for my father hated his father dearly; yet I hate not Orlando” (1. 3. 29-33). Just as Celia breaks with her father in order to follow her “sister,” she suggests breaking bonds of kinship in order to pursue the alternative model provided by female friendship (or love). Celia seeks to distinguish between adopting masculine attributes (for survival) and mimicking the misogynist (for play or prowess). Shortly before Rosalind faints, Celia chastizes her for betraying her own sex: “You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate. We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest” (4. 1. 192-195). Becoming a traitor to one's own sex exceeds the treachery perceived by the father—outshining one's sex—which serves as the initial reason for banishment. Celia's defense of her sex, potentially subversive, is contained as conservative because she represents an imitative, same-sex reflection of the cross-dressed heroine who has learned to play with gender distinctions by assuming masculine privilege.

Ultimately it is Touchstone—the fool, not the transvestite—who functions as third term in the form of transgressor, using language to manipulate marriage as that institution which keeps sexual difference in place or at bay. For Wolfgang Iser the fool “is always his own double without ever having to disguise himself”14 and for Terry Eagleton he “is pure transgression … because he appears to lack a body. …”15 It is his “motley coat” (an incongruous mixture of colors and materials) that provides the alternative to male and female dress because the wearer of that coat knows the duplicity of language and can thus manipulate the linguistic performance of the marriage ceremony.16 He would have it both ways at once, a doubleness based not on disguise, but on the instability of meaning. He knows that every signifier has more than one signified, just as every situation can offer more than one referent. This becomes most apparent when asked whether he likes the life of a shepherd, to which he answers:

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humor well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach.

[3. 2. 13-21]

A single situation is described with a potentially limitless set of oppositions which seem to cancel each other out and thus mean nothing at all. On the one hand, “solitary” and “private” both refer to the separation or isolation of the individual from the community; on the other hand, they are juxtaposed to create a contradiction: is he secluded or is he lonely? What initially appears as nonsense ultimately offers a lesson in linguistics. As long as this word-play remains in the realm of what Touchstone calls “philosophy,” it matters little whether meaning is ever stabilized. He nevertheless attempts to transfer this doubleness to the marriage ceremony, the ritual which seeks to arrest sexual indeterminacy by legitimizing the heterosexual couple. Knowing that a whore can become a wife only in name, the fool attempts to arrange an illegal ceremony with Audrey (a country girl) that would pronounce him husband and release him from that pronouncement at the same time. Audrey, no longer a virgin and thus indifferent to whether she is pronounced “wife,” sets as little store by the ceremony as Touchstone does. Yet she does so out of a lack of understanding of the figurative: “I do not know what poetical is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?” (3. 3. 16-17) Honesty becomes equated with the “natural” as that which is (hetero)sexually explicit rather than (homosexually) implicit.

Louis Montrose suggests: “Marriage, the social institution at the heart of comedy, serves to ease or eliminate fraternal strife. And fraternity, in turn, serves as a defense against the threat men feel from women.”17 If this is the case, then Rosalind, as “her own ‘brother,’” will ease the strife between actors and characters by coordinating the four marriages “to make these doubts all even” (5. 4. 25). Yet the homoeroticism contained by these social roles makes its reappearance in the epilogue, where Rosalind reveals her true sex as masculine: “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, bid me farewell” (Epilogue 17-22). The audience knows he is not a woman, that he is a boy actor playing a woman's part. This becomes the most transgressive moment in the play because it suggests that the sport, whether athletic or erotic, takes place, both candidly and confidentially, between men. This is the social contradiction As You Like It addresses, placing cross-dressed heroines on the stage at the moment when they ceased to appear on the streets, thereby reinforcing the fact that its point of address was men, not women.

“Shakespeare never flew in the air.”


In Brecht, the transgressive moment when the actor reveals his or her true sex forms the basis for an elaborate dramaturgy.18 Founded on a deliberate “alienation effect” (Entfremdung) or “making the familiar strange,” the motivation behind the “A-effect” is not an erotic, but a political one: “The object of the A-effect is to alienate the social gest underlying every incident. By social gest is meant the mimetic and gestural expression of the social relationships prevailing between people of a given period.” To achieve this effect, the actor must not become his or her character, but speak it “like a quotation,” making it appear strange by looking at it strangely him or herself:

Because he doesn't identify himself with him he can pick a definite attitude to adopt towards the character whom he portrays, can show what he thinks of him and invite the spectator, who is likewise not asked to identify himself, to criticize the character portrayed. The attitude which he adopts is a socially critical one. … In this way his performance becomes a discussion (about social conditions) with the audience he is addressing. He prompts the spectator to justify or abolish these conditions according to what class he belongs to.19

The lack of identification between actor and character is neither a function of historical necessity nor an opportunity for veiled eroticism, but rather a conscious attempt to “denaturalize” social formations in order to make their arbitrary constructions more visible. The most obvious device for achieving this effect would be to play a character of the opposite sex.

In The Good Woman of Setzuan (originally Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, which leaves the sex of the protagonist indeterminable) the good Shen Te becomes her evil cousin Shui Ta in order to preserve the monetary gift from the gods which she has traded for a tobacco store. Because of her generosity, she fails to make a profit and, heeding the advice of her exploiters, not only invokes the authority of the cousin but actually embodies him by appearing as a man. In a lyric entitled “The Song of Defenselessness,” which Shen Te sings carrying the mask of Shui Ta, both characters ask why even the gods are defenseless against a world which is so evil that it has become impossible to be good. Not the threat of rape, but the spector of economic insolvency forces a female character to acquire the clothes traditionally reserved for the masculine.

Conceived as a parable, the play portrays Shen Te less as a psychological subject than as a subject position (accentuated by the mask borrowed from Chinese theater20), a subject position conceivable only in its relation to the masculine. Initially Shen Te is juxtaposed to Wong, the waterseller, who, like the prostitute, must sell a commodity most people manage to acquire for free—water from floods or rainfall and sex through seduction or marriage. Although Shen Te sells herself for a living, she is still considered good, unlike the waterseller who sells water from a cup with a false bottom. Sexual difference is used to figure an economic difference, while the difference between the sexes is neither economic or sexual, but moral. Morality, although differentiated from the hypocritical sexual standards of the bourgeoisie, is largely predicated on psychological differences that lie at the core of sexual stereotypes. Sexual difference is not determined by the commodity one sells—sex or water—but by one's faith in goodness: Wong disappears thinking that even Shen Te's goodness will fail when it comes to offering the gods a place for the night, while Shen Te would like to be good, although she admits that economic necessity often makes it unfeasible. While Wong fears that the gods will discover Shen Te's true profession, the gods are afraid that someone will misread their monetary compensation for a night's lodging as a sex trade. Brecht privileges prostitution (a financial transaction necessitated by poverty) over marriage, because the latter is founded on deception as the corruption of neither money nor sex, but of (heterosexual) love.

In this play marriage does not “make all this matter even”; rather it makes matters worse because it involves the “deadliest weakness” (a weakness deadlier than goodness)—love. Like Audrey, Shen Te no longer has her virginity to sell and instead exchanges her honesty in the form of material generosity. Vulnerability does not stem from an inability to distinguish between the literal and the figurative, but from Shen Te's willingness to sacrifice her own source of livelihood in order to guarantee her husband's reemployment as flyer. (Like Rosalind, she plays the man in order to restore “true manhood” to her lover). Rather than providing an end to the play, the reward for revealing one's true sex, the wedding ceremony interrupts it in the middle and the play does not even offer one union. Marriage provides the moment when the impossibility of appearing as both sexes at once obstructs the nuptial knot: Yang Sun will not pronounce his vows until the cousin appears with the money which he will use as a bribe to acquire the job of a pilot; Shui Ta will not appear until Yang Sun displays two plane tickets and ensures that he plans to take Shen Te with him, and not his mother. The complexity of these gendered subject positions is once again juxtaposed to the simplicity of sexual stereotypes. Like the “uncle” who teaches Rosalind that all women are guilty of “giddy offenses,” Yang Sun represents women from the point of view of the misogynist: “Shen Te is a woman; she is devoid of common sense. I only have to lay my hand on her shoulder, and church bells ring.”21 While waiting for the wedding to take place, Yang Sun attempts to determine what kind of wife Shen Te will make by testing her “home economics”: can she make five cups of tea with three leaves; can she sleep alone on a mattress the size of a book? Meanwhile, Shen Te tries to explain to Yang Sun that “my cousin can't be coming. … My cousin can't be where I am” (93). Unlike Wong, who remains Shen Te's best friend, both Shui Ta and Yang Sun become “her worse enemy” because they prevent her from being a “true” woman, kind and in love, and still surviving economically. Being a woman prohibits marriage from taking place; economics perverts marriage into a form of psychological prostitution.

The disguise prevents the transvestite from mediating between herself and her lover (although both Shen Te and Shui Ta attempt to negotiate with Yang Sun in the name of the other); worse yet, the disguised is accused of being a murderer. Again, it is not the act of cross-dressing which transgresses, but the disappearance of the female subject. First Yang Sun hears someone sobbing in the back room; then Shen Te's clothes are found under the table in Shui Ta's office. Brought to the trial which replaced the wedding as the end of the play, Shui Ta reveals himself as both Shen Te and Shui Ta and defends herself as follows:

Your injunction
To be good and yet to live
Was a thunderbolt:
It has torn me in two
I can't tell how it was
But to be good to others
And myself at the same time
I could not do it …


Here the split subject embodies neither a mimetic doubling nor a division which can be restored; rather, it represents divisiveness as the symptom of a capitalist system in which moral goodness and economic survival are mutually exclusive. Like Rosalind, Shen Te abandons her sex, this time by making her disguise permanent. And yet it is the impermanence of the clothes—Shui Ta's trousers hanging on Shen Te's clothesline—that finally gives her away.

The body would seem a more stable signifier than the clothes that simply signify it. Yet even as Shen Te becomes increasingly pregnant, it is not her body that betrays her (Shui Ta simply gets fatter as his wealth grows) but her emotional weakness. Like Rosalind's fainting at the news of Orlando's wounding, Shen Te sobs in the back room when she hears that the father has learned of his illegitimate child. Physical weakness can be hidden behind the bravado of the opposite sex, but emotional weakness reveals the true difference between the sexes. This distinction establishes the “good” mother and “bad” father based on the “natural” difference produced by their respective participation in biological reproduction. Unlike Shakespeare, who blurs the difference in social status between the boy actor and the unmarried woman, Brecht conflates social and sexual differences by relying on biology when he makes Shen Te grow large with child. Shen Te abandons herself to her faithless lover at the very moment she reproduces herself in her child; yet that child, a son, reproduces the father, the former flyer who has risen in the world as tobacco factory foreman.

The third term in Brecht's play are the gods, traditionally invoked to mediate in the disputes between men, here called to preside at the trial of the man who apparently has done away with “the good woman.” The ethereal gods represent the bourgeois alternative to earthly contradictions, and are figured as inept, uninformed figures who know less about earth than those who live on it. Not having created it, they are trying to maintain the world as it is through their arbitrary “book of rules.” Convinced that if they find the exception to the rule (i.e., a good person) the rules need not be changed, they leave Shen Te crying for help. Unlike Shakespeare's fool, these gods are truly foolish, because they adhere to the literal meaning of the law. The most they can offer is a benevolent reading of the “rules” when Shen Te yells that she needs the help of her evil cousin at least once a week and they respond that once a month should suffice. The contradiction between the sexes is left unresolved and the play ends with the existence of morality in question.

The epilogue (to be spoken by either Shen Te or Wong, but not in character) likewise addresses itself to the audience, although not to “conjure,” but to implore. Both epilogues reflect on their own breaks with dramatic convention: Rosalind appears as a woman when the last word should be had by a man, and The Good Woman of Setzuan offers no closure when a play should have an ending:

You’re thinking, aren't you, that this is no right
Conclusion to the play you’ve seen tonight?
After a tale, exotic, fabulous,
A nasty ending was slipped up on us.
We feel deflated too. We too are nettled
To see the curtain down and nothing settled.
How could a better ending be arranged?
How could one change people? Can the world be changed?
Would new gods do the trick? Will atheism?
Moral rearmament? Materialism?
It is for you to find a way, my friends,
To help good men arrive at happy ends.
You write the happy ending to the
There must, there must, there's got to be a way!


Unlike the boy player who attempts to seduce the male members of his audience, this actor desperately seeks the audience's assistance. The relationship is not erotic, based on the conditional (“if”), but political, grounded in the interrogative. The solution to the binariness of sexual difference is no longer displaced onto homoeroticism; it lies in dramatic closure as the solution to “naturalized” social relations. If the feminine represents the possibility of a socialist revolution, what then is the connection between Shen Te and the women of that utopian social order?

Considering the historical moment during which Brecht wrote this play, it is apparent that Shen Te as the “eternal feminine” becomes divided between the “masculinized” New Woman and a historically specific exploitation of motherhood. Not only does the play's ending take the form of an admonition as opposed to a seduction, but, as Sue-Ellen Case has pointed out, in Brecht “the mothers are defined by their mothering roles and have no sexual definition.”23 By placing the mother in the female subject position, Brecht not only desexualizes her, but also insists on biological differences as they were used and misused by both the sex reformers of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) and the Nazis of the Third Reich (1933-1945). Atina Grossman describes the New Woman as she appeared in Germany after World War I:

The New Woman was not only the intellectual with a Marlene Dietrich-style suit and short mannish haircut or the young white-collar worker in a flapper suit. She was also the young married factory worker who cooked only one warm meal a day, cut her hair short into a practical Bubikopf, and tried with all available means to keep her family small.24

As women entered the work force in greater numbers and were required to relocate responsibilities assumed by social services into the private home during the Depression, sex reformers were intent on “rationalizing” women's double burden on the one hand by reducing birth rates through available birth control and legal abortion, and on the other hand by improving women's sex lives.25 Both approaches were based on biological distinctions between the sexes, on women's unique sensibility, and on their entitlement to a separate “Lebensraum.”26 Sex reform carried with it greater control of sexual deviance; those unfit to marry came “close to the malicious stereotype of the New Woman: short, dark hair; dressed in a unisex shift, distinctly unmaternal—the image not only of the prostitute but also of the Jewess and the lesbian.”27

When the Nazis came to power they simply turned birth control counseling centers into racial hygiene clinics and carried the sex reform movement's eugenics goals to their unthinkable conclusion. Women were hailed as “mothers of the race” or guilty of “racial degeneration.” The Nazis were intent both on raising the rate of childbirth and enforcing the sterilization of “asocials,” which included prostitutes, women of “inferior character,” and those of “alien race.”28 Even though women acquired the vote in 1918 (as a reward for their war effort, not their suffrage struggle), parties of the right, from the Catholic Center party to the National Socialists, were much more successful at attracting women's votes because they encouraged women to participate in politics in order to preserve and enhance their traditional roles as wife and mother.29 Neither the Communist nor the Socialist party was able to offer a competing conceptual framework. When it came time to mobilize women for war, propagandistic images of women changed, but not basic beliefs about women's nature, which continued to fuel the extension of the maternal role into the public sphere.30

Brecht, who more than other theorists has insisted upon the need to historicize social formations, continues to metaphorize and idealize the mother at the very moment in history when she is most exploited as purely biological function. Sara Lennox has suggested that Brecht's dramaturgy is predicated on an “instrumentalism” which necessarily regards women “as demonstration objects rather than subjects in their own right.”31 If the “A-effect” is meant to afford critical distance so as to imagine a different set of social relations, then those arrangements do not include sexual arrangements, just as “the half-Westernized city of Setzuan” serves to promote geographical distance in the service of parable, not history. Like Shakespeare, who ceased to put cross-dressed heroines on stage once they began to appear on the streets, Brecht used his woman figures to embody Communist Party policy at a particular historical moment.32 The discrepancy between women on stage and their roles on the stage of history reinforces the role of the cross-dressed heroine as metaphor. Even after women have been allowed onto the theatrical stage and have succeeding in winning the vote, they still appear politically as the “woman question,” tangential to the electoral process yet crucial to consolidating the power of (white male) political parties.

“You can't separate fucking and economics.”


The work of Caryl Churchill marks the appearance of a female playwright who identifies herself as a socialist-feminist and uses cross-dressing to question the categories that legitimize not only patriarchy and capitalism, but also colonialism. Since many of her plays do not revolve around a central character, she herself becomes the center of a discourse which figures the “female playwright” as oxymoron, a woman occupying the position of a man. Mel Gussow, in a review in the New York Times of her most recent play, Serious Money, writes the following:

Just as her work has its contradictions, Ms. Churchill is herself a paradox. Her plays are outrageous, even scandalous and the language, as in “Serious Money,” can be scabrous. The playwright, however, is no wild-eyed weird sister, but a genteel woman with a kind of regal reserve, The British director William Gaskill thinks she has a ‘classic English beauty’—with her graying hair and high cheekbones. Married to a lawyer and the mother of three sons (they are 24, 22 and 17), she has a close circle of friends. Outside of that circle, she is so aggressively shy that, next to her, Woody Allen would seem like an ebullient self-promoter.33

On the one hand, Churchill has illegitimately appropriated the language of men, language which is “outrageous,” “scandalous,” “scabrous”; on the other hand she is relegitimized through her association with men: her husband, her sons, a male director, Woody Allen. The unthinkable is “the wild-eyed weird sister” she might either be or be a part of, simply by gender association. Fortunately she is seen as neither politically nor sexually aggressive, but only as “aggressively shy,” and if her language is “manly,” she at least carries the “graying hair” of male royalty. By taming her physically, by domesticating her socially, the words of the female professional become audible.

This review appears four years after the The New York Times Magazine presented a cover story entitled “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theater.” At that time Mel Gussow wrote: “In order to trace the reasons for the proliferation of plays by women, one must begin with the women's movement itself, which nurtured the belief that there is no profession or artistic discipline—from movie making to monumental sculpture—that should be exclusive of men” and “The increase in number of women playwrights is part of a larger pattern in which women are assuming roles of authority and creativity in all aspects of the theater.”34 As long as women are represented as a group separate from men, democratic liberal politics can provide the impression that one is experiencing and/or witnessing historical progress; as soon as a woman appears alone, she leaves her sex and must be demonized or turned into an honorary man.

Churchill further exploits “Brechtian techniques” by exploring capitalism in its relation to sexism and colonialism,35 and by encouraging actors to examine not only their characters but also their own sexual identities. Cloud Nine was written for the British Joint Stock Theatre Group, where the cast, playwright, and director held three-week workshops during which they read relevant texts, did consciousness-raising exercises, and improvised. One such exercise involved

a game in which numbers and images (jacks, queens, etc.) on playing cards represented varying degrees of power; red and black respectively represented male and female. Players arbitrarily received cards assigning them numerical power as well as a sexual identity; they were then to improvise situations and interact according to their given power. Repeatedly, actors who received cards identifying them as males would assert more power than those who received cards identifying them as females; assigned gender outweighed off-stage sexual identity as well as numerical scores.36

Consciousness-raising exercises have replaced dramatic theory as a way of producing “alienation effects” by making visible the interpenetration of theatrical and social roles. This involves not only assuming roles of the opposite sex or of another race, but also playing two different roles from one act to the next.

The disjuncture between actor and character becomes reinforced by the discontinuity between Act I, which takes place in a British colony in Africa during Queen Victoria's reign, and Act II, which takes place in London in the 1970s. Although Act II takes place one hundred years later, the characters are only twenty-five years older. Not only does Churchill “historicize” racial, sexual, and class oppression, but she puts into question “history” as a coherent, truth-telling narrative. Elin Diamond, in “Refusing the Romanticism of Identity: Narrative Interventions in Churchill, Benmussa, Duras” suggests: “To understand history as narrative is a crucial move for feminists, not only because it demystifies the idea of disinterested authorship, but because the traditionally subordinate role of women in history can be seen as the legacy of narrative itself.”37 Thus it becomes not a question of whether women have been excluded from history or how they might be included, but a question of how history a priori inscribes the white male subject through a story of power and legitimation. It is this story that Churchill puts into question (as Diamond argues further) by preventing the spectator from producing a coherent narrative within the boundaries of the play's dramatic structure.

The gendered subject positions encountered in Shakespeare (male division vs. female doubling) and in Brecht (Shen Te's relation to her “best friend” vs. her “worst enemies”) take on an even more complex configuration in Churchill. The play begins with Clive, the Victorian father/husband/subject, introducing his wife: “My wife is all I dreamt a wife should be, / And everything she is she owes to me.”38 The referent of this statement is not only the ideology of Victorian sexual arrangements but also the male actor who plays the part of Clive's wife, Betty. Betty responds:

I live for Clive. The whole aim of my life
Is to be what he looks for in a wife.
I am a man's creation as you see,
And what men want is what I want to be.


To be “a man's creation” means to conform to masculine expectations not by mimicking the misogynist or murdering the feminine, but by leaving nothing to the woman except the name and the clothes. Like Touchstone's “wife,” this “wife” is the product of a linguistic operation which unmasks rather than secures her as masculine/marital construct. The lack of correspondence between actor and character is replaced by the enunciated correlation between “what men want” and “what I want to be.” The “alienation effect” produced by this disjuncture reinforces the fact that characters are their discourses and that their discourses are often someone else's. Sexual stereotypes are parodied and deception virtually disappears.

For further clarification, I will trace the trajectory of a single actor who plays two characters, and of the two characters who appear first in Act I and then as twenty-five years older in Act II. In the New York production, the same actor plays Edward the son in Act I and Victoria the daughter in Act II. In Act I Edward is played by a woman, while Victoria is played by a doll. Churchill herself attributes this technique not to Shakespeare, but to “the English tradition of women playing boys (e.g. PETER PAN)” (viii). At the same time, Edward is gay; that is, homosexuality becomes an issue for the character, not an issue suppressed in the relation between boy actors or veiled in the relation between actor and audience. Male homosexuality in the Victorian period is of course associated with effeminacy, made explicit in Edward's relationship to the doll of his sister Victoria (played by a doll). The controversy over the doll (since the sister is a doll she can do little to enter the controversy) has to do with whether Edward is playing with or minding the doll: if he minds the doll, he is beginning to learn his social role as a man; if he plays with it, then he is adopting a feminine role and must be dealt with accordingly. Gender roles (as in Shakespeare) are represented in terms of specular images: Edward must not play with, that is, identify with the doll, otherwise he will grow up to be a girl, like his sister, while his sister has internalized her role so well (without even having to learn it) that she does not even play with the doll but is one.

Unlike the veiled homoeroticism in Shakespeare and the suppression of sexuality in Brecht, homosexuality appears as explicit content in Cloud Nine. It is treated both historically (differently transgressive in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth) and as the form of sexuality that has politicized sexual arrangements in general. In Act I homosexuality is still associated with deception. On the one hand, Harry Bagley (Edward's “uncle”/lover) represents Victorian hypocrisy by pretending to love “woman” while preferring sex with men. On the other hand, lying as a form of justification legitimizes not (Shakesperean) primogeniture but the interpenetration of sexism and racism. Edward accuses Joshua, the Black native, of stealing his mother's necklace when he has actually taken (not stolen) it from his mother in order to give it to Bagley. The impermissibility of a “feminine” gesture from one man to another must be blamed on a social inferior, who in this case is racially other. But since this configuration of gestures and words is attributed to Edward's youth (instead of to a network of sexual and racial oppression), when Joshua destroys the (doll's) doll and Edward rightly accuses him, his father no longer believes him. This results in the death of the father, the end of the Empire and the curtain of Act I.

Act I also ends with a marriage between Bagley, the gay explorer, and Ellen, the lesbian governess. The wedding scene once again bisects rather than ends the play, but this time no longer grounded in the romantic illusion of love. Clive insists that Bagley get married: “Rivers will be named after you, it's unthinkable” (53), in order to hide the “perversion,” the “sin,” the “disease,” he calls “effeminacy.” Ellen agrees to the marriage, since she is in love with Betty and will be forced to leave her employer as soon as Edward grows up. Initially Bagley asks Mrs. Saunders, “the woman of spirit” (who lives on in Africa as a widow and plans to return to England to introduce threshing machines) to marry him, but she refuses since the only part of marriage she liked was the sex. The only part of marriage Ellen dislikes is the sex, which Betty in turn explains to her: “You must keep still. … Ellen, you’re not getting married to enjoy yourself” (57). The choice between Mrs. Saunders and Ellen is reinforced as exclusive by the fact that they are played by the same actress (like Shen Te and Shui Ta) and therefore cannot appear at the wedding together. Even more importantly, as women who are equally uninterested in marriage and might potentially be interested in each other, they can literally never meet.

In Act II, Edward continues to play the “effeminate” part by playing the role of the “wife” in the live-in relationship with first, his lover Gerry (who occasionally prefers anonymous sex) and then with his sister Victoria and Lin (who themselves are involved with each other). The “wife” is no longer a linguistic operation; rather, it involves a role that necessarily must be performed within the family unit (given the present social arrangements), but not by someone of a particular biological sex or an assigned place in a kinship system. Victoria, in contrast, has developed from a doll into a feminist. The figure who had no voice now speaks with the voice of critical commentary. In response to Lin who says “I hate men,” Victoria answers: “You have to look at it in a historical perspective in terms of learnt behavior since the industrial revolution” (68). The daughter retains a relation to the patriarch, no longer silenced by him but offering theoretical explanations of his institutions.

Betty, the middle-aged divorcee, offers the third term in a world where the taboos surrounding who can enter a relationship with whom have been almost completely broken. She represents the woman alone, who has severed all old ties and forged no new ones, who has sex with herself and thus eliminates the social constructions which determine all sexual relationships. She is the mother who is totally absent in Shakespeare, who replaces the wife in Brecht, and now appears for the first time as a transgressive figure. Her transgression (masturbation) need not be contained and her contradictions will not be solved outside of her personal history. The relationship she commences with a gay man, Gerry—with whom she enters into conversation at the end of the British version of the play—cannot be coded as transgressive because it is a priori not sexual.

The most transgressive moment in the play is finally the most parodic:

I like women.
That should please mother.
No listen Vicky, I’d rather be a woman. I wish I had breasts like
that, I think they’re beautiful. Can I touch them?
What, pretending they’re yours?
No, I know it's you.
I think I should warn you I’m enjoying this.
I’m sick of men.
I’m sick of men.
I think I’m a lesbian.


This moment puts the very notion of transgression into question. The scene takes the audience back to the one with the doll: is Edward playing with it or minding it? Here the question becomes, are the breasts his or his sister's (and since the question concerns body parts, the answer should be clearer). Does Edward want to be like his sister or be his sister? Does the fact that they are both “sick of men” make them the same? Can a man be a “lesbian” (as the logical conclusion of his feelings about men) or is being a lesbian instead biological? How can “lesbian” refer to both an “effeminate” man and a “masculine” woman? Should the incest taboo be the only one left unbroken (even between consenting adults)?

In Churchill the actor no longer simply comments on the character, but places the very notion of a character in question. Cross-dressing takes place as the disjuncture between body and text, not on the level of who is permitted on stage nor of how to appear on stage as two characters simultaneously. Rather, the discrepancy between actor and character separates the signifier from the signified, pointing this time to the significance of language in the construction of the sex-gender system.

When the “earth … hath been turned into a Stage, and women have come forth acting the parts of men,”39 then the question is not why women dress as men, but why the metaphor of the stage. “New historicism” rereads the Renaissance theater against the “theater” of Renaissance politics, that is, gender and power relations. “Postmodernism” speaks in terms of performance reality as linguistic impersonation. Nazism provided the most extravagent performance of this century, captured in the films of Leni Riefenstahl. On the one hand, if it is only a performance, then one can leave it and return to the real, the everyday. On the other hand, if the performance is all there is, who will write the parts? Shakespeare, Brecht, and Churchill have all written a part for the cross-dressed heroine, and yet in none of these plays does her cross-dressing alter or reconstruct the female subject. In Shakespeare the female character is assimilated by the boy player; in Brecht the female character is appropriated by her male double; and in Churchill the character becomes a gay man, although the actress goes on to play a middle-class feminist. The transgressive figure nevertheless shifts from the fool to the gods to the middle-aged woman, thereby shifting the site of contradiction from the cross-dressed figure (which will always “be appropriated by the ‘masculine’”) to the female figure as the product of a particular historical moment.

Eagleton has suggested: “If representation is a lie, then the very structure of the theatrical sign is strangely duplicitous, asserting an identity while manifesting a division, and to this extent it resembles the structure of metaphor.”40 The theater as metaphor, the theatrical sign resembling the structure of metaphor, the feminine as the metaphor for that division, are these all signs of duplicity or of proliferation? The cross-dressed heroine, as metaphor, points to the limits of metaphorical structures that rely on an unexamined assumption of gendered distinctions. As theatrical sign, she points to the disjuncture between body and clothes, between clothes as signifying and/or constituting the subject. In Shakespeare and Brecht she stands in for something else; in Churchill where she stands—whether on her high-heeled shoes or under the broad-rimmed hat—is itself the question.


  1. Marguerite Duras, The Lover, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Random House, 1985), 12-13.

  2. In Brecht's case the misunderstandings created by the Viennese premiere of The Good Woman of Setzuan led him to add an epilogue; in the case of Cloud Nine, the New York production sought for a more pronounced “emotional climax” by ending with Betty's self-discovery instead of the beginning of a new relationship.

  3. The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert McClure (Philadelphia, 1939), II, 287-87. Quoted in Linda T. Fitz, “‘What says the Married Woman?’: Marriage Theory and Feminism in the English Renaissance,” Mosaic 13:2 (1980): 15. Emphasis added.

  4. See Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1984), 139-51. See also Sandra Clark, “Hic Mulier, Haec Vir, and the Controversy over Masculine Women,” Studies in Philology 82:2 (1985): 157-83.

  5. See Laura Levine, “Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579 to 1642,” Criticism 28:2 (1986): 121-41.

  6. J. W. Binns, “Women or Transvestites on the Elizabethan Stage?: An Oxford Controversy,” Sixteenth Century Journal 5:2 (1974): 100.

  7. See Paula S. Bergren, “‘A Prodigious Thing’: The Jacobean Heroine in Male Disguise,” Philological Quarterly 62:3 (1983): 383-402; Patrick Cheney, “Moll Cutpurse as Hermphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl,Renaissance and Reformation 7:2 (1983): 120-34; Mary Beth Rose, “Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,English Literary Renaissance 14:3 (1984): 367-91.

  8. Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1983), 17. See also Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Stage,” PMLA 102:1 (1987): 29-41.

  9. See Katharine Eisaman Maus, “‘Playhouse Flesh and Blood’: Sexual Ideology and the Restoration Actress,” ELH 46:4 (1979): 595-617.

  10. As You Like It (Signet), I, i. 21-22. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

  11. Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles” in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn, eds., Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980), 79.

  12. I am endebted to Wolfgang Iser for proposing this distinction, although he does not consider it in gendered terms: “If representation arises out of bridging difference, it can no longer be conceived of in terms of mimesis, but must be construed in terms of performance, for each act of difference-removal is a form of production, not of imitation. Furthermore, the fact that performance is a means of bringing something about suggests a process of staging, and this endows it with an intangible quality.” “The Dramatization of Double Meaning in Shakespeare's As You Like It,Theatre Journal 35:3 (1983): 330.

  13. Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), 23.

  14. Iser, 316.

  15. Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 33.

  16. For an interesting reading of marriage as a non-referential linguistic operation, see Nelly Furman, “The Politics of Language: Beyond the Gender Principle?” in Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, eds., Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism (London: Methuen, 1985), 59-79.

  17. Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32:1 (1981): 51.

  18. For a reading of “The Good Person of Setzuan as a redaction of As You Like It,” see Helen M. Whall, “The Case is Altered: Brecht's Use of Shakespeare,” University of Toronto Quarterly 51:2 (Winter 1981/2): 138-47. See also Margot Heinemann, “How Brecht Read Shakespeare” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: University of Manchester, 1985), 202-30.

  19. “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964), 139. See also “The Author as Producer” in Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: NLB, 1973), 100.

  20. See “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” in Brecht on Theatre, 91-99.

  21. Bertolt Brecht, The Good of Setzuan, revised English version Eric Bentley (New York: Grove, 1965), 80. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

  22. It is interesting to note that the following lines were omitted from the English translation:

    Dabei sind wir doch auf Sie angeweisen
    Dass Sie bei uns zu Haus sind und geniessen.
    Wir können es uns leider nicht verhehlen:
    Wir sind bankrott, wenn Sie uns nicht empfehlen!
    Vielleicht fiel uns aus lauter Furcht nichts ein.
    Das kam schon vor. Was könnt die Lösung sein?
    Wir konnten keine finden, nicht einmal für Geld.

    Brecht, Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1955), 143. By establishing a greater dependency between actor and audience and thus a greater vulnerability on the part of the cast, the economic metaphors begin to function almost like the sexual ones in Shakespeare.

  23. Sue-Ellen Case, “Brecht and Women: Homosexuality and the Mother” in John Fuegi, Gisela Bahr and John Willett, eds., Brecht: Women and Politics, Brecht Yearbook 12 (Detroit: Wayne State, 1985), 66.

  24. Atina Grossmann, “The New Woman and the Rationalization of Sexuality in Weimar Germany” in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, eds., Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review, 1983), 156. See also Grossmann, “‘Satisfaction is Domestic Happiness’: Mass Working-Class Sex Reform Organizations in the Weimar Republic” in Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Walliman, eds., Towards the Holocaust: The Social and Economic Collapse of the Weimar Republic (Westport: Greenwood, 1983), 265-93.

  25. See Atina Grossmann, “Abortion and Economic Crisis: The 1931 Campaign Against Paragraph 218” in Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, and Marion Kaplan, eds., When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York: Monthly Review, 1984), 66-86.

  26. Claudia Koonz, “The Competition for Women's Lebensraum, 1928-1934” in Bridenthal, 199-236. See also Koonz, “Some Political Implications of Separatism: German Women Between Democracy and Nazism, 1928-1934,” in Judith Freidlander, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, eds., Women in Culture and Politics: A Century of Change (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1986), 269-85.

  27. Grossmann, “The New Woman,” 167.

  28. Gisela Bock, “Racism and Sexism in Nazi German: Motherhood, Compulsory Sterilization, and the State” in Bridenthal, 271-96. See also Bock, “‘No Children at Any Cost’: Perspectives on Compulsory Sterilization, Sexism and Racism in Nazi Germany” in Friedlander, 286-98.

  29. See Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, “Beyond Kinder, Küche, Kirche: Weimar Women in Politics and Work” in Bridenthal, 33-65.

  30. “Public images, unlike basic beliefs about woman's nature, can change quickly in response to economic need. The economic role and the popular image of women may change drastically in the course of a modern war, but basic ideas about women's proper sphere, characterized by cultural lag even in the case of long-term economic developments, change little. Of course, the war was too short a span of time to expect fundamental changes in people's attitudes. The German and American cases show that public images can adapt to the need for women in jobs previously reserved for men without challenging traditional assumptions.” Leila J. Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1930-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1978), 174-75.

  31. Sara Lennox, “Women in Brecht's Works,” New German Critique 14 (Spring 1978): 93, 91.

  32. See Lennox, 88.

  33. Mel Gussow, “Genteel Playwright, Angry Voice,” New York Times, 22 November 1987, Arts and Leisure section.

  34. Mel Gussow, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theater,” New York Times, 1 May 1983, Magazine. For a history of women's theatre see Case, Feminism and Theatre and Michelene Wandor, Carry on, Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).

  35. See, for instance, Janelle Reinelt, “Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama,” Theatre Journal 38:2 (1986): 154-63.

  36. Helene Keyssar, Feminist Theatre (New York: Grove, 1985), 93-94.

  37. Elin Diamond, “Refusing the Romanticism of Identity: Narrative Interventions in Churchill, Benmussa, Duras,” Theatre Journal 37:3 (1985): 276.

  38. Caryl Churchill, Cloud Nine (New York: Methuen, 1984), 3-4. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

  39. Francis Rous, Oile of Scorpions (London, 1624), pp. 173-74. Quoted in Susan C. Shapiro, “Amazons, Hermaphrodites, and Plain Monsters: The ‘Masculine’ Woman in English Satire and Social Criticism from 1580-1640,” Atlantis 13:1 (Fall/Autumn, 1987): 73.

  40. Eagleton, 3-4.

Gene Fendt (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5833

SOURCE: “Resolution, Catharsis, Culture: As You Like It,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1995, pp. 248-60.

[In the following essay, Fendt explores the cathartic effects of As You Like It on the audience, juxtaposing the views of the characters Jaques and Touchstone.]

Happiness does not lie in amusement; indeed it would be strange … if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.

Aristotle (NE 1176b30-35)

Comedy is a vision of dianoia, a significance which is ultimately social significance.

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

As with tragedy and music, it seems that there are several kinds of catharsis that are plausible in a comedy.1 Let us take the example of As You Like It, which would seem to be about as perfect an example of the art form as is possible. Indeed, one of the reasons to think it is so is that it allows, as we shall see, of every type of comic resolution and catharsis. In the last scene, Rosalind, whom we see through most of the play as both being in love (as a woman) and mocking romantic love's excesses (as a man), becomes a unified being, loving and sensible; so there is an intrapersonal integration or resolution which follows from what she experiences and recognizes about love. There is, as well, an interpersonal integration—each member of the pairs of country copulatives is united with what it really desires; and further, there is a larger social redintigratio in statuum pristinum—the duke is returned to his lands, Oliver to his, and the whole green world society which has turned around Rosalind and Orlando is set to take its place in the normal world outside of the forest of Arden. So, due to the recognitions made in Arden there are three axes of resolution within the play. Similarly the audience members, who have gone into the golden world of the theatre, and who may have come to some recognitions of their own, are about to go out into the normal world, which is their true inheritance. If the play has worked, they have suffered at least one kind of catharsis. This essay explores those recognitions, their accompanying resolutions and their plausible resulting catharses, and then turns to some cultural implications.

We have mentioned a parallelism between the audience and the characters of the play; that parallelism no doubt includes a similarity in emotional effect, on the one due to being in Arden (where the effect on the characters is the play's resolution), on the other due to being in the theatre (where the effect on the audience is the comic catharsis). Something like this parallelism probably underlies Aristotle's statement that the final cause of tragedy is a catharsis of the emotions of fear and pity raised by the fearful events in the tragedy, as his comments on those emotions in the Rhetoric make clear. Hecuba, for example, not only has fears, what happens to her is fearful, and what she does is fearful too. Those things that we would fear if they threatened us, arouse pity when we see them happen to others (Rhetoric 1386a25): the object of pity and fear is the same, the subject's relation to that object (direct in fear, and indirect, or distant, in pity) seems to make up the largest part of the difference between the two emotions. The fearfulness of the tragic events evokes the pity of the spectators, the resolution of the plot provides the catharsis of those emotions. Catharsis is not the same as resolution, but the resolution of the plot helps cause the catharsis in the audience.

To return to As You Like It. The characters in the play are embued with eros, desire. I suppose it is not unusual for some members of the audience to become directly embued with that same passion for Rosalind or Orlando, or perhaps Touchstone or Audrey. Less directly—but more obviously and more powerfully—the audience will have sympathy for those erotic characters, for we all know what it is to desire and to be separated from what we desire. It is, of course, most likely that audience members will feel something of both emotions (as we feel both fear and pity in tragedy)—an immediate attraction for the hero and heroine, and the more mediated feeling, sympathy, for their plight. If the main characters were not attractive at all we would be less likely to feel sympathy. The task of the comedy, then—its final cause—is to bring about a catharsis of the emotions of desire and sympathy. How does it accomplish this?

One kind of story goes like this: like the characters in the play, the audience takes part in and identifies with the green world, the world closer to the heart's desire, which the characters enter in the course of the play and within which their humorous excesses are purged so that the personal, interpersonal and social reintegrations can occur in the last scene. The green world is the world of desire; it is, as Northrop Frye says, not a world that judges moral worth, but one that wants to see the unity of desire with desired. “Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd”2 and the absurd is (in the world of desire) whatever blocks desire. What happens in the audience in this case, if parallel, might seem to be of questionable worth, perhaps just because of the freedom from moral judgment that the comic play generally creates for itself. The comic world, on this view, aims at satisfaction of Id. That, at least, would go far in explaining the negative view of comedy attributed to Plato and Augustine, among others.

That Platonic view of comedy is a little too simplistically moralizing.3 Generally moral questions are put off, our moral judgment is, as it were, set aside in comedy by making the “normal” society of the play's beginning highly questionable. The green world, then, is not just Id's playground. In As You Like It we see a brother plot against his brother's life and limb, and hear that the new Duke has just driven his brother off the throne and out to Arden. In other plays the stupidity of one or another law, usually about marriage, disables our moral judgment from taking the side of the “normal society.” And while that may not be enough to make desire's world the world of moral virtue, the ridiculous law or obvious injustice of the normal society is enough to give the green world freedom under a presumption of charity: it cannot be as stupid as the court of that original world.

What goes on in the audience, then, can be much more complex than morally questionable fantasizing about a world operating on laws invented by Id. Comic catharses fall into a range of possibilities, only the first of which seems entirely questionable. First, it is possible that an audience member could go into the green world of the theatre as into a fantasy. And when he comes out, eyes blinking, the real world with all its moral claims and political difficulties slaps him like sunlight across the face. To take up the case of the original audience of As You Like It, there is still the law of primogeniture, I am still a younger brother with few property rights, and no hope of fulfilling my desire for a Duke's only daughter; or, I am still an older brother with all these young ones eating up my estate, nickeling and diming me to death with their requests for schooling and funds, etc.4 Comedy, under this dispensation, has a cathartic effect just as circling a track for an hour does—it's hypnotic, we forget our problems; but then the hypnotic or incantatory effect ends and we wake to the world going on apace. This is the explanation of comic catharsis of all those who think of art as mere entertainment. It may be true; but if it is, there is no reason to study the humanities rather than watch football. Further, far from providing a “vicarious benefit,” or “facilitat[ing] pacification and escape” (Montrose, p. 53), it would seem to face the audience of such younger brothers of less than lordly families with the complete inadequacy of their own daylight world, and such comedy is likely to be as socially upsetting as Plato is said to have feared. We might call this version of catharsis the merely physiological catharsis, though whether it discharges itself in the theater (as Freud thinks), or on the body of the older brother (as Plato fears and Marx hopes) is left open.

An advance upon this line is marked by the idea that fantasy is not mere fantasy for human beings, that just as we expect the new world that will form outside the forest will be one in which the characters act in accord with what their hearts have learned within it, so too the audience of the comedy can go forth into its world, carrying the green world's heart within them. And so younger and older brothers, knowing their legal rights, and without abrogating such law as society has, will treat each other more in accord with the happy spirit of Arden than the murderous spirit of the original dukedom. The enactment of the personal, interpersonal, and social integration on stage will be imitated so far as possible in the world outside the theatre. This is, I assume, the more usual view of comic catharsis, and it is sufficient, if true, to defend comedy against its cultured despisers, for according to it comedy has a quite beneficient social and moral effect. It begins the practice of charity by its work on the community's moral imagination. Comedy is a vision of dianoia, the significance of which is social. We all experience it together.

What both of these first two views have in common is that in them the world that answers desire, the world of Arden, is seen and felt as absolute, as that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived, that which is to be loved with all one's heart and soul and mind. In the first version, that world is mere, or dangerous, fantasy; in the other view, it is a source of “social conciliation.”5

But there is at least one character in As You Like It, who, seeing that world's perfection, leaves it. And so, yet another type of comic catharsis must be possible, one in line with the character of Jaques. It may be, of course, that Jaques, preferring solitude and his melancholy, really never enters the green world (not seeing it as green), or if he does, does not change. Early on he claims that the green society “more usurps” (II.1.27) from the natural good than the normal society from which his Duke is but recently banished. In this he would be even more humorous than Touchstone, who at least takes part in the festive couplings of the country, though he is not much pleased with Arden. Under this reading Jaques is simply an irrecoverable surd in the comic movement, and has to be got off stage before the ritual concluding komos can begin.6

But it is possible to see and to play Jaques as a character who comes to his own kind of recognition, and changes because of it.7 If he does so change he will also mark a different kind of catharsis that is possible for an audience member as well. Jaques, at the end, loves the green world and sees its goodness, its happiness, but he loves it not in the way we ordinarily think of that word—as a synonym for eros, desire—he loves the world of the heart's desire without desiring it, and so he leaves it, and leaving it, he blesses it:

You to your former honor I bequeath;
your patience and your virtue well deserve it.
You to a love that your true faith doth merit;
You to your land and love and great allies;
You to a long and well-deserved bed;
and you to wrangling, for thy loving voyage
is but for two months victualed. So, to your pleasures;
I am for other than dancing measures.


There is none of his usual melancholic bile in this speech; and of Touchstone, the one person who is not so highly blessed, he seems to be merely speaking the plain truth, one that Touchstone himself would be unlikely to deny or find fault with. Touchstone had, in fact, predicted a similar result before his marriage (III.3.77-83).

So then, in the audience of the comedy, may there not be one or two who, leaving the play, admit that all the heart's desires are satisfied in the green world, and bless that world, but are cured of desiring it? They must have an inkling, as Jaques does, that desire's world is not absolute, even when it is fulfilled. I suppose Schopenhauer would like to say this: we learn, in comedy, and the comic catharsis makes us feel the good of, the resignation of desire. But I think that last speech of Jaques' bespeaks something other than Schopenhauerian resignation, for Schopenhauer could not bless the happy couples of the green world, as Jaques, heartfeltly, does.

The kind of comic catharsis I have in mind does not work just by showing us, and letting us identify with, the satisfaction of desire, or showing it to us and denying our feeling for it. It shows the world of eros as a whole, and, as every whole which we can see as a whole, the world of eros is a limited whole, and all its perfected satisfactions are but the figure of something greater than that whole world, to which Jaques goes, at the edge of the forest of Arden. What that is he has yet to discover, but that it is he must already believe. This we should call a religious or sublime comic catharsis, for it raises us entirely above thralldom to desire since it raises us above even the world of desire satisfied. So, of course, does Schopenhauer, in his fashion.

The first two, worldly, versions of catharsis are the ones most commonly attributed to comedy. Each subtype of that catharsis has its figure in As You Like It. The purely physiological catharsis is figured in Touchstone, the “material fool” (III.3.28) who, crowding in amongst all the other country copulatives, gives away the fact that he really thinks all the other marriages are as simply physiological as his. For a taste:

As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon
her bells, so man hath his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would
be nibbling



If a hart do lack a hind
Let him seek out Rosalind


and similar false gallop of verses.

Touchstone takes his satisfaction as some audience members come to a play—for entertainment or titillation; he comes to his resolution in the last scene—or shortly thereafter. He accomplishes his satisfaction upon the body of Audrey, as a younger brother in the audience might achieve some substitutive satisfaction for his real desires by seeing the play. It is “a poor virgin” (ergo, unfruitful), “an ill favored thing” (because fruitless), but his own (V.4.53-56). No doubt such plays as this will titillate and satisfy such a one for two months or so, but then the wrangling will begin, and Audrey—fantasy fulfillment—will be put away for more suitable meat. Or the usual, now galloping, poverty. So, too, the merely physiological catharsis of art wears thin; one needs more opium, more flowers to hide the chains, or else the very thing that hid the chains makes one become more aware of the chains.8 In short, it would seem, contra Freud,9 that art is less likely than religion to provide substitutive satisfaction to the demands of a raging Id, for the satisfactions presented to fantasy in dramatic art are manufactured out of things that some people accomplish in the real world; religion's are not. Id is, in this one regard, a realist: it doesn't want the picture of a cigar, it wants the real cigar. Touchstone becomes an incendiary.10

The second subtype of worldly catharsis—which we might call the moral catharsis—is figured variously in the other lovers, who undergo the trials of desire, the recognitions those trials lead to, and the personal, interpersonal and social redintigratio which the forest offers, and we, the audience, cheer, happily recognizing ourselves.

The second kind of catharsis, which we should perhaps call the religious comic catharsis, also has two forms. They both are recognitions that there is an ideal realm which checks or overcomes the world of desire even when that realm is fulfilled. That ideal realm bounds the world of desire and does not allow Arden to take itself as absolute, even when everyone in that green world may be satisfied. Only one of its two subtypes can be instantiated in this play, however, for both can only be instantiated on stage by Jaques. He may be understood (and played) as a prototype of Schopenhauerian denial of the world of desire—one who begins in melancholy and ends in resignation of action and desire. A Hindu might call such a Jaques a religious hero, and the play might bring such an audience member to a religious catharsis. Or, more likely for Shakespeare, and as I think Jaques's last speech makes clear, Jaques may be understood and played as someone who comes to recognize desire's goodness in Arden, who blesses the green world, but lets it be. He goes out to the edge of the green world of the heart to look for something which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor did it enter the mind of Bard to represent. Such a Jaques transfigures the play's beautiful comic resolution into a sublime one, and his recognition may be echoed, and engender its catharsis, in the audience.

This paper could end here, and for a while, it did. But it seems to me that the four kinds of catharsis accomplishable by the play, and the kinds of resolution reached in the play, figure different kinds of culture outside the play. The easiest to see is the society of the material fools, symbolized by T and A,11 for whom everything is merely physiology. Students of physical education come to mind, for whom work is lifting weights, running laps, lines, patterns, plays, and who build a day around these activities, others (philosophy or literature classes) falling in as they may—or not. What kind of thing can be cathartic for them? Things that relax their bodies from the efforts of the day: sex, drugs, rock and roll, or lounging at a play. The more such a one dedicates himself to the work, the stronger the catharsis needed to achieve a kind of normal state. In such a culture art is not only not a necessity, but probably an impossibility: sex, drugs, and rock and roll are more likely candidates for providing the necessary release than Shakespearean comedy, or a flash of T and A. Soon one will begin to demand New Year's Day games in sunny locales. Sic transit gloria mundi—the body culture, the materialism of atoms and the void.

A second culture is more genuinely social, and may be called moral culture; it exceeds physical culture as the soul, in medieval philosophy, exceeds the body,12 or as the marriage of true minds surpasses country copulation. This kind of culture may spend its days just as competitively as the first, though the competitions are for intangibles like love, honor, and perhaps money—which are, after all, bound up with signs. As their competitions and their desires, so must their catharses be, and the catharsis provided by a play may serve feelingly to recall the unity underlying and making possible the single-minded pursuits of the daylight world. For neither love, nor honor, nor even money is possible except that we live among others who recognize and support the reality of such “things,” for such are not merely things, but signs, and signs are a social reality. In this culture, art is a useful catharsis with socially important results. As Aristotle would say, such music conduces to moral and political virtue, whatever we may consider that to be (Politics 1339a21). That is to say, its results will be judged differently depending on how the moralist wishes the society to turn: liberals fancy Marx and expect artistic catharses to motivate social revolution (these days watered down to “change”), while conservatives are on the side of Freud, who expects art to work as a substitutive satisfaction for civilization's endemic discontents. But to judge art according to either standard is to make a political judgment on art, not an artistic or even a moral judgment. It transforms the free and reflective judgment of the beautiful into a determination according to concepts of reason.13

The other kind of culture14 let us call it religious, for it posits the world of desire as a completed whole, and thereby transcends it. Its vision is of a noncompetitive, infinitely sharable, but intimate and personal good: wisdom, beatific vision, communion of saints, Nirvana. The version of this culture corresponding to Schopenhauer's resigning catharsis is the unarmed society of Lamaism.15 The culture corresponding to the more sublime resolution, which does not seek to evaporate the principle of individuation—as Schopenhauer, nor curse the world as mere humorous illusion—as Schopenhauer, is the more traditional religious spirit of the west.16 For such a person a play itself is the mimesis of just that religious ideal, for without dissolving the principle of individuation, each person comes to his or her catharsis along with everyone else in the theatre. A play is an infinitely sharable, but intimate and personal good thing. Such a comedy is far from mere amusement; it is not only a vision, but a mimesis of ultimate social significance. A comedy not only figures, it enacts the good it figures: at a play the audience mimes the communal good we seek to instantiate in life. It is no wonder that drama was a religious ritual for the Greeks, that species of human being which is a permanent embarrassment to every lower type.

Further, and to the point of this particular culture. It is probably about as accidental as the fact that 3 - 2 = 1 that after the dark political ages of the Pax Romana, and the tiring out of rival football clubs of Vandals, Goths, and Visigoths, schools and universities were refounded not by states, but by monks and religious communities. The idea of a university is not an idea that a state would have: it does not need them. A state, particularly one with a highly mechanized economy, will find it much more useful to keep its citizens under the physiological or directly social understandings of culture and catharsis. Football—I mean physiological catharses—and fantasy fulfillment are its major tools.17 But the pursuit of wisdom exceeds the pursuit of socially constructed, or socially constructible, desires, for besides being an activity engaged in for its own sake and without a return to practical use, it is one which a finite being can never be finished with, or even imagine being finished with: in contrast to desire it is recognized as not having a termination. The pursuit of wisdom is an infinite task, and someone engaged in such a task needs play, for it brings him down to something accomplishable, before he goes back to the task which can never be finished, and into which even his play is taken up. For such a one art is a necessity, since only it can grant the catharsis, and the resolution, the spirit requires.

For a time, persons from all three cultures—physical, moral, religious—can meet at a play like As You Like It. It is, of course, unlikely that they are meeting in any other sense than that which any material fool could describe and understand. In judging a work of art such as As You Like It, then, an audience necessarily judges itself; in what members of the audience cheer for, they show their taste, confess their culture, perhaps even their religion. A material fool judges merely the pleasantness of the sensations of the play, and about this there can be no disputing: some prefer Audrey, some prefer sheep. Their pleasures are incommunicable each to each, though the source may be bought, sold, or, in turn, enjoyed by all. Further, like Touchstone, they cannot help what they feel, and they think no one else can either—as pigeons bill, marriage is nibbling.

The more noble lovers, and their correlative audience, have an ontological commitment to freedom, understood as freedom from determination by a material humor; that freedom allows them to make commitments to each other which we can expect to last longer than the two-month, or two-hour, cure of a humor. For them, judgments of taste are not merely personal caprice, but are tied to something more constant: they are not merely judgments of physiological taste. The third figure, Jaques, has, under either reading of him, an ontological commitment to freedom understood positively: a transcendental reality is the condition for the happy possibilities of lovers in the forest of Arden. Of that reality, on the outer and binding edge of our happiness, he would learn more. He goes to seek it.

One of my dyed-in-the-wool Platonist students, Ryan Nelson, has suggested that since each person has an element which aims at each type of catharsis, all three kinds of catharsis work on each member of the audience. That idea is more charitable than mine; therefore, no doubt, truer. Further, if art is capable of improving culture, Ryan's idea must be the basis of the how. Someone whose desires run to T and A goes to the play and, seeing his Touchstone desire run to its conclusion in Audrey, is “feelingly persuaded” that he wants more than that—or something other: something more like Rosalind and Orlando, or Celia and Oliver. His passions have begun their education. So, like the forest of Arden, the play does not just flatter our desires, but feelingly persuades us of what we are (II.1.10). What we are is something more than the humorous Touchstone will admit, though his marriage's failure in two month's time will exhibit it—in case the marriage itself hasn't made it plain.18

The culture of Touchstone can be reduced to culture embodied in particular unique empirical artifacts, to which the only valid question is “isn't that interesting?” and the only politically correct answer is “yes.” If you don't say yes, your preference for one artifact rather than another is merely humorous, a different physiological taste. Touchstone makes Audrey; isn't that interesting? Corin makes sheep; isn't that interesting?19 You now know everything you need to know about multicultur-alism except what each culture finds interesting; isn't that interesting? This is culture as a historicist, like Herder, understood it. There are still Herders among us. Isn't that interesting?

The culture of the lovers is one of normative commitments open to moral development. It is a culture which by its very existence asks us “isn't this good?” And in order to answer that question you would have to live in that culture of normative commitments, you would have to put yourself into such commitments; and the quality of those commitments would be your answer. The play achieves a brief version of this state in the catharsis it produces in the average audience; but insofar as it is but a two-hour version of moral culture, it is not moral culture, and we must advance from the aesthetic to the actual. That is, like the people in Arden, we must now go back to the real world, taking the green world with us. We have noted in the earlier part of this essay that the play is not merely a symbol of morality, but also begins the construction of a world closer to the moral heart, for it constructs in the audience that unity of feeling and reason which is the comic catharsis. This is culture as Kant understood it. There are still Kantians among us. Perhaps this investigation is a Kantian version of play.

Jaques goes to the very edge of culture, and wonders, “What is it that allows these cultures to be?” That is, he asks, “What are the conditions for the possibility of culture?” And the only proper response is continual wonder. Jaques is nothing if not wondering. This culture, if there were one, would be the culture of philosophy, if there was any.


  1. Aristotle, for example, argues that the catharsis resulting from sacred songs is different depending on the character of the worshipper, but that some kind of catharsis occurs in all hearers (Politics 1342a5-16). Just above that he mentioned three kinds of benefit available from music (the kinds of benefit depending on the capacity of the audience) at 1341b33-40. He leaves the question of tragedy's effect “in the theatre” as “another discourse” in Poetics 1449a8. In an article from Renaissance Drama (New Series) 2 (1969): 3-22, O. B. Hardison outlined “Three Types of Renaissance Catharsis” as “moral, religious, and literal.” He does not mention their differences as relative to the character of the audience.

  2. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 167.

  3. This is probably too simplistic even for Plato, who died, so they say, with a copy of Aristophanes under his pillow.

  4. For many more details on the social import of the enmities played out in As You Like It, see Louis A Montrose, “The Place of a Brother in As You Like It: Social process and comic form,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 40-54.

  5. Montrose uses this phrase (p. 54), but seems to have in mind a rather sanguine physiological account (facilitating pacification and escape), or a bootstrapping economic one “fostering strength and perseverance” in one's effort to achieve, as Orlando does, what birth denies (p. 53). But those younger brothers (and Montrose mentions some) who can bootstrap out of their oppressed condition in Elizabethan society (or any other) are few, and far between, and very, very lucky.

  6. Which komos is “the sensible rendering of the moral idea” of the community of mankind (Critique of Judgement, translated by James Creed Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), to foreshadow a point I will pick up later.

  7. See Robert B. Bennet, “Reform of a Malcontent: Jaques and the meaning of As You Like It,Shakespeare Studies (1976): 201f.

  8. Even 276 channels might not be enough. The culminating point of this type of culture, “where devotion to what is superfluous begins to be prejudicial to what is indispensable, is called luxury” (Kant, p. 432).

  9. See Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964). Chapter two defines art as a substitutive satisfaction.

  10. I should add that I do not mean to suggest by this that the catharsis signified by Touchstone is not a catharsis, nor would I deny that the other kinds of catharsis—those symbolized by the lovers and Jaques—are also physiological. As that poor mild virgin, Emily Dickinson, said, “When I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry” (quoted by Frye, Anatomy, p. 27).

  11. Lest some ill-humored reader embed me in a context I do not wish to be bedded in, let me say that what I mean by T and A is just Touchstone and Audrey.

  12. See, for example Augustine's little treatise, De quantitate animae, J. P. Migne (Patroligia Latina, vol. 32, Paris: 1845) cols. 1035-1049.

  13. That one can make such judgments on art is as old as political philosophy, though neither Plato nor Aristotle would say that political judgments are the only ones that can be made of art. Of music Aristotle remarks that there are three plausible purposes for having it in a state: “for the sake of amusement and relaxation, like sleep or drinking, [or] … music conduces to virtue on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures, … or … it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and mental cultivation, which is a third alternative” (Politics 1339a16-26).

  14. If any readers begin to feel that they have been climbing up and down a ladder built after a familiar pattern, there is probably something to the thought. For those who are not natural Platonists there is also Aristotle's remark in the Ethics that the three main kinds of life are the life of pleasure, the practical, social life aiming at moral virtue, and the contemplative life (NE 1095b14-1096a5).

  15. See Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988).

  16. Here we see (despite himself) Nietzsche's cultural debt to Schopenhauer, for he evaporates the principle of individuation. In The Birth of Tragedy (trans. Francis Golffing [New York: Doubleday, 1956]), Nietzsche seems to claim that the principle of individuation is dissolved: “the transport of the Dionysiac state … carries with it a Lethean element in which everything that has been experienced by the individual is drowned” (§7). See also §18 and §21 where he calls the Apollonian charm of art “illusory,” “mere appearance” cast upon the darkness, and “the work of Maya.”

  17. Aristotle speaks of this culture when he says the bodily pleasures “are pursued because of their violence by those who cannot enjoy other pleasures, … for they have nothing else to enjoy, and, besides, a neutral state is painful to many people because of their nature. … Similarly, the youthful, … or people of an excitable nature always need relief” (NE 1154b3-12). In Politics he calls this culture the culture of natural slaves, as in Ethics he had said that a constitution that does not aim at virtue is a failure.

  18. In less liberated days a critic would say that “spectators are of two kinds—the one free and educated, and the other a vulgar crowd … [and] their music will correspond to their minds; for as their minds are perverted from their natural state, so there are perverted modes and highly strung and unnaturally colored melodies” etc. (Politics 1342a18-25). These days we know that the difference between cultures is mere difference, and no judgments about whole cultures being vulgar are allowed.

  19. Lest some lamb think I am here straying from the folds of Shakespeare's play, recall the interesting discussion between Corin and Touchstone on the differences between the hand-kissing court and the more rural rubbing of sheep (III.2.11-79).

I thank Dan Pekarske, with whom I have been discussing these issues for years; part of this is his. I would also like to thank Brenda, Laura, Brett, and Ryan, from the Shakespeare class I recently led, who contributed much to my understanding of the play.

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9647

SOURCE: “Wrestling as Play and Game in As You Like It,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 265-87.

[In the following essay, Marshall explores the way in which wrestling is used as a metaphor for socially constructed emotion.]

As You Like It, long considered among the happiest and most refined of Shakespearean comedies, has lately been seen as shadowed by various social tensions. Critics have traced the difficulties of “fraternal enmity” and hostilities over primogeniture,1 the bitter implications of a changing agricultural economy,2 and the ambiguous resistances that were enacted against an oppressive sex and gender system.3 The shift from an idealizing critical tendency to a focus on dark implications enacts the general movement of responses to Shakespeare's comedies, which have appeared far more serious under the gazes of feminism and new historicism than an earlier aesthetic would have dreamed. Yet because what was traditionally admired about As You Like It was precisely its ability to manage conflict—as C.L. Barber put it, the “power to express conflict and order it in art”4—, the critical shift in this case raises specific questions about representation and about the relation of social tensions to the comic realm, which are overlooked if we simply ascribe to an inevitable rotation of tastes and interests this movement from “enchanted world” to “inchoate energies.”5 The complexity of “express[ing] conflict” is showcased in the staged wrestling match in I.ii, which functions formally in As You Like It to channel and exorcise physical aggressions, but functions theatrically to unsettle various oppositions between art and life. Situated on the structural boundaries differentiating fight, sport, and theater, the match offers a conspicuous avowal of physical presence and conflict, even as it calls into question our modes for recognizing and understanding them. Building on the work of critics who have inquired into the troubled codes of gender in As You Like It, this essay will address the play's acknowledgement of the textuality of physical presence through its incorporation of wrestling. I will also consider the implications such textuality has for an understanding of performative violence.

The absolute physicality of wrestling, the perfect identification between the wrestler and his body, led Roland Barthes to define it in a classic essay as “not a sport” but “a spectacle.” The “obviousness of the roles,” together with the purity of the gestures (Suffering, Defeat, and Justice are all on display), portray “an ideal understanding of things,” the “image of the perfect intelligibility of reality.”6 Despite the historical distance between the forms of wrestling known to Shakespeare in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England and those observable in twentieth-century France, Barthes's perception of the sport's performative truth applies to As You Like It on several levels. Within the fictional world of the play, the match at Duke Frederick's court is at once entertainment and an attempt to order reality in a morally intelligible way: either Charles will preserve his status (and his employer's) as preeminent, or Orlando will demonstrate his heroic ascendancy. And in the theater, an audience delighting with Celia and Rosalind in the triumph of the underdog ordinarily finds Orlando's victory a memorable display of morally ordered plot. Yet because of its intertextuality—the performance embedded in a highly mannered drama—this spectacle is by no means pure: rules necessary to define the game, its players, the play space, and the audience are all brought into question. As a result, although the emphatic physicality of the wrestling match provides the theater audience with an easily comprehensible display of athletic skill and channeled violence, the episode also interrogates the boundaries of its own game and of social codes more generally. Not least among the codes thus questioned are those ordering the complex layers of theatricality separating the bodies of the performing actors from those of the observing audience.

Barthes's essay suggests that despite its obvious physicality, wrestling as a spectacle is astonishingly flat, teasing in its presentation of ordered reality. Obvious roles, pure gestures, strictly physical identities—none of this can offer assurance that the “image of the perfect intelligibility of reality” is reality itself. Discussions of wrestling in Tudor and Stuart social discourse convey a similar distrust, although Shakespeare's contemporaries are suspicious of wrestling less for its teasing simplicity than for its shifting significations. They see wrestling as a form of play uneasily situated on the margin between sport (ordered and rule-bound) and uncontrolled violence. Thus it offers a spectacle that paradoxically requires interpretation; it demands to be “read,” to have judgment rendered as to who plays fairly (wrestles as game) and who transgresses the boundaries of sport (wrestles truly violently). These issues are further complicated by the frequent collapse of the line separating players from audience; in the sixteenth century, as today, a wrestling match could incite violence among its spectators.

The importance of its relation to the audience indicates that wrestling, in itself, is closer to theater than spectacle. Of course the theatrical situation of As You Like It's wrestling match complicates any such distinction mightily. While the presence of wrestlers ordinarily tantalizes with the purported “reality” of violence, the representation of wrestling in the theater underscores the receding quality of any such physical truth. Mimesis deprives the spectacle of exactly that form of validity—physical violence—it would claim for itself. Here we face the redoubled truth of Derrida's insight that “play is the disruption of presence.”7 The wrestlers' violence is mediated by the “play” of both sport and spectacle; their bodies are ambiguously present, problematically known. For if violence can be represented or “played,” it can be faked; so too with love, so too with gender. Each of these seemingly simple human truths is shown by As You Like It to be constructed, chosen, presented, and represented. By foregrounding wrestling, As You Like It shows how even the most simple—some would say crude—forms of human interaction are socially codified.

The play's inquiry into the shifting realities of physical presence begins abruptly, with the skirmish that breaks out between Orlando and Oliver in the first moments of As You Like It. An audience is challenged immediately to take sides in the conflict, and since violence signifies differently to these two brothers, our choice carries implications beyond the characterological. Modern productions typically exaggerate Oliver's menacing appearance and unscrupulous behavior, although the text does not make clear who instigates the initial attack: Oliver's “What, boy!” (I.i.52) may announce his attack on Orlando, or it may accompany a threatening gesture.8 But with Orlando's reply—“Come, come, elder brother, you are too young in this” (I.i.53-54)—actual violence evidently surfaces, as announced by Oliver's response, “Wilt thou lay hands on me villain?” (I.i.55).9 Orlando uses his position of physical dominance to assert his identity: “I am no villain. I am the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys” (I.i.56-57). Affirming identity through the patriarchy, Orlando defends his father's name rather than merely his own:

he is thrice a villain that says such a father begot villains. Wert thou not my brother, I would not take this hand from thy throat till this other had pulled out thy tongue for saying so. Thou hast railed on thyself.


References to “this hand” and “this other,” to “thy throat” and “thy tongue,” focus and ground the conflict in an opposition between two individuals, but it is precisely this opposition and separability that the blood bond denies. Oliver has insulted not, or not only, the mutual father, but “railed on [him]self” (I.i.62). “Wert thou not my brother” (emphasis added), Orlando's violence would be unconstrained; as things are, family ties efface enmity's distinctions. Somewhere in the course of demanding “such exercises as may become a gentleman” or “the poor allottery [his] father left” him (I.i. 72-73), Orlando releases Oliver from his grip.

While the emotions fueling this skirmish are evidently of long duration, the encounter itself seems spontaneous, unpremeditated. Indecorously coming to blows with his brother, Orlando demonstrates the depth and intensity of his outrage; violence for him is the sign of validity. In his opening lines Orlando has set up the play's central thematic contrast, that between nature (“the something that nature gave me” [I.i.17]) and culture (“call you that keeping for a gentleman of my birth” [I.i.8-9]; “I am not taught to make anything” [I.i.301). The outbreak of violence, a sudden rupturing of cultivated prohibitions on physical resolution of differences, seems to stem from the “nature” side of this antithesis. Oliver's threat to “physic” his brother's “rankness” (I.i.86) may further a sense that Orlando, however sympathetic he is as a character, has restored to violence because he is overgrown and undereducated.

Wrestling, however, was on Oliver's mind before he met his brother and incited him to violence. As soon becomes apparent, Oliver not only knew that Charles the wrestler was on hand (I.i.89-90), but with his elliptical remark “’Twill be a good way. And tomorrow the wrestling is” (I.i.93-94), he reveals prior formation of a plan to sacrifice and dispose of Orlando in a match with Charles. What had seemed a moment earlier the spontaneous expression of Orlando's frustrated pride of place now appears a deliberate attempt by a scheming Oliver to mark Orlando as a wrestler, and thereby to confirm and strengthen the younger brother's resolve (already “secretly” [I.i.122] communicated to Charles) to answer the general challenge issued by the duke's wrestler.11 Orlando's visceral anger has impressed his sincerity on the audience, but the revelation of Oliver's manipulation shows physical violence to be an unreliable gauge of sincerity.

The immediate arrival of Charles, with his talk of wrestling for “credit” and “for prize” (I.i.125, 159), complicates even further any initial impression of physical violence as pure and unmediated. Oliver's attempt to entice Charles with treacherous instruction—“I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger” (I.i.144-45)—reiterates the visceral hatred evidenced in his skirmish with Orlando, but Oliver fails to infect Charles with his feeling of outrage. Promising to “give [Orlando] his payment” (I.i.158), Charles betrays with his metaphor his own attitude toward wrestling—it is a game played “for prize.” His mannered speech reveals the gamesome character of this cultivated wrestler:

Your brother is but young and tender, and for your love I would be loath to foil him, as I must for my own honour if he come in. Therefore out of my love to you, I came hither to acquaint you withal, that either you might stay him from his intendment, or brook such disgrace well as he shall run into.


Although he confidently assumes his own physical ascendancy, Charles is clearly no mere natural; he wrestles for “honour,” anticipating social and financial outcomes from the match.

Orlando uses physical violence in an expressive manner, both when he confronts his brother and when he appears, possibly disguised (see I.i.124), at Duke Senior's wrestling match. Oliver, more sinister in his calculations, sees the formal violence of the wrestling match as open to manipulation. The sport's propensity to dissolve into direct aggression signifies, for him, the opportunity to cloak homicide in gaming clothes (in a metaphorical sense—wrestlers in Shakespeare's time, as today, typically wore the briefest of trunks). Charles, employed as “the Duke's wrestler” (I.i.89), seems to be keenly aware of the nuances of his professional activity, its sliding signification. On the one hand, by seeking permission from Oliver to “foil” his brother, and by receiving direction to harm Orlando, Charles functions as a courtly hit man. On the other, his references to “credit,” “honor,” and “prize,” together with the attitudes expressed by the audience of the match, suggest that Charles's purpose is primarily to provide entertainment. For an audience backing Orlando or for anyone attuned to the rhythms of myth and fairy tale,12 the match in I.ii. may seem to offer “an ideal understanding of things,” but the presentation early in the play of widely variable attitudes toward wrestling works to erode any firm sense that such an understanding corresponds with reality.

Charles's appearance heralds not only the imminent match, but the sporting attitude glimpsed at Duke Frederick's palace. Despite the machinations of the duke himself, Frederick's palace affords the leisure for games, foolery, and court wrestling. Celia's and Rosalind's genteel practice of “devis[ing] sports” (I.ii.23) contrasts markedly with the “unkept” Orlando's passionate “mutiny against [his] servitude” (I.i.8, 23). Rosalind suggests “sports” by way of following Celia's command to “be merry”; entertainments such as “falling in love” or “mock[ing] the good hussif Fortune from her wheel” (I.ii.22, 24, 30-31) are proposed as a means of passing time, of escaping the burdensome worries Rosalind feels because of her father's banishment. Sport is seen, in a word, as recreation. The ladies, moreover, understand a firm distinction between such gamesome activities and behaving “in good earnest” (I.ii.26); the boundaries marking the safe limits of the game of love must be respected. Their brief exercise in mocking Fortune (I.ii.30-53) demonstrates a prerehearsed quality that suggests the game's familiarity. This is borne out later by Jaques's observation of Touchstone railing “on Lady Fortune in good terms” (II.vii.16) and by his proposing a similar version of the game to Orlando (III.ii.272-74).

The wrestling match is placed within the sporting context by Le Beau's announcement—“Fair Princess, you have lost much good sport” (I.ii.92). But whereas the ladies have proposed games in which they can actively participate, Le Beau announces a spectator sport: “they are coming to perform it” (I.ii.106-107). Le Beau seems to equate the coming of the wrestlers with the arrival of a band of itinerant players, for while “perform” might suggest the skilled execution of a deed, the word's theatrical connotations are also obvious in this context. His fictionalizing narration of “the manner of the wrestling,” so stylized that Celia likens it to “the beginning” of “an old tale” (I.ii.110), further distances the event from the putative reality of court. Indeed, Le Beau's explicit attentions to “the beginning” and “the end” (I.ii.104, 105) of the event serve to frame it, to mark in a narrative fashion the boundaries of the wrestling match.13

Articulating boundaries through narrative chronology serves a particularly important function here, since the playing space lacks obvious physical definition. The playing space of the wrestling match, while evidently a closed field that has been previously designated, is decidedly portable. Le Beau tells the ladies that “here where you are they are coming to perform it”; “here is the place appointed for the wrestling” (I.ii.106-107, 134-35). Keir Elam, examining the way the dramatic world creates its own context, remarks how “the absent other place—the scene of the wrestling—becomes … the here and now of the dialogue not because the present speakers, or the audience, are taken to it, but because it is brought, mountain-to-Mohammed- or Birnam Wood-to-Dunsinane-like, to them, in order to be duly subjected to the ladies' commentary.”14 The playing space is evidently temporary as well as portable—before Le Beau's announcement the ladies did not know and apparently could not tell that they occupied “the place appointed for the wrestling.”

Rules defining the audience are crucial in marking any game or playing space. While Le Beau is too “full of news” (I.ii.86) to acknowledge propriety, Touchstone raises an objection to the ladies' presence: “It is the first time that ever I heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies” (I.ii.127-29). The clown must, by profession, pay keen attention to social conventions. Moreover, Touchstone is characteristically alert to physical discomfort, and implicitly objects to the violence of the “sport”; after hearing Le Beau's account of the three challengers left “with little hope of life,” he asks with mock innocence, “But what is the sport monsieur, that the ladies have lost?” (I.ii.118, 124-25). While the normal audience for wrestling is evidently male, this rule would appear to be one that may be broken with impunity, at least by ladies of such important social position, since Duke Frederick acknowledges the presence of Celia and Rosalind “crept hither to see the wrestling” and implicitly grants the “leave” (I.ii.144-45, 146) to watch that Rosalind requests. Rosalind's desire to break the code—and her urging Celia to join her—sets in motion the pattern of transgressing gender boundaries that later provides much of the play's interest. But as audience to the wrestling match, both ladies respect its frame. Rosalind's prayerful reference to Hercules and Celia's wish to be “invisible” or to have a “thunderbolt” in her eye (I.ii.198, 199, 202) attest to the real impermeability of the boundary separating them from the wrestlers: only a superhuman agent could break through to aid Orlando.

Orlando's participation in the match—his very presence at Frederick's court—is also transgressive, but in other ways. Although nobly born, Orlando confesses himself “rustically” kept “at home”; he claims to be less skilled even than his brother's horses, who are “taught their manage” (I.i.7, 12). Le Beau's approving reference to the “three proper young men” (I.ii.111) who have been vanquished, together with the court setting and Charles's speech and general bearing, create a hint of elitism about the match. Clearly it is conceived as a disciplined and entertaining sport—not a skirmish between village thugs. As “the Duke's wrestler” (I.i.89), Charles occupies a position somewhere between an entertainer and a defensive champion. Orlando, however, carries with him into the match the same aura of sincerity that characterized his earlier bout with Oliver. The event signifies for him a “trial” (I.ii.176) in which he might prove himself, and despite attempts by Duke Frederick, Celia, and Rosalind to dissuade him, “he will not be entreated” (I.ii.149-50).

One can begin to sense before the match ever begins that the court party may be protesting too much about the prowess of its champion—that Charles's reputation may properly exist in the same realm as the self-announcing fiction of Le Beau's “old tale.” In the theater this will depend on Charles's portrayal. What seems clear, at any rate, is that while Charles wrestles according to custom and in a performative way, Orlando wrestles to prove his identity and self-worth. Orlando, moreover, displaces onto Charles the aggression he has partially controlled in the earlier bout with Oliver. Defining the match differently may in fact result in separate sets of rules for Charles and Orlando, although there is no indication that the match is construed as unfair.

Success at wrestling, as Sir Thomas Elyot noted in 1531, need not necessarily depend on brute strength. Elyot wrote: “it hath ben sene that the waiker persone, by the sleight of wrastlyng, hath ouerthrowen the strenger, almost or he coulde fasten on the other any violent stroke.”15 Orlando evidently uses some such “sleight” in his encounter with Charles, but the Folio stage directions instruct simply “Wrestle” and a few lines later “Shout” (I.ii.200sd, 203sd), when Charles is thrown. The Duke then intervenes and inquires about Charles, who “cannot speak” (I.ii.208) and is, at the Duke's command, borne away. No more is heard of Charles—a change from Rosalynde, in which Lodge specifies both how the Norman champion “yielded nature her due” and how “the death of this champion” gains greater admiration for Rosader (the figure corresponding to Orlando).16

While it silences Charles, Orlando's victory wins for him the opportunity to announce himself publicly. Having previously been kept “rustically at home” (I.i.7) and “not taught to make anything” (I.i.30), Orlando's announcement of his name and his father's marks a passage into society and a concurrent entry into Duke Frederick's avowed enmity (I.ii.213-19). Clearly Orlando's descent from Sir Rowland de Boys validates Rosalind's budding attraction (I.ii.224-28). These responses signal the immediate access of social forms in the process of interpreting or responding to the wrestling match. Even if it were possible for Orlando and Charles to wrestle “man to man,” without intrusions from past, present, and future influences, the match can be understood only through the varied lenses produced by the spectators' desires and expectations. Moreover, the wrestling bout is transmuted into metaphor directly upon its completion. At I.ii.239-45, Orlando and Rosalind “fall in love in wrestling terms”17 and the trope continues in the next scene when Celia urges Rosalind to “wrestle with thy affections” (I.iii.20). According to Raymond B. Waddington, the lovers' adoption of the wrestling metaphor “establish[es] the precedent of reading stage actions emblematically.”18 Audience as well as critics read stage actions in this way. The ease with which wrestling becomes an emblem shows how violence and conflict flow into the tissue of language.

For an early seventeenth-century audience, wrestling's associative meanings would not have been limited to the emblematic. The shifting attitudes toward wrestling in the first act of As You Like It correspond to a similar valency in contemporary references to the sport. Conduct manuals for young gentlemen of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries frequently include wrestling in their recommendations for physical activities. Castiglione “deem[ed] it highly important” for the ideal courtier “to know how to wrestle, because this frequently accompanies the use of weapons on foot.”19 Wrestling was also granted a particular English pedigree by Holinshed's account of how the giant Gogmagog was subdued at Dover.20 Though it was in the first order a militaristic skill, English writers of the period emphasize how the gentlemanly practice of wrestling can promote strength and provide recreation. Nevertheless, their reiterated stipulations on practicing the sport indicate its potential danger. Sir Thomas Elyot, for instance, implicitly acknowledges the violence of the activity when he specifies that it be undertaken “with one that is equall in strengthe, or some what under, and that the place be softe, that in fallinge theyr bodies be nat brused.”21 In The Castel of Health (1541) as in The Boke Named the Governor (1531), Elyot mentions the development capabilities of wrestling; he recommends such exercise “only for yonge men, which be inclined, or be apte to the warres.”22 King James, however, is somewhat freer in his recommendations. In Basilikon Doron (1598), although he disallows “all rough and violent exercises, as the footeball,” he includes wrestling in his list of “exercises of the bodie most commendable to be vsed by a young Prince.”23 James Cleland (1611) and Henry Osborne (1656) also reiterate the potential usefulness of being skilled in wrestling, but Henry Peacham (1622) condemns wrestling, along with “throwing,” as “exercises not so well beseeming nobility, but rather soldiers in a camp or a prince's guard.”24 Robert Burton (1621) also acknowledges the lowliness of wrestling when he lists it among “the common recreations of the country folks,” although Burton offers a general endorsement of exercises that might preserve the health of a gentry class he sees as dangerously idle.25

Orlando might be understood as one whose physical vitality and skill in single combat have been won at the price of social acceptability. Orlando views wrestling as something more than a form of exercise; it offers him, in the confrontation with his brother, a means of expressing anger and, in the match, a chance of winning renown. Conscious that his habits are less than gentlemanly, Orlando complains to his brother:

My father charged you in his will to give me good education: you have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities.


Orlando, one might say (or at least he might say), wrestles “like a peasant.” Contemporary references acknowledge clear class distinctions in the matter and manner of wrestling. While authors of conduct manuals generally allow wrestling for the cultivation of individual skills and capacities among the gentry, other writers make clear the dangers associated with lower-class practice of the sport.

The chronicler John Stow (1603), for instance, was attuned to the social disturbances wrestling occasionally unleashed. Stow's account of the casual activities of London youths, who “in the Holy dayes in Sommer … exercised themselves, in leaping, dauncing, shooting, wrestling, casting of the stone or ball, etc.” is closely conflated with references to civic disturbances occurring at the annual matches at Clerkenwell.26 Stow reports that in a match in 1222 between Londoners and wrestlers from Westminster, the “Citizens … had the mastrie of the men in the suburbs”27 although he does not specify, as other sources do, that a number of people were severely wounded or killed in the ensuing riots, which continued for several days.28 Stow also reports that at the annual matches in 1453 a “tumult [was] made agaynst the Maior,”29 and though he again provides no further details, simply noting the “tumult” 150 years after its occurrence is enough to suggest its magnitude.

Something of the danger associated with wrestling is also suggested by the description German traveler Paul Hentzner supplies of the annual St. Bartholomew's Day match, as it was practiced during Elizabeth's time.

[I]t is usual for the mayor, attended by the twelve principal aldermen, to walk in a neighbouring field, dressed in his scarlet gown, and about his neck a golden chain, to which is hung a golden fleece, and besides, that particular ornament, which distinguishes the most noble order of the garter … upon their arrival at a place appointed for that purpose, where a tent is pitched, the mob begin to wrestle before them, two at a time; the conquerors receive rewards from the magistrates.30

Clearly Hentzner was impressed by the ceremonial quality of “this show,” not least because a member of his company had “his pocket picked of his purse” while he was intently watching the spectacle.31 In Hentzner's account, as implicitly in Stow's, the placement of these matches outside the city demonstrates their liminal quality. However validated by ritual occurrence and the official presence of mayor and aldermen, the wrestling matches were potentially dangerous events, where the violence designated for “a place appointed for that purpose” threatened to spill over into lawless behavior among the assembled crowd.

Wrestling's feigned aggression could incite actual violence, for the “play” of wrestling occurred on the border with reality. For young gentlemen, wrestling was allowed because it prepared one for future duties as courtier or soldier; the practice required regulation, however, because of its structural proximity to such destructive combat. The chroniclers were more concerned that the spectacle of wrestling could provoke violence among its audience. Perhaps because of this spectacular quality, Richard Carew understood wrestling in theatrical terms. Describing in 1602 the wrestling of boys in Cornwall, Carew attributes to both the participants and the audience a self-conscious theatricality.

For performing this play, the beholders cast themselves in a ring, which they call, Making a place: into the empty middle space whereof, the two champion wrestlers step forth, stripped into their dublets and hosen, and untrussed, that they may so the better commaund the use of their lymmes, and first shaking hands in token of friendship, they fall presently to the effects of anger: for each striveth how to take hold of other, with his best advantage, and to beare his adverse party downe.32

The delineation of “a place” is crucial, since play is defined through its difference from the ordinary order of things. As Johann Huizinga points out, “limitation as to space” is especially “striking”: “All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course.”33 Marking the playground by arranging themselves in a circle, the Cornish youths simultaneously become an audience for the performance. Adopting “the effects of anger,” the champions function as performers. So too at Duke Frederick's court, the wrestling match depends upon the willing participation of champion and challenger, but also on the attention of the court party: this sport requires an audience. Yet oddly enough, the theatricality that would seem to belie wrestling's validity—not its proximity to unregulated violence—is what enables Oliver to proceed with his plot against Orlando's life. At Frederick's court, in other words, wrestling might inflict real damage not in spite of but because of its vulnerability to being faked; it is not securely fixed in either a mimetic or a ludic realm. Carew's description of “making a place” perfectly exemplifies the simultaneity of Renaissance concepts of game and play, and shows how “play” comprehended both ludic and mimetic activities.34 Wrestling, at once sport and spectacle, functioned analogously to theatrical plays conceived and presented in this bivalent manner. The breakdown of this largely inclusive notion of play in modern American culture is evidenced by typical complaints about the falseness of professional wrestling and a corresponding distrust of nonillusionistic theater.

In the case of As You Like It, the wrestling match is not merely analogous to but embedded within a theatrical framework. In performance, the various codes revealed by discourse analysis are at least partially subsumed by the patent fact of physical presence. Here, the firmest distinction between the “game” or “spectacle” of the wrestling match and the “drama” of the surrounding action will also be the most obvious one: wrestling is an affair of bodies and not words. Le Beau's announcement of Charles's defeat—“He cannot speak” (I.ii.208)—illustrates perfectly the established priority of deed over word, the capacity of pure spectacle or of violence (and in wrestling the two are coterminous) to destroy language.35 The ludic interval, because it presents violent physical action of a sort that is anterior to language, would seem to possess greater “reality” than the surrounding text of As You Like It. The wrestling match proclaims its truth, as Barthes would have it, by the “emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs,” the “exhaustion of the content by the form.” Suffering, Defeat, and Justice are perfectly realized: “the wrestler's gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true.”36

But in the theater, if not before the wrestling ring, we suspect that appearance is almost paradigmatically not truth. For while any wrestling match depends upon and insists upon the reality of physical presence, the audience of As You Like It can scarcely avoid noticing the theatricality of the staged match, which, no matter how naturalistic its presentation, has been choreographed, rule-bound, and carefully rehearsed, to avoid the very injuries it claims to announce. It also matters that the wrestling match has been triply staged—by the theatrical company, by Orlando and Charles, and by Oliver. The effect recalls the “closure of representation” Derrida associates with Artaud's theater of cruelty: in the theatrical “labor of total representation … the affirmation of life lets itself be doubled and emptied by negation.”37 Purporting to distill the threatened aggression, frustration, and violence of the play into pure form, to manifest conflict and, through its expression, to allow its release, the wrestling match instead offers only more theater.38 Promising the clear and emphatic spectacle of physical violence, it betrays its own conventionalized origins.

Herbert Blau names “theater's most compelling power” to be “the precipitating moment when … it identifies or reveals or betrays itself as theater. At that moment, we become aware of the role of the audience in the enfabled pursuit of an absence.”39 So here, the supposed purity of physical interaction collapses in the face of an awareness of its theatricality. The wrestling match functions as a marker for what is otherwise largely absent from the comic world of As You Like It—an acknowledgement of the body's intractability. But though the match foregrounds the matter of the body, it effectively camouflages physicality in the codes of sport and spectacle, thus necessarily foreclosing any approach to the body proper.

Writ small in the relation of the spectacular wrestling match to the dramatic text in which it is embedded is the age-old debate about Shakespearean plays as performance or text. Those who, like Coleridge, consider Shakespeare's words too pure for the stage would want to limit the significance of the wrestling match to its plotted outcome and its metaphorical capacities. They would consider the match pure performance, “spectacular” in the pejorative sense. In the other court, those more viscerally involved with theater may find the match a compelling focus of the play's initial action, the clearest and most memorable display of Orlando's heroic stance, as well as a stunning preview of the structuring of those games and contests that figure so centrally in the play's development. The lines of this particular debate appear to be clearly drawn, yet as W. B. Worthen points out, it is all too easy to ignore “the institutional practices already inscribed in the theatre, in gesture and intonation, in the body and its behaviors, the ‘textualizing’ formalities that render theatre significant.”40 So powerful is this theatrical rhetoric that any performance of the wrestling match can more accurately be said to reveal a production's adherence to traditional conceptions of conflict and physical presence than to display the body itself. Theatrical presentation of wrestling in As You Like It reiterates rather than resolves the tension between body and text, performance and script; it reveals their mutual and ongoing dependency. As Barthes puts it, expanding the notion of play so that it might include even a highly rhetoricized wrestling match, “the signifier's infinitude does not refer back to some idea of the ineffable (of an unnamable signified) but to the idea of play.41 In the absence of “the ineffable” or an absolute truth of the body, the construction of “play” becomes deadly serious, as various responses to the match indicate. Orlando and Charles are caught in the tension between wrestling as sport and wrestling as demonstrative violence. The onstage audience, for whom the match is also an entertainment, enters a triple bond of signifiers: wrestling as sport, as violence, as spectacle. For the theater audience, each of these layers of interpretation is further refracted: wrestling appears as mimetic sport, mimetic violence, mimetic spectacle. The customary temptation has been to resolve the play of meaning set into motion by the wrestling match through reference to the comic frame of As You Like It, which supposedly guarantees the simpler meanings of sport and spectacle while banishing the more complex resonances of play and mimetic violence. But would Shakespeare have risked staging an event so ambiguously significant as wrestling without exploiting its potential to question the boundaries of coded violence?

The theatrical presentation of wrestling requires an audience to consider when, how, and why violence becomes real. A similar point about the performability of violence is reiterated late in the play by Touchstone's witty excursus on dueling “by the book” (V.iv.89). As Agnes Latham remarks of the contemporary manuals on dueling etiquette that Touchstone parodies, it can “seem ridiculous to teach people how to kill one another politely.”42 Yet the changing styles people employ in killing one another affirm the constructed quality of expressions of human aggression and suggest the importance of attending to the ways a spectacle of violence is framed and understood. For violence is always a spectacle, performed for an audience, even if that audience plays the simultaneous role of victim.

Of course we expect actors to be self-conscious in their theatricality; we may even expect the same of wrestlers (as Carew did in 1602). Most will assume, however, that violent activity in certain spheres (rampages, for instance) is unmediated, essentially beyond culture. Such an assumption grants a self-authenticating privilege to actions in those zones, a privilege expressive of a dualistic world view in which bodies are considered more real than ideas. Yet, as the discourse on wrestling testifies, what people do with their physical selves is subtly and extensively codified. As a result of this codification, it is difficult to think of a form of violence that lacks at least a potentially performative element; someone must see, suffer, lament, or deride the act—and the perpetrator, at some level, must know it. If the theatrical performance of As You Like It's wrestling match erases the distinction between real and fake wrestling, it should also make us question such distinctions more widely.

In As You Like It, wrestling necessitates a constantly shifting focus, since it functions variously as mimetic violence, as game, as spectacle, and, eventually, as metaphor. The changeable rules marking playspace, audience, and participants—the constant transformations undergone by a form supposedly so simple and unaccommodated—suggest the arbitrariness of social convention, and they connect the wrestling match with the play's other interrogations of human illusion, its inquiries into pastoral, melancholy, romantic love, and gender. The match offers an emphatic instance of the way physical existence is construed according to forms and conventions which may be, like the boundary marking the wrestlers' ring, largely invisible.

For instance, the classically pastoral debate between Corin and Touchstone on the relative merits of country and court manners leads Harold Jenkins to the universalizing perception that “in city or country, all ways of life are at bottom the same.”43 But this is to privilege one side of the debate, which in fact ends inconclusively. Corin's sensibly relativistic awareness of how “Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court” (III.ii.44-47) accurately predicts Touchstone's response. The court fool mocks the country man by denying the bases of separate customs in the two realms. Throughout their skirmish of wits, however, Corin insists on the priority of material existence—“he that wants money, means, and content is without three good friends” (III.ii.24-25); “the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck” (III.ii.74-75). Corin's attention is riveted to the ways “the sheep matter,” as Ralph Berry succinctly puts it.44 Touchstone only pretends, in a mock-salacious manner (“That is another simple sin in you, to bring the ewes and rams together” [III.ii.76-77]), to share this concern with the body and physical reality.45 Corin, the self-described “true labourer” (III.ii.71), can scarcely compete with Touchstone's “too courtly” (III.ii.68) wit, and recognizing this, wishes to end the debate several speeches before the entry of Ganymede finally affords him respite. This encounter, like the one inside the wrestling ring, follows a prescribed form, has an apparent victor, and delights its (theatrical) audience; it seems, moreover, just as little able to reveal anything qualifying as a stable truth about human existence, since Corin sides firmly with his sheep and Touchstone with his wit.

Custom and expectation, the play affirms, shape perception. As Duke Senior, who has been given sufficient cause to be unhappy, remarks, “old custom” makes life in exile “more sweet” (II.i.2) than life at court. Jaques too, though unvariable in his own approach to life, acknowledges the multiplicity of ways in which the world may be construed. His prideful description of his melancholy as “mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels” (IV.i.15-18), makes what seems an unremarkable point to a modern audience, who typically are rather keenly aware of the diverse influences contributing to mood or personality. Yet by labeling his manner “melancholy,” Jaques distinguishes it and himself from the merely natural, the unnoticed. His determining characteristics have been “compounded.”

Jaques's disgust with Orlando's courtship techniques (III.ii.248-89) and his intolerance for the mutual presence of Rosalind and Orlando (IV.i.29-30) demonstrate the incompatibility between his constructionist view of human identity and the innocent idea of romantic love. The love-play between Orlando and Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind has often been seen to turn on an audience's awareness of the “real” Rosalind lurking beneath two layers of assumed personas. Players as well as critics differentiate between speeches attributable to Ganymede's assumed Rosalind and to Rosalind herself.46 Following this line of reasoning, Ganymede's faint at IV.iii.157 serves as a token of Rosalind's feminine nature,47 the betrayal of the male persona by the “reality” of a female consciousness (and in most modern productions, a female body). But Orlando's own swoon (IV.iii.148) calls such a reading into question. Of course Ganymede's faint delivers greater theatrical impact, since it actually occurs on stage while Oliver only reports that Orlando fainted, presumably from loss of blood. Still, the typical response, which fixes on Ganymede's faint as revelatory (of gender) but overlooks Orlando's identical physiological action, reascribes swooning as a feminine behavior. The swoon renders Ganymede's unconscious body the site of an audience's wish to normalize sexual relations in the play. However much they may delight in Rosalind's transvestite performance, audiences inclined toward a happily heterosexual conclusion to the Orlando-Rosalind-Ganymede affair are relieved to see Rosalind's “feminine” nature assert itself in the swoon. But of course in the Elizabethan theater, a reading of the unconscious body of Rosalind/Ganymede as female would be mistaken. Elizabethan casting practices make sex differences a poor base for constructing identity.48 While the unstable gendering of Rosalind/Ganymede is sometimes supposed to be controlled and regularized by the swoon, this episode offers another example of the body's truth being anything but simple. Instead, the player's artificially unconscious body provides a text that audiences read according to preestablished themes.

Late in the play, Orlando exclaims “I can live no longer by thinking” (V.ii.50). In a mimetic sense he is “venting the constrained libido of Elizabethan youth,”49 but in theatrical terms he is breaking the courtship game with Ganymede. The irony here, as Joseph Westlund points out, is that Orlando “can ‘live by thinking’ … he can imagine Ganymede to be ‘Rosalind.’”50 And of course the audience has been engaged in just such an imaginative act all along; “just as Orlando pretends that Ganymede is Rosalind, so do the spectators pretend that another boy, the actor, is Rosalind.”51 So while Orlando may “los[e] interest in make-believe” upon hearing how “his brother and Celia are betrothed without fussing about such preliminaries as courtship,”52 the audience is aware of the proximity between the planned nuptials of Oliver and Celia, and the mock-marriage of Ganymede and Orlando in IV.i.53 Attending to the theatrical dynamic suggests that both events are “merely” playing. Like the wrestling match, the wooing game between Orlando and Ganymede serves as a model for the way human interactions are constructed. Rather than suggesting differences between a real and a pretend Rosalind, or between real and pretend violence, these paradigms show even spontaneous behaviors to be amalgams of learned activities, living “by thinking,” or more generally still, merely playing.54

Commentaries on As You Like It have often involved some set of clearly defined contrasts—between court and country, or reality and illusion, or nature and nurture. Yet with its illustration of the difficulty—or even the impossibility—of confronting a fundamental physical reality, the play dissolves these distinctions. Current attention has centered on the challenge issued to the audience's ordering sensibility by the ambiguous gender of Rosalind/Ganymede. As a number of commentators have suggested, Rosalind's epilogue may enable a seamless transition between theatrical illusion and post-performance reality, but it does so by appropriating and unsettling the ordained constructions of gender and desire. Appearing simultaneously as actor and as Rosalind, speaking from both male and female personae, Rosalind in this final appearance superimposes play and reality, rendering them indivisible.55 My point is that the wrestling match offers the play's earliest and most spectacular challenge to the modes of bodily interaction presupposed by mimetic theater. Further, the match shows the potential threat of social codes: some forms of violence (here one might include patriarchy, primogeniture, and privatization of property) can become so well coded as to be invisible. By exposing the theatricality of physical conflict, the match explodes the myth of a place in society where one could avoid living “by thinking,” where one could ever escape the texts through which people appear to one another and mediate their relations. Just as Orlando's alternative to the wish thus stated is unclear, the audience is denied recourse to a world outside the theater where the boundaries between reality and illusion will be any more consistently drawn.

As You Like It redoubles the sort of ambiguity Castiglione fears from a prince masquerading in his own role: “If he were to perform in play what he must really do when the need arises, he would deprive what is real of its due authority and it might appear that the reality were mere play.”56 When Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, masquerades her own role with Orlando, the flexible, contiguous, and collapsible boundaries of play and reality are displayed. Celia's reluctance to “say the words” (IV.i.121) of the wedding ceremony indicates her awareness of the danger that the love-play will (to reverse Castiglione's terms) lose its authenticity as pure masquerade and become “mere” reality. For without a clear opposite in play or fiction, reality becomes a more dubious proposition. As Louis Montrose remarks, troping on Jaques's famous theatrical dictum, “To say that all the men and women are merely players is to say that they are wholly, entirely players—‘without admixture or qualification.’”57

When Orlando, rewarded by Rosalind after the match with a token, finds himself unable to speak, he calls himself “a quintain, a mere lifeless block” (I.ii.241). Whereas Orlando's prowess at wrestling deprived Charles of speech, his own verbal ability is “overthrown” (I.ii.244) by Rosalind's attentions. The reference to a “lifeless block” seems facile, perhaps sensationalistic, but it nevertheless suggests how distant an idea of human essence is from this play. Without power to speak, Orlando would be lifeless.58 Ironically, however, at the very moment Orlando professes himself mute and therefore “lifeless,” Rosalind imagines or pretends that “He calls us back” (I.ii.242). Responding to a call not uttered, Rosalind invents an interchange with Orlando that is anything but straightforward communication; like Carew's wrestlers, she is “making a place.” So throughout As You Like It, speech and the elaborate social coding it performs are revealed to be often false and frequently precarious. Yet since no alternative presents itself to living “by thinking,” the play seems to reject any notion of escaping a linguistically ordered world for one somehow more pure. Rather than subverting the fiction's formal order, the presence of the wrestling match in As You Like It demonstrates how social codes are continually being made, broken, and remade. The wrestling match advertises a glimpse of “unaccommodated man,” but shows instead, in the constant framing and reframing of its spectacle of violence, the ongoing process we call culture.59


  1. “Fraternal enmity” is one focus of Joel Fineman's “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” The Psychoanalytic Review 64 (Fall 1977), rprt. in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 70-109, 75. Louis Adrian Montrose examines family polities in “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” SQ 32, 1 (Spring 1981): 28-54.

  2. Richard Wilson, “‘Like the old Robin Hood’: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots,” SQ 43, 1 (Spring 1992): 1-19.

  3. Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 166-90; Barbara J. Bono, “Mixed Gender, Mixed Genre in Shakespeare's As You Like It,” in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Harvard English Studies 14 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 189-212; Jean Howard, “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” SQ 39, 4 (Winter 1988): 418-40; and Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102, 1 (January 1987): 29-41.

  4. C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), p. 238. Similarly, Harold Jenkins notes how Arden's “illusions” are tested in the play “against reality,” although ultimately “ideals, though always on the point of dissolving, are for ever recreating themselves” in the play (“As You Like It,ShS 8 [1955]: 40-51, 51). Anne Barton also stresses As You Like It's balance: although aware of “reminders of mortality flicker[ing] everywhere,” she believes it retains “classical equilibrium” (“As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending,” Shakespearean Comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon-Studies 14 [London: Edward Arnold, 1972], pp. 160-80, 166).

  5. “Enchanted world” is Jenkins's phrase (p. 51). Bono refers to “inchoate energies” (p. 206).

  6. Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” Mythologies, 1957, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Noonday, 1972), pp. 15-25, 15, 17, 25.

  7. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 278-93, 292.

  8. There is no stage direction in the First Folio text. The stage directions inserted by editors indicate uncertainty about reading Oliver's act of aggression: Agnes Latham puts “striking him” in the New Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1975). Alfred Harbage has “strikes him” in the Pelican (William Shakespeare: The Complete Works [New York: Viking, 1969]); but Samuel Johnson's more sedate direction is “menacing with his hand” (qtd. in Latham, p. 5). I have used Latham's edition for quotations from As You Like It.

  9. Johnson's stage direction here is “collaring him.” Grant White's is “Takes him by the throat.” Latham makes the action even bolder and more formally consistent: “putting a wrestler's grip on him” (p. 5).

  10. As Montrose points out, “Orlando's assertions of filial piety are actually self-assertions, directed against his father's eldest son.” Though Oliver, as eldest son, is legal heir to the father's estates and authority, Orlando claims “spiritual inheritance” that obligates him to defend his father's name (“Brother,” pp. 36, 37).

  11. Oliver falsely tells Charles just the opposite, that he has “laboured to dissuade” Orlando from wrestling (I.i.138).

  12. See Jenkins, p. 41.

  13. For discussion of artistic framing techniques, see Susan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), p. 23.

  14. Keir Elam, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 75.

  15. Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Governour, ed. Ernest Rhys (London: J. M. Dent and Co., 1907), 1:74.

  16. Thomas Lodge, Lodge's “Rosalynde” Being the Original of Shakespeare's “As You Like It,” ed. W. W. Greg (London: Chatto, 1907), p. 20.

  17. D. J. Palmer, “As You Like It and the Idea of the Play,” CritQ 13, 3 (Autumn 1971): 234-45, 239.

  18. Raymond B. Waddington, “Moralizing the Spectacle: Dramatic Emblems in As You Like It,SQ 33, 2 (Summer 1982): 155-63, 158.

  19. Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1528, trans. Charles S. Singleton (New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1959), Bk. 1, Sect. 21 (p. 37).

  20. Raphael Holinshed, The Firste Volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (London: 1577), p. 15.

  21. Elyot, Governour, p. 73.

  22. Sir Thomas Elyot, The Castel of Helth, 1541 (New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, n.d.), p. 46.

  23. James I, King of Great Britain, Basilikon Doron, 1599, in The Political Works of James I, introd. Charles Howard McIlwain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1918), pp. 3-52, 48.

  24. James Cleland, The Institution of a Young Noble Man, 1611 (New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1948), p. 220; Francis Osborne, Advice to a Son, 1656, ed. Edward Abbott Parry (London: 1896), p. 23; Henry Peacham, The Complete Gentleman, 1622, in The Complete Gentleman, The Truth of Our Times, and The Art of Living in London, ed. Virgil B. Heltzel, Folger Documents of Tudor and Stuart Civilization (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1962), p. 137.

  25. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621, ed. Holbrook Jackson, 3 vols. in 1 (New York: Random-Vintage, 1977), Pt. 2, Sec. 2, Memb. 4 (2:74, 2:70-71).

  26. John Stow, A Survay of London (London: 1603), p. 95.

  27. Stow, p. 95.

  28. See Christina Hole, English Sports and Pastimes (London: B. T. Batsford, 1949), p. 30; Teresa McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages (Windsor Forest, Berks.: Kensal Press, [1983?]), pp. 9-10.

  29. Stow, p. 95.

  30. Paul Hentzner, Travels in England, 1588, trans. Horace, Earl of Orford [sic], Strawberry Hill edn. (London: 1797), p. 25.

  31. Hentzner, pp. 25, 26.

  32. Richard Carew, The Survey of Cornwall (London: 1602), 75v-76r.

  33. J[ohann] Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, 1944, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge, 1949), p. 10; cited in Stewart, p. 171.

  34. See Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios n.s. 7, 2 (Winter 1980): 51-74; and Douglas L. Peterson, “Lyly, Greene, and Shakespeare and the Recreations of Princes,” ShakS 20 (1988): 67-88.

  35. On the conflict between physical pain and language, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 3-11, 54, 172.

  36. Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” pp. 18, 19.

  37. Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 232-50, 234.

  38. Staging of the wrestling match will inevitably reflect current theatrical and recreational styles. In an “improved” production at Drury Lane in 1723, Charles Johnson chose to replace the match with “a duel with rapiers, which he considered more appropriate to the dignity and social status of Orlando” (Oscar James Campbell, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare [New York: Crowell, 1966], pp. 43-44). Horace Howard Furness remarked in 1890 that “our stage Orlandos and Charleses are generally such feeble adepts in [wrestling], that this match, as it is usually seen, is far from thrilling” (As You Like It, ed. Horace Howard Furness, New Variorum Edition, 1890 [New York: American Scholar, 1965], p. 40 n. John Doebler's claim in 1973 that the “stage image of the wrestling match is always a memorable part of the current theater experience of the play” can be supported by the growth in recent years in America of wrestling's popularity as a mostly lower-class spectacle (John Doebler, “Orlando: Athlete of Virtue,” ShS 26 [1973]: 111-17, 111).

  39. Herbert Blau, The Audience (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), p. 197.

  40. W. B. Worthen, “Deeper Meanings and Theatrical Technique: The Rhetoric of Performance Criticism,” SQ 40, 4 (Winter 1989): 441-55, 452.

  41. Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 73-81, 76.

  42. Latham, pp. 125-26 n.

  43. Jenkins, p. 48.

  44. Ralph Berry, Shakespeare and Social Class (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1988), p. 62.

  45. Jenkins believes Touchstone is present in Arden “to remind us of the indispensable flesh” (p. 48). While I also see Touchstone as concerned with creature comforts, his “preoccupation with the physical” (Jenkins, p. 48) seems to me frequently feigned, and fundamentally different from Corin's concern with material survival. See Berry, pp. 61-67 on Corin's general sense that “real estate is always real” (p. 63) and its contrast to the idealizing perceptions of the court refugees.

  46. See, for example, Carol Rutter et al., Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today, ed. Faith Evans (London: Women's Press, 1988), pp. 106-14; Joseph Westlund, Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 83; D. J. Palmer, “Art and Nature in As You Like It,PQ 49, 1 (January 1970): 30-40, 38.

  47. Palmer, “Art,” p. 34; Rutter, p. 117.

  48. For a classic discussion of the “erotic androgyny” created by the boy actor playing a female character who masquerades as a boy, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 2nd edn. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 9-36, esp. 19. Juliet Stevenson nicely summarizes the skeptical view of the illusions of gender in the play when she observes that within As You Like It resides “a much more dangerous” and “subversive play, one that challenges notions of gender, that asks questions about the boundaries and qualities of our ‘male’ and ‘female’ natures” (Rutter, p. 97).

  49. Montrose, “Brother,” p. 39.

  50. Westlund, p. 82.

  51. Kent Talbot van den Berg, “Theatrical Fiction and the Reality of Love in As You Like It,PMLA 90, 5 (October 1975): 885-93, 887.

  52. Palmer, “Idea,” p. 243.

  53. Valerie Traub, who sees the “‘mock’ marriage [as] … a deconstruction of the ritual by which two are made one” remarks that “as the distance between Rosalind and Ganymede collapses, distinctions between homoerotic and heterosexual collapse as well” (“Desire and the Differences It Makes,” in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991], pp. 81-114, 104, 103).

  54. Palmer's sense of “the idea of play” in As You Like It comes close to my own, in that he sees “equivocal relations between fiction and reality, game and earnest, folly and wisdom” (“Idea,” p. 235). But in lamenting “Touchstone's inability to do anything except in play” (“Idea,” p. 244) and in remarks about play's recreative purposes, he suggests a fundamental opposition between play and reality. Van den Berg affirms this distinction even more emphatically, concluding that “fiction and reality, like true lovers, preserve their separate identities so that they can mutually enhance each other” (p. 892). Montrose, in “The Purpose of Playing,” develops a general view of the London playhouse as affording “a material realization of the theatrum mundi metaphor” (p. 71).

  55. For a fundamentally different view of the epilogue, one which finds in it a late distinction between reality and illusion, see Fineman:

    when … in the epilogue the actor who plays Rosalind shows himself a boy, he accomplishes with the nakedness of his masculinity a final unmasking, pointing thereby to the play's last disguise and to the conditional that is the premise of the play itself.

    (p. 92)

    However Fineman may imagine that the actor “shows himself a boy,” masculinity (and femininity) have been shown in the course of the play to be anything but naked—gender is “put on” by the actor.

  56. Castiglione, Bk. 2, Sec. 11 (p. 103), cited in Thomas M. Greene, “Il Cortegiano and the Choice of a Game,” in Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture, ed. Robert W. Hanning and David Rosand (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 1-15, 6.

  57. Montrose, “Purpose,” p. 51. Montrose quotes the phrase “without admixture or qualification” from the OED.

  58. Cf. the exchange at IV.i.8-9: “Jaques. Why, 'tis good to be sad and say nothing. / Ros. Why then 'tis good to be a post.”

  59. This essay originated in a seminar led by Douglas Peterson at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Philadelphia, April 1990. My work was supported by a Faculty Development Endowment grant from Rhodes College. I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments and advice of Bruce Boehrer, Jennifer Brady, Robert Entzminger, Joan Hartwig, Naomi Liebler, and several anonymous readers.

Penny Gay (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6672

SOURCE: “Call Me Ganymede,” in William Shakespeare: As You Like It, Northcote House, 1999, pp. 33-50.

[In the following essay, Gay analyzes the meaning of gender within the context of Elizabethan theater.]

Few critical issues in Shakespearean comedy have been discussed more energetically in the last twenty years than the question of what it meant to an Elizabethan audience to see boys playing the roles of women. For modern play-goers it is largely a dead issue … ; since the mid-seventeenth century the roles of Rosalind and Celia, Phebe and Audrey, have been claimed as their right by actresses who revel in the richness of Shakespeare's language and the potential for complex explorations of gender and sexuality that the roles allow.

There is an important distinction to be made here in the ideas about what it is that the actor/actress does on stage: do they impersonate the character or do they imitate it, standing apart from it a little so that we can see the gap between the actor and the role? Modern Western actors, for the most part, are locked into an ideology of ‘becoming’ the character, an ideology based on the dominance of naturalism in twentieth-century theatre, and particularly on the claim of films to represent ‘reality’ and therefore to demand total immersion of actors in the roles they are performing. This was not the theory in Elizabethan theatre, though throughout the history of Western theatre we find audiences praising actors for their ‘natural’ representation of characters. (A glance at any fifty-year-old film, however, will demonstrate that the criteria of ‘natural’ acting change approximately every half-century.)

Elizabethan theatre and acting delighted in the conscious recognition of its own artificiality. Disguise, masks, the performance of plays within plays, and word-play by characters on the notions of acting and theatre, are some of the means by which this consciousness was never allowed to lapse. Moreover, the plays that were performed on Shakespeare's stage almost never purported to represent contemporary life: their worlds were distant in time and place. Further, the characters spoke in blank verse most of the time—an artificially heightened version of the English language that allowed rich use of metaphor and other poetic devices that gave pleasure to audience and readers. (As You Like It has Jaques remind the audience of just this convention of artificiality: ‘Nay then God buy you, and you talk in blank verse!’ (4. 1. 29)—ironically enough, in response to Orlando's natural-sounding ‘Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind’.)

Nevertheless, C. L. Barber, in the seminal work Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959) observed that Shakespeare

wrote at a moment when the educated part of society was modifying a ceremonial, ritualistic conception of human life to create a historical, psychological conception. His drama, indeed, was an important agency in this transformation: it provided a ‘theater’ where the failures of ceremony could be looked at in a place apart and understood as history; it provided new ways of representing relations between language and action so as to express personality … his comedy presents holiday magic as imagination, games as expressive gestures.1

I shall explore the idea of Shakespeare's injection of ‘personality’ into roles for actors later … by comparison with Lodge's originary text Rosalynd. Perhaps the vexed notion of ‘naturalism’ can be laid to rest with the formulation that Shakespeare's lines and scenes—despite their poetic artifice and witty conceits—are rich and complex enough for actors to apply their culture's notion of psychology to the characters. There is enough in the lines that actors can make sense of; they can fill in the missing bits of their narratives to create an illusion for the audience of meaningful human behaviour.

Whereas in the tragedies Shakespeare helps the actor create this illusion by providing him with soliloquies in which he explains himself to the audience (thereby, paradoxically, breaking a simple illusion of naturalism, the ‘fourth wall’ convention), in As You Like It there are no soliloquies. ‘What is missing’, says Karen Newman,

is not a sense of [Rosalind's] inner life or personal struggles … but rather self-consciousness about that equipoise expressed through soliloquy. Rosalind's inner debates are externalized in her role as Ganymede/Rosalind, and we are correspondingly distanced from her feelings, however much we may appreciate her character. We share the pleasures of flirtations, of transvestism, of shifting roles and playful irony, all of which testify to Rosalind's fascination by giving her dimensions in excess of her function. We are called upon to hold together, in the study or in performance, the multiple aspects of her character, but we never have the sense that she herself recognizes or struggles with that multiplicity.2

This seems to me a helpful formulation of a tricky issue. Rosalind, in her highly theatrical role as girl-playing-boy-playing-girl, is clearly a performative character: her role is to embody and make available to the audience the performative nature of those ‘natural’ categories we take for granted, such as gender. And here, if we wish, we can take into consideration the historical fact that this immensely playable and therefore believable character was originally performed by a boy (as were also, of course, Celia, Audrey, and Phebe). Michael Shapiro suggests of the original performances of the play,

On Shakespeare's stage, these oscillations [between female and male identity] became even more dazzling in the light of the spectators' dual consciousness of the boy actor producing all of these abrupt shifts. These multiple layers of identity and the swift movements from one to another produced a theatrical vibrancy that engaged audiences in the illusion that an amalgam constructed of multiple and discrete layers of identity represented a unified character.3

The notion of a ‘unified character’ might well be an anachronism, as I suggested above, but Shapiro does point to one of the particular pleasures that the play provides: the Elizabethan theatre's liminal space is here utilized to disrupt fixed notions of gender through a safe and pleasurable spectacle: the boy who plays the girl (who, in this play, even more disruptively, plays the boy who plays the girl).

Much recent scholarship has attempted to tease out, through the reading of other contemporary documents, just what were the erotic and sexual politics of this experience for that original audience.4 Was it a homoerotic stage? that is, was the pleasure of the audience in watching the representation of the heterosexual lovemaking in fact a much more subversive pleasure in watching a man and a boy make love? Undoubtedly in As You Like It the audience was aware of the double entendre in Rosalind's decision to take as her male name ‘no worse a name than Jove's own page, / And therefore look you call me Ganymede’ (1. 3. 120-21)—since ‘Ganymede’ was a slang term for a young male homosexual. But, as Stephen Orgel argues, ‘there is no indication whatever that Shakespeare is doing something sexually daring there, skating on thin ice’.5 He presents evidence that the love of Elizabethan men for boys was generally unproblematic in that culture, rendered acceptable by the many literary models in Ovid and other ancient texts; and, in fact, often thought of as less dangerous than love for women, whose sexuality was thought to be voraciously overwhelming, effeminizing of ‘manly’ men. Although the puritans fulminated against the theatre in general, the potential for homosexual behaviour was only one aspect of their larger phobia. It was basically ‘the universal sexuality evoked by theatre, a lust not distinguished by the gender of its object’6 which was unacceptable to puritans—especially as it disrupts the specific definitions of gender and sexuality which are the bedrock of the patriarchal system. Even more so when in a play such as As You Like It such issues are amusingly foregrounded.

Yet on another level, as Orgel points out, the transvestite theatre simply reproduces the order of patriarchy. For ‘boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour’ (3. 2. 402-3). ‘Cattle’—Rosalind's slang puns significantly: the word is cognate with ‘chattel’, household possession. The boys were apprentices (not to theatre guilds, but to any profession convenient):7 dependant and ‘a medium of exchange within the patriarchal structure, and both [women and boys] are (perhaps in consequence) constructed as objects of erotic attraction to adult men’.8 Orgel's conclusion to the interesting question, ‘Why did only boys play women?’—or why the transvestite stage was so unproblematically homoerotic—is that

eroticized boys appear to be a middle term between men and women, and far from precluding the love of women, they are represented as enabling figures, as a way of getting from men to women. … In a society that has an investment in seeing women as imperfect men, the danger points will be those at which women reveal that they have an independent essence, an existence that is not, in fact, under male control, a power and authority that either challenges male authority, or, more dangerously, that is not simply a version or parody of maleness, but is specifically female. … In this context Rosalind's male disguise would be, in the deepest sense, for Orlando's benefit, not for Rosalind's; it would constitute a way around the dangers of the female libido.9

Orgel's scholarly speculations are an exciting insight into certain Elizabethan discursive fields which operate largely at the level of unconscious assumptions. On the other hand, historians such as Kathleen McLuskie and Jean Howard argue that at some level boy actors playing women must simply have been accepted in performance as a convention.10 Otherwise, there would have been little audience involvement with those aspects of the plays based on the representation of heterosexual desire. Howard goes on to underline the equally discursive nature of this more overt representation:

The representation of Rosalind's holiday humour has the primary effect, I think, of confirming the gender system and perfecting rather than dismantling it by making a space of mutuality within relations of dominance. … Progressively this text has narrowed the range of erotic possibilities the play has mobilized in the direction of heterosexual coupling. For example, it has displaced the same-sex bonds between Rosalind and Celia with heterosexual unions; it has muted the homoerotic implications of Rosalind's assumption of the name Ganymede by having Rosalind and Orlando so firmly committed to the heterosexual other; and, as with Olivia, it has corrected Phebe's ‘mistake’ in loving a man who is ‘really’ a woman.11

If we take the evidence of the play's telos, its drive towards closure, then, we will conclude that the play privileges a heterosexual interpretation of the energy flow between adult male actor and adolescent boy-as-woman. But this is somewhat to oversimplify the experience of the audience in the theatre—that liminal space where anything may happen—particularly its moment-by-moment awareness of the potential for disruption that the cross-dressing generates. (It is also to ignore the astonishing Epilogue to this play, on which I shall comment later.)

Two critics who have opened up the possibilities for discussion of what might have been the phenomenological experience of the audience watching the performance of this story are Valerie Traub and Stephen Greenblatt. Traub argues, incisively:

Clearly, insofar as gender hierarchies seem to be both temporarily transgressed and formally reinstated, the question of subversion versus containment can only be resolved by crediting either the expense of dramatic energy or comedic closure. Yet, to do either is also to reproduce the artificial distinction between content and form—a capitulation to the logic of binarism.12

Traub's version of ‘the homoeroticism of As You Like It’ identifies it as

playful in its ability to transcend binary oppositions, to break into a dual mode, a simultaneity, of desire. Insofar as Rosalind/Ganymede is a multiple sexual object (simultaneously heterosexual and homoerotic), Orlando's effusion of desire toward him/her prevents the stable reinstitution of heterosexuality, upon which the marriage plot depends …

In excess of the dominant ideology of monogamous heterosexuality, to which Rosalind is symbolically wed at the end of the play, exist desires unsanctioned by institutional favor. By means of her male improvisation, Rosalind leads the play into a mode of desire neither heterosexual nor homoerotic, but both heterosexual and homoerotic. As much as she displays her desire for Orlando, she also enjoys her position as male object of Phebe's desire and, more importantly, of Orlando's.13

Traub here, I think, touches on the simple reason for the play's apparent formal weakness. Earlier critics argued that it lacks drive, it lacks plot, its lacks motivation. Nevertheless, it is infinitely delightful because of the charm of Rosalind. But in what does this charm consist? Wit and vitality undoubtedly: but most audience members, when quizzed, would locate the play's charm in the courtship scenes. And these scenes are perpetually delightful because of the ‘multiple erotic possibilities and positions’ that they offer through a cheekily self-conscious employment of the dramatic ‘if’—Touchstone's ‘If you said so, then I said so’ (5. 4. 100-101): ‘The dependence on the conditional structures the possibility of erotic exploration without necessitating a commitment to it’.14

Stephen Greenblatt's essay ‘Fiction and Friction’ offers an analysis of Renaissance theories about sexual anatomy as a way of entering into an understanding of the multiple eroticism of Shakespearean comedy. In brief, the view of these anatomists is that women's sexual organs are the same as men's, only hidden and inverted inside the body. For generation to occur, there must be a pleasant ‘chafing’, which will cause the hidden female ‘penis’ to ejaculate. Shakespeare realized, argues Greenblatt,

that if sexual chafing could not be presented literally onstage, it could be represented figuratively: friction could be fictionalized, chafing chastened and hence made fit for the stage, by transforming it into the witty, erotically charged sparring that is the heart of the lovers' experience.

By means of this transformation Shakespeare invested his comedies with a powerful sexual commotion, a collective excitation, an imaginative heat that the plots promise will be realized offstage, in the marriage beds towards which they gesture … the unrepresented consummations of unrepresented marriages call attention to the unmooring of desire, the generalizing of the libidinal, that is the special pleasure of Shakespearean fiction. For the representation of chafing is not restricted to Shakespeare's lovers; it is diffused throughout the comedies as a system of foreplay.

‘Moreover,’ Greenblatt continues,

for Shakespeare friction is specifically associated with verbal wit; indeed at moments the plays seem to imply that erotic friction originates in the wantonness of language and thus that the body itself is a tissue of metaphors or, conversely, that language is perfectly embodied. … Dallying with words is the principal Shakespearean representation of erotic heat.15

In the second part … I shall explore this insight in relation to the courtship scenes in As You Like It, proceeding by comparison with the parallel scenes in the originary text, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynd.


Shakespeare's Act 3 scene 2 and Act 4 scene 1—the courtship scenes in the forest between Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede), Celia, and Orlando—are modelled on two segments of Lodge's 1590 novel. Looking at the Lodge text, it quickly becomes clear that the major change that Shakespeare made was in reducing the ‘literariness’ of Lodge's writing (Lodge's text is subtitled ‘Euphues’ Golden Legacy’, in deliberate homage to the fashionable work of John Lyly). Lodge's Orlando (confusingly known as Rosader) performs five ‘sonnetos’ and a shared eclogue in the course of the courtship scenes: in Shakespeare these are represented by a couple of parodic pieces, read by the girls and improvised on by Touchstone. Rosader is generally more eloquent than Orlando—better educated and more consciously genteel. As performer of his own poems, he is given more textual space than Orlando; he is the ‘hero’ of the narrative much more than Rosalynd is the ‘heroine’.

A duetting eclogue is the only moment in Lodge when ‘Ganymede’ offers to ‘represent Rosalynd’, her eloquence matching Rosader's in a highly formal versified lovers' debate; there is no offer of a ‘cure’ through an extended cross-gender game as there is in Shakespeare, though Lodge's Ganymede does offer plenty of advice to Rosader about giving up the self-indulgent pains of love. She is eloquent but not witty in the way that Shakespeare's Rosalind is; her intelligence is displayed more through her performance of florid euphuistic prose and elaborate classical references. (The Silvius and Phebe scenes of Shakespeare are a comic displacement of the earnest pastoral of Lodge's principal characters. …) Lodge was apparently not interested in the comic or sexual potential of Rosalynd's cross-dressing; for him, safely in a disembodied novel, the girl-as-page trope is simply a plot device. Celia/Aliena has rather more to say in Lodge than in Shakespeare, though the mock marriage which is the culmination of both ‘wooings’ is over very quickly in Lodge, with none of the anxiety with which Shakespeare surrounds this doubly transgressive act. …

Shakespeare transformed the text he had at his elbow into a brilliantly playable theatre script which built on the expertise (and ambivalence) of his boy-players of female parts. This transformation is of the order of a quantum leap. But the experiment of workshopping the Lodge text16 indicates that had Shakespeare not decided to work his professional magic on this novel, it could still have made a perfectly respectable popular play of the 1590s, in the pastoral romance mode.

The first scene in Lodge which is closely equivalent to Shakespeare (3. 2) is the one in which we first hear Rosader/Orlando's poems. They are not nearly as dire as ‘From the east to western Inde’, but they do have the same persistent repetitiveness:

Of all chaste birds the Phoenix doth excel,
Of all strong beasts the lion bears the bell,
Of all sweet flowers the rose doth sweetest smell,
Of all fair maids my Rosalynd is fairest.
Of all pure metals gold is only purest,
Of all high trees the pine hath highest crest,
Of all soft sweets I like my mistress' breast,
Of all chaste thoughts my mistress' thoughts are rarest. (etc.)(17)

The conversation between Rosader, Rosalynd and Aliena which follows this effusion is led by Rosalynd as Ganymede in a style very similar to Shakespeare's Rosalind, a hearty parade of manliness which would not fool anyone less self-absorbed: ‘What news, forester? has thou wounded some deer, and lost him in the fall? Care not man for so small a loss’ (R. 68). And although the scene does not lead to a proposed ‘love-cure’, it is led by Rosalynd onto not dissimilar erotic ground, as she encourages Rosader thus: ‘Much have I heard of thy mistress' excellence, and I know, forester, thou canst describe her at the full, as one that hast surveyed all her parts with a curious eye; then do me that favour, to tell me what her perfections be’ (R. 69). This is of course a cue for a blazon, a nine-stanza feature-by-feature description of Rosalynd's physical excellences: it includes such amorous fantasies as:

Her paps are centres of delight,
Her paps are orbs of heavenly frame,
Where nature moulds the dew of light,
To feed perfection with the same:
                    Heigh ho, would she were mine.
With orient pearl, with ruby red,
With marble white, with sapphire blue,
Her body every way is fed;
Yet soft in touch, and sweet in view …

(R. 70)

It is only after this emphatic reminder of Rosalynd's female body that Lodge toys momentarily with the pleasures provided by the cross-dressing trope: ‘It makes me blush’, says Rosalynd, ‘to hear how women should be so excellent, and pages so unperfect’. Rosader replies that the ‘page’ ‘resembl[es] the shadow’ of a woman, to which Rosalynd retorts (after a tart remark by Aliena), ‘Who knows not … if boys might put on their garments, perhaps they would prove as comely; if not as comely, it may be more courteous’ (R. 71). Lodge seems to accept the Elizabethan idea that there is little difference between boys and women, and that gender is often simply defined by appearance. The conversation ends with a teasing request from Ganymede for ‘more sonnets in commendation of thy mistress’, and a promise that Rosader will return tomorrow with more of his literary efforts. The courtship, that is to say, will continue to be conducted through the medium of literature, with Rosader as the male entitled to parade his charms through the use of literary (i.e. educated) forms, and Rosalynd playing the role of the (feminine) respondent, though her male disguise enables her to take on a teasing tone.

For Shakespeare, on the other hand, Orlando's literary affectations are merely a starting point for a much more equal dialogue. It is in fact Rosalind/Ganymede who consciously sets up a display of witty and imaginative verbal facility to Orlando's ‘straight man’ in their opening dialogue. Orlando feeds the cues to Ganymede: ‘Who ambles Time withal? … Who doth he gallop withal?’ and so on. It's a sort of intellectual flirtation—or friction, to use Greenblatt's term—in which Rosalind/Ganymede claims the ground which is culturally ascribed to the male, abstract reasoning.

Much critical ink has been spent on delving into the significance of Rosalind's disquisition upon Time (3. 2. 302-27): can it be read as a structuring theme of the play? Obviously it has connections with Jaques' ‘Seven ages of man’ speech (2. 7. 139-66): it reminds us that we all live in Time, and that our perspective on it is dependent on the social role we are playing. But perhaps the most immediately relevant effect is that of subconsciously alerting the audience to the ‘time out’ or ‘holiday’ aspect of life in Arden: although it is a place of labour for the shepherds, for the aristocratic visitors it is not the ‘working-day world’ whose ‘briers’ Rosalind complains about in Act 1. None of the activities and social roles that Rosalind mentions in this dialogue are to be seen in the forest community; as Orlando points out, ‘there's no clock in the forest’. Instead a simpler pastoral life, based on broader ‘time[s] o’ day’ (morning, noon, afternoon, night) is to be observed. In due course, the aristocrats who categorize and hierarchize the world of money and status will return to that clock-time.

Modern actors use this sequence, however, for its performative possibilities, not to spell out a sermon to the audience (the same is true of Jaques' famous speech): its function is to charm, even hypnotize, Orlando, so that he will be drawn into the next stage of the courtship—asking for the boy's/girl's address: ‘Where dwell you pretty youth?’ (3. 2. 328). Rosalind answers in terms that foreground the relation between gender and costume—‘here in the skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat’ (this is often accompanied in the theatre with a hastily covered-up gesture towards the non-existent feminine garment). She goes on to introduce a discussion of femininity as an abstract category: ‘I thank God I am not a woman, to be touched with so many giddy offences’ (3. 2. 340-4)—so that she can then proceed to deconstruct the Petrarchan stereotype of the ‘man in love’ (3. 2. 360):

What were his marks?
A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have
not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which
you have not—but I pardon you for that, for simply your having in beard
is a younger brother's revenue. Then your hose should be ungartered,
your bonnet unbanded, your sleeves unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything
about you demonstrating a careless desolation.

(3. 2. 362-71)

Orlando, despite his literary poses, is pre-eminently, as this speech makes clear to us, a healthy and natural-looking young man: he is not caught up in the conventional discourses of courtly love. Rosalind cannot resist teasing him about this—‘But you are no such man; you are rather point-device in your accoutrements, as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other’ (371-4). Orlando's vitality and self-confidence are an important aspect of his characterization, if he is not to slip from one stereotype—the aggressive young man who protests with his fists—to another, the effeminized lover, whose improper costuming signals him as being ‘careless’ of his social role as a male. Like Rosalind, although less obviously to modern audiences, Orlando operates outside the strict gender binaries of his society's official discourse.

This point is made more clear by the willingness with which Orlando enters into the love-cure game that Rosalind/Ganymede proposes at the climax of this first courtship scene. Her long speech about her (invented) previous pretence to be a woman provides the equivalent stereotype to the male lover's behaviour that she has just described. The speech becomes obviously parodic through accumulation and exaggeration:

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 …

(3. 2. 396-403)

Despite this unattractive image, culminating in ‘a nook merely monastic’, Orlando hesitates only briefly before agreeing to be thus ‘cured’. How can the actor justify this decision? The answer must once again lie in the hypnotic energy of Rosalind's words and presence—Orlando wants more of them, on whatever terms. It is interesting, however, to consider the intonations and emphases possible for the actor in his immediate response to Rosalind's speech: ‘I would not be cured, youth’. Varieties of resistance, doubt, and self-confidence can be conveyed in these readings of the line:

I would not be cured, youth.
I would not be cured, youth.
I would not be cured, youth.
I would not be cured, youth.
I would not be cured, youth.

Rosalind's response—‘I would cure you’—is similarly variable and obviously dependent on the emphasis that Orlando gives his line. But she has an extra weapon up her sleeve, an extra clause, ‘if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cote to woo me’. There is ‘much virtue in If’, as Touchstone remarks later in the play (5. 4. 102). What Ganymede offers is a new type of imaginative erotics, much more lively and unpredictable than the conventions of literary love-songs; here Orlando can act out his fantasies and perhaps even his frustrated longings through the complex reality created by bodily presence.

The second courtship scene, 4. 1, also has its parallel in Lodge. The changes that Shakespeare made to the text at his elbow are again subtle and significant. This is a much longer scene, culminating in the wooing eclogue and the mock-wedding. It takes place on the following day: Lodge informs us that Ganymede/Rosalynd has had a poor night's sleep, Aliena is feeling very chirpy. The two of them come upon their ‘melancholy forester’ (who hasn't had a good night's sleep in weeks) and Rosalynd accosts him:

what makes you so early abroad this morn? In contemplation, no doubt, of your Rosalynd. Take heed, forester; step not too far, the ford may be deep, and you slip over the shoes. … 'Tis good, forester, to love, but not to overlove, lest in loving her that likes not thee, thou fold thyself in an endless labyrinth.

(R. 74)

It is an eloquent warning against the excesses of romantic love which bespeaks the good sense of Lodge's Rosalynd, a trait carried over into Shakespeare's character; but Shakespeare's Orlando, as we have already seen, is certainly not one for moping around. In fact he arrives late for his appointment, having been, we assume, occupied with strengthening his bonds with Duke Senior and his merry men. This tardiness spurs Rosalind to another flight of fancy that carries a sting:

Nay, and you be so tardy, come no more in my sight. I had as lief be
wooed of a snail.
Of a snail?
Ay, of a snail. For though he comes slowly, he carries his house on
his head; a better jointure, I think, than you make a woman. Besides, he brings
his destiny with him.
What's that?
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.

(4. 1. 49-59)

A double insult: snails are but lowly (and slimy) creatures hardly to be compared with men, the lords of creation; and yet, they do have something in common with men: ‘horns’, the sign of cuckoldom. We are reminded subliminally of the play's ongoing deconstruction of the signifiers of masculinity, a theme to be taken up graphically in the following scene, the dance and song of the apparently triumphant hunters.

Lodge, who is not at this point using the Ganymede-as-Rosalynd trope, enables Ganymede to regain her witty defensive control of the situation in a speech in which she seems to want to push Aliena into Rosader's arms (‘one bird in the hand is worth two in the wood’, R. 74). The opportunity being declined, Rosalynd changes the subject in order to hear more of her lover's praise of her idealized self: ‘But leaving this prattle, now I’ll put you in mind of your promise about those sonnets, which you said were at home in your lodge’.18 Three more ‘sonnets’ follow, plus prose protestations from Rosader about the beauty of Rosalynd and the importance of his literary performances in ‘fixing’ this perfection in his mind. Ganymede is allowed one extended speech in response, a critique of the self-indulgence of this mode of being in love—and, itself, an eloquent verbal display:

‘I can smile,’ quoth Ganymede, ‘at the sonnetos, canzones, madrigals, rounds and roundelays, that these pensive patients pour out when their eyes are more full of wantonness, than their hearts of passions. Then, as the fishers put the sweetest bait to the fairest fish, so these Ovidians, holding Amo in their tongues, when their thoughts come at haphazard, write that they be wrapt in an endless labyrinth of sorrow, when walking in the large lease of liberty, they only have their humours in their inkpot. …’

(R. 76)

This speech, of which I have quoted only a third, is emotionally and rhetorically similar to Rosalind's swingeing demolition of the grand icons of romantic love:

No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club, yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot mid summer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont, and being taken with the cramp, was drowned, and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it was Hero of Sestos. But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

(4. 1. 89-103)

In Shakespeare's text, just before this flight of witty eloquence, there is a moment of physical tension when Orlando takes the initiative, ‘Rosalind’ having signalled that she is ‘in a holiday humour and like enough to consent’ (4. 1. 65-6). Orlando's answer to the challenge, ‘What would you say to me now, and I were your very very Rosalind?’ is to shift the action onto the physical plane: ‘I would kiss before I spoke’. Stage business—an attempted kiss—is clearly implied here, with Rosalind talking fast (and deliberately coarsely, with her mention of spit?) in order to put him off. This brief moment raises the stakes for the watching audience: the fact that the characters' desires are embodied in the actors will not be denied: we expect a kiss, if not now, then—all the more urgently for the delay—later.

Lodge is rarely concerned to imagine bodies enacting his story: the delight that he offers his reading audience is in the mind—particularly via the appeal of classical references to the educated reader—and the mind's ear, in the liberal doses of ‘sonnetos’ which dot the text. The climax of these is the ‘wooing Eclogue’, a duet between Rosader and Ganymede, in which Ganymede does play the female role. Whereas Orlando's response to the invitation to ‘woo’ is to offer to kiss, Rosader abides by the rules of courtly love and obeys his ‘lady's’ command: ‘let me see how thou canst woo: I will represent Rosalynd, and thou shalt be as thou art, Rosader. See in some amorous ecologue, how if Rosalynd were present, how thou couldst court her; and while we sing of love, Aliena shall tune her pipe and play us melody’ (R. 79). The reader, that is, is to imagine appropriate music accompanying this climactic literary performance.

The eclogue is a ‘pastoral dialogue’ (OED); each long stanza concludes with a variation on ‘O Rosalynd, then be thou pitiful, for Rosalynd is only beautiful’. Lodge varies it after three stanzas with the fourth stanza broken into short segments of dialogue as the wooing heats up. ‘Rosalynd’ gives in, and a triumphant duet follows, ‘Oh, gain more great than kingdoms or a crown!’ / ‘Oh, trust betrayed if Rosader abuse me’. Lodge was no doubt familiar with the popular musical mode of the madrigal-dialogue or pastourelle; what this scene irresistibly reminds twentieth-century readers of is full-blown opera (an art-form which was, in fact, just beginning to be established as Lodge and Shakespeare were writing). The analogy of tenor and soprano declaring their love for each other and finally uniting in a rapturous cabaletta suggests the formality and potential comedy of this scene in Lodge—a risibleness that Shakespeare avoids in favour of something that creates very much more natural-seeming characters:

But come, now I will be your Rosalind in a more coming-on disposition;
and ask me what you will, I will grant it.
Then love me, Rosalind.
Yes, faith, will I, Fridays and Saturdays and all.
And wilt thou have me?
Ay, and twenty such.
What sayest thou?
Are you not good?
I hope so.
Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

(4. 1. 106-16)

Both these duetting exchanges—Lodge's high art, Shakespeare's colloquial familiarity—lead to the mock-marriage, a scene in Shakespeare which I want to look at in the context of the play's other ‘weddings’. … But it is worth noting here that it is Lodge's Aliena who proposes the ‘marriage’; she has no hesitation in playing the role of priest. It is Rosalynd/Ganymede whose embarrassed response is recorded: she ‘changed as red as a rose. And so with a smile and a blush, they made up this jesting match, that after proved to a marriage in earnest, Rosader full little thinking he had wooed and won his Rosalynd’ (R. 83). The conversation between the young women after this crucial event illustrates the difference between the two writers' imaginations. Lodge's Aliena, always a more chatty figure than Shakespeare's, begins to ‘prattle’ with Ganymede, offering the opinion that ‘by all probable conjectures, this match will be a marriage’. Ganymede is sceptical: ‘Tush … there goes more words to a bargain than one’, and so on; and Aliena concludes the exchange by remarking that she hopes Rosalynd will pay more attention to their sheep, now that she is assured of Rosader's love (R. 84). The girls seem very companionable in this chatter, their friendship undisturbed by the remarkable event that has just taken place, a public enactment of Rosalynd's and Rosader's commitment to one another.

Very different is Shakespeare's coda to the mock-marriage and subsequent ‘flyting’ between Rosalind and Orlando. Celia seems irritated, feeling betrayed?—‘You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate. We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest’ (4. 1. 191-94).19 Despite its proverbial origin, the specific image here of stripping off Rosalind's male gender to show a filthy female nakedness is not pleasant. Rosalind replies with an utterance of equally powerful feeling, though very different emotional reference: ‘O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded. My affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal’ (4. 1. 195-8). In response to Celia's tart remark (‘Or rather bottomless …’) she continues to expatiate on her feelings, concluding, ‘I’ll tell thee Aliena, I cannot be out of sight of Orlando. I’ll go find a shadow and sigh till he come.’ Rosalind is fully in thrall to love—though she cannot admit or display this feeling to anyone except her more-than-sister friend. It's an emotionally fraught situation, which leaves Celia on her own: no wonder she ends the scene with the weary, or cynical, remark, ‘And I’ll sleep’. The two women are seen to separate for the first time in the play.

Two patterns of movement suggest themselves here: either Rosalind exits stage left, towards the sheep-cote to wait for Orlando's return, while Celia settles to sleep on stage during the brief huntsmen's scene (4. 2); or Rosalind exits stage right, into the forest, narrowly missing the hunters' entrance from the forest, which happens after Celia's exit stage left towards the cottage for her nap. Whichever way it is played, it leaves the visual image of a situation which is particularly difficult for Celia, since unlike Rosalind she has no anticipation of further pleasurable friction at the next meeting with Orlando. The option taken in Adrian Noble's 1985 RSC production—to leave Celia onstage during the hunters' song—allowed this scene to be presented as invading Celia's unconscious, a dream of defloration, male violence feared yet desired. Noble's psychoanalytic reading created a heightened feeling of sexual frustration and expectation in Celia which was answered by the unexpected arrival of Oliver in the next scene. Significantly, there is much mention of violence and blood in this scene, and Rosalind faints at the sight of the ‘bloody napkin’, which can be read not only as a symbol of the absent, wounded Orlando, but also as a metonym of her own hidden femininity. Eventually the flirtatious and largely verbal pleasures of ‘friction’ have to give way to the physical realities of the body, if the play's story is to move out of the artificial world of pastoral into the real world of the audience.


  1. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 15.

  2. Karen Newman, Shakespeare's Rhetoric of Comic Character: Dramatic Convention in Classical and Renaissance Comedy (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), 96.

  3. Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 126.

  4. These debates are summarized in Shapiro, Gender in Play, Introduction; Jean Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 159-60.

  5. Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 43. See also Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 147-8.

  6. Orgel, Impersonations, 28.

  7. See Orgel, Impersonations, 64-72, for discussion of the boy players' social status.

  8. Ibid., 103.

  9. Ibid., 63.

  10. Kathleen McLuskie, ‘The Act, the Role, and the Actor: Boy Actresses on the Elizabethan Stage’, New Theatre Quarterly, 3 (1987), 120-30; Jean Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle, 119-20.

  11. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle, 118, 120.

  12. Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 120.

  13. Ibid., 122-4.

  14. Ibid., 128.

  15. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (1998; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 89-90.

  16. This experiment was carried out with professional actors at Sydney University's Centre for Performance Studies in 1996.

  17. Thomas Lodge, Rosalynd, ed. Brian Nellist (Keele University: Ryburn Publishing, 1995), 67. Further quotations from this edition will be incorporated into the text.

  18. Rosalynd, 75. One likes to think that the author is consciously punning on ‘Lodge’ here.

  19. Cf. Rosalynd, 49: ‘“And I pray you,” quoth Aliena, “if your robes were off, what mettle are you made that you are so satirical against women? Is it not a foul bird defiles the own nest?”’ Shakespeare's borrowing from Lodge is obvious.

P. H. Parry (essay date 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7601

SOURCE: “Visible Art and Visible Artists: Reflexivity and Metatheatricality in As You Like It,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Parry discusses Shakespeare's self-conscious representation of the nature of theater and the role of audience in As You Like It.]

Theatre is based upon twinned assumptions—that theatre is life-like because life is theatrical—which have survived so many changes in dramaturgical fashion that they may reasonably be thought to be foundational.1 But critics with a heavy investment in beliefs about the differences between kinds or periods of theatre have often failed to notice or to stress the continuity that persists beneath disparate appearances. Thus, while we are happy to applaud the Renaissance stage's interest in reflexivity and meta-theatrical reflection, we are often anxious to avoid detecting the same in some more recent kinds of theatre.2 Yet evidence is certainly against such prejudice. Ibsen, like most nineteenth-century dramatists, wrote for large, institutionalised theatres with stages set behind, between, and sometimes partially in front of, elaborately ornamented proscenium arches. Everything that spectators saw on these stages was framed by gigantic and ever-present signs of theatricality that are the dramatic equivalent of quotation marks. But Ibsen's suggested staging for Hedda Gabler, far from ignoring such unignorable theatricality, puts quotation marks around quotation marks. The stage is dressed as:

A large drawing-room, handsomely and tastefully furnished; decorated in dark colours. In the rear wall is a broad open doorway, with curtains drawn back to either side. It leads to a smaller room, decorated in the same style as the drawing-room. […] On either side of the open doorway in the rear wall stand what-nots holding ornaments of terra-cotta and majolica. Against the rear-wall of the smaller room can be seen a sofa, a table and a couple of chairs. Above this sofa hangs the portrait of a handsome old man in general's uniform.3

Here we witness theatre's imitation of a life that is in its turn an imitation of a theatre whose image is omnipresent throughout our viewing of the play: for what is this curtained opening if not the transparent fourth wall of an onstage-stage let into the second wall of a realistic box-set whose own fourth wall is framed for us by the proscenium arch? We see Hedda's death framed twice, within doubled marks of its own theatricality, as on this inner-stage—its curtains drawn and to the accompaniment of music—she makes her final exit, her greatest coup de théâtre. Ibsen's play, masterpiece of the naturalistic stage though it be, is as theatrically self-aware, self-presenting and self-reflecting as the best Renaissance comedies. Both Ibsen and Shakespeare issue an unembarrassed invitation for spectators to reflect upon theatre's founding insight: that all the world's a stage. But, according to Erving Goffman, Jaques' famous similitude ought to promote further questions: “All the world is like a stage, we do strut and fret our hour on it, and that is all the time we have. But what's the stage like, and what are those figures that people it?”4 My contention is that thinking carefully about As You Like It involves thinking carefully about theatre and theatricality in general.5

A stage is a platform upon which plays are performed. A play is the product of human activity in which x impersonates y in the presence of z. But which parts of this activity require human activity? In a play in performance an actor impersonates a character (x imitates, or pretends to be, or stands in for, or dresses up as y) in front of an audience: the verbs which name what the actor does, though often used interchangeably, have different valencies.6 To impersonate or pretend requires (human) consciousness on the part of the impersonator or pretender; to stand in for something requires no consciousness at all (a fork stands in for the Fifth Army in a tablecloth campaign); but to be perceived to be standing in for someone or something requires (human) consciousness on the part of the perceiver. Though actors are likely to be human (since, perhaps, you are only an actor if you know that you are one), their representational function, of making an absence present, does not require a human agent: puppet-shows and shadow-plays are genuine theatre, and there is at least one Dutch play in which all of the “actors” are alsatian dogs. The character impersonated is usually human, but is sometimes a supernatural being or an inanimate object: a god, Mrs McLeavy's corpse, a coffee table, or something odder still. In Howard Brenton's Epsom Downs one actor (“festooned with the regalia of the race”) impersonates The Derby, while another (who “smokes a cigarette in a long holder, wears a summer suit with two-toned shoes and carries a cut turf in the palm of a hand”) impersonates The Derby racecourse.7 A coffee table that does not talk (even one for whom an actor stands in) is perhaps a species of stage-prop rather than a character, but in The Gingerbread Man a saltcellar and a pepper mill sing and dance, and Brenton's racecourse is very voluble and has a definite personality of his (not its) own.8 But the z in this formula—the audience in whose presence the play is performed—is not only fundamental to the theatrical experience but can only consist of real human beings: one cannot substitute puppets or German shepherds or corpses or coffee tables. A play is a human activity not principally because of anything that happens on stage but because stage-plays are events that take place in the presence of human spectators and listeners.

One problem with this performance formula is that its linearity suggests that we come to audiences “last scene of all” (which, of course, mimics the rehearsal and production process); and, indeed, these spectators and listeners who are fundamental to the theatrical experience have been curiously neglected. Literary critics for the most part concern themselves with dramatists, whom they treat as though they are poets or novelists, and those critics whose object of attention is performance have traditionally spent most of their time worrying about actors: it is, thus, significant but not at all surprising that Diderot in his famous Paradoxe sur le comédien should say some hotly disputed but nonetheless worthwhile things about actors while accepting uncritically the most arrant nonsense about audiences. He argues that the greatness of great actors resides in their ability to imitate human conduct convincingly. But, since this ability is a skill that is for the most part consciously acquired and developed and displayed, it is an error to suppose that a great performance flows from an actor's spontaneously identifying with his character. Indeed, more usually (because a fundamental part of an actor's awareness is his awareness of himself acting), it is necessary that such identification should not occur. Precisely because the actor's art “consiste non pas à sentir […] mais à rendre si scrupuleusement les signes extérieurs du sentiment”, an actor need not feel (and probably does not feel) as his character may have done. Instead “il excelle à simuler, bien qu’il ne sente rien”.9 Nevertheless—and this is where Diderot's controversial but invigorating comment degenerates into twaddle—though the perfection of acting is achieved by actors who are thoroughly aware of what they are doing and are, like good plumbers or dentists, curiously neutral towards the whole procedure (“who, moving others, are themselves as stone”), that perfection consists in the encouraging of spectators to be willing (or even unwilling) victims of an illusion. The actor “n’est pas le personnage, il le joue et le joue si bien que vous le prenez pour tel: l’illusion n’est que pour vous; il sait bien, lui, qu’il ne l’est pas […]”10—or, in the words of “la favorite” in Les Bijoux indiscrets: “Je sais encore que la perfection d’un spectacle consiste dans l’imitation si exacte d’une action, que le spectateur trompé sans interruption, s’imagine assister à l’action même.”11 But whether an actor is deeply moved or utterly unmoved during a performance is irrelevant to the questions of how, how far, and whether, an audience is moved and what it is moved towards. One can agree or disagree with Diderot's anti-emotionalist account of acting without needing to believe that his views on this issue have any consequences for spectators. In this respect William Archer, despite strongly rejecting Diderot's anti-emotionalist argument, is surely right: “If an actor can convincingly represent emotion, the critic […] need not inquire whether [the actor] experiences or mechanically simulates it.”12 But what is involved in the spectator's judgement that an actor is, indeed, convincing? If we are able to claim that an actor has convincingly represented a character in the grip of a powerful emotion, surely our claim is compelling evidence that we are not illuded and have not been “trompés sans interruption”? (We may say that a Van Gogh canvas represents sunflowers convincingly, but we expect to smell paint not pollen.) If we are illuded how can we ever be in a position to say that an actor has convinced us? Actors presuppose performance; and our recognition of being in the presence of performance is incompatible with our being illuded.

Diderot was right (probably) about actors, but wrong (certainly) about audiences. Theatre, as is obvious if we synchronise our looking and our thinking, is the art of non-deceptive disguise and of non-duplicitous pretence. Yet the obviousness of this point and of its corollary (that theatre is always theatrical) creates resistance: somehow the rumour has got about that theatre is only convincing when it denatures itself: art needs to be artful but seem artless. And this rot goes deep. Of All My Sons—the eighth or ninth play that he had written, only the second that was produced, and his first theatrical success—Arthur Miller noted:

My intention in this play was to be as untheatrical as possible. To that end any metaphor, any image, any figure of speech, however creditable to me, was removed if it even slightly brought to consciousness the hand of a writer. So far as was possible nothing was to be permitted to interfere with its artlessness.13

It is easy to have a sense of Miller's dilemma: in the late 1940s, in the wake of the failure of so much untruthful and artificial playmaking, he wanted to avoid the merely smart exploitation of theatrical tricks in order that this play at least (which remains an unusually chaste example of his work) could engage directly with social issues and with extra-theatrical reality:

It began to seem to me that what I had written until then, as well as almost all the plays I had ever seen, had been written for a theatrical performance, when they should have been written as a kind of testimony whose relevance far surpassed theatrics.14

But, closet-drama apart, all plays are written for theatrical performance: why should it be thought right (and even natural) that they should seem not to have been? Besides, a certain kind of unnaturalness is permitted: a play may proudly bear the marks of having been written “as a kind of testimony”. Miller's plays have always seemed artificial in this sense, his characters speaking words that are palpably written for them rather than firing off their thoughts from the tops of their heads. When, right at the end of All My Sons, Chris tells his mother:

You can be better! Once and for all you can know there's a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it, and unless you know that, you threw away your son because that's why he died […]15

it is obvious that this is not merely (or at all convincingly) a transcription of the way in which one character speaks to another but is also the kind of speech that characters in plays speak when the playwright wants to address an issue and an audience. Peter Szondi's account of how drama in the modern world operates and should operate both fails to describe twentieth-century theatre accurately and, with magisterial certainty, condemns much of Miller's achievement in terms (and this is the sad part) that Miller himself is anxious to endorse:

The Drama is not written, it is set. All the lines spoken in the Drama are disclosures. They are spoken in context and remain there. They should in no way be perceived as coming from the author […] the lines in a play are as little an address to the spectator as they are a declaration by the author.

(Szondi, p. 8)

Yet Chris's speech to his mother is both address and declaration.16 Szondi's dogmatism (his deriving a false is from a dubious ought) is easily exposed: what radiates from good plays whatever their period of origin is not the art that conceals art (which, were it effective, we should never recognise) but the art that reveals itself: plays are written for theatrical performance, declare themselves to be so frankly, and would be poorer plays were they not to do so. If Miller had indeed avoided all theatricality then how far, in that one respect at least, would All My Sons have differed from those “poetic” plays—“whose ultimate thought or meaning is elusive, a drama which appears not to have been composed or constructed, but which somehow comes to life on a stage and then flickers away”—that, earlier in his “Introduction to the Collected Plays”, he dispatches disdainfully?17 So is it a good or a bad thing for a play, which must in the nature of things be both composed and constructed, to seem “not to have been composed and constructed”? When Jane Austen tells us of the Bertram sisters that “their vanity was in such good order, that they seemed to be quite free from it” has she not got the moral measure of what is vicious whether in life or art or artlessness? Why attach value only to that art that conceals art: what about the art that reveals art and revels in what it reveals?

Shakespeare is not—no dramatist need be and no good one can be—invisible: the critic who wrote of Shakespeare's “apparent invisibility” was wittier than he guessed.18 More Shakespearean still was the innkeeper in The Invisible Man who “showed his dislike” of his strange guest “by concealing it ostentatiously”. Far from seeking to hide from us the fundamental structure of the theatrical event, Shakespeare “conceals it ostentatiously” in order that it may parade itself in the forefront of our attention. In his best work he reveals the art that conceals art, treading a fine line between concealment and revelation. Much of the pleasure that a Shakespeare play brings, both to a reader and in performance, comes from our treading that line with him: of our being not so much in two minds as two worlds (of fiction and of performance, of underlying story and its theatrical realisation) which are with us always in performance, and which are by no means so easily separated as simplifying theories—especially semiotic theories—would have us believe. Both worlds (and their complex interaction) are explicitly acknowledged by Shakespeare. In the induction to The Taming of the Shrew we see a drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, who falls asleep. While he is unconscious a nobleman discovers him and decides to trick him by having a young servant dress up as Sly's wife. He is confident that the outrageous impersonation will be carried through effectively:19

I know the boy will well usurp the grace,
Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman.

Sly will be deceived (or the trick will fail), but the courtiers are not deceived (or the joke will not have worked). Secondly, in an unrelated incident, a troupe of travelling players appears and performs the story of Kate and Petruchio, for the benefit of the duped Sly, his false wife, and his bogus courtiers. Thus The Taming of the Shrew is set up in such a way that when we watch it we are aware that we are watching other people watching a play. Shakespeare's other plays are less explicit, but no less effective, in the way in which they air the linked issues of impersonation (x impersonates y) and spectatorship (in the presence of z).

Let us defy the linearity of our formula and begin, for once, at the receiving end. Shakespeare learned to write for, and to live with, dangerous audiences: his plays are alive with, and are alive because they are alive with, permanent awareness of an audience's potential disruptiveness. Most often the vehicle for such awareness is a play-within-a-play of the sort that we find in Love's Labour's Lost or A Midsummer Night's Dream or Hamlet. These intercalated plays are such frequently used devices because, by stressing the huge element of artificiality that is inseparable from theatrical viewing, they enable audiences to be relaxed about that initial act of artifice without which any dramatic performance cannot get started.20 And what they show us about Elizabethan audiences is that they were accustomed to inspect performances vigorously and intervene as they saw fit. There is a model, though no doubt an idealised one, of the kind of interchange which seems to have been normal in Elizabethan performances in As You Like It (III.ii.222-44) where Ganymede keeps on interrupting Aliena's description of Orlando:

Looks he as freshly as he did the day he wrestled?
It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover;
but take a taste of my finding him, and relish it with good observance. I
found him under a tree, like a dropped acorn—
It may well be called Jove's tree when it drops forth such fruit.
Give me audience, good madam.
There lay he, stretched along like a wounded knight—
Though it be pity to see such a sight, it well becomes the ground.
Cry “holla!” to thy tongue, I prithee: it curvets unseasonably.—He
was furnished like a hunter—
O ominous—he comes to kill my heart.
I would sing my song without a burden; thou bringest me out of tune.
Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.—Sweet,
say on.(21)

But then Orlando and Jaques enter and Aliena is forced to break off:

You bring me out. Soft! comes he not here?
’Tis he. Slink by, and note him.

They then move to one side of the stage in order to observe Orlando and Jaques, and in doing so convert themselves into one of the play's many examples of an onstage audience, and thus confer the status of play-within-play on the dialogue which follows (III.ii.245-85).

Similar movements, with identical consequences, are typical of the play: As You Like It in performance is stuffed full of interior and subordinate performances, which include a not very impressive wedding masque; five songs (more than in any other Shakespeare play); and also, in much subtler fashion, incident after incident that is shaped up (like the ending of Hedda Gabler) to replicate in the theatre an image of the theatre. In II.i Duke Senior claims to be able to find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (16-17) and illustrates his meaning by anthropomorphising deer as “native burghers of this desert city” (23). As an audience we both hear (and by convention overhear) what he says, but immediately Shakespeare constructs as a commentary on this passage a situation in which hearing and overhearing are highlighted, for an unnamed First Lord describes how Amiens and he stole up behind Jaques (who had himself stolen up behind a stricken deer) in order to listen to (to overhear) his moralised comments on what, emphasising the theatrical metaphor, Duke Senior terms a “spectacle”. And Jaques' moralised comments, which consist of finding human analogies for the animal activity that he is inspecting, in effect convert the deer into actors in a play, since they are made to stand in for the human beings whom they emblematise (52-6):

                                        First Lord
Anon a careless herd
Full of the pasture jumps along by him
And never stays to greet him. “Ay,” quoth Jaques,
“Sweep on you fat and greasy citizens,
’Tis just the fashion.”

So the deer are actors in a drama that Jaques witnesses.22 But he, who is audience of that drama, is a player within the drama that Amiens and the First Lord witness; and they, in telling their story at Duke Senior's rural court, convert him and his courtiers into another audience; and the real-life actors who impersonate these stage-beings do so for the benefit of that ultimate audience which is us. Multiple and gradated acts of audition correspond to that sense of plays within plays within plays that Shakespeare is so careful to foster. Every time that Jaques appears we are made aware of multiplied and interlocking audiences. Here (II.vii.136-9) is how Duke Senior introduces Jaques' most famous speech:

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than
the scene
Wherein we play in.

This is directed by the duke out to his companions, but by the actor (acting in his capacity as an actor) out to the audience in explicit allusion to the performance itself. And on the stage of the recently opened Globe theatre, whose motto was Totus mundus agit histrionem, Jaques deliberately echoes that motto in his opening words. On the boards of a public stage men who are players represent men and women who are in their turn actors in a greater drama.23

Once one is made aware of the basic structure of As You Like It one begins to see evidence of it everywhere. At II.iv there is again an inlaid drama. Ganymede, Aliena, and Touchstone begin the scene speaking prose. Ganymede announces the entry of Corin and Silvius in words whose prosodic patterns are compatible with either verse or prose:

Look you, who comes here,
A young man and an old in solemn talk.(24)

But this transitional speech serves to introduce two shepherds who speak in verse throughout. When they leave, Ganymede has two lines of verse and then Touchstone reverts to prose. Why this strange pattern of verse and prose? It is absurd to suppose that agricultural workers in Elizabethan England were more prone to speak blank verse than were their social superiors. But it would be equally absurd to suppose that Corin and Silvius are in any respects portraits of real-life shepherds: they are pastoral figures who represent a contrast between youth and age, and they speak of love. Elizabethans—just like us, and just like all human beings (except actors) always and everywhere—spoke prose all their working lives. And so they spoke prose on their way to the theatre, and on their way home again afterwards. But briefly, for the two or three hours of performance, they saw men whom they knew to be actors (often, indeed, actors whom they knew by name) and they heard them speaking verse. Actors did not merely put on strange clothes but also assumed strange speech patterns: those patterns, like the clothes, were a disguise—and, like theatrical disguise in general, they were meant to fool no one. Blank verse was one of the great indices of the theatrical experience: an index that differentiated it from the life that surrounded it. Shakespeare uses prose and verse in this scene so as to emphasise that Ganymede, Aliena, and Touchstone are spectators at a theatrical event: that they are once again an onstage audience. And the ambiguous metrics of Ganymede's introduction to the spectacle and the undoubted verse with which she ends the piece serve to highlight her role here as prologue and epilogue. There is an actor who is Rosalind who is Ganymede who is a prologue; then there are actors who are Corin and Silvius who act out the ageless debate between youth and age; and then the actor who is Rosalind who is Ganymede becomes an epilogue and draws out the moral of the piece (41-2):

Alas, poor shepherd, searching of thy wound,
I have by hard adventure found my own.

The answer to Goffman's linked questions (What's the stage like, and what are those figures that people it?) is that the stage is a machine for orientating art towards its audience, and that the figures that people the machine (“We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!”) make sense only when we see them through the eyes of spectatorship.25 Thus, though every actor is an x that impersonates a y, it is not the case that every actor is an x that is disguised as a y. And it is not so, because impersonation—defined as non-duplicitous pretence—is a fundamental of acting whereas disguise or dressing up is not, since x may or may not dress up as y in order to impersonate y effectively. Charles tells Oliver (I.i.117-19): “I am given, sir, secretly to understand that your younger brother, Orlando, hath a disposition to come in disguised against me to try a fall.” Orlando's disguise does not consist of altering his appearance or of putting on a costume (indeed in most modern productions he undresses for the wrestling match) but rather of his not telling spectators who he really is and of claiming to be some other person. And his disguise is utterly unavailing since, by a mechanism that Shakespeare never reveals, Charles has been “secretly” informed of Orlando's true identity. Because Orlando's disguise is perfunctory, transparent, and very much a matter of his simply asserting that he is someone else, it serves as a model for theatrical impersonation in general. Shakespeare, far from being bothered by the transparency of performance, multiplies and replicates pretence and disguise so that they are insinuated into the very centre of his play, not only refusing to disguise disguise but often making a joke at the expense of its obviousness. When, for example, Duke Senior and Orlando discuss Ganymede (V.iv.26-9):

Duke Senior
I do remember in this shepherd boy
Some lively details of my daughter's favour.
My lord, the first time that I ever saw him,
Methought he was a brother to your daughter […]

they are not principally engaged in trying to assure a sceptical audience of the plausibility of an inherently implausible bit of plot. Those actors and directors who believe that Orlando knows who Ganymede is from the outset and keeps quiet in order to stay one step ahead of Rosalind might reasonably ask themselves why he fails to capitalise upon the rewards of his cleverness. There are, surely, no grounds for doubting that Rosalind's disguise is thoroughly convincing to those on stage, or that it was—and is—thoroughly unconvincing to an audience, and this perceptual discrepancy (which is at the root of our experience of theatre) is the target of Shakespeare's joke in this bit of dialogue.26

What the superabundance of onstage disguise in As You Like It serves to highlight or foreground is that underlying activity of non-deceptive disguise that is fundamental to the art of the theatre. In III.ii Rosalind (or rather Rosalind disguised as Ganymede) tells Orlando that she (or rather he) will pretend to be a woman and that Orlando must address him as though he were Rosalind. In order to encourage him to comply with this rather strange suggestion Ganymede tells Orlando that he has worked a similar trick previously and that it has served to cure a love-sick heart (III.ii.385-94):

Yet I profess curing it by counsel.
Did you ever cure any so?
Yes, one; and in this manner. 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 […].

Here Goffman's question—of what we think stage-people are—resolves itself into the question of who we think speaks Ganymede's lines. Editors who follow the infuriatingly inconvenient practice of the First Folio simply ascribe all words that are spoken by the actor who plays Rosalind to Rosalind herself. But it is important when we read the play to have as firm a sense as we have in a modern performance of the difference between Rosalind's speaking in propria persona and Rosalind's speaking as Ganymede. In a modern performance we see a woman dressed as a man and we hear that man boast that he can counterfeit the actions of a woman to perfection. But Ganymede's bluff is undercut by Rosalind's counterbluff: Ganymede can act this part so well because, in this matter of impersonating a woman, Rosalind does not have to act at all. We witness, in short, a sophisticated joke.

Yet when we read the play, or watch a modern performance, we get only half the joke. We hear Ganymede speaking, and beneath him we hear Rosalind, but in the performance which Shakespeare sought to construct we hear beneath both of them the boy-actor talking about his art, for the task which Ganymede sets himself is the task that the stage conventions of the day set for every boy-actor. In every performance that he gave the boy-actor “being but a moonish youth” would “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”—so that, with that explicit linking of boys (the means of representation) and women (the objects of representation) Shakespeare's complex joke is complete. Shakespeare's joke is visual: we see the point. But it is also audible: a matter of who speaks the words and of who owns the words that are spoken.

At this point a speech-act theorist would wish to register dissent, since it is plainly inadequate to suggest that we here listen to the boy-actor talking about his art. To see the force of this objection we need—bearing in mind that though characters (figures in one world) talk to other characters, it is actors (figures in the other world) who do all the speaking—to ask ourselves a question: Does anyone talk to the audience? If this question seems odd, or even impermissible, it does so because a powerful assumption, widespread in modern mainstream theatre and in much critical (especially literary-critical) writing about drama, is that a play's actions are bounded by the limits of the stage, so that (whatever actors do) characters do not acknowledge the presence of an audience. Szondi puts the point with great clarity: “The actor-role relationship should not be visible. Indeed, the actor and the character should unite to create a single personage” (Szondi 1987: 9). What is the status of speech that is directly addressed to the audience? Recently, modern editors of Shakespeare have become utterly uninhibited, to the point of irresponsibility, about supplying a category of stage direction (indicating the object-of-address) that is entirely absent from the quarto and Folio texts of Shakespeare's plays. Yet they are very unwilling to see the audience as an object that is addressed. To whom is Oliver speaking in the following speech?

Now will I stir this gamester. I hope I shall see an end of him, for my soul—yet I know not why—hates nothing more than he. Yet he's gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and, indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be so long. This wrestler shall clear all. Nothing remains but that I kindle the boy thither, which now I’ll go about.


Granted, as a Folio stage direction makes clear, that Charles has left the stage before Oliver reveals his unmotivated malevolence, to whom is his malevolence revealed? Is not the simple answer: the audience? Granted that he speaks on an empty stage, to whom is his speech addressed? Is not the same answer obvious, available and correct? But what a powerful school of dramaturgical theorists would have us believe is that Oliver's monologue is a speech that is tethered to Oliver at one end (its point of origin) but is untethered at the other.27 Since Oliver speaks upon an empty stage the speech cannot be addressed to anyone; it is a soliloquy, and soliloquies are internal monologues that audiences are by convention privileged to overhear. But this is a great deal of argument to cover an elementary case: why not say, altogether more simply, that Oliver addresses the audience?

In order to answer this question we need to look at Rosalind's epilogue, for that—when properly understood—reflects back upon the entire play and helps to form our understanding of it. Everything that the play is and does is implicit in the strange involuted structure of its epilogue—a speech that is so famous that we often forget what a strange beast it is, for prologues and epilogues, though commonplace in plays of the restoration period, are unusual in the Shakespeare canon. And when they do occur—in Henry V or A Winter's Tale or Pericles—they are generally spoken by a special character who takes no other part in the action. Epilogues spoken by one of a play's characters, who steps forward out of the surrounding action in order to do so, are still more unusual, and the epilogue to As You Like It is easily the best known of this kind. It is, moreover, the only epilogue in Shakespeare's works that is delivered by a female character and is the earliest such epilogue in English drama.

The clumsy locution “delivered by a female character” simply serves to remind us that in Shakespeare's lifetime Rosalind would have been impersonated by a man. Who, then, speaks the epilogue and in whose character? In one sense the answer is obvious: there is only one group of people which ever speaks in a performance and that group comprises actors not characters. So we can say, without fear of contradiction, that an actor speaks the epilogue. But, equally (and this is what was wrong with my earlier account of the boy-actor telling us about his art), there is no belief that the actor unloads upon us the spontaneous promptings of his own heart, or makes the words up as he goes along. There is all the difference in the world—in the world of the theatre at any rate—between (to take a very famous theatrical gaffe) Michael Redgrave's speaking the words that belong to Macbeth and his breaking down and telling an unappreciative audience of Liverpool schoolchildren that if they don't shut up he will go home.28 So we say that the actor speaks not in his own person but in character, and we shall probably go on to say—a shade incautiously—that he speaks in the character of Rosalind: which is after all, in common parlance, simply to say that Rosalind speaks the words. Yet it is clear that Rosalind does not speak all of the epilogue in her character as Rosalind and thus clear that the boy-actor cannot be said to speak all of it in her character either, any more than (since no one supposes that he merely makes up the words) he can be said to utter any of it on his own authority:

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, bid me farewell.

But, since Rosalind is certainly a woman, she cannot possibly say the line: “If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards”. And in a modern production, where Rosalind will be represented by an actress, the line makes no sense either, and must be cut or reworded or hurried through in the belief that modern audiences do not need to understand what Shakespeare is saying; or perhaps (though I have no record that this has ever been done) the actress playing Rosalind quickly puts on some reminder of her disguise as Ganymede—a feathered hunting-cap perhaps—in order to speak these words. Yet in an Elizabethan performance the line makes perfect sense as it stands without such elaborate subterfuge: an Elizabethan spectator, if he could be bothered to spell out the obvious, would say without hesitation that Rosalind's epilogue is spoken by an actor in the character of an actor who represents Rosalind. It is that extra layer in the representational fabric—the actor acting in the character of the actor who acts in the character of Rosalind—that needs to be borne in mind and which the epilogue highlights, for the epilogue is not an isolated joke but rather gives expression to the sophisticated machinery of theatrical self-awareness that runs, and is seen to run, throughout the play; and which—despite superficial variations that are the product of theatrical fashion—runs, and is seen to run, throughout drama generally.


  1. “The elementary mechanisms of human interaction and the elementary mechanisms of dramatic fiction are the same. […] Social life […] is designed as a continuous performance and, because of this, there is a link between theatre and life”: Umberto Eco, “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance”, Drama Review 21 (1977), 107-17 (p. 113). As Eco points out, Erving Goffman is one of the prime modern developers of this observation: see note 4 below.

  2. The classic case of criticism driven by a need to assert a development (towards, in this case, “the absolute dominance of dialogue”) is Peter Szondi's Theory of the Modern Drama, edited and translated by Michael Hays (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 8-9. Future references to this work are incorporated into my text. (Szondi, whose book first appeared in German in 1956, takes a long view and by “modern” means post-Renaissance.)

  3. Hedda Gabler, translated by Michael Meyer, in Henrik Ibsen, Plays: Two (London, 1980), p. 243.

  4. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Cambridge Massachusetts, 1974), p. 124.

  5. Unless otherwise indicated, references to As You Like It are to the Oxford Shakespeare edition, ed. Alan Brissenden, Clarendon Press 1993.

  6. J. L. Austin, in an agonisingly nimble dance through the issues involved, says (a) that “mere imitation does not imply dissembling” and (b) that pretending is not what actors do, since their elaborate preparations persuade us rather to use of their activity such words as “impersonation or imposture or disguise”: “Pretending”, in Philosophical Papers, 3rd edition, ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock (Oxford, 1979), pp. 253-71 (pp. 265-8). But imposture, which always implies moral censure, is lowering the tone of the company it keeps.

  7. Howard Brenton, Plays: One (London and New York, 1986), p. 231.

  8. David Wood, The Gingerbread Man (London, 1977).

  9. Denis Diderot, Paradoxe sur le comédien, ed. Marc Blanquet, Librairie Théâtrale (Paris, 1958), pp. 16, 77.

  10. Paradoxe, p. 17. Emphasis added.

  11. Denis Diderot, (Euvres complètes, Tome III, p. 163 (Les Bijoux indiscrets, edited by Jean Macary, Aram Vartanian, and Jean-Louis Leutrat [Paris, 1978], Part II, chapter 5 [chapter 38], “Entretien sur les Lettres”).

  12. William Archer, Masks or Faces? in Denis Diderot, The Paradox of Acting, translated by Walter Herries Pollock, and William Archer, Masks or Faces? (New York, 1957), p. 79.

  13. “Introduction to the Collected Plays” (1957), reproduced in The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Robert A. Martin (London, 1994), p. 128.

  14. Theatre Essays, p. 129. Compare a more recent statement about Death of a Salesman: “Precisely what I had been after [was a play that] might seem so inevitable and natural that an author was hardly even required” (Collected Plays, II, [London, 1981], p. 1).

  15. Arthur Miller, A View from the Bridge/All My Sons (Harmondsworth, 1961), p. 179. All My Sons was published in 1947. In his introduction to Collected Plays, II (London, 1981), p. 1, Miller claims to have written Death of a Salesman so as to avoid having to introduce “one or more speeches announcing in some overt way its philosophical intention”.

  16. Indeed, in both manner and in mode of address, it parallels a famous speech from a British play that had appeared in the previous year: “But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone—but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.” (J. B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls, in Time and the Conways and Other Plays [Harmondsworth, 1969], p. 207). The status of Priestley's speech as testimony can hardly be doubted, but it is also, and inescapably, a speech written for performance, only at home upon a stage or kindred platform.

  17. Theatre Essays, p. 123. Emphasis added.

  18. Gary Taylor, “Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton”, English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994), 283-314 (p. 314). Taylor, who is assessing evidence of Shakespeare's crypto-Catholicism, seems unaware of his invigorating oxymoron.

  19. Ind.i.128-9. The Taming of the Shrew, ed. H. J. Oliver, The Oxford Shakespeare, Clarendon Press, 1982.

  20. “Every dramatic performance […] is composed of two speech acts. The first one is performed by the actor who is making a performative statement—‘I am acting’.” (Eco, “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance”, p. 115.)

  21. The dashes with which some of the lines end are Brissenden's way of signalling Rosalind's interruptions. That they are interruptions is clear from the dialogue.

  22. George Steevens, in his “Observations on the plays altered from Shakespeare” (1779) noted that, in eighteenth-century performances, “the celebrated Speech that describes the wounded Stag, and the Behaviour of the humourist Jaques, is taken from one of the Lords, its original Proprietor, and is given to Jaques himself” (Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 6 (1774-1801), ed. Brian Vickers (London and Boston, 1981), p. 205. This is such a natural piece of theatre (why report a report?) that one is bound to ask why Shakespeare should have set up his text with such a different performance potential in mind.

  23. In terms of the present argument, Alan Rickman (Brissenden, p. 151) was surely right in a 1985 revival to resurrect a traditional bit of stage business by miming each of the seven ages of man in turn, thus once again highlighting that act of acting that Shakespeare never seeks to hide from us.

  24. II.iv.17-18. The Arden edition, ed. Agnes Latham (London, 1975), which is here cited, prints the lines in verse formation while Brissenden's Oxford edition (following the Folio arrangement) prints them as prose.

  25. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (London, 1968), p. 47 (spoken by The Player).

  26. In Shakespeare at the Globe 1599-1609 (New York, 1962) Bernard Beckerman says of the Elizabethan disguise convention in general that: “Disguise is signified to the audience. But the completeness of the disguise is insufficient to convince an audience that the character would pass undetected […] it is nominal, a token of disguise” (p. 199). But his argument requires more careful wording: precisely because stage disguise is accepted as “nominal, a token of disguise” it is perceived as being an adequate representation of a degree of disguise sufficient to enable a character to pass undetected. On the caution that we need to exercise when we pass from commenting on the actuality of performance to commenting on that counter-factual interpretation of what we see which is “the story of the play”, see J. O. Urmson, “Dramatic Representation”, The Philosophical Quarterly 22 (1972), 333-43 (p. 337).

  27. In How to do Things with Words, second edition, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Oxford, 1975), Austin says of a speech-act that it is a procedure that “must be executed by all participants both correctly and completely” (p. 15), and completeness ensures that “the performance of an illocutionary act involves the securing of uptake” (p. 117). Austin specifically cites speech “spoken in soliloquy” (p. 22) as an example of an etiolation of the moral responsibilities that normally attach to speech-acts. Much later in his lectures (p. 92) he lists the etiolations as occurring when (and whenever) “we use speech in acting, fiction and poetry, quotation and recitation”. Soliloquy is suspect because of doubts about uptake (rather as though one were to promise in the privacy of one's own bathroom); the other etiolations occur because of doubts over who owns—of who is responsible for originating—the words that are spoken.

  28. One of the politer versions of this famous story is given in Richard Huggett, Binkie Beaumont: Eminence Grise of the West End Theatre 1933-1973 (London and Sydney, 1989), p. 387.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436


Dusinberre, Juliet. “As Who Liked It?” Shakespeare Survey 46 (1993): 9-21.

Discusses the influence of Elizabethan politics on the depiction of Rosalind and the presentation of gender roles.

Harley, Marta Powell. “Rosalind, the Hare, and the Hyena in Shakespeare's As You Like It.Shakespeare Quarterly 36, No. 3 (Autumn 1985): 335-37.

Argues that Rosalind establishes her complex sexual nature partially through the use of animal imagery.

Kott, Jan. “The Gender of Rosalind.” New Theatre Quarterly 7, No. 26 (May 1991): 113-25.

Compares Shakespeare's portrayal of gender in As You Like It and Twelfth Nightwith other works of literature.

Lifson, Martha Ronk. “Learning by Talking: Conversation in As You Like It.Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 91-105.

Considers Shakespeare's use of suppositions in an analysis of the complexities of conversation and sexuality between the play's principal characters.

Marshall, Cynthia. “The Doubled Jaques and Constructions of Negation in As You Like It.Shakespeare Quarterly 49, No. 4 (Winter 1998): 375-92.

Examines the play's structure using the psychoanalytic concept of negation.

Schleiner, Louise. “Voice, Ideology, and Gendered Subjects: The Case of As You Like It and Two Gentlemen.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, No. 3 (Fall 1999): 285-309.

Proposes a relationship between gender and ideology in Shakespeare's As You Like It and Two Gentlemen.

Shapiro, Michael. “Layers of Disguise: As You Like It.” In Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages, pp. 119-42. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Compares Shakespeare's use of cross-gender disguise in As You Like It with the use of similar techniques in plays by Heywood, Chapman, and Middleton.

Soule, Lesley Anne. ‘Subverting Rosalind: Cocky Ros in the Forest of Arden.” New Theatre Quarterly 7, No. 26 (May 1991): 126-36.

Considers the influence of Elizabethan popular theater on Shakespeare's treatment of androgyny and gender.

Stanton, Kay. “Remembering Patriarchy in As You Like It.” In Shakespeare: Text, Subtext, and Context, edited by Ronald Dotterer, pp. 139-49. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1989.

Studies the relationship between power, gender, and memory in As You Like It.

Stirm, Jan. “‘For solace a twinne-like sister’: Teaching Themes of Sisterhood in As You Like It and Beyond.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, No. 4, (Winter 1996): 374-86.

Argues that focusing on sisterhood enables students to consider the lives of women apart from their relationships to men and to question assumptions about social and family relationships.

Tiffany, Grace. “‘That Reason Wonder May Diminish’: As You Like It, Androgyny, and the Theater Wars.” Huntington Library Quarterly 57, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 213-39.

Considers unique elements in Shakespeare's vision of the comedy genre in the context of the “Poet Wars” of 1600.

Wilson, Richard. “‘Like the Old Robin Hood’: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 1-19.

Considers Shakespeare's condemnation of the Enclosure Act.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

As You Like It (Vol. 46)


As You Like It (Vol. 69)