Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207
One day in 1588, young Orlando is slashing at the head of a Moor tied to the rafters in his ancestral castle. His forefathers had been of noble rank for centuries and had lived out their lives in action, but Orlando is inclined toward writing. Bored by his play in the attic, he goes to his room and writes for a while on his poetic drama, “Aethelbert: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Tiring of poetry before long, he runs outdoors and up a nearby hill, where he throws himself down under his favorite oak tree and lets himself fall into a contemplative reverie.
Orlando is still lying there when he hears trumpet calls announcing the arrival of Queen Elizabeth. He hurries to the castle to dress in his finest clothes and then dashes toward the banquet hall. On the way, he notices a shabbily dressed man in the servants’ quarters, a man who looks like a poet, but he has no time to stop. The man’s image is to haunt him the rest of his life. Reaching the banquet hall, Orlando kneels before the queen and offers a bowl of rose water for her to wash her hands after her journey. Elizabeth is so impressed with the boy that she deeds a great house to his father. Two years later, she summons Orlando to court, where in time he is made her treasurer and steward. One day, however, she sees Orlando kissing a lady of the court and becomes so angry that Orlando loses her royal favor.
Orlando has many adventures with women. He decides to marry at the time of the Great Frost in 1604. That year, the river Thames is frozen so deeply that King James has the court hold carnival on the ice. There Orlando meets and falls in love with Sasha, a Russian princess, with whom he skates far down the river. They go aboard a Russian ship to get something for Sasha, and she remains belowdecks so long that Orlando goes to investigate. He is angry when he finds her sitting on the knee of a common seaman. Sasha is able to reconcile with Orlando, however, and the two plan to elope. While waiting for her on the night of their planned elopement, Orlando begins to feel raindrops; the thaw has set in. After waiting two hours, he dashes down to the riverbank, where he sees great pieces of ice crashing down the flooded waters. Far out to sea, he sees the Russian ship sailing for home. Sasha has betrayed him.
For six months, Orlando lives in grief. One morning in June, he fails to get out of bed as usual, and he sleeps for seven days. When he awakes at last, he seems to have forgotten much of the past. He begins to think a great deal about the subject of death, and he enjoys reading from Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658). He spends his time reading, thinking, and writing.
Orlando summons Mr. Nicholas Greene, a poet, to visit him. Greene talks to him almost incessantly about the poets, about life, and about literature. Orlando is so grateful to Greene that he settles a generous pension on the poet. Greene cannot, however, endure living in the quiet countryside. One morning, he returns to his beloved London.
Still pondering the meaning of life, Orlando decides to try filling his life with material achievement. First, he sets about refurbishing his house. He spends a substantial part of his fortune and travels to distant countries in his search for precious ornaments. The time is that of the Restoration; Charles II is king.
One day, while Orlando is working on a long poem, “The Oak Tree,” he is interrupted by a tall, bold woman, Archduchess Harriet of Rumania. She has heard of Orlando and wants to meet him. She stays so long in his vicinity that Orlando asks King Charles to send him to Constantinople as ambassador extraordinary. Orlando’s duties in the Turkish capital are formal and arid, and he becomes extremely bored; he begins to wander about the city in disguise. While he is abroad, the king of England makes him a member of the Order of the Bath and grants him a dukedom by proxy.
The next morning, Orlando cannot be awakened; for seven days, he sleeps soundly. When at last he does rouse himself, he finds that he is no longer a man. He has become a beautiful woman. In confusion, Orlando leaves Constantinople and joins a nomadic tribe. Although Orlando spends many happy days with the tribespeople, she cannot bring herself to live with them permanently. Selling some of the pearls she had brought with her from Constantinople, she pays for passage on a ship back to England.
Orlando notices a difference in people’s attitudes toward her while on the ship. She who had been a man now receives courteous attention from the captain, and she sees that her new role will require new responsibilities and bring new privileges. Back in England, she learns that all of her estates are in chancery, for she is considered legally dead. At her country house, she is received courteously by her servants. Again, she is haunted by Archduchess Harriet, who now, however, has become a man, Archduke Harry; at last, however, Orlando manages to rid herself of his attentions.
Orlando goes to London to get a taste of society. The reign of Queen Anne is a brilliant one. Conversation flows freely, and dinners and receptions are entertaining affairs. Joseph Addison, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope are the great names of the age. After a time, however, Orlando becomes bored by social interaction with the great wits and goes looking for adventure. She begins to associate with women of the streets and pubs, finding their earthiness a welcome change from the formalities of the drawing room. The company of women without men, however, soon grows dull and repetitive.
At last come the darkness and doubt of the Victorian era. Orlando sees that, under Queen Victoria’s influence, marriage is the career toward which most women are striving. Orlando marries a man named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire, who takes off immediately on a sea voyage. A wedding ring on her left hand, however, is Orlando’s emblem of belonging to accepted society. Orlando’s lawsuits have been settled in her favor, but they have been so expensive that she is no longer a rich woman.
Orlando visits London, where she sees her old friend Greene, now a prominent literary critic. He offers to find a publisher for her poem “The Oak Tree.” It is October 11, 1928, and London has become a roaring metropolis. Orlando begins to muse over her long heritage. She recalls Sasha, the archduchess, Constantinople, the archduke, and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She sees herself now as the culmination of many influences.
Orlando drives back to her country house and walks out to the great oak tree under which, more than three hundred years before, she had watched the arrival of Queen Elizabeth. The stable clock begins to strike twelve. She hears a roar in the heavens and looks up; Shelmerdine, now a sea captain of renown, is arriving home by airplane.