1.2.2 Rosalind

Although being in a patriarchal society, there are women inhabiting Shakespeare’s comedies who seem to enjoy a greater degree of autonomy and personal power than one would not expect. In this case, I am going to talk about Rosalind in As You Like It; one of the most independent and empowered women in any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Rosalind is the figure who has caught the fancy of the spectators over the past 400 years. In a play of 2636 lines, she speaks 668; so her part is larger than any other woman in Shakespeare’s plays (Penny 2007:508). Moreover, Rosalind shines with her natural and unassuming phrases and the forthrightness of her syntax. She also excels in wit. She exhibits her impatience, learning, humour, and intensity when Celia tells of seeing the author of the verses praising Rosalind. Rosalind insists on knowing at once who he is:

”One inch of delay is a South-sea of discovery. I prithee tell me who is it quickly , and speak apace. I would thou couldst stammer, that thou mightst pour this conceal’d man out of thy mouth, as wine comes out of a narrow-mouth’d bottle, either too much at once, or none at all. I prithee take the cork out of thy mouth that I may drink thy tidings.” (3.2.196-203).

Although As You Like It has negative comments on women and their behaviour (Rosalind: ‘Alas, what danger will it be to us, MAIDS AS WE ARE, to travel forth so far?), it cannot be considered a misogynistic play. Rosalind claims women are weak but she is the strongest character in the play: (Rosalind: ‘Do you not know I am a woman? When I THINK, I MUST SPEAK.’ / Rosalind: ‘YES, SHE IS WISE, BUT THE WISER. THE WAYWARDER.’)

From my point of view, Rosalind could be considered like Elizabeth I in some ways. They both claimed that women were weak but they certainly did not show weakness, they were both tough women. As You Like It is the only Elizabethen play where a female character is given the epilogue, although the boy playing her, comments on the fact he is a boy, he does the epilogue in his Rosalind costume and he addresses the audience in his own voice announcing what he would do if he was a woman. This epilogue represents a transition between the fictional world and the real one, to which the audience is about to return. We can appreciate an evolution in Rosalind because at the beginning of the play she had little control and made misogynistic comments about women (such as their sport (aim) was marriage) and then, she appears ruling her people very successfully, standing up to Orlando and arranging many marriages as Queen Elizabeth I did.

On the other hand, it is important to highlight that one of Shakespeare’s favorite techniques to empower women and not be criticised is cross-dressing, and in this play Rosalind is the main beneficiary of this device. By putting on her male dress, Rosalind begins to savor the opportunity to act like a man. “A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh, / A boar-spear in my hand” (1.3.117-118), Rosalind can pretend to be brave, just as many men “do outface it with their semblances” (1.3.122). Rosalind is ‘more than common tall’ which enables her to look more like a man. She arms herself with a ‘curtle-axe’, a ‘boar-spear’, and a ‘martial outside’. In this way, Rosalind can play the man convincingly:

“Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand; and, —- in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will, —-
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.” (1.3. 118-25)

She adopts the name of Ganymede, a beautiful young man who was the cupbearer of Jove, the king of the gods. Her great challenge will be to speak the language of men and to avoid the sentimentalities and tears of women.

Once in the forest of Arden, Rosalind achieves freedom far away from the banishments suffered in the court and she concentrates entirely on survicing and on love and does not disclose her identity even to her father. Her first encounter in the forest is with Silvius, who explains his woes in unrequited love (2.4). Silvius’s complaint opens up Rosalind’s own wound: “Alas, poor shepherd, searching of thy wound, / I have by hard adventure found mine own” (2.4.44-45).

Yet Rosalind can cherish her ideals in love at the same time be realistic enough to say to Phebe, “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets” (3.5.60). She also states, making fun of Orlando and his prudish discourse about dying for love  that “men have died from time to time, and worns have eaten them, but not for love” (4.1.106-108).  Here we can see how Shakespeare injected great humor into the play by showing a woman instead of a man pursuing her lover with skill and ease. I agree with Bernard Shaw on thinking Rosalind is who takes charge in this relationship and not Orlando:

Bernard Shaw considered it admirable that Rosalind ‘makes love to the man instead of waiting for the man to make love to her-a piece of natural history which has kept Shakespeare’s heroines alive, whilst generations of properly governessed young ladies, taught to say ‘No’ three times at least, have miserably perished’ (Saturday Review, 5 December 1896, in Tomarken 1997: 533-534).

In the disguise of Ganymede, Rosalind commands the linguistic power she might not have displayed as a woman. Between falling in love at first sight in act 1 and marrying Orlando at the end of act 5, she has a great deal of time to ascertain Orlando’s worth. She and Celia have bought property, and she acts as the head of a household. Celia accuses Rosalind of maligning women when she seeks to educate Orlando in female temperament: “I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey” (4.1.149-153). She claims to possess the powers of a magician: “I have, since I was three years old, convers’d with a magician, most profound in his art, and yet not damnable” (5.2.59-61). Her disguise has given her the ability to direct and manage her love and marriage. Still, she also never forgets that she is a woman and declares, “When I think, I must speak” (3.2.249-250). She only weeps when she has cause.

[Michael D. Bristol 2000:303] examines Rosalind’s role in terms of the conflict between feudal patriarchy and free-market individualism: ‘Rosalind, whoever or whatever she is, represents the new social reality of the market, where desire is a polymorphous commodity requiring only mutual consent between parties to the exchange of sexual goods.The play ‘experiments with a social world where the idea of mutual consent is really taken seriously,’ and Rosalind ‘asserts the values of autonomy and self-determination over and against the tradition of patriarchal authority’ . According to Bristol, Rosalind emerges as one of the strongest Shakesperean women. I agree with Bristol because Rosalind challenging her uncle going to the Forest of Arden and challenging Orlando by telling him off when he is late, Rosalind is challenging the patriarchal system of a passive femininity as the title of this paper announces.

Hidden behind her male disguise, Rosalind in public has to be manly in her language. She also has a sharp eye for others’ poses and pretensions. She delivers her most intense emotions and feelings in prose. She can vary her medium in relation to the person she is talking to. For example, she is stern with Phebe, who is rejecting Silvius with disdain. Rosalind reveals a great part for herself when she sets out to cure Orlando of his madness by presenting a catalogue of women’s faults. If he knows enough about women, he will overcome his love, but Rosalind herself is a woman in love with Orlando. Her point is not to malign her sex but to remove Orlando’s abstract fantasies about love and her beauty. Women are not what a lover in Elizabethan times may imagine they are. ‘Rosalind is able’, says [Barber 1959: 235], ‘in the midst of her golden moment, to look beyond it and mock its illusions, including the master illusion that love is  an ultimate and final experience, a matter of life and death’.  On the other hand, Orlando’s trust in the bookish language of love, his faith in classical figures, and his uncertainty about his emotions betray his inexperience. Rosalind quickly tears his classical language apart when she says that she cannot find any of her uncle’s marks of love upon him. Rosalind is using her cure to make sure that he acts maturely in his undrstanding of women.

Now, I am going to explain two important  passages spoken by Rosalind where everybody can see exemplified everything which I have said previously and to realize that the disguise is a key element in this play in relation to the topic of this paper because without it nothing would be the same and challenging the patriarchal system would not be possible or accepted by Elizabethan society:


“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; 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 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 cur’d him; and this way will I take
upon me to wash your liver as clean as a sound sheep’s heart,
that there shall not be one spot of love in ‘t.” (3.2.406-424)


Here, meeting Orlando in the forest of Arden, Rosalind (Ganymede) assures him that she/he can cure his malady of love, as “his” uncle has taught “him”. Orlando is to imagine that Ganymede is his mistress and to see Ganymede every day as if wooing Rosalind. At that time, pretending to be a fickle and unpredictable young women, Ganymede will act the reverse of Orlando’s stereotype of his beautiful Rosalind. Ganymede will show the variable moods of a woman: sad, happy, capricious, proud, constant only in her inconstancy. She will love him one moment and hate him another. She will amuse him and please him and promise to behave properly. She will weep because he is a mere mortal, and soon after she will spit at him. Ganymede’s Rosalind will be earthly and carnal. When Orlando sees how inconsistent and erratic Rosalind is, he will give up his mad whim of love for real lunacy. He will thus be like one whom Ganymede had cured and so took an oath to withdraw completely from the world and live in a corner of a monastery. In this way Ganymede will wash Orlando’s liver clean, livers being regarded as the source of the passions, including love. Of course, Ganymede is delighted with Orlando’s retort: “I would not be cured, youth” (3.2.425). But even the pretence of being with Rosalind is so satisfying to Orlando that he consents to submit to Ganymede’s therapy. rosalind speech is paradoxical. It is, after all, better to be madly in love than to be truly mad. Moreover, Rosalind does not want to cure Orlando of his love for her, a love that she reciprocates.  She does, however, want Orlando to love her as she truly is: a real woman, not a Petrarchan conceit. Hence, she must disabuse him of his naive view of women.


“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, videlicet, in a love-cause. Troilus had
his brains dash’d 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 liv’d many a fair year, though Hero had
turn’d 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 drown’d; 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.” (4.1.94-108)


Orlando had promised to meet Rosalind/Ganymede for a lesson in the cure of his love-sickness, but he is late. This tardiness infuriates Rosalind, but soon she gets into a holiday mood and invites him to woo her. Ganymede says that as Rosalind “I will not have you” (4.1.91-92), and Orlando responds, “Then in mine own person, I die” (4.1.93). Dying for love? No, says Rosalind, dye by proxy. Trying to disabuse him of his illusions about sacrifices in love, Ganymede reminds him that in the 6000-year-old history of the world (based on biblical calculations), no man has died in a love-cause. She builds her case: Troilus, the lover of Cressida, met an unromantic end at the hands of Achilles, who killed him “with a Grecian club” (4.1.98); even though Troilus’s love, Cressida, abandoned him, he did not die because of her infidelity. Leander, another doomed classical lover, would have lived many years though Hero of  Sestos had become a nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night. Leander didn’t drown in the Hallespont because he was trying to swim to Hero. Leander just wanted to cool off in the water, got a cramp, and died. The foolish chroniclers of that age declared that his drowning was because of love. Rosalind/Ganymede concludes that “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them,but they never died of love” (4.1.106-107). Orlando, unconvinced by Ganymede’s common sense, would not have his Rosalind believe Ganymede’s words, and he protests that Rosalind’s frown might kill him.

So Rosalind gets what she wants because she poses as a man with Ganymede’s disguise and because she is in the forest and not in the court where patriarchy reigns.


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