Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It
Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

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Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

3.1 Rosalind, Orlando and role-play

Neither your responses nor mine in the previous activity will have exhausted the richness of the scene, for even in such a relatively short passage, Shakespeare’s theatrical and linguistic inventiveness is exceptionally varied – at times almost bewildering. We could use one of Rosalind’s own words to characterise it: ‘giddy’ (i.e. changeable, even skittish). Most of the variety comes in Rosalind’s speeches: she goes through quicksilver changes in mood, from teasing Orlando for his tardiness, to a ‘holiday humour’ in which she is ‘like enough to consent’. She is, of course, a playing a double game here. While robustly demystifying Orland’s adoration (as ‘Ganymede’ pretending to be ‘Rosalind’), she is herself passionately in love with him. How seriously, then, can we take anything she says in the exchange? There are many different possible answers to this question for readers (and theatre directors). As throughout the play, Orlando’s is the simpler role: he is the idealistic lover, frequently dismayed by Rosalind’s realism about love. ‘But will my Rosalind do so?’, he asks when ‘Ganymede’ has given him a summary of the capricious behaviours Rosalind would adopt after marriage. At the same time, a good actor needs to suggest elements of impatience with the game the characters are playing. ‘I take some joy to say you are [Rosalind], because I would be talking of her’ injects a note of realism that, by Act 5, Scene 2 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , becomes even more pronounced when Orlando says, ‘I can live no longer by thinking’. The editor of one of the most recent editions of the play, Michael Hattaway, suggests that one of the crucial decisions for productions is whether Orlando sees through Rosalind’s disguise, and lines like these are fertile in the kind of theatrical ambiguity on which the play thrives (Shakespeare, 2009, p. 41).

What precisely is the audience seeing in this scene when ‘Ganymede’ is wooed by Orlando? In modern productions, we usually see an actress dressed as a boy, educating a young man in the realities of love, which makes perfect sense of Celia’s warning to Rosalind: ‘We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest’. In other words: by stripping you, we’ll show that you’re really a woman, hypocritically attacking your own sex. Rosalind’s gender-switching in Arden has seemed to many critics to entail a liberating putting off of rigid cultural norms (one view is, indeed, that her marriage to Orlando at the end of the play seems a cruel restriction of erotic and emotional possibility). Catherine Belsey finds in the play ‘a kind of undecidability, a place [. . . .] neither masculine nor feminine but utopian, in its glimpse of a possibility of a third space beyond either’ (in Belsey et al., 2000, p. 35). For others, heterosexual marriage is a happy ending, with Rosalind’s ‘holiday’ wooing by (and of) Orlando a necessary part of the development of her relationship.

In an Elizabethan performance, the complexity of the represented action was more extreme than it seems in most performances today, as the part of Rosalind would have been taken by a boy actor. Bruce R. Smith clarifies the problem: ‘In the dalliance of “Orlando” and “Rosalind” [Shakespeare’s audience] would have witnessed in literal fact what Orlando and Rosalind were playing out in fiction: a man and boy flirting with abandon and getting away with it’. Yet, as Smith recognises, ‘We can never know […] what went on in the heads of people who have been dead for four hundred years’ (Smith, 1994, pp. 147, 149).

Smith’s stricture is a useful reminder about the nature of the evidence we deal with when we try to imagine early performances. It is also, by implication, a warning about audience sympathy, which must be negotiated anew with each new performance. The critic Emrys Jones observes that ‘during a performance of a play something comes into being which can be called […] an “audience mind” – something to which actors respond as to a single entity: the corporate presence in the auditorium’ (Jones, 1971, p. 7). Sympathy will depend on the precise nature of a given performance, and how those involved (actors, directors, musicians, technicians and audience) realise and respond to the script on a given night. What we can say about the scene we have just been unpicking is that it is skilful in its balanced allocation of attention to different roles and perspectives; Rosalind dominates, but she doesn’t tyrannise. Her tutorial in love is simultaneously categorical (‘the sky changes when they are wives’) and capricious (‘I knew what you would prove – my friends told me as much’); it is a complex act of flirtation that aims to educate and captivate Orlando, while doing the same sort of work on the audience. Yet the final words are Celia’s ‘I’ll sleep’, which reverts to a workaday idiom to undercut Rosalind’s own romantic hyperbole in the penultimate speech. Love and communication, Shakespeare implies, never take place in a social vacuum.


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