In As You Like It, William Shakespeare is making fun of society’s gender stereotypes with the relationships between Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando. Some may say that Shakespeare believes in those gender stereotypes himself and is portraying that in As You Like It, but I disagree. I think that he’s fully aware of what society has made the stereotypes out to be, and while he is acknowledging them, he’s also poking fun at it and not necessarily agreeing. On a more exacting note, I feel that Shakespeare is promoting ambiguity to lessen the restraints of societal expectations in terms of gender roles and sexuality.
Penny Gay, author of As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women, states that gender is not an isolated construct, but instead is “dependent on the matrix of discourses of nation, race, class, and age in which it is embedded.” (13)
In The Early Modern and the Homoerotic Turn in Political Criticism, author Jean E. Howard says that the reason why studies in sexuality are conducted and why studies of gender and sexuality are separated is to break the notion that “each sex has a necessary gender” and “each gender has a corresponding ‘natural’ sexuality.” To be biologically a male does not necessarily mean that one’s gender will be masculine, nor that one’s sexuality will be a desire for a female.” David Foley McCandless, author of Gender and Performance in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies, reminds us that in the epilogue, Rosalind, who is actually [portrayed by a] boy in an actress’ clothing, addresses the audience, declaring that it is traditional and customary for a lady to give the final speech, but later in the epilogue, Rosalind again becomes a boy when s/he says that “if I were a woman, I would kiss as many as you had beards.” (11) At the end, he returns back to a lady as he curtsies and “thus realigning himself with the gestural language of a performative femininity.” (11) McCandless says that, “Rosalind’s teasing contemplation of kissing men suggests that the boy actress confounded distinctions not only between masculine and feminine but, to the extent that he attracted a male erotic gaze, between heterosexual and homosexual as well.” (11)
I feel that the time and place that Shakespeare included such gender ambiguity in As You Like It wasn’t an accident. Such issues were becoming more prevalent. According to Gay, at that time, “Shakespearean production became more reflective, more self-conscious, and ultimately more questioning, at the same time as Britain began to look seriously at restructuring itself and its social contract….Feminism was beginning to challenge entrenched gender roles, both inside and outside the theatre.” (13)
Also, I feel Shakespeare’s choice of genre for such material was key. Because gender ambiguity and [sexual] role reversals were heavy subjects, light-hearted and comical subject matter had to be used to counteract the fact that he was presenting deviances. Gay said that Shakespeare’s comedies offer the actress the “potential to put forth this extraordinary transgressive energy, to assume power, whatever the ultimate containing pattern of the play might be” (15), more than any of his other genres. Particularly, these comedies are “fascinated by the possibilities of sexual transgression, which is euphemized as temporary transgression of the codes of gender.” (15)
I think this because Rosalind suggests in her actions that she is knowledgeable and fully aware of gender stereotypes herself and what’s expected of men and women and what’s not expected of men and women. She knows that she is allowed to do things such as express emotions and cry when she’s dressed as a female, but not when she’s dressed as a male. In other words, her actions and words were dictated by what clothing she wore, what name she was called, and all of that was based on the identity she took. Also, while Rosalind was under the identity of a male, she was allowed to give instructions to Orlando on how to court a woman and be more attentive, but if she were under the identity of a woman, it wouldn’t have been suitable for her to do that. While she does so, she voices what a male at that time would have viewed as an ideal woman, not necessarily what a woman would’ve thought an ideal woman to be.
In Shakespeare and Modernity: Early Modern to Millennium, author Hugh Grady, says that , “A number of critics have suggested that the subversiveness of Rosalind’s gender-play lies not in an attempt to usurp male power or identity, but in the denaturalizing of gender identity itself. Her mockery of Orlando’s by-the-book pseudo-Petrarchan verses and sentiments, of Silvius’ literary-pastoral rhetoric of praise and prostration and Phoebe’s corresponding coldness, and of her own invocation of misogynist stereotypes of women as fickle, jealous and unfaithful are read as revealing the artificiality of conventional gender roles. That much of this takes place while Rosalind-Ganymede-‘Rosalind’ in effect plays herself further underlines the theatricality of identity. If Rosalind’s own gender-play affects the identity of the men in her thrall, it is not to transform them into women, but to help them realize their ‘true’ masculinity.” (36)
McCandless mentions that Shakespeare calls attention to the boy actress in terms of theatricality of gender, which is a “a protest against the very mode of representation that constructs the character speaking it.” (11) He says that Shakespeare’s use of a cross-dressing heroine extends this “subversive unmasking of convention” of presenting a boy playing a girl who dresses up as a boy. The undisguised boy must pass for a disguised girl, but, as McCandles says, the ploy, “however conventional, muddles the clarity of gender identities, particularly in As You Like It, which can be taken as a celebration of role-playing and the theatricality of gender.” (11) As You Like It presents a boy playing a girl who dresses up as a boy who then acts the part of a girl. He says that this cross-dressed Rosalind actually plays a hardheaded “masculine” version of herself “for the sake of sobering up her besotted lover. One is hard-pressed to make nice distinctions between role and self, gender and subject.” (11)
As we all know, in that time (and it sometimes seems this way in modern days), that in a male-dominated society, the societal structure heavily depends on each sex keeping their assigned roles. Because I feel that Shakespeare was toying with this idea, I think that he went along with his own feelings and made Orlando okay with the thought of courting Ganymede. By that I mean that because I think Shakespeare didn’t necessarily agree with the gender stereotypes. Making Orlando accept Ganymede was his way of rebelling against these societal constraints. Not only that, but I also feel that Shakespeare felt that the audience would enjoy such misplaced gender roles, if not secretly. While discussing As You Like It, Gay mentions that the plot centers on romantic love which allows an innocent reading for more repressed times. However, she says, what activates the plot is the circulation of desire between the characters. She describes desire as “amoral, sometimes benign, sometimes destructive, always going at full tilt to engage, confuse and delight the audience.” (15) She then poses the question that if we, as an audience, were like Orlando, we could ask ourselves, “which do we fancy more, Rosalind or Ganymede? Does it matter? The pleasure of the actor’s multi-gendered presence (for that safe, enclosed moment of performance time) is delicious.” (15)
Gender doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at all in general in the Forest of Ardenne, at least not compared to the city courts, even though at the end, everything (including gender roles) were straightened out eventually, at least according to the society of the time’s views and expectations. This may represent how such outward exclamations of gender ambiguities and role reversals would not have been tolerated in the streets where people actually lived, nor in the royal courts. Instead, a place for such deviances would have to be invented, and a magical forest would be the perfect place, especially since forest scenes tend to be associated with magic (such as fairies and spells in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Gay says that “As You Like It affects, through Rosalind’s behavior, the most thorough deconstruction of patriarchy and its gender roles in the Shakespearean canon, yet it is a carnival license allowed only in the magic space of the greenwood. At the end, all must return to the real world and its social constraints—though we can read Rosalind’s epilogue as a liberating reminder of a world of alternative possibilities.” (49)
I feel that in the end, the reason Shakespeare did make Rosalind return to her female identity was to finally appease the audiences’ wants and needs. I think that if the play would’ve ended without Orlando with a man as a mate, there may have been a societal uproar that Shakespeare may not have been ready for. However, one can’t help but wonder whether or not that would’ve been different if As You Like It had been written in a more modern time, such as the 1990s or after the turn of the millennium. Gay says, “The fact that we are no longer obliged by theatrical convention to watch adolescent boys playing Shakespeare’s female roles is one of the imponderable differences between ourselves and the audience for whom Shakespeare wrote, whatever its constitution may have been. Instead, in the latter half of the twentieth century, we are invited to contemplate a changing image of ‘woman’, for whom a refusal of the codes of femininity offers exciting possibilities for the liberation of physical, psychic and erotic energy. But whether the heroine’s transvestism or other disguise is protective, evasive, empowering or simply a game depends on the perceived relations between women and the patriarchy at the moment of the play’s embodiment.” (16) However, As You Like It was not written in such modern times, but the issue lies within the fact that Shakespeare did what he could in his own time period in presenting thought-provoking, yet extremely controversial issues about a subject that’s ideas were so embedded in that culture, while also challenging and questioning them.
Gay, Penny. As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. London: New York Routledge, 2002.
Grady, Hugh. Shakespeare and Modernity: Early Modern to Millennium. New York Routledge, 2002.
Howard, Jean E. “The Early Modern and the Homoerotic Turn in Political Criticism.” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998)
McCandless, David Foley. Gender and Performance in Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.