Anyone with a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays knows that As You Like It is a light, airy comedy. It is clearly not one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. As You Like It is more obscure than famous. Even amongst the comedies, it comes nowhere close to the popularity of plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, or Twelfth Night. That said, it is a treasure in its own right. This is so, if for nothing else because it contains one of the greatest pictures of a woman to be found in Shakespeare’s works, excluding the Sonnets.
Ah, sweet Rosalind. In her are encapsulated so many ideas about the nature of woman. She is first pictured in a rather faux-Petrarchan manner. This quickly fades as an intelligent woman comes to the fore. While the intelligence remains, she is also torn by the savage winds of romantic love. Rosalind, in all her complexity and self-contradiction, is a truly modern female character.
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Most of the women in Shakespeare’s tragedies and historical plays are either window-dressing (as in Julius Caesar) or woefully one-sided (Ophelia, Lady Macbeth). This is not the case with Rosalind. Rather than being marginalized, she is the focus of a good chunk of the play. Instead of being static and [standard], she is a complex evolving character.
When Rosalind first appears, she outwardly looks much like any other lady of the court. She is a stunning beauty. She is much praised for her virtue. Both of these elements factor in the Duke’s decision to banish or [do away with] her.
Rosalind falls in love immediately upon seeing Orlando. In this way, she at first seems to back up a typically courtly idea of “love at first sight.” Also, she initially seems quite unattainable to Orlando. These are echoes of Petrarchan notions that proclaim love to be a painful thing. This dynamic is stood on its head following her banishment.
Rosalind begins to question the certainty of Orlando’s affection. She criticizes his doggerel when she finds it nailed to a tree. Rather than wilting like some medieval flower, she puts into effect a plan. She seeks to test the validity of her pretty-boy’s love. In the guise of a boy herself, she questions the deceived Orlando about his love.
Yet Rosalind is not always so assured. Her steadfastness is not cut and dried. Composed in his presence, Rosalind melts the second Orlando goes away. She starts spouting romantic drivel worthy of Judith Krantz. Even her best friend Celia seems to tire of her love talk. This hesitating, yet consuming passion is thrown into stark relief with her crystal clear dealings with the unwanted advances of the shepherdess Phebe.
Rosalind contradicts herself in taking the side of Silvius in his pursuit of Phebe. She seeks to help Silvius win the love of Phebe because of his endearing constancy. Yet the whole reason she tests Orlando is the supposed inconstancy of men’s affections.
This idea of Male inconstancy has made its way down to the present day. Men are seen, in many circles, as basically incapable of fidelity. Though a contradiction to her treatment of Silvius’ cause, Rosalind’s knowing subscription to pessimistic views on the constancy of a man’s love places her on the same playing field as many modern women.
Rosalind takes charge of her own fate. Until and even during Shakespeare’s own time women largely were at the mercy of the men around them. This is satirized in Rosalind’s assuming the appearance of a man. Yet she had taken charge of her life even before taking on the dress and likeness of a man. She gives her token to Orlando. She decides to go to the Forest. She makes the choice of appearing like a man to ensure her safety and the safety of Celia.
Rosalind finally finds balance and happiness when she comes to love not as a test or game, but as an equal partnership. Shakespeare is clearly critiquing the contemporary notions of love in his day. His play also condemns society’s underestimation and marginalization of women. However, the Bard’s main point is more profound.
As You Like It makes it clear that the world is never picture perfect, even when there are fairy-tale endings. Men and women both fail. Love is the most important thing. With love all things are possible.
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