Disguise as a Catalyst for Transgression in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. The general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, which are generally divided into tragedies and comedies, later now being considered as a standard for a “romantic comedy”. Shakespeare was an innovator, one of his innovations is cross-dressing, which allows female character additional freedom on stage. Cross-dressing female heroines also catered to his female audience. This innovation was frowned upon by some, Traub argues that “transvestism” was a troubling thing for the anti-theatricalists of the early modern period” (Traub, 1992). This additional freedom was required due to the fact that Victorian women were considered inferior and thus, their social acts were a lot more restrictive than those of men and such acts as cross-dressing were punishable if a woman was caught. Cross-dressing heroines are most notable in four of his plays: Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1596), Viola in Twelfth Night (1600), and Rosalind in As You Like It (1600). The focus of this essay is Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, who disguised herself along with her cousin Celia as they were banished.
Scholars tend to disagree about the nature of this disguise. In her work “In Counterfeit Passion: Crossdressing, Transgression, and Fraud in Shakespeare and Middleton” Bierman argues that “Rosalind plays the role of the woman cross-dressing into a man, with again the idea of safety in mind” (Bierman 2013: 28). Such a mentality is also seen in Crosman’s work where he adds to this argument stating that this appearance also has the power to create and solve problems (Crosman 2004: 102). Scholars like Shahid presents us with a rather different opinion stating that cross-dressing allows Rosalind and Celia to enter the world of men and “gives them the opportunity to carry out tasks they could never do otherwise” (Shadid 2013: 11). Anne Barton, in her introduction to the Riverside edition of As You Like It, also agrees that Rosalind takes on a male persona for herself and argues that she clings to the part of Ganymed because of the freedom it allows her (Barton 1997: 400). This essay is not going to fully subscribe either of schools of thought but rather argue that since the mode of cross-dressing as a man was a conscious choice that Rosalind made, it is not as much of a means of safety and self-preservation, but a mode for a Elizabethan woman to function beyond the norms of her gender at the time, thus becoming a catalyst for transgression.
While in the Forest of Arden along with her cousin Celia, Rosalind is disguised as a shepherd Ganymede. As they meet Orlando who is clearly in love with Rosalind judging by his poems about her, she decides to stay in the character of Ganymede, “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him. (3.2.270-2)”. Crosman argues that by playing the Knave Rosalind subjects Orlando’s love to a “test of doubt” which will also involve the need for repeated meetings between her and he lover (Crossman 2004: 102). This is a transgression by Elizabethan woman’s standards. Rosalind uses her disguise to manipulate the man who loves her in order to test him and mentor him to be a perfect lover for her instead of assuming the expected passive role of a woman and letting the male be the active part of the relationship. She achieves that by stating that she can cure his lovesickness in order for him to continually meet her. This inversion of gender roles allows her to teach Orlando that a married life is different than Courtship “men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. ” (4.1.125-129), she teaches him that a woman respects commitment “if you break one jot of your promise or come one minute behind your hour, I will think you the most pathetical break-promise and the most hollow lover” (4.1.162-166), and ironizes a man losing his head. This disguise is pushed even further as Ganymede tells Orlando to talk to her as if she were Rosalind. Bierman notes that Celia is „Acting as the moral and rational compass” (Bierman 2013: 31) by noticing her cousin’s transgression and stating “You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate! We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest.” (4.1.190-2).This layering of disguise displays that instead of cross-dressing as a means of safety the heroine is doing in as a means of exercising power over her lover without being caught which could be considered transgression.
Another instance of Rosalind’s transgressional behaviour is the encounter with Silvius and Phoebe. Upon observing the neglectful behaviour that Phoebe displays towards the Petrarchan lover Silvius, Rosalind tells her ‘Tis not your inky brows, your black silk hair, Your bugle eyeballs, nor your cheek of cream That can entame my spirits to your worship. You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her”(3.5.50-55) and “For I must tell you friendly in your ear, Sell when you can: you are not for all markets” (3.5.64-65). Such a behaviour makes Phoebe fall in love with Ganymede instead of the Petrarchan lover Silvius. As Phoebe confesses her love to Ganymede, Rosalind does not drop her disguise but merely pleads her to stay with Silvius. By maintaining her character Rosalind exercises power over Phoebe so much that she decides to write a love letter and asks Silvius to bring it to Ganymede. Instead of telling Silvius the truth about her disguise at this moment Rosalind continues to use her disguise for intimidation and persuades Silvius to go back to Phoebe and bring her the news of Ganymede’s rejection. The issue of this love triangle comes into play because Rosalind intervenes a conversation that Phoebe and Silvius are having and presents herself as an active male instead of an intelligent and witty female out of choice. The choice is due to the potential of power exercised over these characters and it leads the situation into Rosalind’s transgression.
It appears that as Rosalind returns to the court she still possesses some qualities of Ganymede. The heroine had undergone a change during the play. Whereas she seemed like a somewhat modest character in the beginning, she is a lot more confident in the end. The change occurs because of the freedom she is given in the Forest of Arden. By having the opportunity to explore and transgress forbidden liberties disguised as a male, her true self acquires qualities that her disguise excelled in. These traits are displayed Rosalind manages to convince Phoebe to marry Silvius by telling her as Ganymede “But if you do refuse to marry me, You’ll give yourself to this most faithful shepherd? ” (5.4.14-15) and having Phoebe agree. Then as she reveals herself as Rosalind Phoebe stands by her word “I will not eat my word. Now thou art mine, Thy faith my fancy to thee doth combine. “(5.4.141-142). As her true self, Rosalind manages to accomplish this task by planning the events at the end of the play, not by transgressing. As pointed out by Bierman, Shakespeare “allows his characters to come back to their recuperative selves as women in order to marry and right the wrong their actions brought” (Bierman 2013: 45). Instead of being punished for cross-dressing, which was considered a transgressive behaviour in the society at the time, Rosalind is being permitted to correct her mischiefs and is awarded lively experience. The enrichment of the character is clear from the fact that a female heroine is permitted to deliver the epilogue, which was very rare at the time. As noted by Angela Thirlwell “She’s authoritative and confident. Actors and audience together have tracked Rosalind’s progress through the play’s five Acts. With eternal youth intact, she now breaks out of her chrysalis to advance to full maturity in the epilogue.” (Thirlwell 2016: 64). The heroine’s transgressive behaviour let her into the world of men and thus granted her knowledge, through Ganymede she managed to become “authoritative and confident”.
Throughout Shakespeare’s As You Like It audience is given the chance to observe a strong female heroine on her quest to find her father and a suitable lover. Rosalind chooses to cross-dress and disguise herself as a shepherd Ganymede before entering the Forest of Arden. Her transgressive choice permits her to more transgressive behaviour as it appears that she’s “pasturing” people rather than sheep. She manages to mentor her lover, she gains the affection of a young shepherdess Phoebe, and most importantly, she acquires admirable character traits. Rosalind, one of the most memorable of Shakespeare’s heroine does not only provide one of the best narratives in Romantic comedy but also teaches the audience to take advantage of a seemingly hopeless situation using her exceptional wit.