Monday Muse: On Why Rosalind is a Modern Heroine

Happy Monday, readers! Shakespeare-a-palooza is well underway here at NCHQ and the anticipation for Stratford is OUT OF F***ING CONTROL. Sorry, that may have been a tad more aggressive than necessary… Anyway, it’s up to me to kick things off this week with one of Shakespeare’s comedies. As You Like It. As it happens, I like it very very much. Admittedly, my love of AYLI stems pretty exclusively from the treatment Shakespeare gives his female lead, Rosalind. But with good reason! Oh, sure she’s strong, witty, charming, and smart, but if you look at the context of the play, she’s well beyond her time in breaking gender roles and courtly boundaries. 

Now, I know, I know, there are multiple cases of gender-bending disguises in Shakespeare’s plays… but (in my opinion) this is by far the best use of the trope. Rosalind does not don men’s clothing as a deliberate means to get close to her romantic interest, Orlando. Her use of the disguise is a direct result of the necessity to quit the city where she is threatened. She recognizes the need to find a way to travel without being molested while also protecting her cousin, Celia. Y’know, cause they’re beautiful women, traveling alone… and some men would take advantage of that. Shakespeare understood the shit women put up with. Way to go, Shakespeare.

Anyway, when As You Like It begins Rosalind is already portrayed as an independent woman. She and Celia do not appear to be restricted, wandering the grounds and deciding to watch the wrestling match of their own accord. Rosalind is clearly the leader, definitely possessing a ready wit and strong will that overshadows Celia without question (this is the reason her uncle banishes her). Rosalind has no problem speaking with the men of court and shares a repartee with Touchstone, the Fool, that is both friendly and competitive. Even before she takes on the disguise of Ganymede she is an exceptionally outspoken woman so it is no surprise that she hatches the plan and volunteers to take on the mantle of Celia’s protector.

Rosalind seems well-adapted and quite adept at her role before she encounters Orlando in the woods. When she does, the play shifts its attentions to the romantic relationships being built within, but the way Rosalind handles and manipulates her own story is what makes her such a standout in Shakespeare’s comedies. Rosalind convinces Orlando to woo her (Ganymede, a man) as though she were Rosalind (a woman) and herein lies the fascinating (and very modern) hint of sexual fluidity. We see Ganymede and Orlando form a relationship that from Orlando’s point of view may be confusing, but is obviously fulfilling. Rosalind even becomes jealous of her alter ego, seeing how committed Orlando is to wooing Ganymede. But it is Rosalind’s unique position as friend/lover/teacher/man/woman that results in the combination of what the audience believes to be “masculine” or “feminine” behaviors that truly captures Orlando’s attentions. 

However, it should be noted that even as Ganymede, Rosalind maintains all of the same character traits. She is just a strong and witty, the only difference seems to be that as a man she feels more free to act aggressively in love. The fact that Rosalind’s personality is unchanged from man to woman helps strengthen her relationship with Orlando because regardless of her sex he seems to genuinely like her as a person. This is the genius of Shakespeare. This love story, among a sea of shallow instances of lust, is based on the fact that these two charters legitimately like one another. And Rosalind’s determination and disguise both aid in creating the happy ending she dreams of. BAM.

I’ll be back on Friday to pair As You Like It and give you the full rundown. Hopefully this analysis of a really stellar character gets you excited to read and drink once we hit the weekend. See you then!!

-A

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