‘The unexpressive she’: Who is Shakespeare’s Rosalind?
As You Like It is shaped around the image of its leading heroine
Heroine and protagonist of As You Like It, Rosalind is one of the most-loved, and most-sought-after, of Shakespeare’s female characters. But what is her enduring appeal, and who really is she?
Who is Rosalind?
Originally, a boy. We don’t know who. He would likely have been apprenticed to one of the members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the playing company that claimed Shakespeare as a leading member – but again, we don’t know who. Despite being called a ‘boy,’ he would have almost certainly been in his early to late teens – surely on the older end of the scale, surely experienced, skilled, trusted by the company with the largest female role that Shakespeare would ever write.
Who is Rosalind?
I have a friend who jokes that every Shakespeare comedy has at least one character who thinks they are in a tragedy. For the first act of As You Like It, that character is Rosalind. Her father is exiled; soon, so is she. Her role in the story is like the mirror image of the heroes of Shakespeare’s late comedies: we see the world through the eyes of the missing daughter, not the mourning father – a father, in this case, who doesn’t seem to think of Rosalind much at all. In contrast, Rosalind can’t stop mourning him – at least until she falls in love.
‘Despite being called a ‘boy,’ he would have almost certainly been in his early to late teens – experienced, skilled, trusted by the company with the largest female role that Shakespeare would ever write’
Who is Rosalind?
Orlando doesn’t know, though this doesn’t stop him from falling in love with her. It doesn’t stop him from writing poetry about her. He meets a shepherd boy, Ganymede, who pretends to be her to help Orlando fall out of love, but Orlando doesn’t recognise Rosalind in the woman that the boy performs. Celia is offended by Rosalind-disguised-as-Ganymede’s parodies, as she sees it, of feminine foibles, put off by this touchy and changeable mimicry of a Rosalind. Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind insists again and again that it’s no joke, no parody: this is Rosalind. This, this woman who is too moody, too much, is the woman Orlando and Celia must love.
Rosalind is a person who enters Arden and is transformed. From a woeful victim of circumstance, she seizes control of her own story, and everyone else’s for good measure. She is the opposite of most Shakespearean lovers: her language of intimacy, of privacy, is prose. Verse is for court, for formal and public speech. Romeo starts a sonnet and Juliet finishes it – Orlando leaves a sonnet and Rosalind copy-edits it. In a gesture that seems to preview the fantastic transformations of much later works like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, she promises to end the play with the magical restoration of a lost daughter. At first, it seems like nothing more than a panicked excuse, a means to get rid of her disguise and broker her own marriage. But then: the god of marriage appears. The play’s ending requires magic after all.
‘Rosalind is a person who enters Arden and is transformed. She seizes control of her own story, and everyone else’s for good measure’
Maybe Rosalind’s journey is more like the lost and found women of Shakespeare’s late comedies than we realise. If she is the missing daughter magically restored, delivered to her father and husband by an ancient forest god, how certain can we be that she is the same Rosalind as before? Perhaps Rosalind’s return is not the shedding of a disguise, but truly a transformation. Perhaps Ganymede really does require magic to become Rosalind. Perhaps the Rosalind that once was is gone forever.
‘None of Shakespeare’s female roles are women, or are for women, but are only ever the idea of women as filtered through a male writer, for an all-male company, in an era that viewed women as inescapably inferior to men’
Who is Rosalind?
Rosalind is someone whose truest, whose fullest self can be uncovered only by living as a man.
Or Rosalind is a woman. She can pass as a man – looks, in certain ways, how many people expect a man to look – but that is not who she is.
Or Rosalind is a female role written for a boy and here played by a man, reflecting the fact that none of Shakespeare’s female roles are women, or are for women, but are only ever the idea of women as filtered through a male writer, for an all-male company, in an era that viewed women as inescapably inferior to men.
‘Rosalind is as you like it. Each new production of As You Like It is always the first: built for several hundred audience members who change each and every day, and thus change the story with them’
Or Rosalind is a female role written for a boy and here played by a man, reflecting Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights’ awareness, sometimes keener than our own, that for a man to perform Woman is no different than for a man to perform Man – neither innate states of being, but rather ideals that must be actively, daily enacted. Here are a Rosalind and Orlando equally ill-suited to the roles that society has designated for them, who must strive equally fervently and awkwardly to fit where they have been placed.
Or Rosalind is (forgive me) as you like it. Each new production of As You Like It is always the first: it is built from the perspectives of directors, designers, actors, and perhaps most importantly, several hundred audience members who change each and every day, and thus change the story with them.
Is there any better way than this – any better place than this – to tell a story with such an ever-changing heroine? As she deftly stage manages her fellow characters’ lives, Rosalind resists definition by them. Characters, seeing her – or seeing Ganymede, or seeing Rosalind-as-Ganymede or perhaps Ganymede-as-Rosalind, or better yet just take your pick because we, just like the other characters – see what they want to see. Shakespeare shapes the play in his heroine’s image, unfixed and improvisational, ultimately defined by those who watch it.
Let us imagine that the play’s title is not an impossible promise – the epilogue (who is the epilogue?) will remind us at the story’s end, there’s no way one play can please everybody – but rather an invitation. The play is incomplete until you – you, reading this – watch it, interpret it, imagine along with it.
Who is Rosalind? Do let us know.