Gender Roles & Sexual Identity in As You Like It

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Gender Roles

      The way Shakespeare addresses gender roles in As You Like It reflects the widespread sexism of the Elizabethan era, and thus the topic merits discussion not only in the fictional but also in the historical context. In his Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, Russ McDonald offers an assessment of the state of gender relations:

      That women occupied a position subordinate to men in the early modern period is beyond dispute; that this was the 'natural' state of affairs was almost beyond dispute. Although the idea is repugnant to modern sensibilities, most thinkers in the sixteenth century took it as axiomatic that men are superior to women.

      Indeed, many gendered notions are presented not simply through the opinions of certain characters but as established facts, illustrating for the modern reader the common beliefs of the era. In the course of the discussion on the goddesses Fortune and Nature, Rosalind states, "the bountiful blind woman doth most mistake in her gifts to women", and Celia agrees, noting that "those that she makes fair, she scarce makes honest, and those that she makes honest, she makes very ill-favorably". That is, the story's leading women evidently see beauty and chastity, which are deemed typically exclusive, as the only female qualities worth discussing. Other characteristics attributed to women, as reflected in the play s dialogue, include "fear", which Rosalind hopes to hide under man's apparel, and excessive emotionality; Rosalind feels obliged to suppress her tears when she, Celia, and Touchstone enter the forest in utter exhaustion, and when she faints at the news of Orlando's wound, Oliver exclaims, "You a man! You lack a man's heart".

      Rosalind and Celia refer to the marketability of women - not merely objectifying themselves but even suggesting that they have a quantifiable value - twice later on: Celia notes that if they learn news from Le Beau they will be "the more marketable", while Rosalind, as Ganymede, tels Phebe, "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets". This most likely reflects the fact that a potential bride customarily offered a dowry to her suitor, consisting of whatever capital and property her family could afford. The existence of the dowry is also important to consider with respect to the romantic context of the play. McDonald notes,

      Marriage was part of a system of inheritance and economics so ingrained and pervasive that the emotional affectations or physical desires of a man and woman diminished in importance. This was especially true among the upper classes..... where marriage was regarded as a convenient instrument for joining or ensuring peace between two powerful families, for consolidating land holdings, or for achieving other familial, financial, or even political ends.

      Thus the Forest of Arden is an idealized pastoral setting not only in the immediacy of nature and the absence of the trappings of courtly life but also in the fact that the play's strictly romantic liaisons, especially between Rosalind and Orlando, might have been impossible in the context of the court.

      While women of the time were certainly constrained by male perceptions of their femininity, men were perhaps similarly constrained by perceptions of their masculinity. Phebe finds herself falling not for the beseeching pitiable Silvius but for the coarse, aggressive Ganymede. She states, "Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well", then adds, "But sure he's proud. And yet his pride becomes him. He'll make a proper man". Later, in turn, in that Phebe's letter has "a boisterous and a cruel style", Rosalind assumes that it must have been "a man's invention, and his hand". Ultimately, however, Shakespeare may have played a significant role in softening the perception of the masculine, if not in hardening the perception of the feminine; Peter B. Erickson offers some enlightening commentary on gender relations of the Elizabethan era as modified by the theater: "The convention of males playing female roles gives men the opportunity to imagine sex-role fluidity and flexibility. Built into the conditions of performance is the potential for male acknowledgment of a 'feminine self' and thus for male transcendence of a narrow masculinity." In that they did not themselves appear on the stage, women were not truly given the same opportunity to test the boundaries of their gender roles.

Sexual Identity

      Sexual identity is examined primarily through the character of Rosalind, who disguises herself as a man named Ganymede - a mythological boy whose name was synonymous with beauty and androgyny - to ensure her safe passage to Arden. Though she can discard her male costume when she reaches the forest, Rosalind does not do so until the end of the play. Critics generally agree that she continues to act as Ganymede because the disguise liberates her from the submissive role of a woman. As a man, she is able to take more control of her own life, especially in her courtship with Orlando. In their playacting scenes, Rosalind controls the tactics of courtship in a way that is usually reserved for men, inverting their roles to teach Orlando the meaning of real love rather than love based on his idealized vision of her. An added complexity of Rosalind's sexual identity is evident if we consider that in Shakespeare's age, boys played the roles of women in dramas. The playwright takes advantage of this convention In As You Like It to accentuate flexibility in the Presentation of gender. As the boy actor who performs as Rosalind must also play Ganymede, who in turn pretends to be Rosalind in the playacting sessions with Orlando, the audience follows the character's various transformations and can better appreciate the extent to which Rosalind's presentation of herself as masculine or feminine changes the way the other characters interact with her.

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