Gender identity in 16th century England was taken as rigid fact, unarguable and inflexible. Masculinity was associated with physical strength, assertiveness and boldness of character, while feminine ideals included physical beauty, chastity, obedience and submissiveness. The construction of gender roles which saw men as the superior ‘active’ sex and women as the inferior ‘passive’ sex helped in perpetuating male supremacy and dominance. Theatre, at a time like this, became a means of challenging the fixity of gender. Shakespeare and his contemporaries often wrote plays featuring heroines who didn’t conform to the ‘typification’ of their lives. Gender roles were experimented with on stage, and the domain of each sex was made more malleable and fluid.
This paper focuses on the consequences of fluidity of gender, and hence identity in William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It (w. 1599).
The play raises pertinent questions about the masculine and feminine gender roles mainly through the character of Rosalind who, after being banished by her uncle (Duke Frederick), puts on the garb of a man and disguises her identity by naming herself Ganymede. Her cousin Celia, unable to bear the thought of being away from her, accompanies her disguised as a country lass named Aliena. In Renaissance England, dress was the code of one’s identity, symbolizing one’s gender and social class. The stability of the social hierarchy depended much on this dichotomy between male and female. If a woman put on men’s clothes, she transgressed the gender boundary, and encroached on the privileges of men. Cross-dressing thus subverted the normative behaviour expected of men and women in society.
Rosalind, having replaced her ‘petticoat’ by a ‘doublet and hose’, undergoes a transformation in social role. She becomes freer with speech and action; or as social conservatives in the Renaissance would’ve put it, she assumes more rights then she is entitled to. She first tastes her new-found freedom when she travels to the Forest of Arden with Celia. For two women to escape the entrapment of their domesticities and travel uninhibitedly would’ve been a downright abuse of social order in Elizabethan England. Rosalind transgresses these boundaries laid down by the patriarchy. She also overcomes the shyness and timidity expected of women and takes initiative and action to pursue her love interest Orlando. Dressed as Ganymede, Rosalind is able to converse freely with Orlando and dominate love games. A close association such as this one between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes would’ve been looked down upon and shunned in society. Rosalind also undermines the strict gender roles when dressed as Ganymede, she pretends to be Rosalind and asks Orlando to woo her. She says,
“Come woo me, woo me: for now I am in a
holiday humor and like enough to consent.” (4.1.61-63)
Rosalind avails the liberty granted by her disguise and is articulate about her true sentiments of love and affection. As a woman, she could not have been so expressive without entirely dismantling and disrupting the status quo.
Note that in the above dialogue, it actually a male actor playing Rosalind’s character who is disguised as Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. Here, Shakespeare brilliantly plays around with the theme of identity by making the actors assume multiple roles in a Russian Doll fashion. In his essay ‘Cross-dressing, The Theatre and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England’ John E. Howard posits, “Doing so does not release Rosalind from patriarchy but reveals the constructed nature of patriarchy’s representations of the feminine and shows a woman manipulating those representations in her own interest, theatricalizing for her own purposes what is assumed to be innate, teaching her future mate how to get beyond certain ideologies of gender to more enabling ones.”
Like Rosalind, Shakespeare’s other heroines such as Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Viola in Twelfth Night also employed the technique of cross-dressing as a strategy for manipulating situations in their own favour. Portia disguises as Balthazar, a junior lawyer and travels to Venice where she defeats the antagonist Shylock and rescues Antonio from having to surrender a pound of flesh. Viola, disguised as Cesario, pursues Duke Orsino’s love by initiating a friendship which only members of the same sex could have indulged in. She succeeds at the end of the play, when she discards her male disguise and Orsino immediately asks her to marry him. In doing so, all three women – Rosalind, Portia and Viola, demonstrate great intellectual prowess, even better than men, and subvert the stereotypical idea of women as the weaker sex.
Thus, a fluidity of gender identity allows the disguised women to enter the men’s world and show masculine qualities such as wit, intelligence, capability, and courage instead of being confined at home.
Fluidity of identity in As You Like It also explores the characters’ sexual orientations and suggests homoerotic associations. It is the impossible to ignore the glaring possibilities of homosexuality in the case of Rosalind and Celia, and Ganymede and Orlando. Jan Stirm, in her essay ‘For solace a twinne-like sister: Teaching Themes of Sisterhood in As You Like It and Beyond’, describes the relationship shared by Rosalind and Celia as a “metaphoric sisterhood”. Celia expresses her affection for Rosalind to Duke Frederick as,
“We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together;
And whereso’er we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.” (1.3.69-72)
It suggests an uncanny closeness between the two cousins. Moreover, ‘swans’ have forever been symbolic of love and beauty in the poetic world. A definite shift from the natural bond of sisterly love is observed in their relationship. They are similar to Hermia and Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream who are also described to have shared so many experiences together that they virtually become one person, one soul. They are mirror images of each other, and through the other they become aware of themselves and their sexuality.
Homoerotic undercurrents in Orlando and Ganymede’s associations also open up space for Orlando’s bisexuality. Clearly, Orlando is in love with the girl Rosalind but he is also drawn to the boy Ganymede who is not so named in vain. According to myth, Ganymede was a boy desired by Jupiter and taken to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer, and so, the name has long-standing associations with homosexual love and desire. Orlando is appreciative of Ganymede who is not only friendly and amiable, but also reminds him of his beloved Rosalind. Apart from this, Phebe’s attraction towards Ganymede also has homoerotic connotations.
It is obvious that unlike other ‘homophobic’ scholars of Elizabethan England who considered homosexuality to be against the order of nature, Shakespeare was open to ideas of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. His Sonnet 20 is an exploration of these ‘unnatural relationships’ between members of the same sex. He talks about his “master-mistress of passion” who has the grace and features of a woman, but “by adding one thing” Nature equipped him only for women’s pleasure and prevented him from enjoying the company of men.
Finally, a fluidity of identity is also seen in the way characters come to acknowledge both masculine and feminine traits of their personality. Orlando is in touch with his masculine self right from the beginning. In the first scene, he is shown to be bold and assertive about his birthrights when he confronts Oliver. He then displays utmost strength and bravery when shortly afterwards he wrestles with the professional wrestler Charles and wins. He acquires his feminine traits when after rescuing Oliver from a near-death experience (a preying lioness), he sheds tears and swoons at the sight of blood. Celia and Rosalind are acquainted with their masculine sides when they defy Duke Frederick (and hence the patriarchy) by wandering off by themselves to the Forest of Arden.
In conclusion, a flexibility of identity in the play has multiple consequences. Firstly, the characters are able to experience the world from the perspective of the opposite sex through gender reversal. Secondly, they experiment with their sexualities before ultimately engaging in socially acceptable matrimony. And lastly, they become aware of the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities. Perhaps then, the title of the play itself can be interpreted as the idea of choice, or a sense of control over the altering of one’s own self.