The Real, The Farce. Stefano Bonazzi.

“All the world’s a stage,
And every man and woman merely players.”

[Shakespeare, W. As You Like It. 1623.
Jacques, Act II Scene vii. Lines 141-142]

These lines, one of Shakespeare’s most famous, are fitting for this topic. They accurately reflect the idea that an individual’s identity can be chosen actively by them, and this notion is propagated in his play As You Like It (first published posthumously in the First Folio in 1623) as well. Although the intent behind the lines was to convey that every individual plays a number of different roles in their lifetime as part of the natural course of existence, they are appropriate to the topic of fluidity and malleability of identity as well.

The theme of mistaken identity has been strongly evident in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the comedies, as has that of obstacles in the path of fulfilment of love.  As You Like It (1623) deals, along with this, “with the dilemma of disconnected individuals searching for a place of belonging, to regain a lost sense of self.” (Dawra, J. Identity and Belonging in As You Like It, 2013.) He uses the idea of disguise as an escape from the characters’ personalities and sometimes for comic effect- it was the sixteenth century growth of increased sense of self-consciousness and identity, leading to people creating an image for themselves, that influenced Shakespeare’s writing of this play. Like in Twelfth Night (1623) and The Merchant of Venice (1596), Shakespeare features in the play a cross-dressing heroine (while in The Taming of the Shrew (1590), a drunkard male is disguised by his friends as a woman) whose disguise allows Shakespeare to explore the flexibility of gender. When Rosalind (the protagonist of the play whose uncle usurped the throne from her father) flees into the woods for safety, she disguises herself as an attractive young boy, “Ganymede,”  to avoid rapists and thieves, challenging traditional ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman. The play, like the ones mentioned above) is a comedy and the change in gender is thus used for comedic impact but the theme runs far deeper. A woman can become a man, but only if it is not permanent. The affect of the change cannot be too great for she must change back to female once the conflict is resolved. This is how Rosalind is able to enjoy her temporary power, manipulating the situations and people around her but remaining aware that she must eventually return to society, with the events that transpire in Arden contributing to the creation of and being assimilated into a new order. The woman in the plays are strong female characters, but must become men to protect themselves and ultimately solve the problem of the play. In the book Desire and Anxiety: The Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearian Drama, Valerie Traub calls the characters, “the crossed-dressed heroine who elicits and enjoys multiple erotic investments” (Traub, 17). They can only act this way when dressed as men. They return to their passive, nonsexual ways when they change back to women’s clothing. In both plays the women are not in their own lands- Viola being shipwrecked on a strange land and Rosalind being banished from the court and wandering in the forest.

Also seen in both Twelfth Night and As You Like It is a homosexual equation developed between the cross dressing female protagonists and women who develop an interest in them, believing them to be men (Olivia in the former and Phebe in the latter), thus furthering the confusion of mistaken identities, brought about in a new land that brings with it a new state of living. A homoerotic love can also be seen between Rosalind and Orlando (her love interest), through her concealed identity of a man. Shakespeare has often explored homosexual themes in his plays; he was himself rumoured to be homosexual and his poem Sonnet 18 (or Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?, 1608) was said to be written about a boy. The name Rosalind adopts when disguised as a man is also significant in this context as it carries strong homosexual connotations. Ganymede was traditionally the name of a beautiful boy who became the lover of Jove- Roman king of gods (also known as Jupiter). The name Celia (Rosalind’s cousin, who came to the forest with her in an act of loyalty and love) adopts for herself, Aliena, is relevant as well since it represents her new state of alienation from her father.

These changes the characters embrace are facilitated solely due to the forest of Arden, which they escape to. In the play, Arden can be seen as idyllic, Edenic place to escape to and is constructed as a neutral space for people to be themselves, free to create alternate identities. In this setting, identity becomes erratic and protean, and characters can choose for themselves the identity they wish to adopt, as it is only here that they are allowed the freedom to do so. They need not conform to social norms or comply with expectations. In the city ,everyone is who they should and are expected to be. They know their place and deal with their individual problems. Once they reach the forest everything changes. Men crave attention and affection from the women they love whereas the women are strong and control situations. Had androgyny not been a part of the play, Rosalind would not have transformed into strong and brave Ganymede, controlling the situations around her. She would have remained a woman with no control over the transpiring events. Thus, she is able to defy traditional gender categories in her behaviour. The disguise of Ganymede gives her the freedom to explore her identity because it allows her to behave in ways that were considered socially unacceptable for women. Furthermore, Orlando would have continued to be a strong man who would have helped save Rosalind from the dangers of the woods, instead of being the lovesick man in need of “cure.” Additionally, without the element of androgyny, the play would not have had any significant differences from many of the other plays written at the time, following the conventional ‘formula.’ The androgyny allows ambiguity to be pulled into the story. None of the characters except for Rosalind are all knowing, which gives double meaning to her dialogues and the way readers see things. Shakespeare makes it clear that gender roles can be imitated and performed – in theatre and in real life.


Identity. From ‘Dawn4Dinosaurs.’

In response to their situation, Rosalind and Celia remodel themselves to adapt to their new environment. It is true that Rosalind and Celia cannot fully escape the over-arching patriarchal structure. In fact, they acknowledge their vulnerability in the pastoral setting and choose an expedient disguise. They succeed in their male performance until they choose to disclose themselves. Rosalind and Celia’s banishment to the forest serves to ‘masculate’ and empower them when, conversely, Duke Ferdinand’s exile functions to emasculate him and strip him of his patriarchal advantage and power. It is worth pointing out that Elizabethan society may not have suffered from the same blurring of boundaries as  contemporary society but there are some analogous examples to offer. Queen Elizabeth herself is an androgynous Matriarch embedded deep within a Patriarchal framework. Gender and identity, generally considered as fixed narratives, are constructed from binary oppositions that when challenged are far more inconsistent and variable than they first appear.

By living under false appearances, Rosalind and Celia inspire their lovers to act more truly and honestly toward them. When Rosalind is dressed as Ganymede, Orlando reveals how deeply he loves Rosalind, without knowing he is addressing her. Rosalind’s disguise thus permits Orlando to speak more openly than he might if he knew her true identity. Celia’s attire does not alter her identity as radically as Rosalind’s does but, making her seem to not be of courtly upbringing, it changes her lover’s initial conduct around her. Whereas Rosalind’s disguise provokes honest speech from her lover, Celia’s tests the honesty of her lover’s love. Oliver’s falling in love with her despite her shepherdess’s exterior indicates the genuineness of his love. Therefore, when Rosalind and Celia undertake new roles, they alter the way that others act toward them, in addition to the way they themselves act.

An idyllic world where one can “fleet the time carelessly” (Charles, Act I Scene i) and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and society is evident in the forest of Arden. It is a place of transformation and freedom (to embrace one’s true self), and its name itself (derived from Eden) suggests Biblical perfection. A sense of unity exists there, with a Duke associating with shepherds, and the natural world’s harmony is depicted. It is seen as a place where one can belong, regardless of their identity. It allows the characters to explore their identity without constraints of gender expectations. Using Arden as a device to convey this, Shakespeare toys with the idea of gender, suggesting that it is largely performative, but that there is a basis of gender identity within humans. With a male actor (as only men could act on stage at the time) playing a woman disguised as a man pretending to be a woman, Shakespeare conveys this idea and challenges the concept of gender. Whilst dressed as a man, Rosalind is able “command” the events of the play, exerting power she did not possess as a woman. However, Shakespeare identifies that she is essentially feminine, highlighted when she faints when Orlando proves his worth to her, despite her “counterfeit to be a man.” Thus she can be seen at some points during the play as an androgynous character, possessing both masculine and feminine traits.


La reproduction interdite. Magritte, 1937.

On entering the forest, Orlando’s achievements as a lover and courtier are contrasted with his superfluous position in society and felling of worthlessness due to his lack of wealth or power. The relationship between Adam and Orlando is inverted as well. Although they start as servant and master, it is Adam who has the capital and it is Orlando who refuses to feed himself until Adam has eaten (Act II, Scene v). This relationship, like Celia and Rosalind’s, is based on compassion, empathy and affection, and is the direct opposite of the one they flee, which functions on wealth and power as principles. It is the forest that facilitates these changes and critic Vinita Chandra writes that perhaps the most important characteristic of the forest is that it allows people to be themselves, to make choices that determine their roles, functions and relations with each other rather than have these forced on them. Although they are forced out of the court and patriarchal home, they are free to choose the place of their exile and they deliberately choose the forest of Arden. It thus provides a home to those who decide to live there, but is not as kind to those who use force to evict its inhabitants.

It also transforms only those entrants who are willing to be modified. That Rosalind decides to disguise herself as Ganymede is a conscious decision on her part, as Celia suggests they paint their faces with umber to escape thieves and rapists but, despite this, she chooses to disguise herself as a man. Her donning of men’s clothing brings out her latent courage and resilience. She is able to summon her strength to cheer up Celia, forgetting her own weariness, saying “I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat; therefore courage, good Aliena” (Act II, Scene iv) and thus embracing her masculine persona.  Rosalind’s transformation of her social role comes with her change of dress. As she is now dressed as a man, she must “follow the male code of behaviour” (Payal Khanna, These Disguised Women). She however finds it difficult to comply with male expectations, as she expresses in Act II, Scene iv. She exhibits her maleness by becoming courageous but finds it hard to undergo this change and both identities exist simultaneously in her. There is thus a paradox, in that Arden implies a sense of freedom to break sociocultural norms but at the same time forces the characters to comply with them- as Rosalind embraces power and control only when dressed as a man- implying that it comes with masculinity.

The dynamics between Rosalind and Celia have evidently changed as, back at the court, it was Celia who would comfort and encourage Rosalind, but once Rosalind takes on the “doublet and hose,” she takes charge, and makes all the decisions. Celia hardly ever speaks more than a few lines at a time in the forest and becomes subdued, whereas she was more active in her father’s court and spoke out on Rosalind’s behalf there. She put up a spirited defence for her, disregarding her father’s decision and even threatening him (Act I, Scene iii). Rosalind’s role, on the other hand, becomes that of the puppeteer of the play; she holds all the strings and controls the actions of all those around her. She becomes so dominant that she speaks the epilogue- something extremely uncommon at that time for a woman to do. Rosalind’s boldness and confidence in Arden serve as a contrast to her timidity and helplessness before; and Celia’s status of an independent businesswoman, to her complete dependancy on her father in the court. Celia had been openly critical of her father and defied the stereotype of the devoted daughter. She does not hesitate to go against him and escape with Rosalind. This shows how little Celia identifies herself in the dominating patriarchy of society. The change in Celia, though less dramatic, is just as significant to the play as that in Rosalind.

Duke Senior, too, is changed by Arden and is able to perform better as a ruler in the forest, as it is a setting indifferent to pomp and power (just as it is to gender and hierarchy). It is thus better suited to his characteristics and he is able to rule as an ideal, generous and compassionate ruler, free of envy and malice. His insecurity of his people’s loyalty in the court drove them away from him whereas his open acceptance of people in the forest makes them flock to him. Thus, Arden offers a neutral space where dominant ideologies can be questioned. The identities of the commentators of the play, Jacques and Touchstone, remain, however, unchanged by the forest. This is because they have carefully constructed the identities they wish to adopt- of a melancholy philosopher and a fool, respectively. They have found a way to circumvent the corrupting influence of society by moving outside of it and consciously creating their own roles for themselves. Also unaffected by the ‘liberating effects’ of the forest are its original inhabitants, such as Phebe, Silvius and Audrey. This is because they already exist in a world cut off from the corrupting effects of deceit, dishonesty and sin and thus have a greater freedom to choose and subsequently control their system of belief and code of conduct. Life in Arden has given them the space as well as time (as Arden is not bound by limitations of time) to construct beliefs of their own. They are also outside the control of society’s determination of class, wealth and gender, and are thus free from these binding concepts seen as flaws of society.

The exploration of gender roles is thus only one facet of the process the characters undergo to regain a lost sense of identity and, in the play, love is explored as a means of creating harmony and restoring order. However, the sequence of events does not imply a return to the preexisting state of order, as was the norm with previous plays of the time; instead, a new order is created that integrates aspects of the chaotic events, instead of disregarding them. The transformative power of love is illustrated by the relationship between Rosalind and Orlando, who despite having developed a relationship while Rosalind was a man, still share a connection that “no cross shall part” once they are married. The unconventional relationship between the devoted Silvius and the scornful Phebe is also transformed by marriage. Even though Phebe appears to command Silvius, making him an instrument of her will which was an unlikely role for women of the time, their marriage restores the balance and allows Silvius to regain his ‘rightful place’ as her husband. The rightful identity of both individuals and both relationships is restored through a sense of belonging found in marriage. These relationships provide the various characters with fulfilment and a sense of belonging associated with another being.

The entire issue of gender and identity is made redundant and identity is seen as entirely fluid and changeable when the actor playing Rosalind (who is a man) refers to his actual gender, saying “If I were a woman” (Act V, Scene iv), causing the inversion of preconceived notions society holds of identity. The concept of identity is thus questioned, since if characters are able to slip so easily into changing characteristics- transitioning out of their previous assumed identities and adopting new ones- the concept of identity itself is rendered meaningless. Shakespeare thus questions whether a constant identity even exists.

The relevance of the title comes up in relation to this theme. While the tile literally encourages the reader to take from it what they will, keeping the aspects they like and disregarding those they do not (as Twelfth Night’s subtitle does), ‘As You Like It’  also implies the characters’ ability in the play to act as they like- adopting the identity (or gender even) they wish to. To quote Raquel Cepeda’s famous words that resonate strongly with Shakespeare’s 1623 play, in their reflection of how unstable and unfixed identity really is,

“Our identities are as fluid as our personal experiences are diverse.”

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