Love and Play in the Battle of the Sexes
Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a pastoral romp with transgressive teeth.
More students would enjoy studying Shakespeare if their teachers assigned the comedies instead of the tragedies. One excellent candidate for such a syllabus is the pastoral romantic comedy As You Like It. Rich in meaning and full of Shakespeare’s lovely and inventive language, it’s also a light read whose chief delight is the Bard’s varied use of play.
One form of play in As You Like It is literal in the actions of the dramatis personae. The characters go into Arden Forest to escape their misfortunes in the city and there they camp, sing, hunt, jest, pull pranks and woo as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Central to the plot is the mode of Rosalind and Orlando’s courtship. While in the forest, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy and calls herself Ganymede. As Ganymede, she pretends to be Rosalind (herself) so Orlando may role-play courting her and thereby learn how to do it right. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, lovers abound and they tie themselves in the most amusing of knots as they pursue their hearts’ desires.
Another form of play is figurative in the work of art. Among Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “play” are “free or unimpeded motion,” “the scope or opportunity for action” and “brisk, fitful, or light movement.” In Truth and Method (1975), philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer describes metaphorical play in a similar manner, citing “the play of light,” “the play of waves,” “interplay of limbs,” and “even a play on words,” finding in such expressions a “to-and-fro movement that is not tied to any goal.” In As You Like It, Shakespeare has created a space that allows such freedom in interpretation and enjoyment.
The possibilities are kaleidoscopic, beginning with one crucial ambiguity: Does Orlando know that Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise? If he does not and she knows he does not, then her ruse is cruel. If he does not but she thinks he does, then it’s merely a misunderstanding. If he does but she thinks he doesn’t, then she makes a fool of herself. If he does and she knows he does, then they are merely flirting. The play will come off differently depending on how it is presented and received on this point.
I like to think the central couple is merely flirting. Lovers don masks to protect themselves and beguile their beloved, but they lower them when they perceive some advantage, begin to feel safe, or are overcome with emotion. Rosalind and Orlando show every sign of engaging in exactly such a game, feeling out each other in hopes of falling into each other’s arms. In the 1936 film starring Elisabeth Bergner and Laurence Olivier, it’s hard to see Rosalind as anything but an open and ornery flirt. Orlando is harder to read, but sometimes he breaks his wooden smirk for one less wooden, suggesting knowing bemusement. But the drama could be presented other ways.
A third kind of play is subjective in the viewers. There are many lovers in As You Like It and, with cross-dressing involved, some of the pairs are same-sex. For example, Orlando courts Ganymede, perhaps as mere role-playing and perhaps in the knowledge that Ganymede is Rosalind, and the shepherdess Phoebe falls for Rosalind, apparently fooled by her disguise, but who knows? Maybe Phoebe’s true target is the girl inside the breeches. Matters get even more complicated when you consider that in Shakespeare’s day male actors would have played all the female characters.
Each viewer will react to each pair differently, in part due to sexual orientation. There’s little people love to do more than get the hots over fictional characters and the actors portraying them. A heterosexual man will naturally be interested in Rosalind played by a woman, but so might a lesbian. The same man might then find the titillation doubled when Phoebe throws herself at Rosalind but find the idea of those roles filled by men less to his tastes, even as a gay man sitting next to him in the theater experiences a thrill of moe toward one or both of the characters. And, of course, viewers may find much of worth in amorous adventures enacted by characters of persuasions different than their own. Multiply the possibilities by what we now term LGBTQ+ and Shakespeare is playing 3D chess.
Shakespeare’s works are known for an abundance of interpretive leeway— that’s part of what makes them timeless — but the play present in As You Like It is unequaled among his comedies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has plenty of literal play — frolicking in the forest and supernatural mischief — but less of the other types of play afforded by Rosalind’s disguise. Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice have women dress as men to comedic effect, but they stop at one false identity, whereas Rosalind adds a second layer. As I see it, the only play by Shakespeare to equal As You Like It in the aspect of play is the tragedy Hamlet, but there the play is arrayed toward entirely differently effects.
“Multiply the possibilities by what we now term LGBTQ+ and Shakespeare is playing 3D chess.”
There is, of course, yet another aspect of play to As You Like It in that it is a play, a stage performance. For a time, the players and we the audience, have been playing a game, indulging in aimless fancies that play out according to their own rules, and when it ends, we must return to the concerns of our daily lives. In the epilogue, Rosalind encourages men and women to love each other. In our times, when it seems sexual politics are at a combative high, we would do well to remember that and try to seek peace in the end.
The Girl Who Had Too Much of Water
Coriolanus and Aufidius: Imperfect Lovers
Macbeth’s Twist on Nihilism
The Imp of Macbeth’s Perverse
Bottom as the Most Human Character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream