By Charles Matthews

Thursday, March 24, 2011

7. As You Like It, by William Shakespeare. The Arden Third Series edition.

I started reading my copy of As You Like It unaware that the Third Series edition of the play had appeared, and for consistency's sake I stuck with the Second Series. But now my copy of the Third Series has arrived, and I think I should acknowledge some of its additions and comments.

As You Like It (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)Introduction by Juliet Dusinberre, pp. 1-36
So much criticism has been dedicated to the "gender instability" of the play since Agnes Latham's introduction to the Second Series edition. Dusinberre asserts that the play's "cross-dressed heroine, gender games and explorations of sexual ambivalence, its Forest of Arden and melancholy Jaques, speaks directly to the twenty-first century ... raising profound questions about the nature of liberty, renewal and regeneration." Among other things, she sees the play as an example of "Shakespeare's virtuoso capacity to convert the convention of boy actors playing women's parts from a restriction to a resource."

Dusinberre also differs from Latham -- although the earlier editor admitted the possibility -- in asserting that Will Kemp (or Kempe) played Touchstone and not Robert Armin, as other scholars, likening Touchstone to Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear. She also emphasizes the possibility that Rosalind was specifically designed by Shakespeare as a compliment to Queen Elizabeth: "Inherent in Rosalind's mastery in the Forest of Arden is arguably Elizabeth ... the royal 'shepherd' with her flock of English subjects." She also emphasizes Shakespeare's mastery of prose in the play:
Viola, Juliet and Cleopatra express their love in poetry. But Rosalind -- like Beatrice in Much Ado -- fashions hers in prose, which in As You Like It comes of age as the medium of romantic love. The dramatist again proves prophetic, for the great love stories of the future will be charted not in epic romance but in the prose of a new literary form hospitable to women writers, the novel.
But it's the role of gender in the play that dominates Dusinberre's introduction, noting that even in Shakespeare's day the representation of women by boys on stage was controversial: "The use of the boy actor to impersonate women became the focal point of vituperation of the theatre, on the grounds that cross-dressing excited homoerotic feeling both in the actors on stage and in the audience." There is an element of daring in the name Rosalind chooses as her male persona: "The name Ganymede is conventional to classical pastoral. However, it allows the playwright to explore the homoerotic as well as the heterosexual. The corrupted form of Ganymede is 'catamite,' a boy hired for his sexual services." But if Rosalind's gender-switching has its transgressive side, it also has an honorable parallel:
When Rosalind at the end of 1.3 decides to put on a man's clothes, she announces that her heart will remain a woman's while her outside brags of manhood. Elizabeth said the exact opposite in her famous speech in 1588 to the troops at Tilbury before the Spanish Armada: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too."
Since the theater began to accept women on stage to play women, the nature of the role of Rosalind has reflected "the unstable fictions of gender." As Dusinberre puts it, "It may ... have been easier for a boy in Shakespeare's theatre to play the girl Rosalind than it has proved to be for a woman to play the boy Ganymede." Rosalind as played by women has become, in Camille Paglia's words, "prettified and demasculinized," and in the centuries before it became socially acceptable for women to wear pants, "Dressing as a boy emphasized womanhood to a delighted audience. The femininity of the actress was enhanced by her assumed masculine attire." Even in the twentieth century the peculiar sexual complexity of the role took unusual twists:
Michael Redgrave as Orlando, Edith Evans as Rosalind, 1936
Michael Redgrave reveals in his autobiography, In My Mind's Eye, that in playing Orlando at the Od Vic in 1936 when in his late twenties ... he fell passionately in love and had an affair with his Rosalind, Edith Evans, who was then 48. Equally fascinating is the fact, only known in more recent years, of Redgrave's bisexuality. The complexities and gender ambivalences of the role of Rosalind are marvellously identified in this story.... Did he fall in love with Rosalind, or did he fall in love with Ganymede, or was it some subtle admixture of the two, as perhaps it was also for Orlando? 
Adrian Lester as Rosalind, Simon Coates as Celia
There have been several successful all-male productions of As You Like It since the groundbreaking one at the Old Vic in 1967, including the 1991 London Cheek by Jowl production in which Adrian Lester played Rosalind. "Lester recalls, 'People said I looked most like a woman when I was playing Rosalind trying to look like a man. When I stopped trying to look like a woman, I looked most like one.' ... One might read Lester's success in part as a tribute to the way in which the text constructs femininity." The scenes between Rosalind and Celia in the production also "raised many questions about the balance between the homosexual and the heterosexual in the relationship between the two girls." Although critics familiar with previous conventionally cast productions found it difficult to get past the novelty of casting men in the roles, "students who had never seen the play before declared that after Act I they completely forgot that the part of Rosalind was being played by a man."

Nina Sosanya as Rosalind, Naomi Frederick as Celia
But it's also important to note that when Ganymede is pretending to be Rosalind, "his" Rosalind is not the same as the actual Rosalind. The "wayward Rosalind" he plays for Orlando "is Ganymede's fictionalized capricious woman, just as Ganymede is Rosalind's fictionalized brash boy.... It takes some skill for the actress to communicate to the audience that the 'real' Rosalind is not actually Ganymede's Rosalind." When the actress Nina Sosanya played Rosalind in the 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play, "She was just too good at acting a boy to be able simultaneously to act a woman, which the actress playing Rosalind must do even if she is a woman. In As You Like It both genders must be acted. That is the comedy's extraordinary challenge." The play is a "dialogue" between the homoerotic and the heterosexual.

The role of Celia is essential but undervalued: "It comes as a shock to register that Celia has no speech in Act 5." And since the women's movement, the relationship of Celia and Rosalind has come to be seen as Shakespeare's most observant portrait of female friendship, though it had been noted much earlier by George Eliot, who in her correspondence with women "often invoked the relation of Celia and Rosalind as a paradigm for closeness between women." (She also gave the name Celia to Dorothea Brooke's more clear-sighted sister in Middlemarch.) "Queer theorists see in the love of Celia and Rosalind an inherent eroticism" and some "see disruption and disappointment as Celia's affection has to give way to the heterosexual passion between Rosalind and Orlando."

If Rosalind is a new type of woman for Shakespeare, Orlando is similarly a new type of man: The word "gentleness" is "used more in this play than in any other. Orlando is introduced in the first scene, even by his hostile elder brother, as 'gentle.'" This is, of course, the traditional word for one of noble birth, but it is used "increasingly in As You Like It to describe a mode of behaviour which abjures the violent and aggressive -- or, one might say, the cultural accoutrements of traditional 'masculinity.'" Which is not to say that Orlando is a weakling: He puts Oliver in a chokehold in the first scene; he bests the bruiser Charles in the wrestling match; and he attacks the duke's picnic with a drawn sword. But he also responds instantly to the duke's admonition: "Your gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness." He replies in embarrassment, "Speak you so gently? Pardon me, I pray you." And after all, he only attacks because he wants to feed the starving Adam, and excuses himself "Whiles like a doe I go to find my fawn, / And give it food."
Shakespeare could easily have made Orlando here into a lion fetching its cub, but he chooses instead a feminine image of the doe feeding her fawn, ... which makes its own comment on the male culture of hunting.... In rewriting the script of "femininity" through Rosalind/Ganymede, Shakespeare has also rewritten the script of "masculinity" as the Elizabethans knew it. Just as Rosalind explodes myths of feminine sexuality so the figure of Orlando revises the binaries of violent masculinity and gentle femininity.
And Shakespeare continues to redefine the world "gentle" through the character of Silvius, "another man who is called 'gentle.' In this context the word is particularly interesting as Silvius may be tender-hearted and kind, but there is no way in which he can also be well born."

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