Among the great theatrical innovations, Rosalind in As You Like It has to be considered one of the most significant.
She is very simply the greatest female role written by the greatest poet of the Elizabethan age. There is very little in all of Western literature that precedes her significance. The Wife of Bath comes to mind. Other than that, it is difficult to compare her to any other character of her sex who has so much independence, so much intelligence and so much strength.
Dante’s Beatrice is more an ideal than a reality. Euripdes’ Medea is more a vengeful avatar than an actual individual. It would not be until the nineteenth century that women took center stage in Western drama again.
One of the most interesting things about Rosalind is that, despite having been unfairly disgraced and being forced to flee in disguise to protect herself, she appears to be somehow released. In fact, regardless of her difficulties, she actually seems to be enjoying her status as an exile.
Rosalind is obviously more intelligent than every other person she encounters onstage. This includes the people who have exiled her. But, she never acts against any of them directly. Instead, she respects them and displays compassion, especially in the face of their flaws.
Rosalind is easily the most independent actor in As You Like It. She moves at will. No one can prevent her. The action of the play is only delayed by her own inhibition. Once she decides to focus her energy on Orlando there is no stopping her.
Fundamentally, Rosalind is a realist. For all the romanticism of her interest in Orlando, she is not so foolish as to see in him more than a boy wonder. Orlando, like most of his kin, will never rise to Rosalind’s intellectual heights and she does not love him the less for that. For Rosalind, Orlando is a substantially good match, the best of his breed, and no one is more delighted with the opportunity to put aside pretence than she is. For Rosalind, love play is both a serious business and a pleasure. She delights in teasing, but not unfairly.
Of course, she has the advantage; she has already decided on her match. Orlando, on the other hand, has the very awkward problem of divining not only her intentions but his own previously uncomprehended desires as well. The fact that this makes him that much more charming to Rosalind does not help him in the least.
Given time and careful cultivation Orlando is very likely to discover that Rosalind is his superior in every way. For her part, Rosalind is so wise that she can patiently wait for him to decide that he has understood this all on his own.
Rosalind’s intelligence, her confidence, appears to derive from an innate ability to see the future. True, her banishment is initially frightening, but no sooner has she adopted her new circumstances than she sets about resolving them. In her mind, life in Arden would be just as satisfactory as life at Court, so long as Orlando and her father were there with her. The only question is how best to put the pieces together, not whether or not she can manage them.
The neat trick in watching Rosalind surmount her difficulties is not that we doubt she will do it, but that she always surprises us in the way she does it. She never moves directly. Instead, she entices her adversaries into self-revelation and understanding. This tactic explains the apparent suddenness of Orlando’s brother Oliver’s reversal from enemy to ally, not to mention Duke Frederick’s recognition of the wrong he has done to his brother, Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior.
Harold Bloom has compared Rosalind to both Falstaff and Hamlet and with them considers her one of the three most complete and original creations in English literature.
“Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps indeed in western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share.”
Bloom, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, p. 204.
Of all the ways that a character, not to mention a person, can be considered special, the quality of self-knowledge is among the most precious. It is a quality that Rosalind has in abundance.
Dr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992). Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.