One of the oddest things about As You Like It is the fact that Rosalind, confronted with exile, immediately decides to disguise herself as a man. There is no real reason for this; the plot does not demand it, her best friend Celia does not join her in the ruse, and Rosalind’s sanity might well be called into question for attempting it.
It is fair enough to observe that the play is closely following its probable source in this. Thomas Lodge’s story also features a Rosalynd disguising herself as a man and uses the same pretext that she is tall.
It is also true that by 1599 the business of women (played by boys) impersonating adult men on the English stage had been fairly well established. Starting with Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes (1570) and including The Wars of Cyrus (1576?), Promus and Cassandra (1578) [probable source for Measure for Measure], Gallathea (1583), Soliman and Persida (1589) and James the Fourth. In each case, however, the disguise was used for the purpose of escape.
Lodge’s innovation was to allow Rosalynd to do something more than hide. His male impersonator directly pursues her love. As You Like It takes this a major step further and has Rosalind not only secure her match with Orlando, but depicts her as the essential agent in the restoration of her exiled father.
By the time of the Restoration, Breeches parts, as they came to be known, were all the vogue. This appears to have had something to do with the fact that women were finally allowed to play women onstage and the other impression that women wearing men’s pants were more or less risqué (depending on the cut, etc.).
That particular aspect would probably have been lost on an Elizabethan audience accustomed to watching boys play women, some of which was alleged at the time to be deliberately provocative, but not out of a concern for women.
On the other hand, the onstage transformation of a boy playing a woman who decides to disguise him/herself as a man and/or boy is/was undoubtedly amusing. At that point, the surreal potential of the theatrical experience is fully engaged. But, from the reality of Rosalind’s situation, it is not necessary and makes no sense.
Because if, in the real world, she is discovered as a woman impersonating a man while attempting to escape the Duke’s verdict then she is in deeper trouble than she would ever have been if she had simply accepted the banishment which would have put her in the same forest and in the same company.
Comedies are built on these types of discontinuities, so I don’t intend criticize any of that. What I am trying to underscore is that the author was doing something very unusual, very improbable and that he was not merely being innovative: he had a real thing about it.
The play differentiates itself from the original in so many ways that any retention of the source should be considered more than a mere compliment. The author had a purpose.
In fact, half the major characters in the play are traveling in one form of disguise or another. In this I include not only Rosalind and Celia, but also Orlando, Jacques (as a stand in for Jonson), Touchstone, and even Oliver who does not reveal himself until he has confessed his shame. The play is a veritable epic of camouflage and revelation.
There was clearly a purpose in all of this. Rosalind, the woman who disguises herself as a man in a world where everyone important to her (excepting her exiled father and his company) travels in some form of disguise, is not selected as a heroine for no reason. This play is not merely a pastoral comedy of manners. Far from it.
As I have noted before, Rosalind is significant in so many ways. She is a flat departure from the depiction of women as inferior to men. She is the master of everyone she meets, yet she is gentle, empathetic and patient. Still, even she finds it necessary to engage in subterfuge to gain her ends.
It is this theme of deception, coming to its first full flower in the midst of the “Poet’s War”, which marks As You Like It as a turning point.
Next: Themes that Repeat
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.