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Gender in as You like It

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Gender in As You Like It

One of the most intriguing aspects of the treatment of love in As You Like It concerns the issue of gender. And this issue, for obvious reasons, has generated a special interest in recent times. The principal reason for such a thematic concern in the play is the cross dressing and role playing. The central love interest between Rosalind and Orlando calls into question the conventional wisdom about men's and women's gender roles and challenges our preconceptions about these roles in courtship, erotic love, and beyond.

At the heart of this courtship is a very complex ambiguity which it is difficult fully to appreciate without a production to refer to. But here we have a man (the actor) playing a woman (Rosalind), who has dressed herself up as a man (Ganymede), and who is pretending to be a woman (Rosalind) in the courtship game with Orlando. Even if, in modern times, Rosalind is not played by a young male actor, the theatrical irony is complex enough.

The most obvious issue raised by the cross dressing is the relationship between gender roles and clothes (or outer appearance). For Rosalind passes herself off easily enough as a man and, in the process, acquires a certain freedom to move around, give advice, and associate as an equal among other men (this freedom gives her the power to initiate the courtship). Her disguise is, in that sense, much more significant than Celia's, for Celia remains female in her role as Aliena and is thus largely passive (her pseudonym meaning "Stranger" or "outsider" is an interesting one). The fact that Celia is largely passive in the Forest of Ardenne (especially in contrast to Rosalind) and has to wait for life to deliver a man to her rather than seeking one out, as Rosalind does, is an interesting and important difference between the two friends.

These points raise some interesting issues. If becoming accepted as a man and getting the freedom to act that comes with that acceptance is simply a matter of presenting oneself as a man, then what do we say about all the enshrined natural differences we claim as the basis for our different treatment of men and women? Given that Rosalind is clearly the most intelligent, active, and interesting character in the play and that these qualities would not be likely to manifest themselves so fully if she were not passing herself off as a man, the play raises some interesting questions about just what we mean by any insistence on gender differences as more than mere conventions.

But the issue is much more complicated than that. For Rosalind's assumed name, Ganymede, is a very deliberate reference to the young male lover Zeus carried up to Olympus, and it points us to what might be a very strong element in the courtship game between Orlando and Rosalind and in the feelings Phoebe has for Rosalind, namely homoerotic desire. There's little in the play to suggest this explicitly, but a production which showed, say, that Orlando's feelings were becoming involved with Ganymede, so that the pretend courtship has a strongly erotic undercurrent, would not be violating the text. Perhaps it's hard to distinguish totally between Orlando's feelings for Rosalind and Orlando's feelings for Ganymede. And that challenges all sorts of conventional expectations about erotic love, in order to "probe the surprisingly complex issue of what is natural in matters of love and sexual desire" (Jean Howard, Introduction to As You Like It in The Norton Shakespeare).

That's why the play wedding ceremony that Rosalind and Orlando go through with Celia playing role of officiating minister (in 4.1) is, for all the acting going on, quite powerfully charged. Celia, who loves Rosalind, supervises the wedding of the two people presenting themselves as men, and under the obvious fun of the make believe there's a powerful sense of the sexual attraction the two have for each other. It's worth asking at this point just how much Orlando might know or suspect or what feelings

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