Disguise as a Catalyst for Transgression in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. The general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, which are generally divided into tragedies and comedies, later now being considered as a standard for a “romantic comedy”. Shakespeare was an innovator, one of his innovations is cross-dressing, which allows female character additional freedom on stage. Cross-dressing female heroines also catered to his female audience. This innovation was frowned upon by some, Traub argues that “transvestism” was a troubling thing for the anti-theatricalists of the early modern period” (Traub, 1992). This additional freedom was required due to the fact that Victorian women were considered inferior and thus, their social acts were a lot more restrictive than those of men and such acts as cross-dressing were punishable if a woman was caught. Cross-dressing heroines are most notable in four of his plays: Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1596), Viola in Twelfth Night (1600), and Rosalind in As You Like It (1600). The focus of this essay is Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, who disguised herself along with her cousin Celia as they were exiled.
Scholars tend to disagree about the nature of this disguise. In her work “In Counterfeit Passion: Crosdressing, Transgression, and Fraud in Shakespeare and Middleton” Bierman argues that “Rosalind plays the role of the woman crossdressing into a man, with again the idea of safety in mind” (Bierman 2013: 28). Such a mentality is also seen in Crosman’s work where he adds to this argument stating that this appearance also has the power to create and solve problems (Crosman 2004: 102). Scholars like Shahid presents us with a rather different opinion stating that crossdressing allows Rosalind and Celia to enter the world of men and “gives them the opportunity to carry out tasks they could never do otherwise” (Shadid 2013: 11). Anne Barton, in her introduction to the Riverside edition of As You Like It, also agrees that Rosalind takes on a male persona for herself, and elaborates on Rosalind’s decision to stay as Ganymed in this way: Rosalind clings to the part of Ganymed because of the freedom it allows her. This essay is not is going to subscribe to the second school of thought and argue that since the mode of cross-dressing as a man was a conscious choice that Rosalind made, it is not as much of a means of safety and self-preservation, but a mode for a Elizabethan woman to function beyond the norms of her gender at the time, thus becoming a catalyst for transgression.
While in the Forest of Arden along with her cousin Celia, Rosalind is disguised as a shepherd Ganymede. As they meet Orlando who is clearly in love with Rosalind she decides stay in the character of Ganymede, “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him. (3.2.270-2)”. Crosman argues that by playing the Knave Rosalind subjects Orlando’s love to a “test of doubt” which will also involve the need for repeated meetings between her and he lover (Crossman 2004: 102). This is a transgression by Elizabethan woman’s standards. Rosalind uses her disguise to manipulate the man who loves her in order to test him and mentor him to be a perfect lover for her instead of assuming the expected passive role of a woman and letting the male be the active part of the relationship. She achieves that by stating that she can cure his love sickness in order for him to continually meet her. This inversion of gender roles allows her to teach Orlando that a married life is different than Courtship “men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. ” (4.1.125-129), she teaches him that a woman respects commitment „if you break one jot of your promise or come one minute behind your hour, I will think you the most pathetical break-promise and the most hollow lover” (4.1.162-166), and ironizes a man losing his head. This disguise is pushed even further as Ganymede tells Orlando to talk to her as if she were Rosalind. This layering of disguise displays that instead of cross-dressing as a means of safety the heroine is doing in as a means of exercising power over her lover without being caught which could be considered transgression.
Another instance of Rosalind’s transgressional behaviour is the encounter with Si