What’s So Complex About Shakespeare’s Immortal Rosalind?

Editor's Note:

Angela Thirlwell likes to push the boundaries of biography. She has been the external examiner at the University of Buckingham on its highly regarded M.A. course in Biography which regularly draws on her Folio Anthology of Autobiography. In another creative approach, she’s chosen to examine Shakespeare’s inspirational heroine, Rosalind, a character who has never lived and therefore can never die.

Rosalind and Hamlet are surely the most complex in the vast parade of Shakespeare’s characters. In another dimension they could have been brother and sister.

Both premiered during the same London Theater season at the Globe in 1599. But even Hamlet didn’t inhabit both genders like Rosalind. When she sprints into the forest of Arden as the boy Ganymede, she expands our ideas about gender, and epitomizes what love feels like for both sexes, through the whole gamut of human emotions, in every time and place.

In Shakespeare’s day, a male actor in drag played Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It.  He cross-dressed back again to his male self as Ganymede, finally revealing the ‘truth’ at the end of the play. Rosalind is a grand paradox. Man and woman, authentically alive yet forever a fiction, ageless and modern, complex and humane, a true original.

Her complexity allows her to pierce love’s contradictions. Love is ‘merely a madness’ yet feels as deep to her as the Bay of Portugal. Rosalind understands the inconsistencies of the human heart. For within a moment she knows she can ‘grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles.’ Like Hamlet she’s on the cusp, exploring the dynamics of growing up in political worlds where the centre cannot hold. But where Hamlet’s response is introverted and death seeking, Rosalind’s is anarchic and life affirming.

When Rosalind puts on boy’s clothes she becomes more herself.  Going Ganymede gives her the freedom to speak the truth which she could never do in a farthingale or frock. Though inexperienced in affairs of the heart, Rosalind is acute and cynical enough to probe the reality of love. Is her boyfriend Orlando the real deal?  She tests his adoration by raising the negatives about love, insisting on its banality as well as its romance.  When Orlando claims his love will last for ever and a day, she flashes back, ‘Say a day, without the ever.’ Is he in love with his idea of Rosalind and not with who she really is?  In “The Philadelphia Story” of 1940, Katharine Hepburn’s character Tracy Lord voiced the same problem. ‘I don’t want to be worshiped. I want to be loved…really loved.’ A decade later Hepburn was obvious casting as Rosalind on Broadway.

From her gender flexible position, Rosalind sees clearly that marriage can curdle romance — for both sexes. ‘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.’ By the time Rosalind steps out of role to address us in the only Epilogue Shakespeare ever awarded to a woman, she’s challenged all conventions of gender and reality. Characters do, and do not exist. Actors are all characters. We’re all acting. Pirandello said whoever has the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. Three centuries before the Italian dramatist, Shakespeare thought so, too.

Turn Rosalind this way and that to see her many facets: tragic and comic, realist and romantic, generous and cruel, urban and rural, innocent and mature, androgynous and feminine, vulnerable and strong, poetic and prosy, emotional and cerebral. That’s why she’s been a career maker and a career changer for so many great actors. Both sexes and any physical shape can play her, from willowy, transcendent Vanessa Redgrave to radically inclusive black actor Adrian Lester. With more lines than any other female character in Shakespeare, Rosalind contains multitudes. She’s a woman for our times as much as a woman of her own.

As she unpeels herself at the end of the play, we see the limitless Rosalinds that simultaneously exist. She’s boy and girl. She’s an individual and Everyperson, in a fictitious drama and yet alive, threatened by death but never dying, a heroine-hero who bursts the bounds of her play and lives on long after it’s over.

Writing the first biography of Rosalind was itself a complex project. Biography usually focuses on the life of a person who has lived and breathed in the ‘real’ world. Most biographies deal with deathbed scenes and some even begin with them. I didn’t have to write a deathbed scene for Rosalind. Instead she lives on in her literary daughters, including Lizzie Bennet, Jo March, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Rosalind’s effect is subtle and permanent and continues to inspire people today. You could keep asking her questions about life forever and never find complete answers. As Shakespeare said, the only answer is As You Like It.