The exiled Duke Senior’s daughter and niece of Duke Frederick, Rosalind is the play’s central character, in that she has both the most lines and brings about much of the play’s resolution. She is downhearted from the beginning, as her father has been away in exile, and only when her heart is ‘‘overthrown’’ (1.2.244) are her spirits first lifted. Leaving the court in banishment, along with her fleeing cousin, she adopts the disguise of a man, Ganymede, largely so that she and Celia may appear less vulnerable to any would-be assailants. At this point, she endeavors to transform herself outwardly and bear ‘‘a swashing and a martial outside’’ (1.3.118), that is, a swaggering, confrontational demeanor. Nevertheless, she confesses to yet also bearing ‘‘hidden woman’s fear’’ (1.3.117), and many of her lines in the forest reflect her attempts to reconcile her maidenly reserve with her intent to pass as a man.
In posing as Ganymede, Rosalind draws upon her ample reserves of wit, which, as a courtly lady in Elizabethan times, she may not have had much opportunity to use otherwise. When she intends to treat Orlando like ‘‘a saucy lackey’’ (3.2.292), she guides the conversation with her witty remarks on the passage of time. She then arranges for Orlando to dote upon her, in her disguise as Ganymede, as if she were Rosalind, ensuring a sustained connection with him. She later lectures Orlando on the appearances and actions of one who is truly love struck.
Though liberated in terms of the attitude she can adopt around Orlando, Rosalind otherwise professes to be constrained by her disguise. As she, Celia, and Touchstone enter the forest, she notes a desire to ‘‘disgrace my man’s apparel, and to cry like a woman’’ (2.4.4–5). Similarly, when she faints at the news of Orlando’s having suffered a grievous wound, she rises and first utters, ‘‘I would I were at home’’ (4.3.162), then reflexively negates her emotional state, claiming she had counterfeited the swoon. The audience is left to decide whether such denials are positive steps for a woman of that era to take.
Regardless of how much Rosalind revels in her man’s disguise, the play’s closure is very much a return to a state of female subservience. Indeed, from the outset, Rosalind is understood to be depressed largely because of the absence of any male figure in her life: her father has been exiled, and the fact that she only grows animated upon meeting Orlando sheds light upon her earlier suggestion that they divert themselves by ‘‘falling in love’’ (1.2.24). Before revealing her identity, Rosalind refers to herself in speaking to her father as ‘‘your Rosalind’’ (5.4.6) and requests confirmation that he will ‘‘bestow her on Orlando’’ (5.4.7). Regarding Rosalind’s return to her womanhood, Peter B. Erickson notes, ‘‘A benevolent patriarchy still requires women to be subordinate, and Rosalind’s final performance is her enactment of this subordination’’ (232). Erickson also notes that the epilogue, in which the male actor playing Rosalind reveals himself as male, presents a ‘‘further phasing out of Rosalind’’ (233).
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007