The way Shakespeare addresses gender roles in As You Like It reflects the widespread sexism of the Elizabethan era, and thus the topic merits discussion not only in the fictional but also in the historical context. In his Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, Russ McDonald offers an assessment of the state of gender relations:
“That women occupied a position subordinate to men in the early modern period is beyond dispute; that this was the ‘natural’ state of affairs was almost beyond dispute. Although the idea is repugnant to modern sensibilities, most thinkers in the sixteenth century took it as axiomatic that men are superior to women.”
Indeed, many gendered notions are presented not simply through the opinions of certain characters but as established facts, illustrating for the modern reader the common beliefs of the era. In the course of the discussion on the goddesses Fortune and Nature, Rosalind states, ‘‘the bountiful blind woman doth most mistake in her gifts to women’’ (1.2.34–5), and Celia agrees, noting that ‘‘those that she makes fair, she scarce makes honest, and those that she makes honest, she makes very ill-favoredly’’ (1.2.36–8). That is, the story’s leading women evidently see beauty and chastity, which are deemed typically exclusive, as the only female qualities worth discussing. Other characteristics attributed to women, as reflected in the play’s dialogue, include ‘‘fear’’ (1.3.117), which Rosalind hopes to hide under man’s apparel, and excessive emotionality; Rosalind feels obliged to suppress her tears when she, Celia, and Touchstone enter the forest in utter exhaustion, and when she faints at the news of Orlando’s wound, Oliver exclaims, ‘‘You a man! You lack a man’s heart’’ (4.3.164–65).
Rosalind and Celia refer to the marketability of women—not merely objectifying themselves but even suggesting that they have a quantifiable value—twice later on: Celia notes that if they learn news from Le Beau they will be ‘‘the more marketable’’ (1.2.93), while Rosalind, as Ganymede, tells Phebe, ‘‘Sell when you can, you are not for all markets’’ (3.5.60). This most likely reflects the fact that a potential bride customarily offered a dowry to her suitor, consisting of whatever capital and property her family could afford. The existence of the dowry is also important to consider with respect to the romantic context of the play. McDonald notes,
“Marriage was part of a system of inheritance and economics so ingrained and pervasive that the emotional affectations or physical desires of a man and woman diminished in importance. This was especially true among the upper classes… where marriage was regarded as a convenient instrument for joining or ensuring peace between two powerful families, for consolidating land holdings, or for achieving other familial, financial, or even political ends.”
Thus the Forest of Arden is an idealized pastoral setting not only in the immediacy of nature and the absence of the trappings of courtly life but also in the fact that the play’s strictly romantic liaisons, especially between Rosalind and Orlando, might have been impossible in the context of the court.
While women of the time were certainly constrained by male perceptions of their femininity, men were perhaps similarly constrained by perceptions of their masculinity. Phebe finds herself falling not for the beseeching, pitiable Silvius but for the coarse, aggressive Ganymede. She states, ‘‘’Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well’’ (3.5.110), then adds, ‘‘But sure he’s proud. And yet his pride becomes him. / He’ll make a proper man’’ (3.5.115). Later, in turn, in that Phebe’s letter has ‘‘a boisterous and a cruel style’’ (4.3.32), Rosalind assumes that it must have been ‘‘a man’s invention, and his hand’’ (4.3.30). Ultimately, however, Shakespeare may have played a significant role in softening the perception of the masculine, if not in hardening the perception of the feminine; Peter B. Erickson offers some enlightening commentary on gender relations of the Elizabethan era as modified by the theater: ‘‘The convention of males playing female roles gives men the opportunity to imagine sex-role fluidity and flexibility. Built into the conditions of performance is the potential for male acknowledgment of a ‘feminine self’ and thus for male transcendence of a narrow masculinity.’’ In that they did not themselves appear on the stage, women were not truly given the same opportunity to test the boundaries of their gender roles.
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