“Rosalind”: Into the Woods with Shakespeare’s Heroine

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Painting of Shakespeare's Rosalind by Robert Walker Macbeth.

We don’t know the identity of the young male actor who first portrayed Rosalind in William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It back in 1599 or 1600. But in her new “biography” of the character, Rosalind: Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, writer Angela Thirlwell has collected clues about the kind of kid thespian who might have helped to create the part. He was possibly something of a beanpole — there’s a line in the play about Rosalind being “more than common tall.” And he may well have lacked musical skills: although the play brims with music, Rosalind herself is never called upon to sing. Certainly, the young actor would have needed to be a quick study: Rosalind, notes Thirlwell, speaks more lines — almost all of them prose, not verse — than any other female character in the Shakespearean canon.

All eyes watching that first performance would certainly have been on Rosalind — who, Thirlwell suggests, is Shakespeare’s only true female protagonist. And all heads might well have spun as Rosalind’s complicated gender layers began to pile up like quilts on a subzero night. Here was a boy portraying the daughter of a banished duke who, endangered by court politics, disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede and who hides out (along with her cousin, Celia) in the Forest of Arden. There he/she/he encounters Orlando, a nobleman with whom Rosalind has earlier fallen instantly in love. “Ganymede” offers to teach Orlando how to woo Rosalind, devising a role-playing game in which he will pretend to be the lady in question.

In other words: Boys will be girls will be boys will be girls. (It’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world, there in the Arden glades.)

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Thirlwell is an academic living in London, but her book seems geared not toward gender-studies scholars but rather toward a mainstream audience. She writes from a very personal point of view, sometimes relating anecdotes from her own childhood to help make her points. Her enthusiasm for — and enchantment with — this character (whom she dubs a “dextrous shape shifter”) can be effusive. In the book’s prologue, she fairly gushes:

I love Rosalind because she is merry and mischievous, impetuous, empowering and brave. Her play is about love. It’s for everyone and anyone who has ever loved, either unrequitedly or to joyous fulfillment. Every kind of love is in this play, from carnal to divine, not only heterosexual love but also homoerotic love, the love between friends, between women, love across the generations, brotherly love and sibling rivalry, the love between parents and children. Rosalind faces up to love inside out and its spectre of rejection that all lovers fear.

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Thirlwell’s other biographies are William and Lucy: The other Rossettis and Into the Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown.

In the early parts of her study, Thirlwell provides historical context. She writes of literary antecedents for As You Like It, including Shakespeare’s direct source material for the work, Thomas Lodge’s 1590 play Rosalynde (which she refers to as a “Tudor rom-com”). She then compares and contrasts Rosalind with various Shakespearean “sisters,” including Portia from The Merchant of Venice and Viola from Twelfth Night (both fellow cross-dressers) as well as such characters as Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and Rosaline from Love’s Labor’s Lost (not cross-dressers, but independent-minded women with sparkling wits).

But here I began to question the sharpness of some of the author’s judgments. An additional “sister” to Rosalind, Thirlwell claims, is a Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet with whom Romeo was passionately in love before meeting that Capulet girl. But, aside from the similar name, this Rosaline has virtually nothing in common with As You Like It’s heroine. She is, reportedly, blindingly beautiful, but is not witty or spunky. She is, in fact, an unseen, offstage character. Why single her out while neglecting, for instance, Katherine from The Taming of The Shrew? “Kate” is no effervescent wit, either. But if you’re dealing with gender issues in Shakespeare’s plays, it seems you’d be able to find something more relevant to say about her than you would about the Rosaline of Verona.

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In subsequent pages, Thirlwell analyzes As You Like It’s text in some depth and makes some intriguing points along the way. (Who knew, for instance, that the name “Ganymede” would have suggested a “rent boy” to Elizabethan audiences?) One of the more appealing things throughout the book is the inclusion of observations from actors who have played in As You Like It over the years. In many cases, Thirlwell herself interviewed these performers. They include actors both female (Janet Suzman, Juliet Rylance) and male (Ronald Pickup, Adrian Lester) who have taken on the role of Rosalind.

One section of the book explores the connection between Rosalind and Queen Elizabeth I. Both women, Thirlwell explains, display a genius for language, for love and for androgyny. The author goes so far as to say that the name “Rosalind” was a “coded link with Elizabeth, since“Rosa linda” translates as “beautiful rose” and the rose is a “potent and repeated symbol in the iconography of Elizabeth.”

In the book’s final chapter, Thirlwell turns to Rosalind’s “daughters”: female characters and real-life women in the years since the play’s premiere that have embodied the spirit of the Shakespearean heroine — whether through androgyny, a feisty independence or both. Here the writer seems to be free-associating. She tosses out all sorts of ideas, some of which stick better than others. Among her latter-day Rosalinds: Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (another childhood remembrance from Thirlwell here), Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Brontë sisters, Nora Helmer from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House (a real stretch, in my opinion) and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s titular heroine from Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.

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Some of Thirlwell’s tangents are instructive. Others, not so much. While the book held my interest, I finished it feeling that what the author had to say might have been said in a slimmer volume, perhaps even a long article.

In the book’s preface, Thirlwell confesses that she decided to write a biography of Rosalind because the books she’d previously written — about mortal human beings — were disturbingly “death infected.” I can appreciate the fanciful, wishful thinking that wants a character to live forever, that hopes to replace death with a sweet denouement. It’s true, in a way, that Rosalind breathes again whenever As You Like It is staged. Yet the curtain will always fall for her at the same moment, creating a kind of perennial dead-end, there under the greenwood tree. Perhaps she is not so different from a mortal human after all.

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