Victorious women.
As You Like It
Twelfth Night

Troilus and Cressida seems to express a darkly despondent view of love and life. Is that typical of Shakespeare?

No, not really. The average theatre-goer is left with the impression of an author deeply in love with our emotions. Among the most charming representatives for love are two characters, one from
Twelfth Night and the other from As You Like It. Characteristically both have their love stories described as a detour.

Romeo and Juliet there is a single angle of observation throughout. We experience two lovers through their own feelings, words and actions — from inside, so to speak. Both feel emotion, butt against their surroundings, and go under. They are undisguised and free from calculation. In the sorely tried Verona the result is tragic. The background to the tragedy is a certain innocence in the characters. They underestimate the latent dangers from within themselves and from others.

Where such menaces threaten, one must change course. For love to succeed it must protect itself. But if so, we must modify some of our most basic assumptions. Our simplest beginning is a naive proximity. He who would survive must instead acquire a distance, both to his chosen one and to himself. The best way of achieving distance is to smile. This opens up other perspectives than we had before.

Furthermore, a successful romance cannot very well be felt as tragic. To the contrary, a felicitous outcome will tend to throw an almost a comic light on such dangers as might otherwise have been felt to be ominous. A life that surmounts its difficulties becomes cheerful.

The smile as a way of gaining the perspective of distance and the smile as a result of a successful enterprise are two reasons why Shakespeare's most undisturbed love stories take the shape of comedies.

What happens in disguise?

One such happy conclusion we witness through Rosalind in
As You Like It.

Structurally Shakespeare's great comedy has a certain affinity to
A Midsummer Night's Dream. Once again five complicated stories are intertwined. At the top of the social ladder we meet Duke Frederick, who has usurped power from his elder brother. On the next step down we have the aristocratic brothers Oliver and Orlando, together with the daughters of the two dukes, Rosalind and Celia. Rosalind is banished by Celia's father, and Celia flees with her. The two young groups merge through Orlando and Rosalind falling in love, and Oliver and Celia likewise. Finally there are two subordinate couples, the jester Touchstone and the country girl Audrey, and the almost mythical shepherds Silvius and Phoebe.

One of the differences from
A Midsummer Night's Dream is the fact that all trace of magic has been removed. The characters in As You Like It still experience all those reversals that form part of a fully developed emotional life, but the author has set himself the task of showing people in rapid development away from volatility towards permanent ties. The solutions are emphasised through individual stories constructed so as to throw light on one another. The differences are made clear through witty caricatures.

The third act contains several such constellations. The love-sick Orlando hangs his poems on the trees. Right afterwards we encounter Touchstone, a pupil of Montaigne, who preaches that all human evaluations are shallow and hence ephemeral. When the thrilled Rosalind reads out Orlando's amorous outpourings, the fool produces his effects by aping her in a perfectly ridiculous way.

Next Touchstone tries to seduce Audrey, but now it is the cynic who is brought up short against the peasant girl's down-to-earth demand for honesty “in deed and word” as against poetical pretence. The third example is Phoebe's merciless rejection of Silvius, who must go on suffering until the socially pretentious shepherdess is put in her place by aristocratic Rosalind, dressed up as a boy.

The climax is the episodes in which Rosalind, in male garb, sets out to try her Orlando. Here the heroine's distance from Romeo and Juliet is made perfectly clear.

Rosalind has disguised herself, as a man at that. This change necessitates hiding her sentiments, at least to start with. Instead of living out her emotions she makes use of the disguise to subject her friend to very useful tests. She then discovers that the relaxed Orlando is lacking in all of those romantic characteristics which we ordinarily require from the committed lover. On the contrary, her sweetheart is not on time for their dates, and though he professes to love Rosalind he has rather vague ideas about her as a person. He actually lets her down in favour of his handsome new ‘male’ friend!

All this would have been enough to create the most tragic misgivings in Romeo, Troilus or Silvius. Rosalind instead takes the opportunity to put across several unsentimental points of view about our emotional life. Like Cervantes she sees the state of being in love as “merely a madness”. Such a disturbance — she tells Orlando — she was once able to cure in an almost frightening manner. Rosalind, in her male character of Ganymede, instructed her friend to make believe that Ganymede was now his ideal. When the friend tried to make love on this basis, she showed him how empty the emotions of such an infatuation really were. The comedy went on until her friend tired of his disturbed condition and entered a monastery! — If Orlando is willing to take part in a similar game, she will quickly cure him in just the same way.

The result is an equivocal play in which Orlando pretends to worship his beloved Rosalind, who instead acts the witty Ganymede for fun.

We also note the attitude displayed by the heroine generally, keeping a firm distance to her own feelings while investigating Orlando's. By this means both of them learn to forestall some of the difficulties which might otherwise have been unsurmountable.

In Rosalind the play shows us a character totally different from the romantic Romeo, one who actually seems related to Romeo's Rosaline, who, from what we hear of her, has a firm grip on reality. Our Rosalind is no less serious and committed in her feelings than Romeo was; we are given numerous proofs that she is really in love with her Orlando. But in their basic attitudes Romeo and Rosalind are miles apart.

Romeo is at one with every reversal in his unruly mind even to the point of suicide. Rosalind dares to make fun of her own feelings and takes the liberty of misrepresenting them to her sweetheart. These methods prove to be effective safe-guards against such obstacles as those that brought about the destruction of the Verona lovers. Through the game in the forest of Arden Rosalind manages
to create a promising beginning.

The author's teaching is amplified through the cruel Phoebe and the down-to-earth Audrey. Both characters serve to make the state of affairs incontestably clear.

The audience might easily interpret Audrey's rejection of Touchstone's effusions as expressive of bucolic artlessness. But we should keep in mind that the demands of the peasant girl are shared by Rosalind; both regard an infatuation drunk on the moment as a dangerous disturbance.

Some readers are likely to object that Rosalind's way of playing with her feelings is unwomanly and at odds with the nature of love. We may counter by pointing out that the heroine is above all showing us a useful tool of combat related to the investigation of romantic love which Shakespeare pursues in the plays considered already. Romeo, Cressida, and the spellbound lovers in
A Midsummer Night's Dream, were all just as changeable in their emotions as Orlando. If such inconstancy is to meet its match, Rosalind has to take drastic measures. Faced with the volatile male the woman's response in As You Like It is to start a new game of her own in which she behaves similarly, but with her changes and reversals the result of conscious deliberation.

So Rosalind's cheerful testing is an example of the tentative flirt of falling in love, but it is also a necessary means of exploring those uncertainties which must be faced when two people start to approach each other in earnest.


Rosalind's disguise leads further than just to comic entertainment. It is no mere flirtation when the heroine claims to be Ganymede — the handsome youth kidnapped by Zeus to be a cup-bearer to the gods. She has disguised herself out of necessity, since she is banished and must survive under difficult conditions. To appear openly as a beautiful girl would be as dangerous as to tempt with riches without having any defence. Appearing in male garb is her sensible protection. The same is the case with Viola in
Twelfth Night.

This play follows just after
As You Like It and is almost the last of Shakespeare's great comedies, just before his long series of tragedies. All's Well that Ends Well, which follows shortly after Twelfth Night, is a comedy which shows us the author from his most reflective side. It is therefore tempting to believe that the two humorous disguise-plays, too, may in reality be more serious than appears at first glance.

A main characteristic of
Twelfth Night is that techniques from As You Like It are repeated to even greater effect, with a liberal use of classical Shakespearean confusion. Viola dresses as a man and calls herself Cesario. Like Rosalind she disguises herself out of prudence, being in some danger after a ship-wreck. Again the dressing up is a source of witty episodes, especially when timid little ‘Cesario’ is mistaken for Viola's brother, the dangerous Sebastian.

The socially elevated pair of lovers is Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia. The duke loves violently, and continually and deliberately feeds his own passion, since Olivia refuses to have anything to do with him. He on his side keeps assuring her of his love, meanwhile becoming more and more taken with the handsome Cesario. Later the duke accepts his feelings for Viola on the spot, in spite of his long courtship of Olivia and his passion for Cesario.

The parodic version of this high-faluting emotional life is introduced in the guise of the two low-comedy lovers Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia's steward Malvolio. Each allows himself to be persuaded that Olivia loves him and interprets her acid rejection just as a proof of natural modesty. Both indulge in the most improbable wishful thinking, conceitedly sure that their ridiculous behaviour will secure the favours of the fastidious lady of the house for them. She, on the other hand, is appalled at the pretensions of her steward, but her observations do not prevent her from making equally unwelcome advances to the faithful Cesario, trying to secure him by way of money, rings and gifts.

Such comic interludes are even more clearly worked out than in
As You Like It, in that some episodes are organised almost as a performance at the theatre. The instrument is Olivia's cunning waiting woman Maria, displaying Malvolio's mistakes as a play within the play, the message being hammered in through lines like “Contemplation makes a rare turkeycock of him — how he jets under his advanced plumes!”; and “... now he's deeply in. Look how imagination blows him.”

Another means of strengthening the message is discerned in the character of Viola. Our first pointer lies in the name Cesario. Further, the heroine is no teenage girl starting out with a hopeless love. She is a young woman who wants to live alone in order to mourn her dead brother. She falls in love with the duke during her continued efforts to help him. Still, she is ‘poetic’ and delivers Orsino's message to Olivia in euphonic language reminiscent of Romeo's. There is obviously good reason why the bored Olivia takes this strange Cesario to be an actor.

Viola has undertaken to help the duke. She is an obedient tool for him and continues her efforts on his behalf faithfully, even after falling in love with him herself. Large parts of her contribution to everybody's welfare parallel that of, for instance, characters like the servants Figaro and Susannah in Beaumarchais'
The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro or, in Scandinavian literature, of the crafty maids of Holberg's comedies. The difference is that Shakespeare's Viola belongs to the upper classes. Therefore there is no disparity of rank, and in the end she marries her duke.

The development is therefore the opposite of that between Cleopatra and Antony. The Egyptian queen fell in love with her Roman war hero because of his male attributes such as power, strength and prowess, qualities which she nevertheless immediately destroyed. Viola becomes fond of her duke for the opposite reason; she comes to love him when he himself is powerless to bring about the union with Olivia. The energetic Cesario falls in love with her weak duke for something like the reason why men take a fancy to young, frail women.

Roles and results

The comedies lead to an interchange of roles. The men portrayed in times of peace are much weaker than the warriors we shall encounter in Shakespeare's historical plays. An underlying weakness may perhaps be one of the reasons why many men develop such power-lust in the areas at their disposal? On the other hand, the women are strong, so that we have a cancelling out of the opposition between ‘manly’ and ‘womanly’ in the most basic and simple sense of these two unclear words.

Such balanced relationships bring about
those cases where love is made to last. The constellation of sexual roles with weakness and strength throws light on important parts of modern drama. Such themes as George Bernard Shaw's feminine ‘life force’ make clear a superior capacity on the part of women which Shakespeare has already carefully explored.