Rosalind and the Masks in Shakespeare's As You Like It


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Rosalind and the Masks



In this essay I would like to focus on Rosalind's - or rather Ganymede's - preoccupation with the outward show of things. Whether this is a result of her cross-dressing, the reason for the same, or the playwright's way of revealing his presence is not as yet clear to me, but Rosalind's constant insistence on the truth of masks and on the other hand her readiness to doubt this same truth fascinates me.

When she decides to dress up as a boy, Rosalind seems to think a mannish outside sufficient to convince the world at large (I.iii.111-118). She is "more than common tall" and therefore all she needs is a "gallant curtle-axe", a "boar spear" and a "swashing and a martial outside" to hide her feminine anxiousness. Taking it for granted that noone will have the hunch to look beyond her male costume, she reasons that since cowardly men are able to hide these feminine qualities, she should be able to pass off as a man, simply by behaving mannishly.

Being so totally dependent on her own disguise not being found out, it is funny how she proceeds to doubt anyone who does not put on an outward show fitting to their claims to feeling. The first to be put on the stand in this fashion is Orlando. As Ganymede Rosalind refuses to accept Orlando's claim to being the desperate author of the love-verses (s)he has found hanging on the trees on the grounds that he has no visible marks of love upon him.

A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and sunken, which you have not; an unquestionable spirit, which you have not; a beard neglected, which you have not (...) Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating careless desolation. (III.ii.363-371)

He is, in other words, not exactly the picture of the despairing suitor. Neither does Jaques measure up to Rosalind's expectations of the melancholy traveller. She greets him with a "they say you are" (IV.i.3), and sends him off with the order of:

Look you lisp, and wear strange suits; disable all the benefits of your own country; be out of love with your nativity, and almost chide God for making that countenance you are; or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola.

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(IV.i.31-36)

She seems thus constantly disposed to put emphasis on the exterior show of feelings. At the times when her own disguise falters for a moment, however, she very soon draws the fixity of other people's assumed identity into question. This is perhaps most clear in the scene where Orlando has failed to turn up the first time. Her anxiety - assisted by the fact that she is alone with Celia - compels her to lower her defences for a moment. Her instinctive attack on Orlando is against his semblance: "His very hair is of the dissembling colour." (III.iv.6) One moment later she seems to cancel this with her "I'faith his hair is of a good colour." (III.iv.9) Either she is now very confused, or she is saying that the ability to dissemble is a good thing.

Had Rosalind been a human being, we might have seen this preoccupation with people's appearance as an expression of an insecurity towards her own identity, conscious or unconscious. An insecurity that would be quite natural in her situation of displaced heir and disguised female. Seen in this light she is either consciously playing with the identity of others in order to be more at ease with her own, or she is unconsciously expressing an anxiety as to whether she will really be able to carry off the act, without being exposed and without loosing her sense of self in the process.

"My way is to conjure you" says Rosalind (V.iv.208) in the epilogue, and as (s)he has conjured her fellow characters throughout the play, so has she conjured the audience. But as the audience is fully aware this is "only a play," and Rosalind only a character on stage. The perpetual reminders of the Act as opposed to the Real Thing can readily be seen - in cooperation with the epilogue - to express the playwright's warning against accepting as real the illusion he has created, in the twentieth century we would call it meta-fictionality.

 


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