Orlando is the central protagonist in William Shakespeare’s play ‘As You like It’. His involvement in the major continuous plot displays his characteristics and traits clearly. This essay will explore how far Orlando can be considered a hero, to what extent he is a conventional hero and how Shakespeare’s stagecraft conveys Orlando as heroic in Act 1 scene 2 and Act 2 scene 3. Before it is possible to deduce if Orlando’s characteristics promote him into being a hero, it is necessary to have prior comprehension of what exactly the term hero means, and the necessary traits possessed for heroism. Personally, I believe a hero to be someone of distinguished courage or ability. Heroes are often admired, and regarded as a model or ideal. Throughout ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare portrays Orlando as a possessor of these qualities, however, in Act 1 scene 2 and Act 2 scene 3, these qualities are extensively evident.
The pre-eminent aspect of Orlando that expresses his heroism
is his use of language. Generally heroes are not just conveyed as heroic externally but also by their internal, invisible characteristics. Strong, muscular frames and handsome, pulchritudinous faces will capture an audience at first but if in character he possesses no sufficient verbal ability, intellectual competence or witty resourcefulness it is unlikely that an audience will regard the character as a hero. In Act 2 scene 3, Orlando asks Adam,
‘-Or with a base and boisterous sword enforce
A thievish living on the common road?
This I must do, or know not what to do.
Yet this I will not do, do how I can.’
This quotation shows Orlando’s language to be poetic; he demonstrates use of rhetoric and alliteration in just one sentence. Most of Orlando’s dialogue throughout the play is indeed poetic and rich in linguistic indulgencies. The previous quote was part of Orlando’s response to Adam’s warning that Oliver was planning to kill him. Although Adam suggested that Orlando should flee, Orlando refused to seek refuge out of fear of his brother. This choice shows Orlando to be a good man by the decisions he makes, that have some degree of depth and courage.
Shakespeare utilises his own ability with language to write most of Orlando’s verses in iambic pentameter –
‘And ere we have our youthful wages spent,
We’ll light upon some settled low content.’
This quotation from Act 2 scene 3 shows that each line has ten syllables, creating the effect of poetry and rhythm within Orlando’s prose. This particular quotation also has standard rhyme, which contributes very much to the flow and poetry of Orlando’s dialogue. Possessing ability with language is somewhat necessary for a hero, to be a unique and flawless speaker.
Aside from the many heroic qualities that Orlando is likely to have possessed prior to the commencement of the play, there are events that occur that seem to make Orlando gain more popularity with the audience, and therefore cause him to be increasingly viewed as a hero. The most significant of these events is the defeat of Charles the Wrestler in Act 1 scene 2 and the refusal to flee from Oliver in Act 2 scene 3. It is very likely that these events were written vigilantly by Shakespeare to ensure maximum effect regarding Orlando’s heroism.
Apart from Orlando’s proficiency with language, he has many other attributes – none of which are idiosyncratic for a hero to possess. He has a brave and generous nature, accomplishing tasks that reveal his nobility and heroic characteristics. This is evident in Act 1 scene 2 in which Orlando attempts to defeat Charles the Wrestler. It is unlikely at the start that a man such as Orlando, who is literally less than half his size, would ever be capable of overpowering a champion wrestler. Rosalind and Celia try to prevent him from participating in the match, but Orlando, fully aware of the danger that lay ahead, would not be swayed. He remained deaf to their pleas and speaks as if he has absolutely nothing to lose,
‘Wherein, if I be foiled, there is but one shamed that was never gracious – if killed, but one dead that is willing to be so.’
His determination to prove himself is a truly heroic trait. Orlando does indeed win the wrestling match against Charles, surprising the spectators, including Rosalind and Celia. This success shows Orlando to be very courageous and have either immense physical strength or to be very quick witted.
Maximum effect cannot be gained by merely reading the fight scene from a script, but it is easy to imagine that sixteenth century audiences would have been very excited by the violence taking place on stage. This scheme of physical contest to show Orlando as a hero is very much a concept of Shakespeare’s stagecraft. A hero cannot be a limp, feeble character that does not stand up for himself. This demonstration of tenacity and toughness is a conventional method of portraying a hero. Considering that this is near the opening scene of the play, the audience would be very much enthralled by this dramatic opening and completely in awe of Orlando.
Later in Act 1 scene 2, Duke Frederick disrespects Orlando’s heritage by dismissing him, merely because Duke Frederick did not like Orlando’s father, Sir Rowland de Boys. Orlando does not accept this blatant bigotry and retorts to Duke Frederick –
‘I am more than proud to be Sir Rowland’s son –
His youngest son – and would not change that calling
To be adopted heir to Frederick!’
This quotation demonstrates that Orlando is far from ashamed of his ancestry. He takes pride in who he is, and perhaps this could be his inspiration for being such a heroic, brave character. Orlando’s courage here is prominently displayed by the manner of his response. He stands up to those who mock him, even though the Duke Frederick is extremely powerful in comparison to Orlando, who essentially is a mere stable boy.
In Act 2 scene 3, the mere actuality of Adam’s presence with Orlando is in itself a demonstration of yet another heroic quality – kind-heartedness. When Adam suggests that the two of them take to the road with his modest life’s savings, Orlando is touched by Adam’s constant service, and agrees with the reply,
‘O good old man! how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!
Not only is this another example of how Shakespeare shows Orlando’s aptitude with language, but his response also demonstrates his graciousness and appreciative disposition. It is necessary for a hero to be as far from an egomaniac as possible, although self-confidence is required. Therefore, Orlando’s ability to be not anticipative of people’s generosity, to recognise and appreciate the benevolence of others is extremely heroic. This characteristic is usually prominent in most fictional heroes. It is possible too though that Adam could be considered a hero in his own right, due to his courage, loyalty and kindness shown towards Orlando. However, one could argue that Adam is too needy, old and weak to be a true hero. Despite Adam’s physical weaknesses, Orlando still agrees to allow Adam to accompany him. This somewhat sacrificial act is perhaps another example of Shakespeare’s deliberate stagecraft to portray Orlando as hero.
Shakespeare purposefully crafted Orlando to have an evident patient and determined nature. Throughout most of the play, Orlando is waiting and searching for Rosalind. Orlando not once loses interest or has his enthusiasm dissipated throughout the entire course of the play. Orlando is at the centre of romance with Rosalind during the play. This is usually expected of any hero as it develops another asset to their personality. Romance can be very intimate and personal, and to see such realistic intimacy and love between two characters on a stage makes an audience feel somewhat included and encircled.
In some aspects, Orlando could be considered as not very heroic, or certainly not a conventional hero. For example, he does not possess the same wit and insight as Rosalind. As the two characters are together frequently, it is quite easy to see the dissimilarities between them. In Act 1 scene 2, after Orlando has defeated Charles at the wrestling match, Rosalind ominously states,
‘Sir, you have wrestled well – and overthrown
More than your enemies.’
This quotation shows Rosalind to be insightful and somewhat mysterious. The statement would plant questions in the audience’s minds; such as, ‘What has he overthrown other than his enemies, Rosalind?’ This upstaging is no fault of Orlando’s, given the fullness of Rosalind’s character; Shakespeare clearly intends his audience to delight in the match.
In conclusion to Orlando’s character, he is extremely well written with much depth and passion by Shakespeare. He certainly is very much a hero in the play; he possesses many heroic traits such as charm, wit, benevolence and bravery. The other characters and audience can clearly see this heroic side to Orlando too, and this further cements Orlando’s heroic part in ‘As You Like It’. In the opening scene, Orlando laments that Oliver has denied him the schooling deserved by a gentleman, but by the end of the play, the audience have sympathised and related to him. He has displayed his sensitivity, overpowered his brother, and has won, as an underdog, a wrestling match against a current champion. He has proven himself a gentleman and a true hero without any such conventionality.