Disguise as a Catalyst for Transgression in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It

William Shakespeare was an
English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the
greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent
dramatist. The general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays,
which are generally divided into tragedies and comedies, later now being
considered as a standard for a “romantic comedy”. Shakespeare was an innovator,
one of his innovations is cross-dressing, which allows female character
additional freedom on stage. Cross-dressing female heroines also catered to his
female audience. This innovation was frowned upon by some, Traub argues that
“transvestism” was a troubling thing for the anti-theatricalists of the early
modern period” (Traub, 1992). This additional freedom was required due to the
fact that Victorian women were considered inferior and thus, their social acts
were a lot more restrictive than those of men and such acts as cross-dressing
were punishable if a woman was caught. Cross-dressing heroines are most notable
in four of his plays: Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), Portia in
The Merchant of Venice (1596), Viola in Twelfth Night (1600), and Rosalind in
As You Like It (1600). The focus of this essay is Rosalind, daughter of the
exiled Duke Senior, who disguised herself along with her cousin Celia as they
were exiled.

Scholars tend to disagree about the nature of
this disguise. In her work “In Counterfeit Passion: Crosdressing, Transgression,
and Fraud in Shakespeare and Middleton” Bierman argues that “Rosalind plays the
role of the woman crossdressing into a man, with again the idea of safety in
mind” (Bierman 2013: 28). Such a mentality is also seen in Crosman’s work where
he adds to this argument stating that this appearance also has the power to
create and solve problems (Crosman 2004: 102). Scholars like Shahid presents us
with a rather different opinion stating that crossdressing allows Rosalind and
Celia to enter the world of men and “gives them the opportunity to carry out
tasks they could never do otherwise” (Shadid 2013: 11). Anne
Barton, in her introduction to the Riverside edition of As You Like It, also
agrees that Rosalind takes on a male persona for herself, and elaborates on
Rosalind’s decision to stay as Ganymed in this way: Rosalind clings to the part
of Ganymed because of the freedom it allows her. This essay is not is going to subscribe to the second school
of thought and argue that since the mode of cross-dressing as a man was a
conscious choice that Rosalind made, it is not as much of a means of safety and
self-preservation, but a mode for a Elizabethan woman to function beyond the
norms of her gender at the time, thus becoming a catalyst for transgression.

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While in the Forest of Arden along with her
cousin Celia, Rosalind is disguised as a shepherd Ganymede. As they meet
Orlando who is clearly in love with Rosalind she decides stay in the character
of Ganymede, “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit
play the knave with him. (3.2.270-2)”. Crosman argues that by playing the Knave
Rosalind subjects Orlando’s love to a “test of doubt” which will also involve
the need for repeated meetings between her and he lover (Crossman 2004:
102).  This is a transgression by
Elizabethan woman’s standards. Rosalind uses her disguise to manipulate the man
who loves her in order to test him and mentor him to be a perfect lover for her
instead of assuming the expected passive role of a woman and letting the male
be the active part of the relationship. She achieves that by stating that she can
cure his love sickness in order for him to continually meet her. This inversion
of gender roles allows her to teach Orlando that a married life is different
than Courtship “men are April when they woo, December when they
wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes
when they are wives. ” (4.1.125-129), she teaches him that a woman respects
commitment „if you break one jot of your promise or come one minute behind your hour, I will think you the most pathetical
break-promise and the most hollow lover” (4.1.162-166), and ironizes a man
losing his head. This disguise is pushed even further as Ganymede tells Orlando
to talk to her as if she were Rosalind. This layering of disguise displays that
instead of cross-dressing as a means of safety the heroine is doing in as a
means of exercising power over her lover without being caught which could be
considered transgression.

Another instance of Rosalind’s transgressional behaviour is the
encounter with Si


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