Essay: Masqueraders Anonymous - Freedom Now -

Essay: Masqueraders Anonymous – Freedom Now

“Love is merely a madness.”
— William Shakespeare, As You Like It

As any superhero fanatic will admit, there is a strange power in the use of disguise. Donning a mere mask, a person can become anyone and do anything. This inability for others to see the true self makes use of the fact that people judge other people primarily by their appearance, while also promoting freedom of speech. Usernames on the Internet function in this manner, with many taking advantage of their disguised anonymity to say things they would never say otherwise. In addition, disguise has always been a means of deconstructing societal tropes like class or gender. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies exploit this fact, with female characters taking lead roles via disguise. They are granted certain levels of power not previously accorded, thus providing them with freedom and ability to perform deeds heretofore denied. As such, in As You Like It, disguise empowers through the suppression and manipulation of social restraints and promotes action over words due to anonymity.

Masquerade as a theme runs throughout the play, prominently utilized by Rosalind, the dominating figure, if not the actual main character. Quick-thinking, resourceful, and charming, she is one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, both male and female alike. Some debate runs about her fainting spell, a common stereotypical behavior among women at the time, and referred to as such by Oliver: “You a man? You lack a man’s heart” [4.3.164]. One may argue, however, that this actually makes her more well rounded and developed. A consistent problem for writers in all forms of media is the creation of strong female characters, in that criticism follows every facet of her personality [e.g., she cannot be too strong or too weak, she cannot cry, she cannot win or lose, etc.]. The best of characters, though, embody both masculine and feminine qualities and most importantly, change over time — i.e., they take something away from the story they have just lived. Now, given the lighthearted nature of the Shakespearean comedy, an argument could be made for the amount of Rosalind’s character development in the play or lack thereof, but to say that none was made at all discredits the significance of her male facade.

First, the reason for the disguise has the utmost importance and leads the charge on gender role subversion. Duke Frederick abruptly banishes Rosalind from his court, seemingly caring little where she goes nor how she makes the journey. Money is not necessarily the problem, but rather that, “Alas, what danger will it be to us, / Maids as we are, to travel forth so far? / Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold” [1.3.105-7], as Rosalind puts it. Though in not so many words, the cynical viewer/reader would be aware of the vile crimes of rape and abuse that might befall travelers. Such is the reality that women face on a daily basis, regardless of the time period. Though naturally, men are also susceptible to sexual atrocities and physical harm, their masculinity allows them a certain level of invulnerability. Rosalind is privy to this fact and decides to exploit it upon making their journey to the Forest of Arden, saying, “Were it not better, / Because that I am more than common tall, / That I did suit me all points like a man?” and even slyly identifying male privilege: “We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside — / As many other mannish cowards have / That do outface it with their semblances” [1.3.112-4, 118-20]. That which would have severely compacted their travel plans is cleverly manipulated via the means of disguise, and the gendered restraint is now suppressed. So confident is Rosalind in her disguise that Celia apparently does not need to follow suit; Rosalind will be “man enough” as Ganymede for the both of them.

Her male disguise is only superficial, as her enjoyable personality remains unaltered even while interacting with other characters besides Celia. Verbally, she stands toe-to-toe with Touchstone in terms of wit, and she comes across as more action-driven than her love, Orlando. Such traits would normally be construed as overtly masculine, but Rosalind merely encapsulates that which makes a balanced character, especially combined with her innate femininity, e.g., her childish gushing over Orlando: “Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose? What did he when thou saw’st him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes him here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again?” — to which Celia wryly replies, “To say ay and no to these particulars is more than to answer in a catechism” [3.2.200-5, 207-9]. Her questions would typically go unanswered as Rosalind, being relegated to the silent position of the submissive woman, but as the anonymous Ganymede, she is able turn creed to deed and seek the answers for herself. Confronting Orlando [she likens herself to a “saucy lackey” {3.2.270} with her boldness] when he is moping about the forest, she presents herself as an expert on lovesickness and its symptoms. Orlando rather enjoys his role as the lost lover [for he does not know Rosalind’s location] and seeks to prove it to this impetuous Ganymede. Rosalind dismisses “Love {as} merely a madness” [3.2.357], and easily cured. Decrying of hypocrisy may be warranted at this point, for Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando just as passionately. However, she has managed to restrain herself from flinging off her disguise and falling straight into his arms. She clearly seeks more than simple infatuation, and her offer to “cure” Orlando of his love malady intends to test his sincerity. Rosalind’s slightly effeminate demeanor perhaps encourages more trust than Orlando would normally accord a man, but he agrees to be “cured” anyway, thus fulfilling both his and Rosalind’s desire to prove his true love. That Orlando enters this contract with a man is of little remark, for while homoerotic tones certainly exist, there is nothing overtly sexual about the arrangement, simply another instance in which Rosalind has more freedom in her disguise.

The subversive nature of the masquerade truly comes into its own when Rosalind pontificates about romance. Her tirade against romanticized literature is both humorous and true. She finds great love stories such as Troilus and Cressida to be ultimately pointless, especially since the most mournful lines are given to the male lover, even though women are socially expected to be the emotional ones. Condemning them as both hypocritical and contradictory, Rosalind further criticizes Orlando’s modeling his behavior on those tales. When he dramatically proclaims that he will die without his Rosalind, she dryly informs him, “The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause” [4.1.80-3]. Love simply does not work the way it does in stories, and she takes pains to tell him so: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” [4.1.91-2]. This is not done in order to discourage Orlando, for Rosalind is filled with the same desires. It is her attempt to prepare the both of them for life after the initial infatuation. For she knows that “men are April when they woo, December when they wed” [4.1.125-6], and the romantic lover may change into a dispassionate husband. This fear exposes itself when Rosalind agonizes over Orlando’s tardiness, wondering if he is “{n}ot true in love” [3.4.23] and similarly with her later tirade against women: “The wiser, the waywarder. Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement. Shut that, and ’twill out at the keyhole. Stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney” [4.1.138-41]. Celia berates her for misrepresenting her own gender, but Rosalind has done that which she would never be able to do as a woman. With her lessons, she destroys the unrealistic goals that Orlando has set for himself and his Rosalind, preparing him for reality. Love takes both the good and the bad, has its ups and downs, and a true lover would be able accept these conditions before, during, and after marriage. She honestly wants Orlando to be all that he aspires to be, and a good husband as well. This molding of character is done without condemnation in her male disguise, as Orlando thinks this advice to be coming from a male contemporary, not a woman seeking to manipulate their relationship. Rosalind, of course, is less manipulative than practical, but also devoted, as made evident by her line that “my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal” [4.1.179-11].

As the play comes to an end, so does Ganymede. All the characters’ storylines have come together, and Rosalind, using the remaining visages of her power, resolves any lasting conflicts, ultimately allowing for the doublet of marriages between herself and Orlando, and Phoebe and Silvius. Although she must return to her role as a woman, the epilogue hints that her brief stint as a man has not left her without increased wisdom. Though usually a male character ends the play, “good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues” [Epilogue.5-6], and as she has been the leading force of the entire play, it is only fitting that she concludes it. In a very tongue-in-cheek, convention-breaking manner, her speech not only affirms the character of Rosalind as a viable figure of power and respect by according her a man’s role but also further plays on the theme of disguise, nodding to the fact that women parts in Shakespeare’s day were played by men, thus completely confusing the issue of gender roles in society.

Rosalind, though initially restrained in her gender and class position, is able to, via disguise, break through the oppressive society and manipulate said roles to meet her own ends. The anonymous nature of her male facade allowed the transformation of words into action, and she not only speaks frankly with her love, Orlando, but also compels him to see life how she sees it, for the better of the relationship as a whole. Though she undeniably had more freedom as a man, there is nothing to suggest that her independence will not continue, and continue strong.

Work Cited

  • Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Penguin: 2011. Print.



This essay was written for my Shakespeare — Comedy class in 2013, which even after reading this, I remember nothing of! XD I mean, I do remember taking the class and being a bit bummed about it because despite being an English major, I’m not very fond of Shakespeare, but there weren’t any other English classes that would fit my schedule. And here’s another confession: I didn’t actually read any of the books, at least not in Shakespeare’s words. Y’see, there’s this wonderful website called No Fear Shakespeare, and it saved my life for this class. Now, it’s not that I don’t appreciate Shakespeare and the cultural impact of his works on society and literature, and the language is beautiful — but it’s also very confusing; footnotes are vital for just understanding the antiquated references, medieval slang, etc., let alone what’s going on in the actual story. And in this class, we had to read eight of the comedies, and there was no way I was going to be able to keep everything straight. So I turned to Sparknotes and their wonderful subsite that is No Fear, and I was able to enjoy the stories for what they were and appreciate the characters and all that. That being said, I did feel a bit guilty when my mother and I went to London and I got to visit the Globe (though no plays were showing at the time we went), and I kept thinking about how many Bard fans would to have loved to have been in my shoes and I barely cared, XD. Oh well!

Populus alba (White Poplar) by Leonora (Ellie) Enking is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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