xxx As You Like It

An Apt Title for Shakespeare’s Definition of Sex and Gender

Who can forget the moment in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love when a crossdressing Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) enters the playhouse stage and utters her first inspired lines of poetry. William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) — exasperated from a slew of poor auditions — lays stretched out on a balcony bench with one arm limp and another drawn to his heart. At the sound of “Thomas Kent” auditioning, he awakens slowly from his murderous position, rising and eventually beholding the youth with eyes transfixed. Shakespeare sees a talent for recitation in a young man; we as the audience see an even greater talent for acting in a passionate young woman pretending to be a young male actor in order to participate in theatre. In scenes throughout the film we are made to understand why a woman would be denied such a partaking; the playhouse is full of men and boys with tempers, coarse words, torture, threats and dirty deeds. The fair and gentle Viola — Shakespeare’s admired — would not seem a likely fit in this scene. Yet when she comes to the playhouse for first-day rehearsals (hatless and sporting a convincing new boy’s wig), she effortlessly manages to assimilate herself in the otherwise male sphere of the theatre. And even in her boy disguise she inspires love in Shakespeare; sonnets pour out of him and are read in a frenzy of lust by the wigged Viola in male clothing. We are expectedly riveted for the same reasons as audiences in Shakespeare’s times, when boys and young men played the parts of women: the comedy associated with the crossdressing of characters, and its resulting ambiguity of gender, is provocative both in its plot and its sexual implications.

Shakespeare In Love is a largely fictional, but it does well to metadramatically draw on such a recurring theme in his plays. Instances involving the crossdressing of characters raise questions not only of what Shakespeare implies with the ensuing encounters of other characters with the crossdresser, but also what the actor’s transformation—from male to female, then back to male—would have meant to an audience in a historical and social context far removed from modern identity politics. It is clear to us that a homosexual subculture — with clearly defined and open sexual preferences — did not exist until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But regardless of the nonexistence of this larger subculture and its relative terminology (e.g. “gay,” “bi,” “straight”), countless evidence suggests that individuals engaged in same-sexual activity, and for men the homosocial world of the guild was a breeding ground for same-sex relations. Furthermore, the pervasion of sexual deviancy to which critics assailed the theatre suggests that this particular environment encouraged certain unholy sexual behaviors. This is one manner of understanding how crossdressing is utilized in plays such as As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night as a comedic device: if actors with homosexual tendencies were involved, the comedy of the play is most emphasized in moments of manipulating gender or sex.

While at heart these plays, particularly As You Like It, are also purely comedic in handling matters beyond sex, it is the comedy with sexual undertones that warrants the most interest. And not just of yours truly. The erotics, and especially the homoerotics we can observe within the plays — with great scrutiny now in modern times, with our revolutionary modern sense of sexual identity — were already noted in Shakespeare’s time, particularly by his harshest critics. Puritan rejection of theatre held a particular revulsion for the crossdressing of male actors to suit female roles, and the ensuing antics were thought to inspire equally impure behaviors in theatre-goers. \We catch a slight glimpse of this in Shakespeare in Love: while the theatre manager and Will argue about debts, a conservative cry in the background can be heard:

Theaters are handmaidens of the devil! The players breed lewdness in your wives and wickedness in your children! And the Rose smells thusly rank by any name ! I say, a plague on both their houses!

Puritan social reformer Philip Stubbes comments in his Anatomie of Abuses that after a play, “every mate sorts to his mate, everyone brings another homeward of their way very friendly and in their secret concaves covertly they play the Sodomites or worse,” (Stubbes, quoted in Bray, 35). Here he provides not just an attack on the erotic contents of theatrical performances, but a more general social commentary: that people are easily influenced by theatre into commiting sinful acts. He chooses a linear progression with a single-directed vector that is critical to the nature of his complaint: theatre as a one-way street to sin. But to go beyond the simplicity of this denouncement, perhaps a two-way vector better suits the relationship between theatre and audience: the theatre is, to some extent, a representation of reality and influenced by the real people of an audience, on the one hand; on the other, it is an interpretation of reality that may contain any number of exaggerations or discrete fictions that could in turn influence the audience. For the literary critic studying instances of sodomy in Shakespeare, this is where the problem arises — how to dissolve the gray area within the performance-audience relationship and discern the most plausible reality. What is evidence of real homosexual activity, and what is an innocent joke about men in drag? As You Like It does not provide any definitive answers to this dilemma, and it very well may have been Shakespeare’s intention to blur the lines of gender through these metadramatic means for the sake of rendering a more accurate picture of real life. Regardless of what any law or religion instructed, real sex in Renaissance England was not just between married men and women. The tension between the prescribed and the performed is what we see on stage.

As You Like It contributes to this confusion of gender perhaps moreso than the other crossdressing plays (whose characters, not just actors, crossdress) because it is the one which calls the most attention to itself in its highly metadramatic epilogue. The epilogue is given by Rosalind, the play’s crossdresser, and its subject turns out to involve more than the general goal of ending the play in good spirits through crowd-pleasing. It touches on the crossdressing itself. Rosalind pleads with the audience in different stages of identity, the first being herself as her original female character: “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue” (V.iv.1-2). She addresses the female segment of the audience first in an attempt to “conjure” them, a curious term since its now obsolete meaning as a verb is “to be sworn together in a confederacy or conspiracy” according to the OED. Thus Rosalind tactically calls attention to her equality in sex with the women just before she addresses to them with, “I charge you, O women, for the love you bear men, to like as much of this play as please you,” (V.iv.12-14). As a woman, she experiences the same love for men, and so is qualified to make this sort of judgement. The same charge is applied to her plead for the men, though she comments, as if she wouldn’t know from first-hand experience as a man, that these sentiments are “as I perceive by your simp’ring” (V.iv.15-16). Yet the fact remains that underneath the costume of Rosalind is a male actor, so to further qualify the previous statements and the epilogue as a whole, the actor addresses the audience as his male self. “If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied not” (V.iv.18-20). The threat to gender norms imbedded in this statement immediately reminds the audience of the previous encounters between Ganymed, Rosalind’s disguise as a boy, and Orlando, her love interest (also male); it also plucks the fictional crossdressing experience between these two characters from earlier in the play and inserts it into the audience’s reality through the de-costumizing of actor.

If the audience thought that the gender confusion ended when Rosalind returns to her female self, the epilogue continues the theme by rendering the real-life actor’s gender equally as ambiguous. He begins in female character, ends in male character, but while dressed as female is clearly male underneath to the audience, and while speaking as male hypothesizes what he would do were he female. His specific relation of “the love” for the opposite sex to a love for the play itself reflects the speaking style of Ganymed, whose speeches always focus on the subject of heterosexual love — its nature and ultimate failure. Most likely it would have indeed been a boy who played the part of Rosalind as female parts were given to younger apprentices in the troup of performers. Woman, man, and boy — these varying states offer the actor a foundation of familiarity to address different gender groups of the audience, but their implementation in the epilogue also asks for approval of the gender-switching that the play involves. In exchange for an ovation and high esteem, the actor offers a proposition to the men of the audience that cannot be ignored. As well as hypothesizing that he “would” kiss those men he pleased, he claims “I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I am curtsy, bid me farewell” (V.iv.20-3). The “kind offer” is made because the actor to some extent does not expect it to be refused.

Perhaps it is easier to make sense of the implications in the actor’s offer that closes the play when it is weighed against the character of Ganymed. When Rosalind first expresses her plan to crossdress, she considers, “Because that I am more than common tall, / That I did suit me all points like a man?” (I.iii.115-16). Although she compares her height to that of a man, she chooses a name that implies a young man or boy and plays the associated part of male youth. It is the same character found elsewhere in Shakespeare’s crossdressing plays, first in The Merchant of Venice: the role Portia describes when anticipating that while in male costume “I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two, … speak between the change of man and boy… and turn two mincing steps / Into a manly stride; and speak of frays / Like a fine bragging youth,” (III.v.64-71). Secondly we find this character in Twelfth Night: Viola suggests that in her disguise as Cesario she be presented “as an eunuch”, which already sets up her character beyond normal gender (I.ii.56). When Malvolio describes Cesario to Olivia, he says that his age is “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy; as squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a coding when ‘tis almost an apple. ‘Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man” (I.v.156-9). The consistent reappearance of this adolescent male character has as much to do with the reality within the crossdressing plays as it does with the structure of the performance and the social hierarchy in Renaissance England. A female dressed as a male would inherently look like a boy due to her feminine features, and this is one of the reasons that boys successfully played female roles. They also occupied similar social positions inasmuch as women’s power lay inbetween that of men and children, and adolescent boys possessed more power than younger children, though had not yet reached the independent status of professional, property owning (and often married) men. Both young men, boys, and women were also sexual objects of men. By transforming from female to male, the crossdressing characters of these plays are changing their apparent gender but not entirely changing their status in terms of their relationships with men. In fact, this consistency in status is one reason why modern critics believe that sex between an older man and younger boy was nonthreatening to Renaissance ideas of masculinity and thus more apparently accepted by comparison to modern times.

If we continue to run on this idea that women, boys and young men were on an equal plane, then the attraction between Orlando and Rosalind is thus not entirely lost when he encounters her in the character of Ganymed. In all actuality, at one point they pretend Ganymed is Rosalind; Orlando speaks to Ganymed as if he were speaking to the object of his affection. Ganymed suggests this play-acting as a remedy for Orlando’s love-sickness, describing its effect will be due to his role as “a moonish youth” that will “grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles… as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this color,” (III.iii.410-15). Ganymed draws quite clearly in this passage the link between women and boys in behavior, which enables him to successfully play the part of Orlando’s beloved (though as audience we understand that Ganymed may also succeed by virtue of being the female Rosalind). The process is expected to work because by playing the “moonish youth”, Ganymed intends to drive Orlando to madness and out of love. But in order to be driven out of love, Orlando must become on some level in love with Ganymed-as-Rosalind. The play never reaches this point; Rosalind removes her costume of Ganymed in the end and the plan to erase love never needs or reaches fruition. But we do witness some of the role-playing, which although is incomparable to Orlando’s true dream of having the female Rosalind, still “pleases him” as Celia observes (Iv.i.66).

Ganymed’s role as sexual object is not limited to his relationship with Orlando. He also attracts Phebe, a young woman to whom he delivers a speech about the nature of young and foolish love. Although he scolds her behaviour in taunting and leading on Silvius, her admirer, she is more intrigued than offended. At first she denies the feeling, though continually checks her negative statements with expressions of admiration. “‘Tis but a peevish boy,” she begins, “yet he talks well”, she is compelled to add (III.v.110). “It is a pretty youth—not very pretty— / But sure he’s proud—and yet his pride becomes him,” she continues (III.v.113-14). This mixture of expressed feelings is equally as complicated as Ganymed’s gender — he is not a boy but really a woman, and though a female character, played by a male actor. Somehow the character of Rosalind achieves such ambiguity in gender that she can flow inbetween male and female characters without altering her ability to attract the opposite sex in either given role. The epilogue calls attention to this ambiguity, and for Shakespeare’s audience witnessing a male actor interpret the role, he would actually prove it. The gender options he provides are for the audience choose. By the end of his epilogue, a theatre-goer could probably almost hear the words “as you like it” coming out of his mouth.

Nothing physical ever occurs between Ganymed and Orlando or Phebe, but this lack of action is well compensated with verbage as potential. That Phebe observes a “lusty red” in his lips and desires to marry him, and Orlando calls him “Rosalind” and acts out a marriage ceremony should not be trivialized as an absurd outgrowth of the crossdressing comedic element (III.v.121). Although the first effect of an all-male cast is the parody of women through male actors dressed up in female costume, Bruce R. Smith in Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England adds to this interpretation that “to the degree that [the patriarchy] was troubled by homosexual desire, disguise became a way of otherwise saying what could not be said or doing what could not be done” (126). While its immediate effect is comedy, the epilogue reminds us that it is also part of the audience’s reality. The “offer” is “kind”, but perhaps in awareness that it oversteps certain boundaries, the actor acknowledges that it will lead the men in the audience to “bid me farewell”. A play can be fun and games, just as the epilogue might plead and joke, but at some point the acting ends, the curtain closes, and the jokes can go no further.

As a conclusion it may be troubling for the researcher trying to find more concrete evidence about gender identity in Shakespeare’s time. But that would be really a bit much to ask of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, especially considering that there aren’t conclusive definitions to gender issues today, either. (In fact, doesn’t it seem all the more complex? Just a thought.) As author, playwright, and artist, it is no wonder that Shakespeare touches upon a theme that runs its course throughout literary history. His apparent indecisiveness may very-well reflect an ignorance of how or a refusal to define what is “normal” for the gender of men, women, boys and girls, and the variety of their interactions. It also suggests a possible censoring of what these definitions would honestly be. Through metadrama we can witness a slight unfolding of the scope to this definition—that it begins with the perscribed roles that every player must follow, that these roles may deviate to any imaginable degree throughout the course of the drama, and that although they return to a state of relative normalcy, it is a state beyond the initially intended or designed. For even though we imagine Orlando and Rosalynd heading to the alter, getting married and having children, we can also imagine what might be lurking in the back (Or front? Who knows) of their mind’s eye: Ganymed may appear to Orlando or Phebe, Phebe might be pictured in the mind of Rosalind, and Rosalind may see Orlando through the eyes of Ganymed. Whatever satisfies; however everyone likes it.



Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982.

Bainbridge, Erika. Untitled Review: Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England by Stephen Orgel. Renaissance Quarterly. Vol. 51, No. 3 (Autumn 1998), pp. 1050-1051. Online.

Gerard, Kent. The Pursuit of Sodomy: Male Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1989.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Untitled Review: “Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England” by Alan Stewart. Modern Philology. Vol. 97, No. 4 (May, 2000), pp. 573-577. Online.

Greenblatt, Stephen. From “Fiction and Friction,” in Shakespearean Negotiations.

Hammond, Paul. “Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England by Alan Stewart.” From The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 49, No. 195 (August 1998), pp. 354-355. Online.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.