Celebrating Women And Castigating Men In A Midsummer’s Night Dream And As You Like It
William Shakespeare is an author who is known best for his tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar: plays in which the heroes lose. However, Shakespeare also wrote comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It: plays in which the heroes win. Included in both of these kinds of plays are strong characters. A character is considered “strong” if they have a distinct personality, motivation, and conflict. Shakespeare was not known for writing what was mainstream at that time, instead creating cross-dressing characters, main female characters, and overall gender fluidity in his plays. He does maintain one feature, though: some of his strongest characters are masculine, even if they are not male, namely in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. The contrast between Bottom’s proud masculinity and Rosalind’s disguised masculinity not only expresses the idea that a strong masculine character does not necessarily have to be a male character, but it also helps the reader to better understand both characters.
Masculinity can be defined, for the purpose of Shakespeare, as power. Masculinity is also pride, independence, strength (physical and emotional), and the ability to make a decision on one’s own. They also have the ability to deal with internal and external conflicts. Both Bottom and Rosalind demonstrate these characteristics in their own ways. Bottom’s main masculine characteristic is his pride. He focuses all of his attention on his acting abilities, and the most likely cause of this is that he’s not seen to have many other talents. However, he is quite confident in his acting abilities: “Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me. I will roar, that I will make the Duke say: ‘Let him roar again; let him roar again’ (I.II.66-69). Bottom believes himself to be able to play multiple parts at once, and be very good at playing all of these parts. Some of his conflicts include, of course, his donkey head, but once he begins to get attention from the Queen of the Fairies for this, he grows comfortable and arrogant with Titania’s fairies. He makes decisions on his own when he can, and when he can’t, he changes the situation around to the best of his ability so that it appears that he is in control.
Rosalind, on the other hand, is only masculine in disguise. She is a female, but she has a male counterpart: Ganymede. She is independent, and that gets in her own way as a female, such as when Duke Frederick exiles her. However, once she begins to dress and act as Ganymede, these issues seem to go away for the most part, only added by the fact that she claims it is easy for her to look like a man:
Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtal-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand, and in my heart,
Lie there what hidden a woman’s fear there will. (I.III.111-116)
Rosalind claims that she looks like a man, which will make it easier for her to pass as a man. However, it is not merely this physical disguise that helps her to become a believable man. Rather, it is her courage, her independence, and her forthrightness that truly make the disguise. In those times, a woman could dress like a man or a man could dress like a woman all he or she cared to, but unless the personalities matched what was thought of as “feminine/masculine,” it would not be believed. This is ironic because in Shakespeare’s time, all parts were played as men, so Rosalind’s character was played by a man acting as a woman who was acting as a man, with a masculine personality at all times. Her own gender identity is one of Rosalind’s many inner conflicts, including whether or not she is in love with Orlando. Then to prove her strength, she faced her gender conflict so that she could overcome her external conflict of being exiled and be free.
Disguise was a major theme in both of these plays. Disguises can hide one’s feelings, identities, and ambitions. When Bottom was disguised, it was not by his choice. Instead, he was transfigured by Puck to trick Queen Titania:
Bottom: Why do they run away? This is a knavery of them to make me afeard.
Snout: O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?
Bottom: What do you see? You see an ass-head of your own, do you? (III.I.107-112)
In being transfigured, Bottom is no longer an actor or an independent man: he has become someone who is not much more than an interest of Titania’s affection. As a result, he has seemingly lost a part of his masculinity. Titania is making decisions for him, about where he will go and when he will speak, when decision-making and having power over a situation is one of Bottom’s favorite characteristics. By donning this forced disguise, Bottom’s own personality is hidden.
Rosalind, on the other hand, chose her disguise. She did this to take control over her life, to be free to make her own decisions after it seems like this opportunity will be taken away from her. Through this disguise, Rosalind discusses Orlando’s love for her, without him being aware that he is roleplaying as Orlando-Rosalind with Rosalind herself:
Rosalind: I would cure you, if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my
cote and woo me.
Orlando: Now by the faith of my love, I will. Tell me where it is.
Rosalind: Go with me to it and I’ll show it to you; and by the way you shall tell me where
in the forest you live. Will you go?
Orlando: With all my heart, good youth.
Rosalind: Nay, you must call me Rosalind. Come, sister, will you go? (III.II.408-417)
Here, Rosalind is taking her advantage of being Rosalind disguised as Ganymede, and putting herself in a position of power over Orlando. As a woman, Rosalind was given little say: her father was usurped and exiled, she was told what to do, and then she was exiled. As a man, however, Rosalind is independent, free, and able to help others make decisions rather than others making decisions for her. In other words, through this disguise, Rosalind becomes the complete opposite of herself, much like Bottom does, though in a different way. Gender fluidity is another major component of these plays, and this idea goes alongside with gender roles.
Gender fluidity is where characters move from male to female throughout the work, while gender roles help to define what is viewed as a male or female act. Bottom, for example, seems a very proud character at first, and pride is a male role: “If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes: I will move storms, I will condole in some measure. To the rest – yet my chief humour is for a tyrant. I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split” (I.II.21-26). Here, Bottom demonstrates his confidence in his abilities, and the control he thinks he has over what roles he can play. Later on, though, he loses control. As previously stated, once he has been transfigured, there is a power shift where Titania is now in control of Bottom:
Come, wait upon him; lead him to my bower.
The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye,
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
Tie up my love’s tongue, bring him silently. (III.I.190-194)
Titania is ordering around not only her fairies, but also Bottom. He gets no say in whether or not he wishes to come with Titania, but rather he is tied up and forced to follow her. As A Midsummer Night’s Dream progresses, Bottom realizes that he has less and less control over his situations.
While Bottom’s characterization focused mainly on gender roles that were pushed onto him, Rosalind is a very gender fluid character. She moves from male to female with ease, maintaining her looks and her personality along the way:
Orlando: My lord, the first time that I ever saw him
Methought he was a brother to your daughter.
But my good lord, this boy is forest-born
And hath been tutored in the rudiments
Of many desperate studies by his uncle,
Whom he reports to be a great magician,
Obscured in the circle of this forest. (V.IV.28-34)
Rosalind passes easily for a man, fooling both her love and her father, while still looking like herself. Despite this, though, she was expected to follow gender roles as a woman, to listen to Duke Frederick and accept banishment (I.III.74-81). But when she “became” a man, she ignored gender roles and did as she pleased. Her character seemed to be more relaxed and comfortable as a male, and she was able to easily help Orlando determine how to interact with herself as a female. Then in the prologue, she discusses the strangeness of a woman being the lead in the Epilogue, which plays directly into gender roles, and also brings up what she would do “If I were a woman,” which highlights her gender fluidity (E.1-21). Rosalind flows between male and female and between the corresponding gender roles throughout the play, and this back-and-forth motion only becomes easier for her as As You Like It advances.
The proud and the disguised masculinity of Bottom and Rosalind play into one another, but they are also distinct from one another. Once Bottom has been defined as a proudly masculine character, it is easier to see that Rosalind is disguising her masculinity behind her female body at first before letting it out as a male. Similarly, upon understanding the point of Rosalind’s disguise, it is easier to understand the change in Bottom’s personality that occurred when his head was transformed into a donkey’s head. At first he was full of himself, insisting that he could play any part in the world to the best it was written. As time progressed, though, and he underwent more conflicts with other characters and situations, Bottom realized that he was not the center of the universe. On the other hand, once Rosalind had disguised herself as a man, her masculinity was unleashed rather than reeled in. She was more comfortable with herself, and did not accept being pushed aside. These two different masculine personalities helped the reader to better understand the other.
Gender fluidity, gender roles, and disguises are all very prevalent themes in Shakespeare’s plays As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These components are strung together to create characters who are diverse, well-rounded, strong, and independent. These characters encounter internal conflict, external conflict, and go through transformations of personality as well as form. Rosalind and Bottom are strong masculine characters, regarding the definition of masculine as independent, proud, and strong, although they are not both male. Shakespeare goes against the flow by making a female into a strong masculine character, but this only goes to show that even if you are a woman, you can still be a main character in the play that is your life. As Jaques said in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (II.VII.140-143). With today’s society, it is difficult to remember that all human beings are, in fact, all human beings. But upon the realization that a woman can be a strong masculine character in Shakespeare, that means that anything can happen.
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