Heteronormativity: a Performative Art

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

The play As You like It written by William Shakespeare explores ideas of lust, love, and sexuality. It follows a multitude of characters; however one of the most significant is Rosalind, the daughter of an exiled Duke who escapes the city in order to avoid the wrath of her uncle, accompanied by her cousin. She travels into the woods disguising herself as a man by the name of Ganymede where she meets her love Orlando again, but this time as a man instead of herself. The cross-dressing that occurs in the forest causes a conflict in terms of sexuality due to the blending of the binary genders.

The role of Rosalind in As You Like It suggests that gender roles and heterosexuality is a performance that must be played within the confinements of society. Rosalind playing the role of a boy parallels the boy actor playing the role of Rosalind. In Shakespearian time younger boys were hired to play female roles because of their high pitch voice, slender bodies, and shorter stature. Rosalind complicates this tradition making a gender meta of being a woman, played by a boy, acting as a boy, performing as a woman to Orlando. The homosexual undertones are excused in the play because “in the renaissance, sexuality was defined by practice” (Budra 101) meaning that it was okay to profess love towards the same gender as long as it was not physically acted upon.

This common view allowed the male actors to profess their love to another man without it being seen as gay. As Rosalind does not incur any “physical acts” as she cross-dresses, all the affections for her by Phoebe, as well as of Ganymede for Orlando, would not be considered a crime by audiences who may have an issue with the romantic tensions that develop between the characters. Gender roles are satirically revealed through Rosalind’s perceptions of how each gender should act. Rosalind’s views on what it means to be female versus male are so stereotypical that it is a tool for Shakespeare to make fun of the roles set for gender by society. When Rosalind is planning to dress like a man she speaks on the weapons she will carry like “many other mannish cowards have/ That do outface it with their semblances” (1.3.119-20), stating that men bluff their bravery with their appearance because men have the role to be the brave gender. She later speaks on the weakness of females saying that she wants to “disgrace [her] man’s/ apparel and to cry like a woman; but/ … doublet and hose ought to/ show itself courageous to petticoat” (2.4.4-7), meaning that because she is dressed like a man she must be courageous and she can’t show the weakness of a woman. Rosalind also pushes these gender stereotypes when speaking as a man telling Orlando that “I thank/ God I am not a woman, to be touched with so many/ giddy offenses” (3.2.342-4), acting as if she, because she is dressed like a man, should never be the subject of courtship as it is the role of a woman to be wooed, since men do not participate in such a “giddy offence”. Celia also joins in on these gender roles when saying “that’s a brave man: he/ … swears brave oaths and breaks/ them bravely” (3.4.37-9), portraying men as cheaters and deceitful. Rosalind’s depictions of men as brave and women as the weak gender waiting for a man to woo them, portrays the views on gender roles within the city. She suggests that men and woman have to act a certain way, even if they do not truly fit the role, in order to fit into society. Her views are contrasted by rural born characters upon entering the forest.

The gender reversal of Rosalind into Ganymede in the forest allows for the exploration of love for Orlando and Phebe. Rosalind in order to protect herself in the forest transforms herself into “Ganymede, who, in mythology, was the cup bearer to Jove and his homosexual lover” (Budra 101), and chooses a name that in the renaissance was a “symbol of homoeroticism” (Budra 101), rather than a common name. When choosing her name she tells Celia that “I’ll have no worse a name than Jove’s own page” (1.3.122), fully knowing the connotations that come with her chosen name. The name chosen starts the confusing gender-bending and possible homosexual relationships that occur in the forest. Rosalind performs as Ganymede performing as Rosalind to make Orlando stop the exaggerated treatment of love. Orlando in his courting methods states his love for Rosalind in a performative way, portraying her femininity as a result of her being delicate and shy. He follows the gender stereotypes however is using them to court Ganymede, a supposed man. The situation is further complicated because the audience knows the actor is a boy so whether or not he is Rosalind or Ganymede he remains a boy under all the gender performances. Phebe also is subject to the homoeroticism as she falls in love with Ganymede who is actually Rosalind, falling in love with Ganymede because of his feminine qualities. She likes “his complexion” (3.5.116) as well as the “pretty redness in his lip” (3.5.120) and cheeks. She likes that he looks young, is slender, and not as tall as other men, like the shepherd who vies for her attention through the play. She is attracted to the character whose namesake, once again, is the mythical representation of homoeroticism which hints that Phoebe is also inclined to a homosexual lust. This attraction can only develop once Rosalind escaped from the city into the rural world. It is in this country scene that Shakespeare really plays with the concepts of sexuality and cross-dressing.

Homoerotic love is contrasted between Orlando and Phebe as Orlando falls in love with Rosalind dressed as Ganymede and Phebe falls in love with Ganymede who is actually Rosalind. Orlando and Phebe portray the freedom of sexuality that occurs outside the confines of societal norms. The forest acts as an escape from gender norms and allows for the experimentation of gender role reversal. The moment Rosalind is shown in the forest she says “O Jupiter” (2.4.1), calling for Ganymede’s homosexual lover. Celia also changes her gender role when saying “Something that hath reference to my state:/ No longer Celia but Aliena” (1.3.125-6), changing from the role of being in the city as a Dutch’s daughter to being a female in the forest, a role alien to her. When Celia finds Orlando under a tree Rosalind states that “It may well be called Jove’s tree” (3.2.234); Orlando becomes Jove and Rosalind becomes Ganymede in the forest changing their identity as well as their relationship. While disguised, she is able to critique, coach, and inevitably test Orlando’s affections for Rosalind. She attacks his “clichés of romantic love” (Budra 105) to try to push Orlando past “the traditions that define love” (Budra 105) to find true love. Rosalind uses to role reversal to see if Orlando loves her more than the cliché gendered speeches he gives.

The roles also shift between the natural born city and rural characters. Rosalind has city views on how men should act so she is blunt with Phebe so as not to give her fake persona away. Phebe as a rural-born character does not follow these societal given roles for females and acts with confidence rejecting Silvius. This boldness coming from Phebe leads to Rosalind becoming agitated with her and begins a long speech on why an unattractive female like Phebe should “thank heaven … for a good man’s love” (3.5.58), forcing feminine roles on the societal stereotypically non-feminine Phebe as Rosalind herself plays a man. Rosalind, a character who brings the gender norms of the city into the forest, has trouble understanding that women may act outside gender roles and that they do not have to “perform” as a soft-spoken female. She excuses her role only because she is performing as Ganymede and therefore gains this gender fluidity, but specifically only while in the country. The characters are only allowed to return to society once they re-adapt the heteronormative roles. When Rosalind reveals herself and settles all conflicting sexual interactions at the end of the play, her ability to return to city life is also announced. It is only after Rosalind removes her disguise to the other characters at the end of the play that she is able to return to the city and civilization. She also ensures in that final scene that “all the lovelorn characters swear fidelity to heterosexual unions before revealing herself” (Budra 102) to them.

The country setting had acted as an escape from civilization, one that several of the characters seem to revel in. However, the return to civilization after a time in the pastoral seems to be accepted by the characters. Not only are the characters planning to return to civilization, but the audience is brought “back to the reality of the social space of the theater and their own, more regulated, sexual selves” (Budra 102) at the end of the play. While the wilderness is seen as a place to escape to, the city is inevitably where most of the civilized characters wish to return to. The exploration of sexuality then, too, is only experienced while outside the city, where one doesn’t have to follow the rules. Shakespeare has the actor who plays Rosalind come forward to the audience at the very end of the play. The actor breaks character, informing the audience that if he was a woman he would kiss as many men in the audience that would please him, however will not because he is, in fact, a boy. Just as Rosalind exposes herself to return to civilization, the actor who plays her must expose himself to the audience in order to return them to the “real world”. Shakespeare is allowed to make a play with homosexual and gender-bending themes because he excuses himself in the epilogue. As You Like It “continually exposes the reality behind the social constructs” (Budra 105) that audiences would have been used to. By having an actor come out on stage at the end of the play to break character Shakespeare is able to smooth out some of the gender and sexual confusion that has ensued by having a character like Rosalind. He creates a wall between the audience and the confusion of her meta gendering to distance them from the situation.

As complicated as it was to have a boy performing as a woman acting as a man who was pretending to be a woman, that character comes forward and breaks the illusion that the play is a reality. Once that illusion is broken, the tension created by that gender fluidity is also able to be broken. The audience doesn’t have to try to work out if the play stepped outside of the sexual norm of the society because it ends with a character coming forward to say it wasn’t real. That exploration of sexuality through cross-dressing does not occur within the realm that the audience lives in, just as it did not occur within the walls of the city.

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