Which Side of the Fence? Questioning Sexuality in As You Like It

April 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

In a romantic forest setting, rich with the songs of birds, the fragrance of fresh spring flowers, and the leafy hum of trees whistling in the wind, one young man courts another. A lady clings to her childhood friend with a desperate and erotic passion, and a girl is instantly captivated by a youth whose physical features are uncannily feminine. Oddly enough, the object of desire in each of these instances is the same person. In As You Like It, William Shakespeare explores the homoerotic possibilities of his many characters. At the resolution he establishes a tenuous re-affirmation of their heterosexuality. In this essay I will show how individual characters flirt with their homoerotic inclinations, and finally reject these impulses in favor of the traditional and socially accepted heterosexual lifestyle. I will explore male to male eroticism through the all-male court in the forest and through Orlando’s attraction to Ganymede. I will inspect female to female attraction through Celia’s attachment to Rosalind and through Phebe’s instant attraction to the effeminate boy, Ganymede. IIn Duke Senior’s forest retreat, Shakespeare creates a setting ripe with homoerotic potential. In the first lines Duke Senior speaks he rejoices in the ‘sweetness’ of the woodland life. ‘Now my co-mates and brothers in exile, / Hath not old custom made this life more sweet/ Than that of painted pomp’ (II.i.1-3). He clearly considers this woodland lifestyle more pleasant than that of the court. One of the primary distinguishing factors between the court and the forest is the absence of women. Despite the fact that the members of Duke Senior’s court have been without women for a long while, throughout the play they do not express the slightest desire for them. This all-male lifestyle attracts the positive attention of many other men. Charles, the wrestler, compares the Duke’s lifestyle to the idyllic age of Robin Hood and reports that ‘many young gentlemen/ flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly as they/ did in the golden world’ (I.i. 101-103). In his article, ‘Queering the Shakespeare Family,’ Mario DiGangi explains this reference to the ‘golden world’ as being an allusion to the Renaissance myth of Orpheus, the misogynist who establishes an all-male community in order to avoid the dangers of female seduction and sexuality. In describing the lifestyle which is alluded to by Shakespeare’s phrase, ‘the golden world,’ DiGangi explains that Orpheus and his comrades, living in isolation, did ‘utterly eschew/ The womankynd’ and ‘taught the Thracian folke a stewes of Males to make/ And of the flowering pryme of boayes the pleasure for to take’ (Ovid bk. 10, II qtd. in DiGangi 277-280). This description bears unmistakable similarities to Duke Senior’s lifestyle, and makes the homosexual implications of his society undeniable. The solely masculine society of Duke Senior’s woodland retreat is pleasing and attractive to the male characters in the play. This contentment with purely male companionship, coupled with the undeniable allusion to a well-known homosexual society, create a fertile ground for planting the argument that Duke Senior’s lifestyle is as much alternative as it is ‘sweet.’Another, and more commonly analyzed, example of male- to- male sexual desire is found in Orlando’s relationship with Rosalind’s male disguise, Ganymede. The nature of what their relationship will be is foreshadowed before Orlando and Ganymede exchange a word. Rosalind declares that she will ‘ . . .have no worse a name than Jove’s own page’ and tells Celia ‘And therefore look you call me Ganymede’ (I,iii,118-119). Rosalind has chosen for her male alter-ego a name with significant homoerotic overtones. The word ‘ganymede’ has great significance. As Steve Brown, in an article on gender ambiguity in the sixteenth century, explains ‘ganymede’ has both literary and social connotations, both of which are vital to understanding Orlando’s relationship with Ganymede. As a mythical figure, Ganymede was a young boy whom Jove loved and took home. Ganymede replaced Hebe, Jove’s daughter, as Jove’s official cupbearer and took the place of Jove’s wife, Juno, as Jove’s primary lover. Because of its mythological context ‘ganymede’ then became a symbol for males replacing females as the primary objects of other males affection. Thus, the word ‘ganymede’ came to be used as a term for a male prostitute or, more relevant to our discussion of Ganymede’s role in the play, the young male lover of an older man (Brown, 250-251). Given the prevalent understanding of the term in Shakespeare’s time, there can be no doubt that the bard was aware of this word’s connotations and used it to prime the audience’s minds toward interpreting a homoerotic relationship between Ganymede and Orlando.Orlando’s behavior toward Ganymede supports the analysis of Ganymede as the focal point of Orlando’s erotic attraction. Within a moment of meeting Ganymede, Orlando addresses him in the language of flirtation and courtship. He speaks of love to Ganymede, and although he always speaks of how he loves Rosalind, he always ends with a question or remark that prompts Ganymede to speak, thus prolonging the conversation and enabling Orlando to get to know him better. Orlando almost immediately addresses Ganymede as ‘fair’ and ‘good,’ ascribing to this boy, to whom he is erotically attracted, the characteristics of a female lover, foreshadowing the new relationship that will emerge between the two before the scene is over. By courting Ganymede, Orlando is able to indulge in the expression of erotic desire toward this ‘fair youth.’ Under the pretense of wanting to be cured, Orlando agrees to court a young man who will be pretending to be a woman (III,iii 383-384). Yet he agrees to do this within a breath of declaring ‘I would not be cured, youth’ (III,iii 380). Orlando engages in this courtship play, not, as he claims, in order to be cured of his love for a woman, but as a ritual of indulging, and perhaps he secretly hopes, satiating, his love for a young man. Within the complex relationship between Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede there is a twisted lovers’ triangle. Rosalind loves Orlando. Orlando is in love with Rosalind and Ganymede. Rosalind is Ganymede and, more significantly, Ganymede is actually Rosalind. In addition to this twisted geometry, this play contains yet another triangle. Orlando loves Rosalind, Rosalind loves Orlando, and Celia loves Rosalind.IIThe concept of female homosexuality in Shakespeare’s time was not as widely addressed or acknowledged as was the concept of male homosexuality. However, it was not an entirely unknown issue, and Shakespeare explores it through Celia’s and Phebe’s erotic attraction to a member of their own sex. That Celia’s affection for Rosalind is more than just sisterly devotion, there can be little doubt. The unusually deep bond between the two girls is sensed by the other members of the court. In describing their relationship to Oliver Charles, the Duke’s wrestler, says ‘O no; for the Duke’s daughter [Celia] so loves her[Rosalind]/ . . . that she would/ have followed her exile, or have died to stay behind her/ . . . never two ladies loved as they do’ (I.i. 94-97). Clearly, their relationship is understood by those who know them to be one of unusually strong love and attachment. Shakespeare’s first presentation of Rosalind and Celia is in such a way that the audience cannot miss the clinging, insecure attachment, often associated with unrequited passion, that Celia feels for Rosalind. Pouting that Rosalind ‘lovest me not with the full weight that/ I love thee’ (I.ii. 6-7), Celia betrays her fear that Rosalind does not return to her the same kind of affection she bears for Rosalind. She compares Rosalind’s love for her to her devotion to Rosalind by saying ‘So/ wouldst thou, if the truth of thy love to me were so righteously/ tempered as mine is to thee’ (I.ii. 9-11). These insecurities foreshadow her coming displacement as the primary object of Rosalind’s affection, thus making her assumed name, Aliena, signify more than simply her alienation from her father’s home. Celia’s romantic feelings for Rosalind continue to manifest themselves in the marital language Celia uses to describe her relationship with Rosalind. When Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind, Celia pleads fervently with him, describing their relationship in words that would more appropriately describe an ideal marriage. ‘We still have slept together,/ Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together,/ And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans/ Still we went coupled and inseparable’ (I.iii. 67-70). In spite of Celia’s impassioned plea, Rosalind is banished and Celia assures Rosalind that she herself has also been banished. Her words: ‘Rosalind, lack’st thou then the love/ Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one?’ (I.iii. 90-91) are an obvious allusion to the biblical description of marriage which states that ‘the twain shall be one flesh’ (Mat. 19.5). The many nuptial comparisons that Celia makes in describing her feelings for, and relationship with Rosalind leave little doubt that her feelings for Rosalind are at very least tinted with romanticism and eroticism.Further evidence of Celia’s homoerotic feelings for Rosalind is found in Celia’s hostility toward Orlando, Rosalind’s ‘lover.’ The mounting vehemence of Celia’s criticisms of Orlando can be measured in direct proportion to the increasing intensity of Rosalind’s passion and love for Orlando. In act III, scene iv, we find the two ladies engaged in a conversation that beautifully illustrates this contrast and betrays Celia’s protective, jealous, almost possessive behavior toward Rosalind. As Rosalind raves about Orlando’s glories, Celia swiftly and deftly twists each of the adored features into a fault or flaw. She compares Orlando’s hair, which Rosalind loves, to Judas’ hair color, implying that the two may share treachery as well as hair color. When Rosalind praises the sanctity of Orlando’s kisses Celia replies that they are so chaste as to be cold as ice. Finally, as Rosalind continues to think about Orlando, Celia tells her bluntly that she believes Orlando’s love to be hollow, his words to be false, and his heart to be faithless (III, iv). Celia’s attachment to Rosalind is also betrayed during a mock wedding between Orlando and Rosalind. Celia finds that, when called upon to play the priest, she cannot, even in jest, speak the words that will surrender Rosalind to another (IV, iii: 108-109). This hesitation reveals the concern that the place she hopes to hold in Rosalind’s heart will be usurped by another. This fear manifests itself toward Orlando because, like Orlando, she considers herself to be Rosalind’s ‘lover.’ Celia is not alone in being a female who is erotically attracted to the femininity. Phebe is also in love with Rosalind, though in her case the attraction is immediate. Phebe both declares her love and acknowledges its suddenness when she says ‘Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:/ ëWho ever loved that loved not at first sight?” (III. V. 82-83). Such immediate attraction cannot be anything other than physical desire. While Phebe believes that she is in love with a ‘sweet youth’ it is clearly Ganymede’s female characteristics that attract her so wildly and instantly. She describes each of Ganymede’s physical features that attracts her (III.v.116-124). Each characteristic is a distinctively female quality: skin, height, eyes, red lips, shapely legs and flushed cheeks. There may be some slight evidence that the desire is slightly and grudgingly returned. When Rosalind says ‘Besides, I like you not. If you will know my house,/ ëTis at the tuft of olives, here hard by’ (III, v: 75-76), Rosalind, even as she shuns, scorns and abuses her admirer, tells Phebe where she lives, thus indicating that she will permit, and perhaps even encourage, further contact. Regardless of whether Rosalind’s feelings for Phebe border on being romantic, it is evident from the immediacy and intensity of Phebe’s attraction, and from her obvious delight in clearly female physical attributes that Phebe is wildly and irresistibly attracted to at least one other women in a highly physical and erotic way. Shakespeare has woven into the complex emotional fabric of this play threads of homoerotic potentialities. He explores male to male homosexuality through the blatantly joyful all male lifestyle of Duke Senior and his fellow wood dwellers and through Orlando’s attraction to and courtship of a fair youth, whose name coincidentally means a young male lover. He explores female homosexuality through Celia’s possessive and amorous feelings for Rosalind and through Phebe’s instant lust for a person who she believes to be a young man, but who has remarkably female characteristics. In the end, however, Shakespeare binds each of his love-maddened characters into a securely heterosexual relationship. IIIIf man and woman are destined to be together, then this play truly does have a happy ending. Each lover, whether their affection has been homoerotic, heterosexual, or ambiguous throughout the play, finds themselves perfectly matched with a member of the opposite sex at the end of the play. Shakespeare accomplishes this pairing in one of two ways. In both ways the homoerotic desire is switched to a member of the opposite sex. In one way this switch is direct, in the other it is indirect. In the case of Celia’s love for Rosalind, Celia is easily reconciled with the idea of Rosalind finding someone else to take Celia’s place when Celia herself finds someone else to take Rosalind’s place. Her attraction toward Oliver, Orlando’s brother, is immediate and scented with the possibility of desperation, but nevertheless, it is there. ‘On so little acquaintance you should/ like her? That but seeing, you should love her? And loving,/ woo? And wooing, she should grant?’ (V.ii. 1-3). Thus Celia, once the faithful and jealous lover of Rosalind, finds her desire directly diverted into a more attainable object of desire. Phebe’s ‘cure’ is of a similar nature. When she discovers that her beloved is indeed a woman she resigns herself to marrying Silvius, the faithful shepherd, and finds it not so repugnant as she always swore it must be. ‘I will not eat my word. Now thou art mine,/ Thy faith my fancy doth combine’ (V.iv. 148-149). So Phebe also is happily united with a member of the opposite sex. The resolution of Orlando’s homoerotic desires is at once the happiest and most troubling. Just as he does not have to choose between the two people he desires because they are one and the same, so he does not have to choose between the different genders he desires. In his marriage to Rosalind (woman) he also marries Ganymede (man). This is pleasant for him, but mildly troubling for the audience and his bride. One cannot help but wonder if he is marrying her for who she is, or her for who she reminds him of. Still, Shakespeare glosses over this uncertainty with the whitewash of a goddess’s blessing. Hymen declares that ‘You and you no cross shall part’ (V, iv: 120) and we are content with that. As You Like It is a play in which Shakespeare explores homoerotic possibilities, and for a while allows his characters to indulge in these desires and affections. In the end, however, he bows to social convention, reigns in his characters’ wandering or errant lusts and loves and tethers each of them down to a pleasant, if tenuous, life of heterosexuality. WORKS CITEDBrown, Steve. ‘The Boyhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines: Notes on Gender Ambiguity in The Sixteenth Century.’ Studies In English Literature 30 (Spring 1990): 243-264.DiGangi, Mario. ‘Queering the Shakespearean Family.’ Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (Fall 1996): 269-290.Shakespeare, William. ‘As You Like It.’ The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1997. 1600-1656.The Bible. King James Version.WORKS CONSULTEDBarroll, Leeds, et al., eds. Shakespeare Studies. London: Associated UP, 1998.Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

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