Gender Fluidity in As You Like It: Female Autonomy or Homoeroticism?

A look into the complexity of Shakespeare's cross-dressing plot devices

Jodie Steer
20th November 2023
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Shakespeare loves nothing more than a bit of cross-dressing and subterfuge because clearly there was nothing funnier than a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man in Shakespearean England.

Many of his comedies seem to automatically default to variations of one plotline: big disaster; woman dresses up as a young man to avoid detection; falls in love with a man; is fallen in love with themself by a woman; humorous chaos ensues; finally all is revealed and set to rights – everyone is back as they ‘should be’ and true love prevails. Take Viola and Orsino, Portia and Bassanio, and of course Rosalind and Orlando. Initially, this gender-bending is perceived as a shallow plot device, creating easy spaces to be filled with trickery and farce. However, the depth behind these superficial ruses is unquestionable; Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the most complex playwrights since the likes of Socrates and Euripides. This gender-bending, therefore, is surely no different from his criticism of the corrupted monarchy and church in his tragedies.

Image Credit: @thersc on Instagram taken by Keith Pattison

There appear to be two contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s love of a woman in men’s clothing, and I don’t think a cheeky glance at her ankles is one of them. The freedom afforded by these performances of masculinity is clear in As You Like It, with Rosalind finding independence and autonomy in the Forest of Arden, whilst simultaneously training her future husband the ways of love, much like a dog being taught how to roll over. Her refusal to succumb to confinement and shame after her father’s banishment is only possible through her disguise as Ganymede, yet her teachings to others in the play distinctly diverge from patriarchal ideologies of marriage and their subsequent power dynamics. Although the order is eventually restored, with Rosalind and Orlando married, these almost radical teachings surely will not be lost in the otherness of the wood.

Alternatively, the homoerotic undertones of this cross-dressing cannot be ignored. The relationship built between Rosalind and Orlando whilst occupying a masculine identity serves to only intensify his feelings for Rosalind, whilst also lamenting their ‘masculine’ qualities which will likely prevail after their return to ‘womanhood’. Therefore it follows that Orlando demonstrates tendencies which subvert heteronormativity. Likewise, Phebe’s sapphic desire for Ganymede perhaps suggests similar transgressive tendencies. Overall, despite Shakespeare’s eventual resolution of heteronormative marriages, gender fluidity remains at the forefront of the narrative, hinting at the liminality of Rosalind’s gender identity as they occupy spaces that challenge binary notions of gender in Shakespearean England.

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