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Stage Rosalinds

From Studies in Shakespeare by Richard Grant White, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Most readers of Shakespeare have a very clear ideal of Rosalind. They may be in doubt as to the physical and mental traits of others of his women, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, Portia, or even Juliet; but the heroine of "As You Like It" lives in their eyes as well as in their hearts and minds, a very firmly and deeply engraven personage. This is partly because Shakespeare himself has done so much more to help us in forming a conception of Rosalind than he has done in regard to any other of his women, except Imogen. For it is worthy of special remark that he has given us hardly a hint as to his own idea of the personal appearance, or even of the mental and moral constitution, of these prominent figures of his dramatis personae. We are left to make all this out for ourselves from their actions and their words, or from the impression which they make upon those by whom he has surrounded them. This, indeed, is the dramatic way. As the dramatist never speaks in his own person, he must needs describe by the lips of others; but those others are beings of his own creation, and he can make them say what he pleases, the one about the others. It would seem, then, that a poet could hardly fail to delight his own sense of beauty by putting into the mouth of some of his personages descriptions of the charms of the women around whom centres so much of the interest of mimic life upon the stage; that he would, as fitly he might, at least cause his lovers to tell us something of the womanly beauty and the womanly charm by which they have been enthralled.

Many dramatists have done this, but not Shakespeare. He was content to show us his women as they lived, and loved, and suffered, and came at last to joy in their love, or to grief, one of them, in her ambition. And it would seem that he did this simply because he did not care to do otherwise; because he had not himself any very precise conception as to particular details of person, or even of character, as to most of his women. He took an old play, or an old story, the incidents of which he thought would interest a mixed audience, and this he worked over into a new dramatic form, making it, quite unconsciously, and altogether without purpose, scene by scene and line by line, immortal by his psychological insight and the magic of his style. If the action marched on well, and the personages and the situations were interesting, he was content; and he concentrated such effort as he made making very little, for he wrote his plays with a heedless ease which is without a parallel in the history of literature upon the scene immediately in hand, without much thought as to what had gone before or what was to come after. That was determined for him mostly by the story or the play which he had chosen to work upon; and the splendid whole which he sometimes, but not always, made, was the unpremeditated and, I am sure, the almost unconscious result of an inborn instinct of dramatic effect of the highest kind, and an intuitive perception of what would touch the soul and stir the blood of common healthy human nature. These were his only motives, his only purposes. For all that we know of his life and of his dramatic career leaves no room for doubt that, if his public had preferred it, he would have written thirty-seven plays like "Titus Andronicus" just as readily, although not just as willingly, as he wrote "As You Like It," "King Lear," "Hamlet," and " Othello." Therefore it was to return to our first point that he did not trouble himself to paint us portraits of his heroines. That he should do so was not down on his dramatic brief: his audiences were interested, and therefore he was interested, chiefly, if not only, in the story that was to be set forth in action.

How bare his dramas are of personal description will hardly be believed by those who have not read them carefully, with an eye to this particular. He shows us, as I have remarked before, the effect which his personages produced upon each other; but he says very little of the means by which the effect was produced; and this is more remarkable as to his women than as to his men, because we naturally expect in a poet or a novelist a greater interest in the personal attractions of women. But Shakespeare passes all this by in generalities. Romeo says that Juliet's beauty "teaches the torches to burn bright," that it "hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear;" the love-sick Duke in "Twelfth Night" says that Olivia was so beautiful that he "thought she purged the air of pestilence:" but neither of these enamored men says a word, or drops a hint, to tell us whether these wondrous women were fair or dark, or tall or short, whether they were formed like fairies or like the Venus of Melos. Of Portia we know, by a chance line, that she was golden-haired; but it is by no means certain that even this touch of personal description was not suggested by the auri sacra fames of the fortune-hunting adventurer who wins the beautiful heiress rather than by the desire to give a touch of color to the picture of the heroine. 1

It is only when Shakespeare comes to paint the loveliest and most perfect of all his women, Imogen, who indeed seems to have been both his idol and his ideal, that he describes the beauty of which Leonatus is the hardly deserving possessor. And yet, even here again, it is by no means certain that his unwonted particularity in this respect is not the mere consequence of the peculiar nature of the domestic story that is interwoven with the political drama of Cymbeline, King of Britain. Imogen's beauty must be described, because it is partly the occasion of the wager which is the spring of the love action of the drama; because it impresses her unknown brothers; and because some particular knowledge of it is obtained by the villain of the play, "the yellow lachimo," and is descanted on by him as proof of his boasted success in his assault upon her chastity.

Rosalind's beauty was different from Imogen's; more splendid and impressive, if perhaps less tender and cherubic. Unless I am in error, we all think of Imogen as rather a little below than above the standard height of woman's stature. Rosalind was notably tall; a girl who at middle age would become magnificent. She was fair, with dark lustrous hair, and eyes perhaps blue, gray, or perhaps black, according as the man who thinks of her has eyes black, brown, or blue; but I am pretty sure that they were of that dark olive green which has all the potentiality of both blue and black, and which is apt to accompany natures which combine all the sensuous and mental charms that are possible in woman. She was of a robust yet firm and elastic rather than robust physical and moral nature; her vigor and her spring being, nevertheless, tempered by a delicacy of rare fineness, which had its source in sentiment, sentiment equally tender and healthy. Such was the woman who is the central figure of the most charming ideal comedy in all dramatic literature. Shakespeare's plays were written with a single eye to their presentation on the stage. They attained with great distinction the objective point of their production. Their author, known to the world now as the greatest of poets, and the subtlest, profoundest, and truest observer of man and of the world, was known to the public of London in his own day chiefly as the most successful and popular of playwrights. His plays were performed to full houses, when those by the best of his fellow dramatists hardly paid the expenses of production. We may be sure that in writing them, and in superintending the placing them on the stage (which doubtless fell to his hands), he was undisturbed by that lofty ideal of signification and of character which now makes their worthy performance, for his most loving students and admirers, in some cases almost impossible. "King Lear," "Hamlet," "Antony and Cleopatra," "The Tempest," and we might almost say "Romeo and Juliet" are now lifted too high into the realms of fancy and imagination to be within the reach of any actor whose merely human voice rivals the dialogue "'twixt his stretched footing and the scaffoldage." The comedies are more within the reach of ordinary human endeavor; for comedy moves upon a lower plane, deals with commoner and humbler events of man's life experiences. But, among the comedies, some of the most charming involve in their proper presentation a perplexity which is of a purely physical nature. Conspicuous among these are his two most beautiful works in ideal comedy, "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night." The difficulty in question is caused by the fact that in these comedies the heroines appear during the greater part of the play in male attire; and that not only do they go about before us dressed as men and acting as men, but appear to their lovers as men, and deceive them, almost from Enter to Exeunt. Of these plays, "As You Like It" presents the greatest difficulty of this kind, and with that we shall now chiefly concern ourselves.

It is first to be said, however, that for this contrivance for the production of dramatic movement and the exciting of dramatic interest the author is not properly responsible. He found these incidents and these entanglements in the stories which he undertook to dramatize, and which he chose because they were already in favor with the public he sought to please. The masquerading of a young woman in man's attire was a favorite device with all the story-writers and play-writers of the sixteenth century, in whose works Shakespeare found the material for most of his dramas.2 "As You Like It" is built out of the material of one of these stories; rather, indeed, it is one of these stories made playable by Shakespeare's skill as a dramatist, and lifted by him unconsciously into the realms of immortality by his poetic uplook and his sweet and universal sympathy. Almost whether he would or would not, he was obliged to make his heroine go through her prolonged parade of sexual deception.

And now to consider this in regard to its possibility: first, for Shakespeare's audience; next, as the Scotch lassie wished her partner to consider love, "in the abstract." Briefly, the case is this: Rosalind meets Orlando in the orchard of the Duke's palace, talks with him, sees him wrestle, talks with him again, falls in love with him, and captivates him by her beauty and her grace, and by that subtle emanation of her sex's power when moved by love which is one of its strongest and most enchaining influences. She leaves him so under the influence of her personality that, stirred by all these motives, and by the sympathy of such a woman in his moody and desperate condition, he loves her before they meet again. Within a few days they do meet in the Forest of Arden; he in his proper person; she in the person of a saucy young fellow, who is living a half-rural, half-hunter life on the edge of the Forest. There she encounters him on many occasions, during what must have been a considerable period of time, some ten days or a fortnight; and there, also, she meets her father, the banished Duke, and Jaques, a cynical old gentleman, of much and not very clean worldly experience. By none of these persons is her sex suspected. She even wheedles Orlando into playing, like child's play, that she is his Rosalind; and all the while it never enters his head that this pretty, wayward, wilful, witty lad is the beautiful woman whose eyes and lips won him to return the love that she had given him unasked. Now this is simply impossible; absolutely impossible; physically impossible; morally impossible; outrageously impossible. It is an affront to common sense, a defiance to the evidence of our common senses; impossible now, impossible then, impossible ever, unless under the conditions which Shakespeare prescribes for it, which conditions are violated by every Rosalind that I ever saw upon the stage, and most of all by the last of them, who not only erred in this respect with all her sisters, but who, among the many bad Rosalinds that I have seen, was indisputably the worst.

In judging of what Shakespeare did in "As You Like It," and other plays of similar construction, we must first of all take into consideration the conditions under which he wrote. The most important of these from our present point of view is that, in his day, there were no actresses upon the stage; all women's parts, young and old, were played by men. This was added to the marvel of his creation of enchanting womanhood, that he was writing those women's words for actors who had to be shaved before they were ready to go on with their parts. But in plays like "As You Like it" the complication was yet greater. There was a double inversion. His woman's words, his self-revealing, almost self-creating woman's words, were to be spoken not only by a man pretending to be a woman, but by a man pretending to be a woman who pretended to be a man. Shakespeare, however, was surely troubled by nothing of this. He struck right at the heart of things, and made his woman for us as she lived in his imagination. Whether Anne Page was to be presented by an Anne Page, or by a lubberly postmaster's boy, or whether she was not to be presented, it was quite the same to him. If he was to make her at all, he must make her as he did. To produce her thus was just as easy for him as for an inferior workman to turn out his clumsy creature, who might indeed be a postmaster's boy in petticoats. But so far as performance was concerned, or stage illusion, or whatever we may call that impression which we receive from the mimic life of the theatre, this performance of women's parts by young men was of the greatest importance when we come to consider the representation of female personages who assume the dress and the character of men.

For in the first place, as it will be seen, the male guise was then not disguise. What the spectator saw before his eyes was actually a young man, who might or might not, upon occasion, assume certain feminine airs and graces with more or less success. And this physical fact was of the more importance, because in these plays, generally, the woman is disguised during the greater part of the performance, and takes on her woman's weeds again, if at all, only in the last scene. Nor does the reverse of the action present any difficulty at all equal to that which has been thus overcome. A handsome, smooth-faced young man, skilled in the actor's art, and disguised by wig and paint, could very easily present a face to his audience which they would not think for a moment of doubting was that of a woman; and when he was playing the woman scenes of his woman's part, all that was distinctively masculine in his person would be entirely concealed by his woman's dress. In his woman's scenes, his disguise would be so easy that to a skilled and practised actor they would present no difficulty that would give him a moment's trouble. This was even more the case in Shakespeare's day than it is now. For then the dress of a lady, with its high ruff, its stiff stomacher, and its huge farthingale, destroyed in every case all semblance to the lines of woman's figure as nature has bounteously vouchsafed it to us. No one can study the portraits of gentlewomen of the time of Elizabeth and James I. without seeing that the human creatures within that portentous raiment might just as well, for all their semblance to woman, be masculine as feminine. And if there had not been almost equal absurdity and extravagance in some parts of male costume of that day, the difficulty in this matter of disguise would have been rather in the acceptance of the pretending man as a woman in masquerade. For, referring to the impossibility above set forth that Rosalind could have been mistaken for a young man by her lover, we see that, even if her face were masked or hidden, and her dress revealed her woman's form as it does upon our stage, no man who had sufficient appreciation of a woman's beauty to deserve to possess it could be deceived in the sex of Ganymede for one moment.

That this is true will hardly be disputed by any woman; certainly by no observant man. And yet it would seem as if the Rosalinds all of them laid themselves out to defy both Shakespeare and common sense in this matter to the utmost of attainable possibility. When they come before us as Ganymede they dress themselves not only as no man or boy in England, but as no human creature within the narrow seas, was dressed in Shakespeare's time. Instead of a doublet, they don a kind of short tunic, girdled at the waist and hanging to the knee. They wear long stockings, generally of silk, imagining them to be hose, and ignorant, probably, that in Shakespeare's time there were not a dozen pair of silk hose in all England. Nevertheless they go about with nothing but tight silk stockings upon their legs, amid the underwood and brambles of the Forest of Arden. With some appreciation of this absurdity, one distinguished actress in this, part wears long buttoned gaiters, which are even more anachronistic than the silk stockings. Upon their heads they all of them, without exception, wear a sort of hat which was unknown to the masculine head in the days of Elizabeth and James, a low-crowned, broad - brimmed something, more like what is known to ladies of late years as a "Gainsborough" than anything else that has been named by milliners. If a man had appeared in the streets of London at that day in such a hat, he would have been hooted at by all the 'prentices in Eastcheap. There was not in all the Forest of Arden a wolf or a bear, of the slightest pretensions to fashion, that would not have howled at the sight of such a head-gear. Briefly, the Rosalinds of the stage are pretty, impossible monsters, unlike anything real that ever was seen, unlike anything that could have been accepted by their lovers for what they pretend to be, and particularly unlike that which Shakespeare intended that they should be.

Let us see what Shakespeare did intend his Rosalind to be when she was in the Forest of Arden. And first, as we have already seen, he provided carefully for one important part of the illusion in making his heroine "more than common tall." He evidently conceived Rosalind as a large, fine girl, with a lithe, although vigorous and well-rounded figure. But when he sends her off with Celia, to walk through lonely country roads and outlaw-inhabited forest glades, he takes special care to leave us in no doubt as to the extent as well as the nature of her concealment, not only of her sex but of her personal comeliness. She reminds Celia that "beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold;" and then they go into the particulars of their disguise in speeches, one part of which is always cut out, amid the many curtailments to which this play is subjected for the stage. Celia says not only, "I'll put myself in poor and mean attire," but also, "and with a kind of umber smirch my face." "The like do you," she adds to Rosalind; "so shall we pass along and never stir assailants." Plainly, when the young princesses set forth on their wild adventure, they did all that they could to conceal the feminine beauty of their faces. Celia puts herself in the dress of a woman of the lower classes. Rosalind assumes not merely the costume of a young man, but that of a martial youth, almost of a swashbuckler. She says that she will have "a swashing and a martial outside," as well as carry a boar-spear in her hand, and have a curtle-axe upon her thigh. And, by the way, it is amusing to see the literalness with which the stage Rosalinds take up the text, and rig themselves out in conformity with their construction, or it may be the conventional stage construction, of it.

They carry, among other dangling fallals, a little axe in their belts, or strapped across their shoulders. But Rosalind's curtle-axe was merely a court-lasse, or cutlass, or, in plain English, a short sword, which she should wear as any soldierly young fellow of the day would wear his sword. Thus, browned, and with her hair tied up in loveknots, after the fashion of the young military dandies of that time, with her boar-spear and her cutlass, she would yet have revealed her sex to any discriminating masculine eye, had it not been for certain peculiarities of costume in Shakespeare's day. These were the doublet and the trunk-hose. Rosalind, instead of wearing a tunic or short gown, cut up to the knees, like the little old woman who "went to market her eggs for to sell" when she fell asleep by the king's highway, should wear the very garments that she talks so much about, and in which I never saw a Rosalind appear upon the stage. A doublet was a short jacket, with close sleeves, fitting tight to the body, and coming down only to the hip, or a very little below it. Of course its form varied somewhat with temporary fashion, and sometimes, indeed, it stopped at the waist. To this garment the hose (which were not stockings, but the whole covering for the leg from shoe to doublet) were attached by silken tags called points. But during the greater part of Shakespeare's life what were called trunk-hose were worn; and these, being stuffed out about the hips and the upper part of the thigh with bombast, or what was called cotton-wool, entirely reversed the natural outline of man's figure between the waist and the middle of the thigh, and made it impossible to tell, so far as shape was concerned, whether the wearer was of the male or female sex. Rosalind, by the doublet and hose that Shakespeare had in mind, and makes her mention as an outside so very foreign to the woman nature that is within, would have concealed the womanliness of her figure even more than by her umber she would have darkened, if not eclipsed, the beauty of her face. This concealment of forms, which would at once have betrayed her both to father and lover, was perfected by a necessary part of her costume as a young man living a forest life: these were boots. An essential part of Rosalind's forest dress as Ganymede is loose boots of soft tawny leather, coming up not only over leg, but partly over thigh, and almost meeting the puffed and bombasted trunk-hose. To complete this costume in character, she should wear a coarse russet cloak, and a black felt hat with narrow brim and high and slightly conical crown, on the band of which she might put a short feather, and around it might twist a light gold chain or ribbon and medal. Thus disguised, Rosalind might indeed have defied her lover's eye or her father's. Thus arrayed, the stage Rosalind might win us to believe that she was really deluding Orlando with the fancy that the soul of his mistress had migrated into the body of a page. This Rosalind might even meet the penetrating eye of that old sinner Jaques, experienced as he was in all the arts and deceits of men and women, in all climes and in all countries. With this Rosalind Phebe indeed might fall in love; and a Phebe must love a man.

Nor are the perfection of Rosalind's disguise and the concealment of her sex from the eyes of her companions important only in regard to her supposed relations with them. It is essential to the development of her character, and even to the real significance of what she says and does. The character of Rosalind plainly took shape in Shakespeare's mind from the situations in which he found her. The problem which he, in the making of an entertaining play, unconsciously solved was this: Given a woman in such situations, what manner of woman must she be to win the man she loves, to charm her friends, to defy respectfully her usurping uncle, and to bewilder, bewitch, and delight her lover, meeting him in the disguise of a man? And what sort of woman must she be to do all this with the respect, the admiration, and the sympathy of every man, and moreover of every woman, in the world that looks on from the other side of the footlights, which are the flaming barrier about that enchanted ground, the Forest of Arden?

The woman that he made to do all this had, first of all, her large and bounteous personal beauty. But this, although a great step toward winning such wide admiration and sympathy, is but one step. It is hardly necessary to say that it is Rosalind's character, revealed under the extraordinary circumstances in which she is placed, that makes her the most charming, the most captivating, of all Shakespeare's women; one only, the peerless Imogen, excepted. Now Rosalind's character is composed mainly of three elements, too rarely found in harmonious combination: a proneness to love, which must plainly be called amorousness; a quickness of wit and a sense of humor...and combined with these, tempering them, elevating them, glorifying them, a certain quality which can only be called an intense womanliness, a muliebrity, which radiates from her and fills the air around her with the influence like a subtle and delicate but penetrating perfume of her sex. Her distinctive quality, that which marks her off from all the rest of Shakespeare's women, is her sense of wit and humor, in combination with her womanliness. Others of his women, notably Viola and Imogen, are as loving, as tender, and as womanly. No other is witty and humorous and womanly too; for example, notably, Beatrice, who is very witty, but not very womanly, nor indeed very loving.

Now the position in which Rosalind figures in the four acts which pass in the Forest of Arden brings out, as it would seem no other could bring out, her wittiness and her humorousness in direct relation to and combination with her sensitive, tender, and passionful nature. Rosalind, for all her soft, sweet apprehensiveness and doubt about Orlando's value of that which she has given to him before he had shown that he desired it, enjoys the situation in which she is placed. She sees the fun of it, as Celia, for example, hardly sees it; and she relishes it with the keenest appetite. If that situation is not emphasized for the spectators of her little mysterious mask of love by what is, for them, the absolute and perfectly probable and natural deception of Orlando, Rosalind lacks the very reason of her being. To enjoy what she does and what she is, to give her our fullest sympathy we must not be called upon to make believe very hard that Orlando does not see she is the woman that he loves; while at the same time we must see that he feels that around this saucy lad there is floating a mysterious atmosphere of tenderness, of enchanting fancy, and of a most delicate sensitiveness. Moreover, we must see that Rosalind herself is at rest about her incognito, and that she can say her tender, witty, boy-masked sayings undisturbed by the least consciousness that Orlando's eyes can see through the doublet and hose, which at once become her first concern, her instant thought, when she is told plainly that he is in the Forest of Arden.

The perfection of her disguise is thus essential to the higher purpose of the comedy. Rosalind was fair; but after having seen her in her brilliant beauty at the court of her usurping uncle, we must be content, as she was, to see it browned to the hue of forest exposure, and deprived of all the pretty coquetries of personal adornment which sit so well upon her sex, and to find in her, our very selves, the outward seeming of a somewhat overbold and soldierly young fellow, who is living, half shepherd, half hunter, in welcomed companionship with a band of gentlemanly outlaws. Unless all this is set very clearly and unmistakably before us by the physical and merely external appearance of our heroine, there is an incongruity fatal to the idea of the comedy, and directly at variance with the clearly defined intentions of its writer.

That incongruity always exists in a greater or less degree in the performance of all the Rosalinds of the stage. I can make no exception. In case of the best Rosalinds I have ever seen, the supposition that Orlando was deceived, or that any other man could be deceived, in the sex of Ganymede was absurd, preposterous. They all dress the page in such a way, they all play the page in such a way, that his womanhood is salient. It looks from his eye, it is spoken from his lips, just as plainly as it is revealed by his walk and by the shape and action of the things he walks with. That they should dress the part with female coquetry is, if not laudable, at least admissible, excusable. The highest sense of art is perhaps not powerful enough to lead a woman to lay aside, before assembled hundreds, all the graces peculiar to her sex; but surely no artist, who at this stage of the world's appreciation of Shakespeare ventures to undertake the representation of this character, ought to fail in an apprehension of its clearly and simply defined external traits, or in the action by which those traits are revealed.

It is the function of comedy to present an ideal of human life in a lightly satirical and amusing form. A comedy without wit, without humor, without the occasion of laughter, not necessarily boisterous, nor even hearty, fails as a comedy, although it may not be without interest as a drama. "As You Like It" is supremely successful in this respect. It does not provoke loud laughter; I believe that I never heard a "house laugh" at any performance of it at which I was present; but during its last four acts we listen to it with gently smiling hearts. It is filled with the atmosphere of dainty fun. Rosalind herself enjoys the fun of her strange position; she delights in her own humorous sallies almost, if not quite, as much as Falstaff revels in his. She is divided between the pleasure which she derives from the mystification of Orlando and the sweet trouble of her desire to make sure of his love.

Now this peculiar trait of her character cannot be fully developed unless she carries out to the utmost extreme her assumption of manhood, while she is in Orlando's company. To him she must indeed seem as if she had "a doublet and hose in her disposition." She must not lift a corner even of her mental garments, to show him the woman's heart that is trembling underneath. She wheedles him into making love to her (by a contrivance somewhat transparent to us, it is true, but not so easily seen through by him, and which, at any rate, must be accepted as a necessary condition of the action of the play), but the slightest attempt at open love-making to him on her part is ruinous; it destroys at once the humor and even the charm of the situation. We see at once that it would have startled Orlando, and opened his eyes very wide indeed. And yet she must show us, who are in her secret, all the time "how many fathom deep she is in love." That outbreak of tender anxiety when she suddenly asks him, " But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?" reveals everything to us, who know everything already ; but to Orlando it is a very simple and natural question. He need not understand the sad, sweet earnestness of the inquiry. True, indeed, she does with woman's art contrive in some mysterious way that Orlando shall kiss the youth whom he in sport doth call his Rosalind, which, because of the kissing customs of those days, she might bring about more easily and safely than she could now. But Shakespeare is wisely content to let us know by her own sweet well-kissed lips, that this act of her vicarious love-making has been duly and repeatedly performed. It takes place in secret, in some of those interviews which he did not venture to set before our eyes, so instinctively cautious was he not to break down the illusion which is the very heart and centre of this delightful work of dramatic art. Incongruity is an essential element of the ridiculous; and the humor of the action of the play (apart from its words) consists in the constantly presented inconsistency between Rosalind's external appearance and her inward feeling. She must seem to Orlando, and she must seem to us (although we know to the contrary) to be a young man, or we lose the humor of half that she says and does, which she herself enjoys with a zest quite as great as ours. This trait of her character, mentioned before, cannot be too strongly insisted upon. It is shown in her answer to her father (which she tells to Celia), who asked her of what parentage she was. " I told him," she replies, "of as good as he." Now Rosalind took great delight in thus "chaffing" her own father. The absurdity of the situation, the preposterousness of the question from him to her, and the humor of her answer made her eyes dance with pleasure. Viola and Imogen wore their doublets and hose with a difference.

For these reasons the complete disguise of Rosalind, her absolute sinking of her feminine personality, is of the utmost importance in the effective representation of this play. Must I say, however, that this matter of external seeming, although of unusual moment and significance, is but the mere material condition and starting-point of the action, which reveals to us the soul and mind of this captivating woman, in whom tenderness and archness, passion and purity, are ever striving with each other, and whose wit and waywardness are ever controlled in the end by innate modesty? And by modesty I do not mean either chastity or shame; which I say, because the three things are by so many people strangely and injuriously confounded. Rosalind, we may be sure, was chaste; Orlando had no cause of trouble on that score. But as an ideal woman, she was as far above the belittling of common shame as a Greek goddess. But, besides her chastity, she was modest. Modesty is a graceful distrust of one's own value and importance, and quite as frequently found in men as in women. Women thoroughly unchaste are not infrequently enchantingly modest; women as chaste as she-dragons (if she-dragons are particularly distinguished for this virtue) are often ungraciously immodest. And so it is with the inferior and conventionally limited sensation I cannot call it sentiment of shame. Women who are both unchaste and immodest have in many cases a shrinking bodily shame (determined mostly, if not absolutely, by the custom of their day), which is thoughtlessly lacking in some women of true purity and of the sweetest and most winning modesty of soul.

To return to Rosalind. It will be found that, notwithstanding her readiness to put a man's clothes upon her body and a man's boldness over her heart, notwithstanding her very plain speech upon subjects which nowadays many a harlot would wince at, the real Rosalind, underneath that saucy, swaggering, booted-and-sworded outside, was sweetly modest; and that, notwithstanding her birth and her beauty, and the mental superiority of which she must have been conscious, she was doubting all the while whether she was worthy of the love of such a man as Orlando, and thinking with constant alarm of that more than half confession that she had made, unwooed, to him upon the wrestling-ground. The absolute incongruity between the real Rosalind and the seeming Ganymede is the very essence of the comedy of her situation. One example of this, which I have never seen properly emphasized upon the stage: At the end of the first interview with Orlando in the Forest, after she has wheedled him into wooing her as Rosalind, she asks him to go with her to her cot.

Ros. 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?
Orl. With all my heart, good youth.
Ros. Nay, you must call me Rosalind. Come, sister, will you go?
Act III. Sc. 2.

Now here most Rosalinds go shyly off with Celia, and leave Orlando to come dangling after them; but when I read this passage I see Ganymede jauntily slip his arm into Orlando's, and lead him off, laughingly lecturing him about the name; then turn his head over his shoulder, and say, "Come, sister!" leaving Celia astounded at the boundless "cheek" of her enamored cousin.

Rosalind, poor girl, with all her strength and elasticity, is not always able to stand up firmly against the flood of emotion which pours over her heart. For example, after the mock marriage, her doubts again begin to overwhelm her, and she asks Orlando how long he would have her; a question which her situation makes touchingly pathetic. (This cry of woman for love! It would be ridiculous, if it were not so sadly, piteously earnest, amid all its pretty sweetness.) And then the doubting, half-made bride, looking forward, in love man thinks only of the present, woman is always looking forward; for love makes her future, utters that sad little bit of commonplace generality about man's wearying of the woman he has won and has possessed, thinking, plainly, all the while of herself and what may come to her; when suddenly, recollecting her part, and that she is in danger of showing what she really is, she breaks sharply off, and with rapid raillery and shrewish accent she pours out upon him that mock threat, beginning, "I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen." And again in this scene, when Orlando parts from her, and promises to return in two hours, her badinage wavers very doubtfully between jest and earnest, between humor and sentiment; but she catches herself before she falls, and beginning, " By my troth, and in good earnest, and so God mend me," and so forth, again takes refuge in exaggerated menaces of her coming displeasure.

All this is charming, even when but tolerably well set forth, and by such Rosalinds as we customarily see upon the stage; but how much it usually falls short of the effect which Shakespeare imagined can be known only to those who can see that in the mind's eye, or who shall see it, some time, in reality.

On the other hand, our stage Rosalinds are not womanly enough when they are out of sight of Orlando and of other men; when, indeed, from reaction and relaxed nerves, they should be womanly even unto womanishness. When Rosalind is with Celia she is the more woman-like of the two; the more capricious, sensitive, tender, passionful, apprehensive. It is Celia, then, who, after her mild fashion, assumes the wit and the female cynic. But our stage Rosalinds give us a lukewarm rendering of both phases of the behavior of the real Rosalind. They offer us one epicene monster, instead of two natural creatures. They are too woman-like when they are with Orlando, and too man-like when they are with Celia. And when is it that we have seen a stage Rosalind that showed us what the Rosalind of our imagination felt at the sight of the bloody handkerchief? I never saw but one: Mrs. Charles Kean. The last that I saw behaved much as if Oliver had shown her a beetle, which she feared might fly upon her; and in the end she turned and clung to Celia's shoulder. But as Oliver tells his story the blood of the real Rosalind runs curdling from her brain to her heart, and she swoons away, falls like one dead, to be caught by the wondering Oliver. Few words are spoken, because few are needed; but this swoon is no brief incident; and Rosalind recovers only to be led off by the aid of Oliver and Celia. And here the girl again makes an attempt to assert her manhood. She insists that she counterfeited, and repeats her assertion. Then here again the stage Rosalinds all fail to present her as she is. They say "counterfeit" with at least some trace of a sly smile, and as if they did not quite expect or wholly desire Oliver to believe them. But Rosalind was in sad and grievous earnest. Never word that she uttered was more sober and serious than her "counterfeit I assure you." And the fun of the situation, which is never absent in "As You Like It," consists in the complex of incongruity, the absurdity of a young swashbuckler's fainting at the sight of a bloody handkerchief, the absurdity of Rosalind's protest that her swoon and deadly horror were counterfeit, combining with our knowledge of the truth of the whole matter.

All this may be very true, our gently smiling manager replies; but do you suppose that you are going to get any actress to brown her face and rig herself up so that she will actually look like a young huntsman, and play her part so that a man might unsuspectingly take her for another man? O most verdant critic, do you not know why it is that actresses come before the public? It is for two reasons, of which it would be hard to say which is the more potent: to have the public delight in them, and to get money. It is in themselves personally that they wish to interest their audiences, not in their author or his creations; those furnish but the means and the occasion of accomplishing the former. Hence it is that in all modern plays, in all (practically) that have been written since actresses came upon the stage, the women's parts must be attractive. We cannot ask an actress under fifty years of age to (in stage phrase) "play against the house." Above all, we cannot ask an actress of less than those years to put herself, as a woman, before the house in anything but an attractive form. She must have an opportunity to exhibit herself and her "toilettes;" especially both, but particularly the latter. And, O most priggish and carping critic, with your musty notions about what Shakespeare meant, and such fusty folly, the public like it as it is. They care more to see a pretty woman, with a pretty figure, prancing saucily about the stage in silk-tights, and behaving like neither man nor woman, than they would to see a booted, doubletted, felt-hatted Rosalind, behaving now like a real man and now like a real woman.

To which the critic replies, O most sapient and worldly wise manager, I know all that; and, moreover, that it is the reason why, instead of a Rosalind of Shakespeare's making, we have that hybrid thing, the stage Rosalind.


Footnote 1: And her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Act I. Sc. 1.

Footnote 2: Remark, for example, all the love tales told in the course of Don Quixote.

How to cite this article:

White, Richard Grant. Studies in Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1887. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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