Homoeroticism in Shakespeare's As You Like It

Megan Culleton

Daniel Galvin

World Literature - Section 1

28 November 2006

Homoeroticism in Shakespeare’s As You Like It

     Homoeroticism is a major theme in William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.  Much emphasis has been placed on the extremely intimate friendship between Celia and Rosalind, on Rosalind’s choice of the name “Ganymede” for her disguise, of Orlando’s willingness to woo Ganymede in Rosalind’s stead, and on Phoebe’s love for Rosalind/Ganymede.  However, while As You Like It is indeed one of Shakespeare’s most gender-sensitive plays, I do not think that homosexuality is the defining theme of the play.  Instead, it focuses on the freedom that springs from ignoring traditional gender roles and boundaries.

     Celia and Rosalind’s friendship is indeed something out of the ordinary.  As Charles says, “never two ladies loved as they do.” (Knowles 21)  When Rosalind is banished from the Duke’s court, Celia speaks of their love for each other and how they grew and slept together, and even banishes herself by choosing to go with Rosalind (Knowles 59-65).  The two women have grown up closer than sisters even, and the obvious question is whether or not their relationship is something more than a mere friendship.  Indeed, many critical articles consider Rosalind’s love for Orlando to be an abandonment of Celia (Bloom 159).

     Rosalind’s choice of name for her male disguise is very interesting and extremely significant.  Ganymede was a beautiful young man in ancient Greek mythology whom Zeus desired and so took to be his cup-bearer (Knowles 64).  This is foreshadowing of Rosalind’s being “universally attractive, to women as to men.”  (Bloom 148)  It is certainly no coincidence that, in breaking the gender boundaries by dressing as a man, she further broke them by giving her male alter ego the name of a well-known homosexual.  When one considers the actual mechanics of the play, it becomes even more intriguing: a male actor playing a female who is playing a male who is named after a homosexual.

     The next homoerotic situation is obviously the Rosalind/Ganymede-Orlando relationship.  Orlando was suspiciously willing to accept Ganymede as a substitute for his Rosalind.  Was he attracted to Ganymede in a homosexual way, or did Ganymede simply remind him of Rosalind?  Or did he maybe even recognize Rosalind behind her disguise?  During a conversation between the two, many words of feminine import are exchanged.  Orlando calls Ganymede a “pretty youth.”  Rosalind says she dwells “in the skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat,” and says that she is as native to the forest “as the cony that you see dwell where she is kindled,” with “cony” being a term of endearment for females (Bloom 65-6).  Is this feminine innuendo accidental, or does Orlando recognize that Ganymede is, in fact, Rosalind?  And if he does not recognize her, why is he so willing to play lovers with Ganymede? 

     Phoebe’s “love at first sight” for Ganymede/Rosalind is also worthy of attention.  It is perhaps more believable that Phoebe does not recognize that Ganymede is really a woman than that neither Orlando nor Rosalind’s own father recognized her.  However, Rosalind obviously could not hide her femininity very well, and thus makes for a very effeminate male.  Is Phoebe simply attracted to this type of man, or is she subconsciously attracted to the woman behind Ganymede?  Also interesting is the fact that Rosalind objects so strongly against the love another woman has for her, declaring “I am for no woman.”  However, she has no problem with such male relationships, such as Orlando using a “man” to replace his female love.  Indeed, Shakespeare seems to be making a point against close female relationships, considering how quickly and easily Celia and Rosalind’s affection for each other is replaced when they find male loves (Bloom 54).

     Despite all this evidence of homoeroticism in As You Like It, what is much more interesting is how the significance of these relationships changes when looked at from a different perspective: namely, that of freedom from gender-specific boundaries.  The pastoral setting of the play, the Forest of Arden, has a liberating effect on both men and women.  They “are permitted an expansion of sexual identity that transcends restrictive gender roles.”  (Bloom 51)  Orlando and Rosalind seem to feel the effects of this liberation most strongly, as it “reverses their gendered characteristics.”  (Callaghan 61)  Rosalind becomes more masculine in that she gains strength and control.  Orlando becomes a bit more feminine; the traits of compassion and gentleness appear in him.  Celia also feels the liberating effects of pastoral life even before they reach the forest, when she says “Now go we in content to liberty, and not to banishment.”  (Bloom 44) 

     This transgender freedom extends beyond the fantasy world of the play and into the real world of the actors.  Female roles in Shakespeare’s time were played by young boys.  As Harold Bloom says, “In the boy-actor motif, woman is a metaphor for the male discovery of the feminine within himself.”  Taking on female roles allowed both the male actors and the male spectators to experience “what otherwise might remain unknown, forbidden territory.”  (53)  Just as the liberating effects of the Forest of Arden free the characters from their traditional gender roles and allow them to cross boundaries, so the actors playing the female parts are allowed to experiment with alternate genders.  Finally is the Prologue to the play.  The Prologue is given by the actor who played Rosalind, yet the actor gives it as a male.  “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue: but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue.”  (Callaghan 261).  In other words, it is against tradition for a woman to have the prologue, and yet it is against etiquette for a male to give the prologue when they should be deferring to women.  Therefore, by making a male actor give the prologue both as the female character and as a male actor, Shakespeare gives us a brilliant compromise and once again muddles the boundaries between male and female. 

     Thus is Shakespeare’s As You Like It a play not of homosexuality, but of blurring the boundaries between male and female genders.  Critics who apply sexual politics, which Harold Bloom calls “one of the most hideous of our current critical fashions,” to this play are missing the point (149).  The homoeroticism and transvestitism within the play are not a theme of themselves.  Instead, they contribute to the much larger theme of transgender freedom.  As You Like It is absolutely a tale of breaking traditions—just not sexual traditions, as critics today would lead us to believe.  Through the play, Shakespeare introduces us to a world where men and women are free to explore the characteristics of the opposite sex; indeed, a world where the term “opposite sex” is meaningless. 




Annotated Bibliography

Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s

            As You Like It. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

                        This is the source of information on the Celia-Rosalind relationship, the

                        pastoral setting, hetero- and homoeroticism, and the sexual relationships in

                        As You Like It.

Callaghan, Dympna. A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Malden: Blackwell

            Publishers, 2000.

                        This provides interesting views on the question of sexuality in the play,

                        namely homoerotic relationships from a feminist point of view.

Gajowski, Evelyn. Re-Visions of Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of Robert Ornstein.

            Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

                        This is the source of an essay on how the pastoral setting allows social

                        norms to be played with and sometimes broken by imbuing people with a

                        sense of freedom and ancient mythology.

Knowles, Richard. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: As You Like It. New York:

            The Modern Language Association of North America, 1977.

                        This is the actual text of the play, with a few notes on the more obvious

                        homoerotic tones of the play.

Ryan, Keirnan. Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

                        This provides information of Shakespearean England, helping to support

                        the idea that homoeroticism was not so socially shocking in his time.