As You Like It: What if Orlando knew?
Of all of the heroines in Shakespeare’s Canon, I have always loved Rosalind. Since I first read her at fifteen, she was my desire. But, I hated her play, AS YOU LIKE IT. The problem was Orlando. I could never be as stupid or vapid as he had to be not figure out this boy in the forest, Ganymede, was actually Rosalind, the woman he fell in love with at Court.[i] He’s wandering around the forest posting hideous poetry extolling the virtues of “his Rosalind”, then he meets her disguised as a boy and he doesn’t recognize her. What a dolt.
Remember, both Rosalind and Orlando were banished from the Court. They separately escaped to the Forest where Duke Senior is hiding out after being usurped by Duke Fred. When Orlando meets Rosalind in the forest, she is disguised like a teenage boy called Ganymede. Rosalind (as Ganymede) abuses Orlando for marring the trees with bad poetry and questions if he is a true love. She/he offers to cure Orlando of his love sickness by having him pretend that he/she is his love, Rosalind. Orlando accepts the cure, to pleasure and annoyance.
Everyone plays Orlando as if he doesn’t know Ganymede is actually Rosalind. Most play this misidentification until the end of the play when Rosalind returns in her female attire. Some Orlandos figure it out in Act V, Scene 2 when Orlando responds: “I can live no longer by thinking.” to Rosalind’s question: “Why then tomorrow I cannot serve your turn for Rosalind?”
How could Orlando be so stupid as not recognize her? Being in love with Rosalind as I was, how could I see myself in this dolt? I’m sure I would have figured it out. It doesn’t help that most Rosalinds do not pull off the boy disguise. I mean, who are they kidding? And, don’t start flinging phrases like the “throes of love” or the “willful suspension of disbelief”. I thought, if theater was to instruct me on how to live in my world (and find a girl like Rosalind), I needed a better example than Orlando.
I stage managed WOMEN OF WILL, PART II, Tina Packer’s exploration of the feminine in Shakespeare. These lecture/performances gave/give Tina the opportunity to discuss her big ideas about Shakespeare and the chance to play all of the leading women in Shakespeare.[ii] In the second part Going Underground or Dying Tell the Truth,[iii] Tina and Johnny Lee Davenport played Rosalind and Orlando in a section of Act IV, Scene 1. They were well past being the age of young lovers. While Tina’s Juliet was fully believable, Johnny Lee and Tina’s maturity deeply undermined the situation of Orlando believing that this Ganymede was not actually Rosalind. It didn’t work. He had to become more foolish to keep it up. And, she had to ignore that he was a daft. Watching it night after night, I wondered: what if he knew?
What if Orlando knew that Ganymede was Rosalind upon their first meeting in the forest?
Part of the greatness of Shakespeare is that every line can hold many meanings. When you speak the text of lesser playwrights, there is usually only one or two ways to say it. Shakespeare can go lots of places. I started hearing Orlando’s lines with the thought, he knows. It worked for every line. He can know it is Rosalind and choose to play along. This makes him smarter and not an idiot. He chooses to play her game. The flirtation and getting to know you aspects of the scenes become more heightened and sexy.[iv]
The question that follows is: If Orlando knows Ganymede is Rosalind, does Rosalind know that Orlando knows? Either right away or at some moment? And, if she knows he knows, does he know she knows he knows? And does she know that he knows she knows?[v]
When I directed AS YOU LIKE IT at The Shakespeare Project in Frederick, Maryland, now called the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, we gave this idea a go. When Drew Kahl auditioned, he said he’d play anything but Orlando. He couldn’t play that idiot, even Silvius’ unrequited obsession with Phoebe is more playable. However, he became intrigued with the idea of Orlando knowing. It completely worked in the rehearsal room and added so much to the playing. Outside onstage in the big field I doubt many playgoers could figure out the convention, though it continued to inform the playing. I’ve always wondered how it would play in a more intimate space. We played that he knew Ganymede was Rosalind; she realized he knew; and he suspected she knew, though it was unclear if she knew he knew she knew. This added more fun. Don’t believe me? Give it a read with the thought that he knows: As You Like It: III.2 lines 294-435; IV.1; it informs IV.3 lines 74-183; V.2; and V.4.
What I liked best about the idea is that it made the play between Rosalind and Orlando smart. The lesson Rosalind was teaching Orlando was how to love. He was learning how to love her rather than be in love with the idea of her. This was not displaced courtly love. This was the love of two equals.
By learning how to love and come into balance with his own femininity, he could forgive and save his brother’s life when threatened by the lion. The realignment between the masculine-feminine in the relationship between Orlando and Rosalind led to resolving the masculine-masculine feuds between the brothers. Duke Frederick could meet the religious man and not attack Duke Senior and the people of the forest. The play could end in love, marriage and procreation, rather than in hate, bloodshed, and death.
I learned from an Orlando who could recognize the boy in the forest as the woman he loved. This was an Orlando that I could aspire to be. While he learned how to love, so did I.
[i] Short synopsis if you need more: Duke Frederick has led a coup to oust his brother, Duke Senior. Duke Fred allows his niece, Rosalind, to stay in the court with his daughter, Celia. They’re besties. Duke Senior has fled to the forest where in my view he is hunkering down and preparing for the coming battle against his brother. Orlando is the youngest son of the deceased Sir Roland de Boys. His older brother, Oliver, rejects him. The action in the play is driven by brothers who hate each other. Orlando decides to go to Court to win money by wrestling the champion, Charles, the Wrestler. Oliver pays Charles to kill Orlando. Rosalind meets Orlando. They are smitten. Orlando wins. He beats the champion. When Duke Fred learns he is the son of Sir Roland de Boys, he exiles him. Orlando also learns that Oliver is planning to kill him. He escapes to the forest to join up with Duke Senior. Meanwhile, Duke Fred tells Rosalind she has to leave the court. Rosalind and Celia, who won’t be separated, devise a plan to go find Duke Senior. Due to the perils of young women travelling alone, Rosalind decides to disguise herself as boy. It is in this garb that she meets Orlando in the woods. When she meets him, she abuses him for marring the trees with bad poetry and being a lover. She offers to cure him of his love sickness. Orlando, supposedly believing this is a youth, accepts his cure which involves him treating the boy as his Rosalind.
[ii] WOMEN OF WILL was/is brilliant. It has impacted everything I think about Shakespeare. I count myself lucky to have worked on it. Tina still performs it, sometimes as one part, other times as a six or seven part series. If you have a chance, see it!
[iii] Going Underground or Dying to Tell the Truth – Tina’s thesis is that in the middle plays, the heroines have two choices: disguise themselves in some way and live in a comedy (Portia in Merchant, Viola in 12th Night, Helena in All’s Well, or Imogen in Cymbeline) or stay in their womanly robes and end up dead in a tragedy (Juliet in R&J, Portia in Julius Caesar, Ophelia in Hamlet, or Desdemona in Othello). They can’t speak the truth as women and stay alive. To survive, they must subvert the system and disguise themselves to speak the truth. The feminine must go underground to survive. It’s pretty bleak, but get’s better in the later plays when the daughter’s redeem the fathers.
[iv] By having him know he is a she you avoid the homoerotic foibles of Orlando falling for Ganymede who is a guy, though secretly played by a girl. He likes a girl, but now he is falling for this boy. Does he like boys or is it because the boy is playing the girl he loves? In Shakespeare’s theater, a boy played a girl pretending to be a boy. Ambiguous sexuality makes for a good telling of this story, but becomes a bit of red herring in any production that does not exclusively want to be about that.
[v] There is a great RSA Animate by Steven Pinker on this topic of communication. I don’t agree with him on all things, but this is shall we say spot on. In it, he talks about the politeness of being inexact in our language. What is implied is different than what is spoken directly. http://www.thersa.org/events/rsaanimate/animate/rsa-animate-language-as-a-window-into-human-nature