Gender and Coming of Age in Shakespeare’s As You Like It

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Gender and Coming of Age in Shakespeare’s As You Like It

Shakespeare introduces the protagonists of his comedy, As You Like It, as youths mourning the absence of their fathers: Orlando remarks on the consequences of his father’s death and Rosalind first appears despairing over her father’s exile. He closes the play with the marriage of these youths. The absence of their respective fathers centrally figures into their courtship and preparation for marriage. Even more noticeable is the absence of all mothers—not a single mother or older wife appears in the play. The young women, Rosalind and Celia, enter adulthood, seemingly without any female role models. Such responses impact the development of the young protagonists, causing the two friends, Rosalind and Celia, to be remarkably independent of gender conventions and the constraints of older generations. The absence of elder influences allows Rosalind and Celia to shape their adult lives, particularly as they forge their own unique approaches towards marriage and realizations of the institution.

In the absence of natural fathers, different characters volunteer as surrogate fathers for Orlando, but not for Rosalind. Without soliciting it, Orlando receives help and guidance from Duke Senior and Adam. For example, the ravenous Orlando interrupts Duke Senior’s banquet and orders them to stop eating, demanding food for Adam and himself. Duke Senior asks him why he so rudely demands food and then advises Orlando that “gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness” (2.7.101-102).* Warmly inviting the embarrassed Orlando to his table, the Duke offers him his friendship as he takes Orlando aside to speak privately. Orlando receives such unsolicited help from ...

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...ns emotional maturity. Orlando finally achieves social adulthood and Rosalind achieves personal maturity. While the Shakespearean era certainly structured gender roles quite differently from our own, many women today find themselves, like Rosalind and Celia, in a forest of men without female role models. Though decrying the lack of female role models has become trendy, it is important to remember that the leadership of the older generation comes with its own constraints. As each generation forges its own identity, perhaps it is the very absence of such role models and the freedom to wear a man’s hat or a beggar’s cloak that allow the most independent expressions of adulthood to emerge.

Work Cited

*Shakespeare, As You Like It, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 1997).
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