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When Shakespeare wrote his plays, women were not permitted to perform on stage, so boys played all of the female characters. Unlike many apprenticeships, a boy learning to become an actor had no set age at which to begin and no set length of how long to study, but they usually began around the age of ten and continued playing women or adolescent roles for about seven years. These boys were apprenticed to a specific actor within an acting group, and were not attached to the organization as a whole. There was a very strong teacher-pupil relationship between the adult actor and the boy, but there was also very often a father-son relationship. The boys usually lived in the adult actors home with his family. The idea of an apprentice is not difficult to imagine, but for many modern audiences, a boy playing the role of a women is very difficult to picture. This picture is even more difficult to see when examining the plays of Shakespeare and the strong female characters that he often depicts. (Bentley 117)
In Shakespeare's As You Like It, Rosalind has many layers and acts as a character taking on many different roles. The idea that there is a boy playing a woman disguised as a man pretending to be a woman for wooing, is one that is confusing and yet makes sense. What adds to this is the idea that Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, is pretending to be Rosalind, not another woman, but herself. One can see that she occasionally slips from the role of Ganymede pretending, to being Rosalind, with comments such as "And I am your Rosalind" (Norton 4.1-56) and "By my life, she will do as I do" (Norton 4.1-135). In these instances it is as though Rosalind forgets that she is disguised as a man, but what does this mean for the actor playing her character? For one it shows that he must be clear as to which role of the character he was playing. As one can imagine
"An audience would be confused unless the performer, regardless of gender, made it clear when Rosalind herself was speaking, when the character was speaking as Ganymede, and when Ganymede was the stereotyped 'Rosalind'" (Shapiro 122).
This idea brings up the versatility that the boy must have had in order to play such a role.
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The answer to this question is yes, a boy could have played the role convincingly to an audience, and whether he comprehended the character he was playing would vary according to the actor. Many modern audiences find it difficult to picture a boy playing the role of such a strong female character, but that is because most modern audiences have never seen a trained boy actor. It is a feat of imagination for most modern audiences to picture any actor playing a character outside of their own gender and age group (Bentley 113). In reality though these boy-actresses were very well rehearsed in playing female roles, after all they are the types of roles that they were trained to play for about the first seven years of their careers. One must also remember that female actresses on the Shakespearean stage were something completely unheard of and unimaginable. What the audience saw was "a boy impersonating Rosalind" (Shapiro 126), not only in the idea that Ganymede was impersonate the character of Rosalind, but that there was a boy-actress playing the role. Many think that the actor who originally played Rosalind was a well-known actor and, "Whatever the real personality of that boy, it must have been difficult for spectators to separate the play-boy from the pert cheeky adolescent, even if the pert and cheeky adolescent was, in the world of the play, a disguise adopted by a female character" (Shapiro 125).
This idea suggests that even though there was a boy playing this strong female role, she was in fact pretending to be a man, thus making the disguise more convincing for the Shakespearean audience and modern audiences.
The idea of role-playing within the character can be taken even further. The boy-actress playing Rosalind had to take on two different roles simultaneously, without being completely overcome by either character. She is able to understand the limits of a particular character and choose the correct role for an occasion, as well as play them detached from her other parts and even from her reality. The actual character of Rosalind is able to see the irony in both roles that she plays and she knows that "her behaviour is merely one possible role among many" (Van Laan 40).
An aspect of role-playing that the character, and therefore the actor of Rosalind must take into consideration is the two worlds within the play. Each offers a unique role to play and encourages the differences in Rosalind. The boy-actress of Rosalind then must decide if he is to act as a boy would act, or if he should act as a woman pretending to be a man.
Yet another aspect of the role-playing within As You Like It is the idea that Rosalind is in love with Orlando, and from her role as Ganymede, she can manipulate Orlando, learn about him, and ultimately find out if he is "the right husband for her" (Gardner 68). Gardner, a critic, brings up the interesting point that "By playing with him in the role of a boy, she discovers when she can play no more" (68). One of the most important decisions for the actor playing Rosalind was when to take on each role, and being able to try out her strength of wit in the disguise of a man, gives her the upper hand in their relationship, and shows an unconventional role for women at the time. Some critics think that the reason Shakespeare disguised women as men was to make it easier for the actors, but many others will argue that the character of "Rosalind is far too complex to be explained this way" (Muir 90). In this unconventional love story, there is "a boy pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a boy, pretending to be a women, satirizing feminine behaviour," (Muir 90) attempting to cure a man of love for the woman the actor is playing and pretending to be, all while assuring that he will not be cured, but fall deeper in love.
The most interesting contrast between the boy-actress and woman character in As You Like It can be seen in the Epilogue. Rosalind says,
"It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no
epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good
epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am
neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with
you in the behalf of a good play! I am not
furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not
become me: my way is to conjure you; and I'll begin
with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love
you bear to men, to like as much of this play as
please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women--as I perceive by your simpering,
none of you hates them--that between you and the
women the play may please. If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good
beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my
kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell"
The Epilogue of As You Like It is the only one in Elizabethan plays to be assigned to a female character, yet throughout it, one can see the many references made both to the disguise of Rosalind during the play as well as to the boy that played this female character. The first irony to be seen is in the first line that states, "It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue." In this statement, one can see the irony of Rosalind's character. Not only is a boy playing her, but she has spent most of the play disguised as a male. The entire play has a comic tone to it, which does not end in the Epilogue. The irony in the contrast of the words spoken and the disguised boy are very comical and would have kept the light feel of the play completely to the end. By simply giving the Epilogue, Rosalind maintains the control that she had while disguised as Ganymede. Yet, toward the end the actor makes reference to himself saying, "If I were a woman" (Norton Epilogue-14), suggesting that there was maybe some motion such as the "removal of a wig or some article of female attire" (Shapiro 132). The removal of something physical such as a wig would then reveal the true identity of the actor, in contrast to there being no physical revealing of Rosalind disguised as Ganymede. In the lines that follow, one also sees the acquisition of a masculine role by the character of Rosalind. She says "I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not" (Norton Epilogue-15-16). The control taken here would be uncharacteristic of a female in the Shakespearean time, confirming that maybe the actor had then revealed himself and was then speaking as a man. If this is so, he then makes another reference to playing a female by mentioning that he will "curtsy" when he bids them farewell.
Not only was the actor who played Rosalind a young boy and a strong actor, he was also mature enough to recognize the humor in the irony of the role that he played. Shakespeare did not disguise Rosalind as a male to make it easier for the actor, but instead to show off the actor's talent of being able to play a character with so many layers and roles. The idea that there are so many repeating gender switches for just one character was probably very humorous to the audience, and fun for the actor. Shakespeare used all of the aspects of As You Like It to set up rules and realms where different aspects of a character and an actor could best be shown, and this reflects the different roles that he saw the people in his life take on every-day.
"As You Like It." The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1997.
Bentley, Gerald Eades. The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984.
Gardner, Helen. "As You Like It." Ed by Kenneth Muir. Shakespeare: The Comedies. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1979.
Shapiro, Michael. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Van Laan, Thomas. Role-Playing in Shakespeare. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.