Rosalind as Poetry Critic: The “Love Plot” in As You Like It
In As You Like It, in contrast to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other Shakespeare comedies, the main “love plot” is not introduced until later in the play. Watching the Independent Shakespeare Company of Los Angeles (ISCLA)’s delightful and thought-provoking performance in time, reminded how long we’re actually stuck in the “envious court,” presided over by Duke Frederick (who has villainously usurped power from the rightful duke, his brother). The romantic plot takes a while to assert itself. At first, it seems like a sub-plot. You could even say it is incapable of making a genuine first move.
As many critics have suggested, the play is more about “gender politics.” When Celia and Rosalind enter, against the backdrop of the male-dominated court, they begin speaking of gender more than love, and the themes they introduce---the relationship between women’s honesty and beauty, and fortune and nature’s “offices”-- will clearly be taken up later in the play (most blatantly in Touchstone and Audrey’s relationship). When the idea of “love” is introduced, it is introduced as “sport,” a diversion from Rosalind’s misery before she meets Orlando.
When Rosalind and Orlando do meet, both size each other up as much by character (and specifically their parentage—the similarity, and even solidarity, between their banished parents) as by their physical aspects (his wrestling prowess, her beauty). So even after this meeting establishes a possible love story, it is still deferred as both Rosalind and Orlando defect to the forest of Arden (not coincidentally the maiden-name of Shakespeare’s mother), which is already inhabited by her father, the banished Duke. In fact, Rosalind’s famous “To liberty, then, not banishment” speech becomes a thesis statement for the first Arden scenes. Most of Act II is interested in showing the character of the Duke’s court-in-exile in contrast to his bother’s court than in the natives of Arden.
II. “That Is The Way To Make Her Scorn You Still”
The change in tone to a “love story” begins with the first entrance of the natives of the forest in Act 2, Scene 4: Corin and the “love-sick” Silvius. The first line spoken by Corin, the older (if not necessarily wiser) man is: “that is the way to make her scorn you still.” This line, spoken in media res, suggests a smarter love strategy than that which Silvius is engaging in. But Silvius has a point: he’s acting foolishly, but at least he knows, it. He believes this proves his love, but he leaves before Corin is able to suggest to him a possible alternative strategy that wouldn’t make Phoebe scorn Silvius. Yet, at least as important, is this effect this exchange has on Rosalind:
Alas, poor shepherd, searching of thy wound,
I have by hard adventure found mine own. (2.4.39-40)
Rosalind’s identification of Silvius’ “wound” with her own reveals an identification that goes deeper than conventional gendered-postures toward love. This prompts Touchstone to comically express the earnest follies he remembers about how he acted when he “was in love.” Unlike Corin, he remembers it, but like Corin, he advises that such folly will pass: “But as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly.” And Rosalind, in contrast to Silvius, understands that wisdom—but certainly isn’t going to repeat Silvius’ mistake (it is not her way to beg, but rather to conjure, as she says in the epilogue).
It isn’t until Act 3, Scene 2, however, that Orlando starts “marring trees” with his poetry praising Rosalind, which reveals that it’s easier to take the characters from the court than the mindset of the court from the characters. Orlando’s speech in which he announces that he will write poems is itself an attempt formal courtly poem (a truncated sonnet missing a quatrain).
Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love:
And thou, thrice-crowned queen of night, survey
With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above,
Thy huntress' name that my full life doth sway.
O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character;
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witness'd every where.
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste and unexpressive she.
“Books in brooks” indeed, but the poetry he actually puts on the trees is probably even worse.
III. Orlando’s Poetry
Now we finally get to hear Orlando’s poetry, and the audience can generally agree that it’s terrible. But the poetry serves at least two functions: 1) It establishes the main love plot, in a play that is relatively short on plot. 2) It allows the other characters to become poetry critics, which moves this dialogic plot forward.
Touchstone, Celia and Rosalind herself all play the part of the “poetry critic,” mocking the unskilled verses (in ways similar to Theseus and his court mocking the performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). [i] Their mocks, however, are more about the manner of the verses rather than the content of them, especially once Celia tells Rosalind that Orlando is the author of them. Clearly, knowing who the author is changes Rosalind’s response to the poems (she’s obviously not a “New Critic” who takes the poem as a self-contained unit, regardless of context). Despite the fact Orlando’s poems “had more feet than the verses would bear,” it hardly matters if “the feet might bear the verses.” While Rosalind is clearly flattered by the attention of the man she herself feels ‘love sick’ for, her criticisms of Orlando’s poetry are ethical as well as aesthetic.
As Rosalind becomes giddy and expresses her own love-sickness in confidence, to Celia, Orlando enters, in conversation with the melancholy Jaques, which Rosalind notes (“slink by and note him”), with the advantage of disguise, as well as of what Bertrand Evans’ calls “discrepant awareness”—she is the unobserved observer witnessing this conversation. Jaques, too, attempts to criticize Orlando’s poetry, but the best criticism of Orlando he can muster is “the worst fault you have is to be in love.” Since one of Orlando’s poems actually refers to Jaques’ “Seven Ages Of Man” speech, but considers it less beautiful than the mere name of Rosalind, it makes sense that Jaques would dismiss it. He’s clearly not an entirely “reliable critic.” As Orlando nobly responds, “I chide no breather but myself,” he reveals things about his character that his poetry could not. This conversation, as much as Orlando’s earlier prowess in wrestling, can confirm for Rosalind that Orlando is a much better man than a poet, as he basically offers a defense of his poetry---even his bad poetry---in prose, or conversation.
In conversation with Orlando, Rosalind’s criticism of his poetry mostly address her ethical concerns with the content of his verses, as well as of his speech. Althoughly playfully and comically expressed, there is some serious business going on here. Given the speed in which all of this happens in performance, it’s easy to ignore what Orlando’s poetry was actually saying, but it’s not lost on Rosalind. Let’s take a look at the content of the two poems of Orlando’s that Rosalind has heard.
The first one, which Touchstone parodies, is simply a praise poem of a disembodied ideal (“her worth, mounted on the wind”) and plays into the courtly sonneteer conventions that Shakespeare’s famous Dark Lady Sonnet (#129) parodied (all the pictures fairest lined/ are but black to Rosalind”). To be fair, it’s doubtful Orlando actually intended this to be read by Rosalind.
The second poem (which Celia read) is deeper; it’s certainly longer, but not really about love, or even really about women. This “tedious homily of love,” in Rosalind’s phrase, spends ten lines essentially summarizing what we’ve seen of the male-dominated envious court (“violated vows/ ‘Twixt the soul of friend and friend), as well as Jaques’ cynically reductive “Seven Ages Of Man” Speech. It’s clear, however, Orlando is trying to find a way out of this mindset, now that he’s in the “unpeopled” forest, as he invokes her name:
But upon the fairest boughs,
Or at the end of every sentence end,
Will I Rosalinda write.”
It is unintentionally hilarious; Orlando will write about “violated vows” and then tag the word Rosalinda at the end of every sentence. He then continues on an expanded, and slightly better written, version of the other poem, as he invokes the name of “Rosalind” as an ideal alternative to the world he knew. Orlando at least uses the name of Rosalind to reimagine his identity in Arden, and this actually parallels Rosalind using the name (and disguise) of Ganymede—especially once she realizes it can be useful in her wooing/education of Orlando. It’s a start, but only a start.
Noticeably absent is the “sighing” and “groaning” of a “true lover” like Silvius. Nor is there anything specific about what won him over in their meeting about her character (sure, he may not have a lot to go on, but he’s got something more than “Helen’s cheek, but not her heart,” for instance).
No wonder Rosalind calls the writer of these verses a “fancy-monger” who needs “good counsel” for his “deifying the name of Rosalind.” There’s a fine line between “Deifying” and “defying” here. When Rosalind tells Orlando what actions or “marks” embody the sign of a true male lover, she essentially characterizes Silvius. If you were a true lover, “every thing about you [would] demonstrate a careless desolation.”
She then adds:
but you are no such man; you/are rather point-device in your accoutrements as
loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.”
And, indeed, she’s absolutely right; this is what we see revealed in Orlando’s character up until this point. Of course, this doesn’t mean that such self-love isn’t preferable to the “true lover” as portrayed by Silvius. Certainly Rosalind doesn’t fall for Silvius, but only pities him.
The dialogue between Orlando and Rosalind may take this “poetry criticism” as its starting point, but it goes beyond it. Improvising, based on what she knows of Orlando’s character, Rosalind figured out a way to woo and be wooed, to teach and reveal her character. As student in her private tutorial, Orlando clearly wants to make Ganymede believe that he loves, and now refers to himself as “the unfortunate he,” but does she really love her? By the end of the scene he’s much more willing to play the game of wooing, of courting with the sly, witty, Ganymede---even if it’s mock wooing. It’s certainly better than the merely monastic “cure for love” she offers--if nothing else, will it allow him to “people” the desert with a more “fleshed-out” version of Rosalind if he ever decides to write a poem again. And, luckily—for everybody---we never even see him trying to write a poem again.
The poetry, in a way, did serve its purposes, but now theatre can take over. Whether or not an actual woman would embody all the “non-ideal” characteristics Ganymede mentions (for instance: grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing/ and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow,/inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every/ passion something and for no passion truly any thing), Orlando clearly is won over more fleshed out, and less-than-ideal, role of women that Ganymede will play, and has already played in this scene. Rosalind will get another chance to play “poetry critic” soon enough.
IV. Phebe’s Poetry
After the intermission, time speeds up, plots both accelerate and proliferate, but all of them deepen our understanding of love more than “poetry” has. In Act 3, Scene 4. Orlando is late. Rosalind’s skepticism about men’s vows could be proven true, and she will show him how she feels about that before they’re married; before she has a chance, she is interrupted by Corin, who invites her to witness the ‘pageant’ of Silvius and Phebe. Rosalind will watch (and learn), but like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will also prove “a busy actor in their play”(3.4.46), except more intimately than she knows. In many ways, this “play within a play” most dramatic scene and situation in As You Like it, in part because it is also the occasion for more lyric poetry (poetry in this play, in contrast to song, engenders drama).
The scene does begin like a “pageant.” This is the first time we actually see Phebe, and she starts out as the cliché convention of the “scornful mistress,” but due to Ganymede’s intervention, she ends up a very complex and fascinating character (albeit write small, and certainly not as complex as Rosalind, or even 12th Night’s Olivia, with who she has many similarities; though the gravitas of her situation is given much more weight in 12th Night).
When we see Phebe mock Silvius’s hyperbolic language, as Corin had warned Silvius she would, Ganymede intervenes, and improvises. She will scorn the scorner, mock the mocker; you’re no beauty, be grateful. Phebe, however, is turned on, at least as much by the physical appearance of Ganymede, as by the language that “he” uses, and promptly falls for Ganymede.
It confirms for Rosalind the first thing she heard Corin say about Phoebe when she entered Arden: Silvius’s attitudes feed Phebe’s scorn, as well as its corollary: Ganymede’s scorn breeds love. This notion of love, which Renee Girard calls Mimetic Desire, is perhaps most clearly and succinctly stated in dialogue form in this short passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
O, teach me how you look and with what art
You sway the notion of Demetrius’ heart
I frown upon him, yet he loves me still
Oh , that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!
I give him curses, yet he gives me love
Oh, that my prayers could such affection move!
The more I hate, the more he follows me
The more I love, the more he hateth me (Act 1, Scene 1. 192-199).
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tempo of this exchange is so fast, that the importance and gravitas of what is being revealed here (even if not to the characters themselves) is lost, but it’s expanded and slowed down in As You Like It.
If we take this as a universal attitude towards “the play of love,” it implies that Phoebe’s scorn may also make Silvius love her—but now that Phebe feels the wound that Silvius felt, she feels a deeper appreciation and understanding of the role he has been playing, and the language he uses, in part because she can’t keep up with the way Ganymede hoists her with her own petard (as Hamlet would put it).
Phebe clearly loves the language of prose and taunting over the language of poetic mewling (just as Rosalind clearly loves the dialogue of wooing more than the poetry of deification)—but by the end of the scene it’s no longer an “either/or” decision for Phoebe. While she began the scene criticizing his pathetic language about the “invisible wound” of love, she now admires Silvius’s language, as well as Rosalind’s. In the heat of the moment, Phebe may not be able to see fully how similar Ganymede’s theatrical scorn is to her scorn of Silvius, but she does now understand Silvius’ perspective (and why he would be drawn to such language in the first place).
Still, Phebe thinks she can meet Ganymede’s taunts with taunts of her own, but needs to do it in writing, with Silvius’s help—not that Silvius has the ability to play the game of taunting as much as Ganymede does. Phebe is clearly confused at the end of the scene—and doesn’t know how to combine the language of taunting and wooing (Ganymede’s and Silvius’) as Rosalind does with Orlando, but Phebe becomes much more attractive, and interesting, as she tries to sort it out. In fact, she is the character we witness going through the most profound change in the entire play.
When Rosalind receives this “taunting letter,” she once again plays the role of “poetry critic” with an emphasis on ethical, rather than aesthetic, standards (for whatever else can be said of Phebe’s poem, it’s not as bad as Orlando’s were):
Rosalind: She Phebes me: mark how the tyrant writes. Reads
Art thou god to shepherd turn'd,
That a maiden's heart hath burn'd?
Can a woman rail thus?
SILVIUS Call you this railing?
Why, thy godhead laid apart,
Warr'st thou with a woman's heart?
Did you ever hear such railing?
Whiles the eye of man did woo me,
That could do no vengeance to me.
Meaning me a beast.
If the scorn of your bright eyne
Have power to raise such love in mine,
Alack, in me what strange effect
Would they work in mild aspect!
Whiles you chid me, I did love;
How then might your prayers move!
He that brings this love to thee
Little knows this love in me:
And by him seal up thy mind;
Whether that thy youth and kind
Will the faithful offer take
Of me and all that I can make;
Or else by him my love deny,
And then I'll study how to die.
SILVIUS Call you this chiding? (Act 4, Scene 3)
Rosalind’s “poetry criticism” here is very similar to her explicit and implicit critiques of Orlando’s poetry. She criticizes the deification as tyrannical. Rosalind’s criticism is also similar to Phoebe’s own criticism of how Silvius’s language (of scorn, wound, and dying) casts her (or ‘him’) into the role of “beast.” Rosalind shows herself as a “master-mistress” of combining these two roles as Phoebe was not (yet) able.
While Phebe understands that Ganymede’s scorn has the power to “raise such love in mine,” it’s a difficult to believe her plea that Ganymede’s “mild aspect” would make her love even greater (after all, that “mild aspect” as Phebe’s poem defines it, is exactly what Silvius showed her, and which she scorned).
There are a number of fascinating ironies here. Silvius had warned Rosalind the poem was harsh---because that’s what he was told Phebe intended. And when Rosalind claims, “She Phebes me,” she’s implicitly saying “You’re right, Silvius, this is harsh. She’s treating me similar to the way you must be treating her,” but on hearing it, he wants to defend Phebe for being so gentle---for the first time in the play.
Rosalind of course knows in advance that Silvius wouldn’t see it as ‘harsh,” because in truth, her main criticism of this poem is that “She Silvius’s me!” The main point in this exchange is to teach Silvius a lesson, as if to her private tutorial says to him: “Silvius, this is how Phebe read your declarations of love. She saw it as railing and chiding, and you cast her into the role of beast, even if you didn’t know you were.” Your rhetoric is certainly not persuasive.
The debate over whether this poem or letter truly is chiding is left off, but Phebe herself had claimed she intended to write a taunting letter. Of course, that doesn’t mean it was really her intention---the poem makes it clear that Phebe didn’t actually want Silvius to read this letter, and thus see Phebe as the vulnerable love-shaken woman (He that brings this love to thee/Little knows this love in me)—but once she reads it aloud to Silvius, it doesn’t diminish Silvius’ love, and may even deepen it, even if he remains largely a passive sieve (but one whose sentimental foolery got the whole plot going in the first place).
V. Denouement (& Touchstone)
Soon, Rosalind realizes she must gracefully transition to being Rosalind again--not just because Orlando’s third tardiness had a legitimate excuse, or even because her disguise (while not proving “a wickedness,” -in Viola’s words from Twelfth Night)-- has gotten her more tangled up in the Silvius-Phebe plot than she would have wished, but also because his brother and Celia have now fallen in love, and thus can be useful allies in any return to the court---though that “appears in other ways than words.” She may even feel a little abandoned by Celia, or at least as envious of it as Orlando is of Oliver’s newfound happiness.
Rosalind, however, did achieve what she set out to do, and establish a new ground for a relationship with Orlando. As the play winds to its denouement, the characters prepare for the return to court (while the country couple of Silvius and Phoebe apparently will stay in Arden---in contrast to Audrey who will get her wish to be a woman of the world, with Touchstone).
This return to court of most of the main characters, with the “clarification” CL Barber claims, requires its own essay, but let me end with a note about Touchstone. Touchstone is not only getting married, by a proper priest this time (see Carole Thomas Neeley’s seminal feminist discussion), but in a way---and more importantly (for him), he’s getting “betrothed” to the banished Duke who is about to become the rightful Duke, and thus in a position to pay him when they return to court. While in Arden, the Duke had considered making Jaques’ his substitute “foole” (“you shall have [motley]), but Jaques had clearly shown himself unfit for that role, especially in contrast to Touchstone. All works out, because Jaques decides to “follow” the newly reformed usurping Duke Frederick in a “nook merely monastic,” in which they can either rail together (or something to be determined in a possible sequel if you’re so inclined).
 (and such peopling, certainly goes beyond Richard II’s prison soliloquy in Act 5, scene 2 of Richard II; with which an interesting comparison could be drawn. Richard ends in trying to people his prison, but in many ways it’s Orlando’s beginning.
 In this dialogue, Orlando reveals himself as not an entirely passive sieve (in contrast to Silvius), and does give cues to her, yet Rosalind controls the conversation, she has it both ways: the learned uncle who schooled her not only taught her to be, be suspicious of woman, it turns out that this “uncle” is also at least as suspicious of men! (just as much as her actual uncle, Duke Frederick, is). It’s possible that Ganymede is teaching him skepticism (not just towards others, but towards himself---which h already shows signs of,--“I chide no breather but myself”), in part as a reminder of the court they left, and both hope to return to---but Ganymede is less interested in teaching Orlando to be more suspicious in love, than she is in bringing them into play.
[i] From the east to western Ind,
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no fair be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.
I'll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners and
suppers and sleeping-hours excepted: it is the
right butter-women's rank to market.
For a taste:
If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So be sure will Rosalind.
Winter garments must be lined,
So must slender Rosalind.
They that reap must sheaf and bind;
Then to cart with Rosalind.
Sweetest nut hath sourest rind,
Such a nut is Rosalind.
He that sweetest rose will find
Must find love's prick and Rosalind.
This is the very false gallop of verses: why do you
infect yourself with them?++++++++++++
Why should this a desert be?
For it is unpeopled? No:
Tongues I'll hang on every tree,
That shall civil sayings show:
Some, how brief the life of man
Runs his erring pilgrimage,
That the stretching of a span
Buckles in his sum of age;
Some, of violated vows
'Twixt the souls of friend and friend:
But upon the fairest boughs,
Or at every sentence end,
Will I Rosalinda write,
Teaching all that read to know
The quintessence of every sprite
Heaven would in little show.
Therefore Heaven Nature charged
That one body should be fill'd
With all graces wide-enlarged:
Nature presently distill'd
Helen's cheek, but not her heart,
Atalanta's better part,
Sad Lucretia's modesty.
Thus Rosalind of many parts
By heavenly synod was devised,
Of many faces, eyes and hearts,
To have the touches dearest prized.
Heaven would that she these gifts should have,
And I to live and die her slave.
O most gentle pulpiter! what tedious homily of love
have you wearied your parishioners withal, and never
cried 'Have patience, good people!'
How now! back, friends! Shepherd, go off a little.
Go with him, sirrah…..++++++++++++++
Didst thou hear these verses?
O, yes, I heard them all, and more too; for some of
them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.
That's no matter: the feet might bear the verses.
Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear
themselves without the verse and therefore stood
lamely in the verse.