Do you love or loathe Valentine’s Day? If you relate to either or both these reactions, then clear-eyed Rosalind, the transvestite heroine of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, is the perfect role model for you. Her play comes with its modern-day message. Wherever love is to be found is more important than what gender you are.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has chosen Valentine’s Day 2019 to open its new production of As You Like It directed by Kimberley Sykes. The date, forever associated with romantic love, is a brilliant match for Rosalind, the play’s gender fluid heroine. Because 420 years since she first stepped on stage, Rosalind is still bucking the trend. What was transgressive about Rosalind at the end of the 16th century is still radical today. For Rosalind proposes to her man, not just once – but twice – in her play.
Jane Garvey on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently asked (Jan.21st) why do only a tiny proportion of women today pop the question to their boyfriends? Evidence shows that women still defer to men and wait to receive a proposal. They do not speak first. How extraordinary that in our so-called liberated world contemporary women – and men – still observe the unequal gender traditions of medieval courtly love? But over 4 centuries ago Rosalind, profanely dressed in drag, seized the initiative and toppled conventions.
Valentine’s Day in the middle of February comes heralding hopes for spring and romance. It’s part of the mythology of Valentine’s Day that if you meet someone new on this date you may have met your intended.
How many actors playing Rosalind have actually fallen in love with their Orlandos in real life? Edith Evans did. Of a certain age and a jolie laide, she was not an obvious candidate for the role but in 1936 at the Old Vic she gave a transfixing Rosalind with Michael Redgrave, twenty years her junior, as Orlando. He was not the first bisexual Orlando. Their Rosalind and Orlando electrified audiences with the frisson of their passionate off-stage affair.
Redgrave’s daughter Vanessa gave another benchmark Rosalind in the heady 1960s. Ian Bannen played Orlando looking like a character, she thought, out of a 1960s novel. She was, she said, ‘as every Rosalind becomes with her Orlando, in love with him.’
There’s no doubting the depth of Rosalind’s love for Orlando or his for her. Like the Bay of Portugal it has an unknown bottom. They met in dangerous times, at a wrestling match which Orlando won against all odds. This was the catalyst for love and inspired the miracle of mutual attraction at first sight. Even though experience may have taught us to be disbelievers we may still hope for the same miracle each Valentine’s Day. And though love may strike like a miracle it can feel like being mugged.
Rosalind knows all this. She knows that falling in love is fraught with risks. Rejection is one. Falling out of love is another. In the Forest of Arden she lectures in her university of love. She understands what other people learn only later, that marriage itself can curdle love. Rosalind educates Orlando to re-examine his hackneyed claims for everlasting love. How long will you be faithful ‘after you have possessed her?’ she asks. ‘For ever and a day,’ he claims. She ripostes, ‘Say “a day” without the “ever”. No, no, Orlando, men are April when they woo, December when they wed.’ Skies can change after the wedding.
In Arden, where erotic love flourishes, gilded snakes lurk in the forest floor. Since Eden snakes have had a bad press. This Valentine’s Day, Sydney Zoo is naming one of the world’s most venomous snakes after the candidate who tops its online poll for title of most toxic ex-partner. Love can turn poisonous, as Rosalind knows. Her un-blinkered approach to love is more valid than ever in our own times. Her aim is simply more equal love which she wishes you this Valentine’s Day.
Angela Thirlwell likes to push the boundaries of biography. She used a thematic ‘spots of time’ approach in William and Lucy, and interpreted Ford Madox Brown through the lenses of the 4 women in his life in Into the Frame. This time she’s chosen Shakespeare’s inspirational heroine, Rosalind, a character who has never lived and therefore can never die.
Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine is out now at Oberon Books.