Day One: King Lear
Day Two: Hotspur
Day Three: Hamlet

Day #4: Your favorite heroine

There are things I could say about Cordelia and Cleopatra and poor Kate Percy, but for a “favorite heroine,” I feel like I need to go to a comedy. It’s in the comedies that the women really get to make the choices that shape entire plays, and nobody does that better than Rosalind in As You Like It.

I get the impression that As You Like It is generally considered one of the sunniest comedies, but it’s worth nothing that the setup isn’t all that different from Lear. Worthy children are disinherited, righteous monarchs are deposed, and the characters have every reason to run around on the blasted heath bemoaning their fates but. . .well, they don’t. The banished Duke famously declared, “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” using his outcast state as the motivation to embrace a simpler life, but I’m even more in love with this moment in the first act:

CELIA: Therefore, my sweet Rose, my dear Rose, be merry.
ROSALIND: From henceforth I will, coz, and devise sports.
Let me see; what think you of falling in love?

At this moment, the play is transformed into a romantic comedy by the sheer force of Rosalind’s will. She’s going to be a comedy heroine because she decides to be. (Orlando, a down-on-his-luck younger son, wanders by shortly after, giving Roz a convenient object for her affections, but let’s face it — he has precious little to do with it.) I’ve tried and failed to think of another heroine who is quite such a product of willful self-invention. Certainly today’s “romcom” heroines are more in the Jane Austen mode — be good and pretty and reasonably clever and the guy will come along; women who actively go out looking are fortune hunters (or desperate/pathetic or sluts or otherwise suspect). The closest examples I can come up with are the schemers Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert played in movies of the 1930s (think The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story), but they were generally after money and status first, and found love by accident. Rosalind, though — Rosalind sets out to make her own luck, and in the process makes everybody else’s as well.

Not that it’s all smooth sailing. Things couldn’t be too easy for our heroine, or we wouldn’t have a play. If King Lear is derailed by the potential viciousness of human nature, As You Like It is derailed by its perverseness — by the ways that people not only want the things they can’t have, but resist the things that are easily available. Rosalind’s most famous maneuver in the play is to disguise herself as a boy, which starts out with a (thin) plot justification, but pretty soon dressed-as-a-boy Rosalind (who loves Orlando) is play-flirting with Orland (who loves her) and all she has to do is let down her hair and point and say, “In case you haven’t noticed. . .” There is honestly no good plot-related reason that she doesn’t do this. It’s very close to what Roger Ebert calls an “idiot movie” (the kind where, if the main characters stop being idiots for half a second, the entire artifice collapses like a Christopher Nolan dream sequence). Yet it’s saved by Rosalind herself, by the sense that she’s working something out by acting it out, so that instead of simply Rosalind and her Orlando, we get a whole chain of undesired or unrequited affections that require a master engineer (which Rosalind just happens to be). It’s love-as-Rube Goldberg device: if you think about it for a minute, it’s ridiculous, but if you think about it a little longer, it starts to look like perfection.

ETA: Since As You Like It may not be as widely known as, say, Hamlet, I’ll link to Kenneth Branagh’s recent film which has some issues (WHY is it set in feudal Japan, and why are there no Asian people? Did he plan the production concept with Joss Whedon?), but is a pretty good presentation of the play. I like Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rosalind well enough, but she never even tries to be convincingly boyish, which removes some of the tension from the story. Kevin Kline’s Jaques, though, is worth the price of admission, which is generally true of Kline’s Shakespeare performances.