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A character study from Shakespeare's As You Like It

The following essay is reprinted from Shakespeare Studies: Papers Read Before The Literary Clinic. F. Hyatt Smith. Buffalo: The Literary Clinic, 1916.

Rosalind, in Shakespeare's As You Like It, is a delightful blending of subtle womanly traits, defying analysis, like the rainbow. She breathes of youth and youth's sweet prime. She is as witty as Beatrice, but her wit bubbles like a fountain. It is the carol of a bird. Tenderness and mirth exquisitely interplay in her, and she is afection, raillery, teasing vivacity, sauciness, audacity, impatience, fondness, propriety, grace, and abandon, in turns. She has all the swift changes of an April day. We think of her "a gallant curtleaxe upon her thigh, a boar spear in her hand";--she has not the sober eloquence of Portia, nor the demure wisdom of Isabella; her shortest talks are her best; yet she is both volatile and voluble--like Keat's Madeline, "to her heart her heart was voluble, paining with eloquence her balmy side."

She is a strange, queer, lovely creature--a beautiful romantic animal; she briskly springs and runs and leaps; she plays lightly over all things with her delicate wit; it is irrepressible and gushes like a brook in the glade; it catches force from the clouds and is a compact of maidenly fancy and cheerfulness; even in her tears an arch of playfulness spans that perfect mouth. No trial can break her spirits, no storm can chill her enthusiasm; she is perfect composure; the contradiction between her assumed dress and her sex but heightens her attractiveness. Her part is played with infinite zest. She roams the forest like some wood nymph. Nor is she in any degree mannish or prudish.

She is a lovely girl, freed from the conventions of the court, liberated into nature's wide domain and unfettered from all restraint, yet still a woman with a woman's sense of propriety and truth. We cannot imagine her wearing Portia's sedate air, or Hermione's matronly gravity, or Cordelia's solicitude for the sorrowing. Her freedoms of speech are the rarest proofs of her delicacy; she hazards just enough to conceal her real personality. Her modesty speaks more freely than it feels, as false modesty feels more freely than it speaks. She is love in disguise forevermore, a mountain zephyr, a swaying shadow in the sun. She would be out of place in a city mansion, the woods are her natural setting. Fortune robbed her of her wealth, and when she finds in Orlando one struck by the same fate, her heart is taken unawares and yields. She vanquishes him before he conquers her. Her friendship with Celia is a perfect pastoral. This it is which brings forth her native cheerfulness under every stress. She is too impulsive for deep reflection, she is too adroit for delay, she masters her passion by giving rein to her mind and imagination. Thus she shields herself from all melancholy and preserves a due decorum. Her laugh is wholly unlike that of any other of Shakespeare's heroines, silvery, tinkling, teasing, taunting. She is his most enchanting coquette. She could not be merry, however, until she had joined her banished father. She can rejoice in Celia's greater fortune, proving her total unselfishness. Orlando was the son of her father's friend and this cements their attraction.

How dashing is the picture of the splendid girl who would have a "swashing and a martial outside", to be called Ganymede in the forest, going in content to liberty and not to banishment, true as a star to her cousin, defying all that may await her in the free and untried life! She slyly hints that she must comfort the weaker vessel, as "doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoats." She seeks refreshment for Celia in the shepherds' hut and buys the hut for a place of refuge. Can you not see her reading, "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 lin'd are but black to Rosalind"!

The whole wilderness suddenly becomes a library, verses on every tree. And she knows the laws of poetry too--"for some of the verses had in them more feet than the verses would bear". She cries; "Is he of God's making? What manner of man? Is his head worth a hat, or his chin worth a beard?" Learning that her love poet was Orlando, she quickly inquired; "What said he? How looked he? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? Answer me in one word." Cold and unconcerned at first she becomes a torrent of curious solicitude in an instant. She tells Celia that when a woman thinks she must speak. "Time trots hard," she says, "with a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemnized; time ambles with a priest that lacks Latin, and a rich man that hath not gout; and he gallops with a thief to the gallows; and he stays still with lawyers in the vacation." How delicious is this!

She says to the wondering Orlando that she dwells with her sister the shepherdess in the skirts of the forest "like a fringe upon a petticoat." And this rollicksome and teasing girl "thanks God she is not a woman, to be touched with so many giddy offences as he hath generally taxed their whole sex withal!" And then those marks of love, where are they equalled? "A lean cheek, a blue eye and sunken, an unquestionable spirit, a beard neglected, hose ungartered, bonnet unbanded, sleeve unbuttoned, and everything about you," she says to the wondering swain, "demonstrating a careless desolation," "But are you he who hangs verses on the trees wherein Rosalind is so admired?" "Love is merely madness, yet I profess to cure it by counsel." "Did you ever cure any so?" "Yes, one, and in this manner. He was to imagine me his love, his mistress--and I set him every day to woo me; at which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconsistent, full of tears, full of smiles,--would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him; and thus I cured him!" "I would cure you, if you would but call me Rosalind, and come every day to my cote and woo me!" "The oath of a lover," she tells Celia, "is no stronger than the word of a tapster."

She tells Jaques that she would rather "have a fool to make her merry ehan experience to make her sad." She dismisses the amazed Orlando saying, "I'd as lief be wooed of a snail, for though he comes slowly he carries his house on his head,"--besides "he brings his destiny with him." Then--"come woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humor and like enough to consent." When he threatens to kill himself, the saucy enchantress replies; "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love!" She tells him how to begin the mock marriage ceremony beneath the trees; and when she anticipates the disguised priest, coyly says; "there's a girl goes before the priest, and certainly a woman's thought runs before her actions." "Make the doors upon a woman's wit and it will out at the casement; shut that, and 'twill out at the keyhole; stop that, 'twill fly with the smoke out of the chimney." Once she sums up the whole tender transaction; "for your brother and sister no sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; they are in the very wrath of love; clubs cannot part them."

In the Epilogue, this inimitable creature says that her way is "to conjure and not to beg." This is the key to her character, for she is a dainty, deft, tantalizing enchantress, vivacious and sprightly, coming and going like a dream, provoking and rebuking, always self-possessed, never caustic, playful as a kitten, dazzling and alarming, pouring forth her ceaseless raillery like a bird, fluttering over every subject, saucy as a page, wise as a statesman, with a profound knowledge of all the intricacies of the heart, and yet steadied and sobered by a womany conviction and reserve that redeem her nature and enhance its beauty.

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