Gender and Coming of Age in Shakespeare’s As You Like It
Shakespeare introduces the protagonists of his comedy, As You Like It, as youths mourning the absence of their fathers: Orlando remarks on the consequences of his father’s death and Rosalind first appears despairing over her father’s exile. He closes the play with the marriage of these youths. The absence of their respective fathers centrally figures into their courtship and preparation for marriage. Even more noticeable is the absence of all mothers—not a single mother or older wife appears in the play. The young women, Rosalind and Celia, enter adulthood, seemingly without any female role models. Such responses impact the development of the young protagonists, causing the two friends, Rosalind and Celia, to be remarkably independent of gender conventions and the constraints of older generations. The absence of elder influences allows Rosalind and Celia to shape their adult lives, particularly as they forge their own unique approaches towards marriage and realizations of the institution.
In the absence of natural fathers, different characters volunteer as surrogate fathers for Orlando, but not for Rosalind. Without soliciting it, Orlando receives help and guidance from Duke Senior and Adam. For example, the ravenous Orlando interrupts Duke Senior’s banquet and orders them to stop eating, demanding food for Adam and himself. Duke Senior asks him why he so rudely demands food and then advises Orlando that “gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness” (2.7.101-102).* Warmly inviting the embarrassed Orlando to his table, the Duke offers him his friendship as he takes Orlando aside to speak privately. Orlando receives such unsolicited help from his peers as well as his superiors. For example, without asking for anything, Orlando also receives money and service from Adam. Further, after Orlando has shamed his elder brother by beating Charles, Adam fervently admonishes Orlando to flee and offers to accompany him: “Here is the gold; / All this I give to you. Let me be your servant”(2.3.45-46). Upon learning of Orlando’s father, Duke Senior proclaims, “If that you were the good Sir Rowland’s son, …Be truly welcome hither” (2.7.194,198). With only his father’s name for a ticket, Orlando is easily adopted into the old boys’ network of Arden. Similarly, Adam’s devotion to Orlando stems from his devotion to the late Sir Rowland de Boys; in the scene where Adam offers to leave the court with Orlando, Adam greets him, “O my sweet master, O you memory / Of old Sir Rowland”(2.3.3-4). Recognizing Orlando’s fatherless state, Duke Senior and Adam jump to help him.
But such a paternal surrogate does not exist for the fatherless Rosalind, and neither does a parallel maternal substitute emerge for either Celia or her. Without this support network, Rosalind and Celia must fend for themselves. They “steal” their friend Touchstone, the court jester, whom they convince to leave...