Gender and Social Norms in As You Like It
Shakespeare based his comedy As You Like It primarily on three other works. Its plot follows the basic structure of Rosalynde, published in 1590 by Thomas Lodge. The Tale of Gamelyn, written by an unknown author in the mid-fourteenth century, is a violent Middle English narrative that was found among Chaucer's papers and provides further details for Shakespeare's work. With the Forest of Ardenne serving as an escape for our main characters, Shakespeare takes his details from the countless Robin Hood ballads popular in Medieval England. This paper will examine how Shakespeare's adaptations and alterations of emphasis and plot from these source works have turned our attention to the role of gender norms in society, the restrictions of social norms, and human influence on one's future. Lastly, included is a brief discussion of how these factors might influence a production of this clever and entertaining work.
In Shakespeare's play, the question of women's role is central to theme and plot. "By assuming the clothes and likeliness of a man, Rosalind treats herself to powers that are normally beyond her reach as a woman" (Spark 7). She is able to talk, walk and have the freedoms of a man, while having the heart of a woman. She is even able to court a lover of her own choice and train him in the art of love. Shakespeare focuses his work on the drastically different role that she can take under the guise of a man. In contrast, the novel Rosalynde, focuses only on the male concerns of the story. The entire story has been directed exclusively to men and made glaringly obvious in it's preface beginning with the words, "To Gentleman Readers." Throughout the story, Lodge neglects to address women, except for a brief passage in which Rosalind and Alinda overhear two shepards. In the final paragraph, Lodge reinforces his focus on men:
"Here Gentlemen may you see in EUPHUES GOLDEN LEGACIE, that such as neglect their fathers precepts, incurre much preiudice; that diuision in Nature as it is a blemish in nurture...concorde sweetest conclusion, and amitie betwixt brothers more forceable than fortune."
This moral, pointed out to us in the last paragraph of Renaissance writing, says nothing about the matters of interaction between men and women, only the interaction between brothers. The women in the plot are deemphasized. In As You Like It, Shakespeare breaks all convention and a female character delivers the epilog and speaks directly to the women calling them to action. The playwright goes so far as to have Rosalind address the women audience members first. Shakespeare clearly alters his plot to place primary emphasis on the women's roles in his play, how they effect change and how they move and affect a world dominated by men.
Lodge's Rosalynde lives in a world where human behavior is repeatedly explained by reference to long lists of "infallible...