'As You Like It': A woman's woman in a man's world

Rosalind is being played in Denver by Carolyn Holding. Photo credit: Adams Visual Communications.
Rosalind, the leading lady of ‘As You Like It,’ is being played in Denver by Carolyn Holding, with Maurice Jones as Orlando. Photo credit: Adams Visual Communications.

The newly opened DCPA Theatre Company season could be described in many ways as The Year of the Woman. A lineup filled with strong, independent female characters continues with the most fully realized woman in the Shakespeare canon — and you might be surprised to learn who she is.

Sorry, Juliet, Cleopatra and Lady M. The largest female role in all of Shakespeare is Rosalind of As You Like It.

The late Anne Barton, one of the 20th century’s foremost Shakespeare scholars, went so far as to say the gender-bending heroine (and hero!) of As You Like It “is as central and dominating a figure in her fashion as Hamlet is in his own, very different play.”

Rosalind is, simply put, the rare woman Shakespeare treated like a man. Think about it: Rosalind starts this pastoral comedy in a rather grim place. Her father has been banished and she escapes her murderous uncle by bravely exiling herself to the forest. And yet she manages as well as any man here — by dressing like a man.

“I find it particularly interesting to look at this play right now because here is such a strong and complex central female character who is also beautiful and charming and smart,” said Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson, director of the company’s first-ever staging of As You Like It in its 37-year history. “She is the engine of the play, without a doubt. I like her wit, her pluck and her sense of heart.”

Rosalind, who is being played in Denver by Carolyn Holding, is especially self-aware when it comes to matters of the heart. Thompson calls her “the greatest wedding planner in Shakespeare.” That’s because the play ends with four weddings and no funerals — essentially all at her direction. One of those four weddings, of course, is her own. And to Orlando, a really good guy and a true gentleman.

But the Arden Forest is not the same enchanted timberland you find in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a forest where all the romantic players pine for partners who pine not back. Think of As You Like It as a hormonal The Tempest– without the magic.

And yet … four weddings!

Thompson calls Rosalind “the great psychologist of all the people around her.” But at her core, she’s just a girly-girl in love. And it’s fun for us to watch her grow more jealous … of herself.

Her eventual partnership with Orlando is so well-matched and true that 400 years later, it feels to a modern audience as a downright contemporary coupling. “I think Orlando teaches Rosalind heart and passion,” Thompson said. “And she teaches him intellect, wit and being able to see the world not through those rose-colored glasses.”

Rosalind is a perfect character for these gender-fluid contemporary times. She is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman — she is both a man’s man and a woman’s woman.

“I think all of that together creates both great sexual and comic tension,” Thompson said. “That is delicious for the audience because of course we know what’s going on. So it’s great fun to watch.”

All the more remarkable given that Shakespeare created Rosalind way back in the Elizabethan era. “It’s still very much a patriarchal world,” Thompson said. “But Shakespeare is kind of the Elizabethan feminist.” For evidence, look no further than the fact that Rosalind gets the final word in As You Like It — making her the only female character in the entire Shakespeare canon who gets to deliver the epilogue.

The only other Bard female who drives the action forward as efficiently as Rosalind, Thompson suggests, might be Juliet. “She actually is the strongest person in Romeo and Juliet,” he said. “She’s the one who is proactive and goes to the Friar. He’s the one who falls down crying. She figures out a way to do it, and she’s willing to go there, even though she may die. But Rosalind is really the only female Shakespeare character who manages to direct everything down to that last scene.”

And Rosalind is just one of many strong female protagonists on the Theatre Company’s 2015-16 season. Lookingglass Alice (now playing on and above The Stage Theatre through Oct. 11) presents a much more active Alice than Wonderland readers are used to. The role is so physically demanding, in fact, that two actors are alternating performances in the role of Alice. Tribes features a hard-of-hearing young woman named Sylvia who opens up a whole new world to a young deaf man named Billy. The protagonist in FADE is a novice named Lucia who gets a job writing on a major TV drama. The Nest is a biting ensemble comedy that includes three significant and distinct New York women. And let’s not forget Mrs. Lovett, who stirs up the pot in Sweeney Todd— with human flesh.  

When asked if he will be celebrating this year-long trend of strong, proactive female protagonists, Thompson joked, “I will be celebrating it now that I am conscious of it.

“I think it makes sense, because we are committed to women playwrights, we are committed to new writing and we are committed to women actors. But if you look at it, yes, it is very true that there will be vigorous female protagonists throughout the season. I think that’s really emblematic of a lot of interesting work that is going on right now, with stronger female characters being portrayed.”

Shakespeare’s Five Largest Roles for Women (by line count):

The female character who speaks the most lines in any Shakespeare play is Rosalind, the spirited heroine of the romantic comedy As You Like It. According to ShakespearesWords.com, Rosalind comes in first with 685 lines. Ironically, she speaks many of those lines while playing a man – and Rosalind would have been played by a boy during Shakespeare’s time anyway. Here are the top five (with fun character descriptions from Shmoop.com):

1. Rosalind, As You Like It
Lines: 685
Shmoop.Com: Who is this “Rosalind” girl and what makes her so great? Well, she’s the daughter of the banished Duke Senior and cousin/BFF to Celia. She’s also the saucy, cross-dressing girlfriend of Orlando. In the play, Rosalind gets 86’ed from her uncle’s court but, instead of boo-hooing about her lousy circumstances, she puts on a brave face and runs away to the Forest of Arden in search of freedom. Our girl is not only adventurous, but she’s also gutsy.

2. Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra
Lines: 678
Shmoop.Com: Cleopatra is the Queen of Egypt, lover to Antony, and former lover of both Julius Caesar and Pompey the Elder — it’s safe to say homegirl has a “type.” She’s one of Shakespeare’s richest female characters (in terms of both wealth and character development), and can be used as a case study of both a woman in power and a woman in love.

3. Imogen, Cymbeline
Lines: 594
Shmoop.Com: This British princess is just about as perfect as they come: She’s wise, beautiful, resourceful, and — most important — she’s honest. She stands up for herself to her dad and notices the Queen is a “dissembling courtesy” (read: faker) right away. While she mourns the banishment of her husband and moans about having a “foolish suitor” (Cloten), she doesn’t wallow in self-pity.

4. Portia, The Merchant of Venice
Lines: 574
Shmoop.Com: Portia is rich and hot, which makes her the most eligible bachelorette in Belmont. The heiress to her dead father’s fortune, Portia’s wealth makes her a meal ticket in the eyes of Bassanio, who sees Portia as the answer to all his financial woes — if he can marry her that is. As Bassanio points out, he’s not the only guy who’d like to land the heiress. Gee, it sounds like Portia’s got a perfect life, right? Not so fast. Not only is every potential suitor out to get his hands on Portia’s wealth, but Portia doesn’t even get to choose her husband.

5. Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Lines: 542
Shmoop.Com: Poor Juliet. Not only does she end up dead, she doesn’t get nearly the love that Romeo does. But we think she deserves a lot more credit. As the beautiful and only daughter of the Capulets, Juliet is slated to marry Verona’s hottest non-Montague bachelor until she takes her fate into her own hands. This is a girl who knows what she wants, and gets it — even if it means death.

Shakespeare's women

As You Like It ‘meet the cast’ profiles (more to come):
Maurice Jones, Orlando
Geoffrey Kent, Actor, Assistant Director and Fight Director

As You Like It: Ticket information

  • Sept. 25-Nov. 1
  • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
  • Space Theatre
  • 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

  • Previous NewsCenter coverage of As You Like It:

    As You Like It begins rehearsals: ‘Literally, watch it bloom’
    Shakespeare’s largest female role might surprise you: It’s Rosalind
    Casting announced for Theatre Company’s fall shows
    DCPA Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16
    Official show page

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