She-Snakes and She-Lions
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
In Act 4, Scene 3, Orlando spots a "green and gilded" she-snake wrapped around his treacherous brother Oliver's neck and ready to strike. Orlando's approach frightens the snake away, but then a hungry lioness springs on Oliver and tries to make a meal out of him. (Yep. That's almost as random as the man-eating bear that comes out of nowhere and eats Antigonus in The Winter's Tale.) We know that Oliver has already betrayed his little brother by treating him like garbage after their father's death and has come to the forest to turn over Orlando to the evil Duke Frederick. Yet, despite all this, Orlando decides to save his brother's life from the hungry lion and is wounded for his trouble. Aww.
"What's all this snake and lion business about?" you ask.
Well, as any good student of English knows, any time there's a snake, the author is probably making an allusion to what went down in the biblical Garden of Eden when the apple-snacking Eve and Adam fell from God's grace and were expelled from their earthly paradise. So, when Orlando discovers a dangerous snake at his brother's mouth, we're reminded that the world of As You Like It is a fallen one and that human beings (like the backstabbing, snaky Oliver) are completely responsible.
At the same time, however, Shakespeare also suggests that there's some hope for humanity. After all, it's during this same moment that Oliver undergoes a remarkable "conversion." After his little bro saves his life from a hungry mama lion, Oliver decides that he's going to change his ways and become a good person.
We've already pointed out that the snake and the lion are very particularly female. Does this matter? If so, why does this matter? According to literary scholar Katharine Eisaman Maus, "twice, danger is represented in female form." Not only that but "the feminine is represented as both an attraction and a source of danger." So, what do you think? Should we make an issue out of the fact that Oliver and Orlando are nearly killed by a she-snake and then a she-lion? Does this mean the play is nervous about aggressive girls like, say, bossy Rosalind? (If you're leaning toward "yes," check out what we say about Rosalind's "thorny" personality here.)