There's a lot going on at the play's end: four couples get hitched and the exiles decide to return to court. (That's Shakespeare's way of letting us know that social order has been restored and we can all go home and relax.) Not only that, but Rosalind steps out on stage at the end and delivers a rather sassy epilogue. Let's discuss.
Because As You Like It is a Shakespearean comedy, the play's destiny in life is to end with one or more marriages. That's just how it is, folks. So, even though the play has gone out of its way to point out the foolishness of love and has cracked more jokes about cheating wives than we can count, it's still going to give its audience what they expect—a heterosexual hookup (or, in this case, four heterosexual hookups). Read more about this in "Genre."
Back to the Court
Life in the Forest of Arden sure has been a lot of fun for Rosalind and company (what with playing dress-up and pretending to be rustic country-folk and all), but before Shakespeare wraps up his play, he lets us know that his exiles will be returning to the French court. (This move, by the way, is typical in "pastoral" literature and you can read more about it by going to "Genre.")
It's not that life in Arden isn't swell. It's just that Arden isn't exactly the real world. (Plus, nobody from the court really knows how to herd sheep, the primary occupation in Arden.) So, when Duke Senior gets his dukedom back and restores everybody else's titles, there's no good reason for anybody to stay behind. The idea is that, after the exiles finish their wedding cake and head back home, they'll make the once-treacherous court a better place because Arden has brought out the best in them. (Read more about this in "Setting.")
Remember when we said Shakespeare marries off his characters and sends them back to court as a way to signal that social order has been restored? Well, it's not exactly that simple. During the epilogue, the actor playing the role of Rosalind steps out onto the stage and delivers a rather interesting speech that calls everything into question.
The last seven lines of the epilogue are what really stand out:
If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
defied not. And, I am sure, as many as have good
beards, or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my
kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
In other words, the actor playing Rosalind is reminding us of a couple of things:
- He is not actually a "woman." He's a male actor who is playing the role of a woman who cross-dresses as a boy and who lets Orlando pretend to woo "him."
- The men in the audience may very well be attracted to him and/or his gender-bending character.
Why does this matter? Well, even though Shakespeare ends the action of the play by marrying off four heterosexual pairs, the epilogue reminds us that, when it comes to physical attraction, the erotic possibilities in the play are endless. Shakespeare is also reminding us that gender roles can be pretty slippery.
Hmm. So maybe Shakespeare isn't as interested in restoring social order as we thought. Check out the similarly provocative ending of Shakespeare's other gender-bending play, Twelfth Night.