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Literary critic Anne Barton says that "Rosalind is extraordinarily important in As You Like It, as central and dominating a figure in her fashion as Hamlet in his own, very different play." That's quite a compliment.
So 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.
Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom credits Rosalind with being the first real lover in all of modern literature. She's the first to make fun of love and also the first to let herself be fully embraced by all its frivolity and pure joy. Bloom says "Rosalind is unique […] in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share." Basically, this girl is incredibly self-aware, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
When it comes to love, Rosalind is just as romantic as the next girl. After all, she's willing to disguise herself as a boy (who pretends to be a girl), so that Orlando can practice his moves on "Ganymede." At the same time, Rosalind's also got a pretty good head on her shoulders. When lovesick Orlando goes around claiming that he'll die if Rosalind won't have him, she points out that "men have died from time to time, and/ worms have eaten them, but not for love" (4.1.112-113).
At other times, Rosalind sounds downright cynical about love. When Orlando declares that he will love "Rosalind" forever, our girl says "No, no, Orlando;/ men are April when they woo, December when they wed:/ maids are May when they are maids, but the sky/ changes when they are wives" (4.1.156-157). In other words, Rosalind worries that Orlando will lose interest in her after he's married her and spent the night in her bed.
The great thing about Rosalind is that she doesn't let any of this get her down. She knows that love isn't all chocolates and roses, but she's still willing to take a chance on loving Orlando.
When Rosalind runs away to the forest, she knows that rape and robbery are very real possibilities on the road, so she decides to disguise herself as a young man named Ganymede. When our bossy, opinionated, and gutsy girl dons her disguise and ventures into Arden, she challenges all kinds of traditional 16th-century assumptions about women being passive, silent, and helpless.
A gallant curtal-ax upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand, and in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman's fear there will
We'll have a swashing and a martial outside—
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances. (1.3.124-129)
Even though Rosalind identifies her hidden "fear" with being a "woman," she also seems to recognize that masculinity can be imitated or faked. If a cowardly man can pretend he's a tough guy by "swashing" around with an axe on his thigh and a boar-spear in his hand, then so can Rosalind. In other words, Rosalind knows that gender is a social role that can imitated and faked. (After all, Shakespearean actors faked it all the time on a stage that prohibited women from acting in public theaters. In Shakespeare's time, all female roles were performed by men.)
After she reaches the safety of the forest, where her disguise is no longer necessary, Rosalind remains in drag and even befriends Orlando, who thinks "Ganymede" is actually a teenage boy.
OK. We have a question: Why the heck does she stay in her disguise?
For many literary critics, Rosalind stays in her man pants because it offers a special kind of freedom. In Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, Alexander Leggatt notes that Rosalind's disguise as Ganymede is "truly liberating." Leggatt goes on to argue that "the role is a device allowing Rosalind a freedom of comment impossible in a conventional love affair." We can take that a step further by arguing that Rosalind's disguise gives her a chance to tutor Orlando about love, turning him into an ideal romantic partner. (For more about the importance of Ganymede check out "Symbolism.")
Shakespeare heroine sounds pretty awesome, don't you think? The best way to get at Rosalind is to realize she's one of Shakespeare's only characters that you'd actually like to be with while trapped in an elevator. Hamlet might depress you to death, and Macbeth might cut out your liver and send it to your mother, but Rosalind would probably play a game of travel Scrabble with you and then ask for your number with a wink.