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Rosalind is depressed over the banishment of her father, Duke Senior. Her cousin, Celia, attempts to cheer her up. Celia promises that as the sole heir of the usurping Duke Frederick, she will give the throne to Rosalind upon his death. In gratitude, Rosalind promises to be less melancholy, and the two women wittily discuss the roles of “Fortune” and “Nature” in determining the circumstances of one’s life (I.ii.26–47). They are interrupted by the court jester, Touchstone, who mockingly tells of a knight without honor who still swore by it. Le Beau, a dapper young courtier, also arrives and intrigues them with the promise of a wrestling match featuring the phenomenal strength and skill of the wrestler Charles.
The match’s participants enter with many members of the court, including Duke Frederick, who cordially greets Rosalind and Celia. The duke remarks on the danger Charles’s young challenger faces, and he suggests that the girls attempt to dissuade the present challenger from his effort to defeat the wrestler. Rosalind and Celia agree and call to the young man, who turns out to be Orlando. Try as they might, they cannot sway him. He remains deaf to their pleas and speaks as if he has absolutely nothing to lose. Orlando and Charles wrestle, and Orlando quickly defeats his opponent. Amazed, Duke Frederick asks Orlando to reveal his identity. When Orlando responds that he is the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Bois, the duke laments that he wishes Orlando had been someone else’s son, admitting that he and Sir Rowland were enemies. Rosalind and Celia rush in to offer their congratulations, and Rosalind admits how deeply her father admired Orlando’s father. In the exchange, Orlando and Rosalind become mutually smitten, though both are too tongue-tied to confess their feelings.
Immediately after Rosalind and Celia take their leave, Le Beau warns Orlando that, though his victory and conduct deserve great praise, he will get none from Duke Frederick. In fact, La Beau says, the duke is due for a dangerous outburst. Orlando, already heartsick over Rosalind, resolves to flee from the tyrannical duke.Read a translation of Act I, scene ii →
Rosalind is overcome with her emotions for Orlando. Celia asks her cousin how she could possibly manage to fall in love with Orlando so quickly. Just then, Duke Frederick approaches and demands that Rosalind leave the royal court. He denounces her as a traitor and threatens her with death should she be found within twenty miles of court. Rosalind does not know how she has offended the duke and pleads her innocence, but the duke remains firm. When Rosalind asks him to explain his decision to banish her, Duke Frederick replies that she is her father’s daughter, and that is enough. Celia makes an impassioned plea on Rosalind’s behalf, but the duke condemns Rosalind for her “smoothness” and “silence,” and tries to convince his daughter that she will seem more beautiful and virtuous after Rosalind is gone (I.iii.71–72). Celia announces that in banishing Rosalind, Duke Frederick has also banished Celia, and the two women decide to seek out Duke Senior in the Forest of Ardenne. Realizing that such a journey would be incredibly dangerous for two wealthy, attractive young women, they decide to travel in disguise: Celia as a common shepherdess and Rosalind as a young man. Celia renames herself Aliena, while Rosalind dubs her disguised self Ganymede, after the cupbearer to Jove. The two decide to convince Touchstone, a clown, to accompany them on their journey.Read a translation of Act I, scene iii →
As many critics have pointed out, Rosalind’s relationship with Celia suggests an element of homoeroticism. Homoeroticism differs from homosexuality in connoting feelings of desire or longing between members of the same sex, but not necessarily the desire for actual sex acts. Celia begins Act I, scene ii by challenging the depth of her cousin’s love for her, claiming that the depressed Rosalind would be content if she only returned Celia’s love. Celia’s language here conforms to conventional protestations of romantic love, and there is no doubt that the women’s friendship is remarkable. When Celia pleads with Duke Frederick to allow Rosalind to stay at court, she points out that the pair has always slept in the same bed—people normally slept two to a bed in Shakespeare’s time—and went everywhere together, “coupled and inseparable” (I.iii.70). The women’s special bond is not lost on those who witness their friendship—as Duke Frederick’s courtier, Le Beau, exclaims, the cousins share a love that is “dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (I.ii.243).
Before jumping to conclusions about the nature of Rosalind and Celia’s relationship, it is important to note that contemporary ideas about sexuality are quite different from Elizabethan ideas. Whereas people today tend to expect adherence to neatly defined and mutually exclusive categories of behavior, such as -heterosexuality or homosexuality, sexual identity was more loosely defined in Shakespeare’s England. Then, in literature and culture, if not in actual practice, Elizabethans were tolerant of same-sex couplings—indeed, homosexuality was an inescapable part of the Greek and Roman classics that made up an educated person’s culture in Shakespeare’s day. At the same time, Elizabethans could be very inflexible in their notions of the sexual and social roles that different genders play. They placed greater importance than we do on the external markers of gender such as clothing and behavior; so to Elizabethans, Rosalind’s decision to masquerade as a man may have been more thrilling than her homoerotic bond with Celia and perhaps even threatening to the social order. By assuming the clothes and likeness of a man, Rosalind treats herself to powers that are normally beyond her reach as a woman. For instance, instead of waiting to be wooed, she adopts the freedom to court a lover of her choosing. By subverting something as simple as a dress code, Rosalind ends up transgressing the Elizabethans’ carefully monitored boundaries of gender and social power.