Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The poems that Orlando nails to the trees of Ardenne are a testament to his love for Rosalind. In comparing her to the romantic heroines of classical literature—Helen, Cleopatra, Lucretia—Orlando takes his place among a long line of poets who regard the love object as a bit of earthbound perfection. Much to the amusement of Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone, Orlando’s efforts are far less accomplished than, say, Ovid’s, and so bring into sharp focus the silliness of which all lovers are guilty. Orlando’s “tedious homil[ies] of love” stand as a reminder of the wide gap that exists between the fancies of literature and the kind of love that exists in the real world (III.ii.143).
In Act IV, scene ii, Jaques and other lords in Duke Senior’s party kill a deer. Jaques proposes to “set the deer’s horns upon [the hunter’s] head for a branch of victory” (IV.ii.4–5). To an Elizabethan audience, however, the slain deer would have signaled more than just an accomplished archer. As the song that follows the lord’s return to camp makes clear, the deer placed atop the hunter’s head is a symbol of cuckoldry, commonly represented by a man with horns atop his head. Allusions to the cuckolded man run throughout the play, betraying one of the dominant anxieties of the age—that women are sexually uncontrollable—and pointing out the schism between ideal and imperfect love.
Rosalind’s choice of alternative identities is significant. Ganymede is the cupbearer and beloved of Jove and is a standard symbol of homosexual love. In the context of the play, her choice of an alter ego contributes to a continuum of sexual possibilities.