Rosalind and Celia, still in disguise, briefly discuss Orlando’s tardiness. Two hours have passed, and he has not returned, as promised, to resume his love lessons. Silvius interrupts in order to deliver a letter to Ganymede. It is from Phoebe and, after he turns it over, Silvius warns the disguised Rosalind that its tone is harsh. Phoebe, he admits, looked very angry when she penned it. Rosalind scans the letter and reports that Phoebe judges Ganymede to be a young man without looks or manners. She then accuses Silvius of writing the letter himself, which he vehemently denies. Rosalind asserts that no woman could have written such a rude and defiant letter. To prove herself, she reads the letter aloud, but it turns out to be full of unabashedly romantic declarations, comparing Ganymede to a god who has destroyed Phoebe’s heart. Baffled, Silvius asks if this language is what Ganymede calls chiding. Celia offers her pity to the shepherd, but Rosalind says he deserves none for loving such a woman as Phoebe. She sends Silvius back to Phoebe with the message that Ganymede will never love Phoebe unless Phoebe loves Silvius.
As Silvius leaves, Oliver enters. He asks for directions to Ganymede and Aliena’s cottage. Then, looking over the pair, who are still in disguise, he asks if they are the brother and sister who own that property. When they admit that they are, Oliver remarks that his brother Orlando’s description of the pair was very accurate. To Ganymede, Oliver delivers a bloody handkerchief on Orlando’s behalf. Rosalind asks what has happened. Oliver tells a lengthy story: soon after leaving Ganymede, Orlando stumbled upon a ragged man asleep in the forest, who was being preyed upon by a “green and gilded snake” (IV.iii.107). Orlando succeeded in scaring the snake away, only to see a hungry lioness emerge from the underbrush. Orlando approached the ragged man, and recognized him as his brother. Orlando’s first impulse was to let Oliver, who treated him so abominably, perish in the lion’s jaws, but his nobler nature would not allow it. He fought off the lion, wounding his shoulder but ultimately saving Oliver’s life. Orlando’s kind and selfless gesture have transformed Oliver into a new man, and the elder brother confesses that he is ashamed of his former self. He continues, saying that he and Orlando made amends and went to see the duke. There, Orlando fainted, having lost a great deal of blood in his fight with the lioness. Before passing out completely, he charged Oliver to deliver an apology to Ganymede in the form of a bloodstained handkerchief. Upon hearing this story, Rosalind faints dead away. Celia and Oliver help her recover, and Oliver remarks that young Ganymede “lack[s] a man’s heart” (IV.iii.163–164). Rosalind begs Oliver to impress upon Orlando how well she “counterfeited” a suitable reaction to his injury, in accordance with their lessons (IV.iii.167). Oliver protests that her reaction must be genuine, for her face is flushed. Rosalind, however, assures him that she was merely playing a part.
In Act IV, scene iii, the play takes two important steps toward its resolution. First, Rosalind begins to tire of the game she plays. Her disguise as Ganymede allows her a number of freedoms that she could not enjoy as a woman: she can leave court, travel safely into the forest, express sexual desire, and initiate a romantic courtship. But her disguise also has its limitations. After all, it disables her from consummating her relationship with Orlando, and Rosalind does not relish the idea of acting out the indefinitely protracted desire depicted in Petrarch’s love poetry. If Orlando were willing to test the bounds of their fiction and have sex with Ganymede, he would discover Rosalind’s true identity. Even if Orlando already suspects that Ganymede is Rosalind, as some critics suggest he must, he could not very well pursue a sexual relationship with her unless they were properly married. To do so would be to compromise Rosalind’s virtue and denigrate her incomparably delightful character. Besides, Rosalind’s disguise is meant to be temporary yet powerful, just like the temporary yet critical move to Ardenne.
As noted previously, Elizabethans placed a great importance upon outward markers of identity such as dress and behavior. A cross-dressing woman presents a very amusing spectacle temporarily, but the ruse cannot be maintained indefinitely. Such a sustained subversion of the social order would bring chaos, and Shakespeare takes care to remind us that a woman in man’s clothing is still a woman, returning to his Elizabethan audience’s expectations of gendered behavior. For example, upon hearing of Orlando’s trial with the lioness, Rosalind faints, prompting Oliver to remark that she lacks “a man’s heart” (IV.iii.163–164), to which she responds, “So I do; but, i’faith, I should have been a woman by right” (IV.iii.173–174). This call and response signals to the audience that the game is still a game, that Ganymede is little more than a pair of pants, and that Rosalind, though smart enough to avoid temporarily her proper place in society, is ultimately willing to resume it.
The arrival of Oliver offers a second movement toward resolution. When the previously evil Oliver steps foot in Ardenne, he is transformed into the loving brother he never was before. This transformation speaks to the mutability of the human experience: people can change and, as As You Like It insists, can change for the better. Certainly this transformation has much to do with the movement from court into the country. Once removed from the politics and pressures of life at court, the obstacles, greed, and petty jealousies that separate the brothers dissolve. Although the play at several points satirizes the pastoral mode for its simplicity and unreality, here it indulges in the pastoral fantasy that nature can heal the wounds inflicted by the artificial and corrupt hierarchies of the man-made world.