With a witty cross-dressed inamorata at its center, As You Like It shows the imprint of the ground-breaking actresses who took the lead in commedia dell'arte troupes decades before Shakespeare's debut. After emerging in Italian companies in the 1560s, women came to perform in scripted and improvised plays in every genre. Emotional volatility, theatrical self-awareness, literary sophistication, and a propensity for cross-dressed disguise marked the new inamorata roles created by the leading Italian divas. News came to England via diplomats, travelers, and actors, and Italian mixed-gender troupes visited London and played at court in the 1570s. As knowledge of the actress grew, some English playwrights created female protagonists who juggled identities and emotions in the Italian style. Shakespeare’s Rosalind is an especially ingenious hybrid of the new Italian inamorata and the skilled English boy. The contrast between female impersonation by boy players and by actresses forms a motif in the play, for example when Rosalind/Ganymede equates boys and women as versatile actors capable of running through a gamut of emotions. As with Cleopatra’s allusion to those who “boy” her greatness, Shakespeare daringly calls attention to both the abject boy beneath and the diva-type above. Rosalind’s virtuosic theatricality and assertion of male identity in the epilogue are just as provocative, raising the question: Who best plays the woman’s part, a foreign woman or an English boy?
Pamela Allen Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Stamford. She is author of Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama and Jest in Early Modern England (2003), and co-editor (with Peter Parolin) of Women Players in England 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage (2005). Works in progress include Extravagant Stranger: The Italian Actress on the Shakespearean Stage and As You Like It: Texts and Contexts (with Jean E. Howard).
Brown, Pamela Allen.
'‘Cattle of this colour’: Boying the Diva in As You Like It'.
15.1 (2012). Article 8.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/earlytheatre/vol15/iss1/8