Rosalind dominates As You Like It. So fully realized is she in the complexity of her emotions, the subtlety of her thought, and the fullness of her character that no one else in the play quite compares to her. Orlando is handsome, strong, and an affectionate, if unskilled, poet, yet still we feel that Rosalind settles for someone slightly less magnificent when she chooses him as her mate. And unlike the play’s other two quickest wits, Touchstone and Jaques, Rosalind possesses a balanced and grounded intelligence that never swings too far in the direction of either idealism or cynicism. Rosalind is cynical enough to criticize the ridiculous ideals enshrined in the common literary tropes about love. Yet she isn’t so cynical that she can’t also delight in the sheer foolishness of love. For instance, she challenges Orlando’s tendency to compare her to mythological women in his ridiculous poems, yet she remains so smitten with him that she nearly comes undone when he’s slightly late for a meeting. Her qualified affirmation of romantic love makes her the play’s great equalizer. As she herself notes when arranging the suite of weddings that conclude the play: “I have promised to make all this matter even” (5.4.18).

Rosalind’s role as an equalizing force in the play depends on her capacity for entertaining several hypotheticals at the same time. Rosalind fully showcases her facility with hypotheticals when arranging the suite of weddings at the play’s end:

(To Silvius) If would love you if I could. . . . (To Phoebe) I will marry you if ever I marry woman. . . (To Orlando) I will satisfy you if ever I satisfy many. . . . (To Silvius) I will content you, if what pleases you contents you. (5.2.116–23, emphasis added)

Rosalind’s cascading ifs prefigure the series of revelations and recognitions that will take place the following day, ensuring that all the correct thens—that is, the correct pairings—will occur. Rosalind’s gifts as an arranger of love matches results from her exemplary navigation of Arden and its suspension of normative social conventions. She cunningly exploits this suspension by retaining her disguise long after it has ensured her safety in the forest. If she keeps up her charade as Ganymede, it’s because it presents a plurality of possibilities for her. It enables her to speak her mind less guardedly, which at once allows her to educate others in ways of love and to develop a friendship with her beloved. Rosalind’s disguise makes it possible for her to lay the groundwork for a better, happier future, when she can reunite with her father and become Orlando’s bride.

Rosalind is a particular favorite among feminist critics, who admire her ability to subvert the limitations that society imposes on her as a woman. Though she initially adopts the guise of Ganymede as an act of self-protection, she quickly recognizes the value in being able to inhabit both male and female perspectives simultaneously. Her capacity to be both man and woman gives her license to lampoon various stereotypes associated with each sex. Shakespeare extracts a great deal of comedy from the confusion of gender identities played out through Rosalind, who would have been performed by a young boy actor. Audiences from all times will find much to enjoy in the layered complexity of a boy playing a woman, who in turn disguises herself as a boy who pretends to act the part of “Rosalind.” That said, an Elizabethan audience might also have felt a certain amount of anxiety regarding Rosalind’s behavior. After all, the structure of a male-dominated society depends upon both men and women acting in their assigned roles. Thus, in the end, Rosalind dispenses with the charade. But she does so having demonstrated the potential for making the world a less punishing place.