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Comic Heroines in “As You Like It” and Twelfth Night Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2020

Shakespearean comedies, during the Elizabethan Age, created the genre of cross-dressed heroines, embodying masculine characters both in their appearance and temperament. In As You Like It and Twelfth Night, he created two lively and witty heroines. Resembling comic heroines in other Shakespearean plays, both embody a man and a woman. The female characters’ androgynous self shows their true characters. The individuality of Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night creates distinct characters, unattached to the masculine figures in the plays. They are humorous, prudent, and independent. Their identity is separate from that of their male relations – father, son, or husband.

Thus, their ‘self’ is quite apart from their ‘other’, and so the readers are not compelled to see the heroines as the appendage to the heroes. Both Rosalind and Viola exemplify the Shakespearean comic boy-heroines who wear men’s clothes and create an identity that is distinctly theirs. Evidently, the characters of Rosalind and Viola are similar, as both of them are women belonging to aristocratic families, forced to disguise themselves to travel or live alone. Both show a certain degree of charm and refinement in the man’s role and successfully create a place for themselves in it. Evidently, both characters demonstrate a degree of similarity; nonetheless, they are different. I believe Rosalind and Viola, though apparently similar characters possess different personality traits. In this essay, I will analyze and compare the characters of Viola and Rosalind and try to show the difference in their personality traits.

Rosalind is the boy-heroine of As You Like It, who, like her father, deprived of her rightful inheritance, lived a life of captivity as a friend and lady-in-waiting to Celia. However, in the forest of Arden, disguised as a man, she finds freedom. She is no longer bound to the sufferance of the usurper’s court and women’s limited roles. Rosalind’s temperament finds freedom from the restrictions of romantic love-cult. Though Rosalind is not opposed to the idea of love for she sincerely believes that there is only one thing that could surpass the ridiculousness of love, and that is not to believe in it, which is puerile. However, she is opposed to the idea of the Elizabethan idea of love-cult.

Once she enters the forest of Arden, she takes control of her life, and even her father after some time. The union of Rosalind and Ganymede is significant not only for her physical appearance but for her mental capability as well. Thus, Rosalind’s disguise was not just a change of clothes, but that of her whole nature. Shakespeare fashions Rosalind as taller, tougher, and braver than Celia, the other main female character in the play. Rosalind, when convincing Celia that they must disguise themselves as men to escape the castle, says: “…I am more than common tall, / That I did suit me all points like a man?” (Shakespeare, As You Like It 1. 3. 116-118). However, the reality of the matter does not elude her, as she immediately points out that even though she is tall and brave, her heart will hide a “woman’s fear” (1. 3. 120-121).

Rosalind, in disguise, becomes the man. Symbolically a woman is believed to think from her heart and is emotional while a man believes in logic and rationality. In As You Like It, Rosalind presents her ideas of love from a realistic standpoint.

Rosalind’s complexity as a character becomes even more evident when she, disguised as a man, pretends to be a woman. The androgynous nature of Rosalind’s character is met with fulfillment as she takes charge of her life, without the aid of a male guardian. Rosalind is the mistress of her passions. She aggressively forces Orlando to confess his love. She takes charge of the decision-making for both Celia and Orlando. Rosalind’s dialogues are filled with rhetorical expression and wit. Wit, in Shakespearean plays, is an expression of active masculinity, as opposed to passive femininity. Rosalind shows sharp wit and intelligence as a man as is delineated in Celia’s dialogue: “You’ve simply misused our sex in your love prate.” (4. 1. 166-167). However, Rosalind’s wit helps her character gain completeness. This indicates that Shakespearean comedy often believed a man or a woman without wit or compassion, respectively, is essentially sterile as a character.

In the Twelfth Night, Viola, unlike Rosalind, is not happy in her disguise. She calls herself a “monster” when in disguise and describes her appearance as “wickedness wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 2. 2. 27-34). Clearly, Viola is not comfortable in her masculine role, while Rosalind embraces it. The story presents Viola in a complicated situation when disguised as a man, Cicero, falls in love with Orsino, who is in love with Olivia, who, in turn falls in love with the disguised heroine. Viola makes witty comments on this confusion: “Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (2. 2. 26). Viola, when separated from her twin brother Sebastian due to a shipwreck, is washed to the shores of Illyria. There, she first decides to become a lady-in-waiting to Olivia, however, abruptly changes her mind to become the eunuch page to Orsino. This, again, is different from the decisive nature of Rosalind who believed that only as a man could she and Celia escape the castle of Duke Frederick. Disguised as a male eunuch, Viola gains considerable freedom of speech and movement. Further, her sexless state of a eunuch gives her the freedom to move among men and women equally, for she could talk to Olivia alone without the insinuation of courting the lady.

Rosalind and Viola are characters who are similar yet different from one another. Rosalind chooses to be a man on her own accord. She wanted to disguise as a man as she felt she was more suited to be one. However, Viola disguises herself as a means to seek protection under a man’s clothes. Further, Viola decides to become a eunuch, and not a man. The reason behind this decision might have been due to her intentions to be introduced to Olivia. However, her decision to disguise as a man was completely for reasons that were self-centered in contrast to the much-complicated reasons behind the decision taken by Rosalind. Moreover, Viola’s disguise does not open up new spaces of existence for her, as she remains her own timid and passive self. She is distrustful of others and fervently guards the secret of her disguise. She even acts cruelly towards Olivia who coyly professes her interest in Cicero, while the latter derides her: “I pity You /… for ’tis a vulgar proof, / That very oft we pity enemies” (3. 1. 122-125). Viola is not a cruel, skeptical, or an egotistical woman, but as a man she believes she had to act that way and that is why she is further convinced that her disguise is “wickedness”.

Rosalind took a calculated risk while disguising herself as a man. However, Viola had nothing to loose if her disguise was revealed. Thus, Rosalind shows a lot of shrewdness when she decides to take the disguise. The difference between the two comic heroines is their acceptance of freedom. Viola’s disguise, unlike Rosalind, was not a way to freedom but a means of survival. That is why the former is less enthusiastic about being a man than Rosalind. Further, Rosalind is authoritative and takes quick decisions but Cicero being a servant, has no power to make decisions and remain subservient to her master, Orsino. Viola’s further submissiveness is accentuated by her position as she is a servant to the man she loves. Therefore, she willingly and docilely accepts his wishes without questioning them. On the other hand, Rosalind meets Orlando as an equal in the forest and therefore, can engage in playful courtship without inhibition. Viola is unable to court Orsion even when she loves him. Her position becomes even more comic when she finds that Olivia loves her (Cicero) and not Orsino.

She is unable to dismiss Olivia the way Rosalind dismisses Phoebe in As You Like It, because she fears that her dismissal would infuriate Orsino. Rosalind and Celia are similar as far as their pledge of never to love a woman. Viola says, “I swear, and by my youth, / I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, / And that no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it save I alone” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 3. 1. 158-161) and Rosalind also confers that she will not love another woman, “And I for no woman” (Shakespeare, As You Like It 5. 2. 79). Though both the women have a similar attitude towards love advances from other women, Rosalind dismisses Phoebe easily for her social status as Ganymede allows her to do so, but Viola as the eunuch Cicero who is a servant is unable to avoid Olivia. Thus, this subtle difference between the two characters shows the distinct social hierarchy in Elizabethan society (Lindheim 696). Rosalind does not dwell on this issue, but for Viola, this becomes the whole problem of her disguise. Further her distrust of others makes her more helpless in the situation. This issue accentuated for Viola because of her lack of friends, as she is alone on the island, unlike Rosalind, who has the comfort of Celia’s friendship.

Rosalind and Viola are similar in their aristocratic birth and gender. Both of them take a disguise in a fantastic alien world. However, the similarities between the two characters end there. Rosalind seeks freedom in her disguise and therefore when she actually pretends to be a man, she does it fittingly. On the other hand, Viola has to disguise herself to ensure her safety but she feels trapped in her decision. The reason for disguising themselves was also different as one sought independence and the other safety. Their demeanor and temperament are different for Viola is submissive and docile, while Rosalind is assertive, wise, and rational. Apparently both women seem similar but essentially they are quite unlike.

Works Cited

Lindheim, Nancy. “Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night.” University of Toronto Quaterly, vol. 76, no. 2, 2007, pp. 679-713.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Routledge, 2011.

Twelfth Night. Routledge, 2010.

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