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Rosalind’s Performative Gender

Updated: May 31, 2023

by Dorothy Palmer

As a closeted and unduly pretentious 16-year-old, my life was transformed when my grandparents took

me to see William Shakespeare’s As You Like It performed by the American Players Theatre. We trekked through the woods smothering sunscreen and choking on bug spray that cool summer evening to the Hill Theatre. The play started as the sun took her exit, illuminating the stage for the first two acts, and then the stage lights took over the night shift.

A full-body watercolor image of a woman, Rosalind, facing the viewer and looking to her left. She stands in a forest next to a stream to her right. She wears a light green dress cropped above the knee with light blue stockings and matching boots. Her hat is circular, wide-rimmed, and black with a pluming deep blue feather. She holds a thin spear in her right hand, and in her left is a white handkerchief.
Rosalind, painting by Henry J. Haley

I was enthralled by the delivery, the atmosphere, the costumes, and most importantly, Melisa Pereyra’s stellar performance as Rosalind. In school, I wrote a sub-par essay about it and received a well-earned B. Five years later, I decided to try again to research and write about the queer identity I recognized in the play. This time with the aid of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s extensive Special Collections Archive. As I dug for information, I found out I was not the only one to love Rosalind as a queer icon, but that she also holds a long-standing role within English drag history.

Inventing Rosalind

The English name and popularization of “Rosalind” is attributed to Edmund Spencer’s influential pastoral work, The Shepherd's Calendar published in 1579. Here she appears as a love interest, but her identity is notably shrouded in secrecy, leading scholars to speculate who Spenser intended her character to represent. Her next notable appearance in English literature was Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, or Euphues Golden Legacie in 1592. William Shakespeare adapted Lodge’s plot into As You Like It sometime in the last few years of the 16th century, and it was published in the first folio (1623).

A watercolor full-body portrait of Rosalind leaning against a tree. Cursive script underneath reads “Ros: "Good my complexion: dost thou think, though I am caparison'd like a man, I have a doublet and host in my disposition? -- As you like it" Mrs. Kendal as Rosalind.” She wears a rose-colored dress with a bodice and puckered sleeves. The dress stops at her knees around the same place her boots do. Her blonde hair is styled into a neat bun at the nape of her neck under a straw cap decorated with flowers. She loosely holds onto a spear as she gazes off into the distance.
Rosalind. Watercolor by Madge Kendal

The details of the performance history for AYL are sparse. It seems to have disappeared for much of the 17th century. Because of this, the casting remains a mystery as to who played Rosalind before Charles II’s decree that mandated that female roles be played by women. Subsequently, a layer of this transformative play was lost (but certainly not forgotten by yours truly). No longer was a man acting as a woman, pretending to be a man, while seducing another man while pretending to be a woman. Instead, a woman played her sex to pretend to be a man and acted as a woman. AYL returned in 1723 to become a specialty for the theatre on Drury Lane. In the 41 seasons spanning from 1776 to 1817, only three neglected to include a run of the play in question. For this play to have such a long and diligent run, it must have been incredibly popular.

Drag on Drury Lane

I’ve never had much of a mind for geography, so I looked at some maps to support a hunch I couldn’t quite visualize on my own. As it turns out, the theatre on Drury Lane’s most popular production (that happened to feature explicit homoerotic, homoromantic, and cross-gendered themes) also happened to be near the evolving hub of London’s queer community. (Right: Drury Lane design and schematics, B. Wyatt, architect. From Britton's Illustrations.) Records of criminal charges, medical reports, and directors' notes quantify the existence of this community, specifically in the form of Molly Houses prevalent in Covent Garden (Drury Lane’s neighborhood). These Molly Houses were secret gathering places for gay men to

crossdress and meet each other. By 1870, the Oxford English Dictionary marked the first written usage of ‘drag’ to mean “Feminine attire worn by a man” in a paper detailing such parties in the same neighborhood. In order for the word to be legible to their audience at large, it must have been spoken and understood for some years before. All this history occurred within the same area of west London. Therefore, I can’t overlook the popularity of AYL occurring in the same place that hosted an evolution of English drag culture.

I easily imagine how Rosalind resonated with this audience of what we would now understand as generally queer and gender non-conforming, especially in a space for those raised primarily as men. Rosalind’s character not only cross-dresses but presents a farcical version of a woman. Celia finds it so offensive a portrayal she accuses Rosalind of “misus[ing] our sex”(AYL 4.1.214)). The doubling of these two distinct acts within the same character suggests that Lodge’s plot had some basis in queer cultures of the time. As performances continued, her representation of the gender binary remains true to even the modern audience. This feat speaks to the remarkable legacy and legibility of queer characters.

All my geographical conjecture aside, we don't know the audience's response. We don't know how queer people would have thought of themselves, their community, and their history. All I know as a humble queer is Rosalind lives on, not just in the mind of gender nonconformity, but in the heart of trans characters. (Below, Map titled "Plan of the Cities of London & Westminster with the Borough of Southwark." Image from Stow, "A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster...")

Rosalind as Representative

A signed photograph of Viola Allen dressed as Rosalind. Across the top is illegible scribbled cursive in the same ink as the signature. She stares into the camera with a neutral expression and her arms crossed. The photograph features the waist up of Allen who is wearing a dark tunic with white accents on the collar and sleeves. Her hair is long and curly and her hat is small and pinned tight to the crown of her head.
Viola Allen dressed as Rosalind. Photograph by James Samuel Wendeatt.

It’s fairly obvious that Rosalind presents a character in defiance of gender roles and norms and that her continued reappearance is in conversation with queer communities as it informs her performance and her fans. But the queer lens necessitates for the analyst to ask how Rosalind perpetuates and thwarts hierarchical gender binaries. In this respect, I don’t think she really holds up as an original voice.

The unique queer nature of AYL does not come from Rosalind’s challenge to the gender binary. Instead, the challenge is presented through Orlando, who loves her in any way she presents herself. A woman dressing as a man to protect herself and her companion registers as a comment about the abuses women suffer on account of gender rather than an inherent difference between sexes. For a woman specifically within this trope, Rosalind fulfills a transmisogynistic role: part of her definition of masculinity requires putting women down, revealing that she is empowered while acting as a man but emotionally weak when pretending to be a woman.

The novelty of Rosalind as a character to the modern audience is one that finds joy in the revered and prestigious connotation of Shakespeare being associated with a gender-nonconforming character. The association feels like a heavy weight in favor of queer visibility and authenticity. Shakespeare's status allows his characters to feel like figureheads in a cause that he may not have necessarily cared for them to be in. Furthermore, she was not Shakespeare’s first cross-dressing character, and the play itself didn't make any known notable waves outside of its popularity. How much of that should be attributed to her own merit, and how much to her maker?

Penciled drawing of a full-body portrait of Rosalind. Text underneath reads, “Ellen Tree. Friday October 12st 1836.” She wears a dress with a wide neck and the skirt cuts off above her knees. An asymmetrical cape drapes across her back and stops around her calves. Her hair is tucked into her cap adorned with many feathers. She rests her hands upon the middle of a spear.
Penciled drawing of a full-body portrait of Rosalind. Portrait by the artist Lewis.

Conclusion Based on My Poor Gay Heart

Was Rosalind iconic? Yes. Did she have a historical place in the evolution of London drag culture? I believe so. Is she reliably queer through the centuries? Yes. But is she subverting gender binaries in any original or revolutionary fashion? Not by a long shot. Rosalind has a special place in my heart as a part of my queer awakening. However, I can accept that she is not the end-all-be-all of historical literary queers and, perhaps, shouldn't be considered one to begin with.


This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.


A special thank you to UW-Madison’s Special Collection staff in Memorial Library. Without them, this article would not have been possible.

Further Reading

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