Queerness in As You Like It

Queer theory is a lens of interpretation that invades from outside the structures of sexuality and gender that are socially enforced. “The term queer, with its insistent, deconstructive instability, can seem to obscure the differences between gay and lesbian or between same-sex desire and heterosexual desire or between the different cultures and histories associated with each group.” (Parker 195). Even the exposure of the fact that certain actions do not necessitate certain identities can be an act of queering. “To queer the distance between acts and identity is to throw into question the rigid binary oppositions often set up to divide straight from queer or straight from lesbian, gay, trans, or bi.” (Parker 207). Queerness is a force we can use to expose the boundaries that enclose societally drawn territories of gender and sexuality as artificial and obscuring of the underlying realities they are culturally conflated with, both in analysis and in life. That’s one example of what it means to queer something.

The Shakespeare play As You Like It features a female character named Rosalind who adopts a male persona named Ganymede for a large duration of the story. Towards the end of Act III, Rosalind encounters a woman named Phoebe who falls in love with her in her male persona as Ganymede. “Sweet youth, I pray you chide a year together. I had rather hear you chide than this man woo.” (As You Like It, Act III, Scene V, Lines 69-70). Phoebe is presumably a straight woman, although it may not even make sense to impose sexual identity categories onto the situation in the abstract as it is unclear how sexual attraction is categorized in the setting of the play, or if sexual identity categories as we know them today even exist in that setting. Regardless, Phoebe perceives Rosalind as Ganymede the man and is attracted to that male persona, not the female person underneath it. To say that this is a lesbian moment would be to impose lesbianism onto the scene in a way that remains ignorant of these details.

Michel Foucault theorized that “acts do not represent or emerge from preexisting homosexual entities. Instead, a pattern of thinking emerged that imposed identity on acts… Eventually, then, Foucault argued, the identity came to be taken for granted, as if it came from the acts themselves rather than from ways of thinking about the acts. Before the invention of homosexuality, according to Foucault’s controversial thesis, people might engage in same-sex erotic acts, but they would not be homosexual” (Parker 204). This perspective applies to As You Like It in the sense that being (mis)recognized as a man by a certain social context does not make one a man. Crossdressing doesn’t make one transgender, else it would cease to be accurately called crossdressing as the term refers to a member of one gender wearing the clothing culturally associated with another gender. A woman performing up to the societal ideal of masculinity does not make her a lesbian, even if another woman becomes attracted to her male persona. In these ways, the Phoebe-Ganymede relation in As You Like It is profoundly queer; it is a situation that does not fit easily within our currently popular conceptions of gender and sexuality as essentially categorical and rigidly territorialized.