by Vered Arnon
Change is a constant in most plays. Part of the dramatic formula is for a character to grow and develop through various experiences, usually coming to a conclusion or overcoming some sort of confusion, by the end of the play. Such is the case with Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Various experiences contribute to his development from the beginning to the end of the play. Each one is a worthy subject of analysis. None is more significant than another — cumulatively, they create Orlando’s transformation from the angsty youth in Act One, to the happily wedded gentleman at the end of the play. However, there is one significant cause of change, which is identifiable only through analysis and interpretation. This subtle cause is a crucial aspect, though, since it deals specifically with Orlando’s love, and love is the main theme of the play.
Orlando’s faith in love compels him to change. When the play opens, he is hopeless and frustrated by his lack of an education and lack of means to make anything of his life. Then he falls in love with Rosalind. His progress through the movement of infinity to the movement of finitude(1) gives him an inner strength that resolves his existential crisis. He gets a reason to live, a cause to dedicate his heart and soul to. His life becomes meaningful, and paradoxically fulfilling. (Paradoxical, in that before he marries Rosalind, he suffers in his longing for her, yet is content in his suffering because the passion feeds his soul.) His life certainly improves as a result of this change, and he eventually does marry Rosalind. But this change might not last. Once his desires are fulfilled and he has married Rosalind, the unrequited love which lived on faith no longer requires faith for sustenance. In Scene One of Act Four, Rosalind in the disguise of Ganymede is counselling Orlando on the nature of love. She tells him that after marriage, there is a change. “Men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives,” (Shakespeare, 78). If Orlando lets go of his faith, he will let go of his passion, and return to the same existential dilemma.
Orlando has not yet encountered love when the play begins. Orlando opens with a speech about his condition. He is frustrated and indignant that his brother refuses to give him his inheritance, or even let him get an education and be a gentleman. As far as Orlando is concerned, unless he is a gentleman, there is nothing he can do with his life, and his whole existence is not even comparable to an animal in a stable. “I will not endure it, though yet I know no wise remedy how to avoid it,” (Shakespeare, 4), he says in closing his first speech. He does, however, find a remedy. He loses hope in life entirely, and attempts to make one last stand in a wrestling match. Through the wrestling match, he will either make a name for himself, or get it all over with. At the time he first encounters Rosalind, he is suicidal. In response to her attempt to dissuade him from wrestling, he tells her, “I shall do … the world no injury, for in it I have nothing. Only in the world I fill up a place, which may be better supplied when I have made it empty,” (Shakespeare, 15). Here, he expresses both his existential hopelessness, and his complete lack of faith. He cannot even contemplate the movement of infinity, since he has nothing to sacrifice.
One main tenet of faith, according to Kierkegaard, is sacrifice. The movement of infinity(2), which brings one to heroism, but not to faith, is achieved through sacrificing or renouncing something for some reason. The movement of finitude goes beyond that. This movement is the acceptance of an absurd paradox, wherein the individual believes at once that he has made a complete sacrifice, and all is lost; and he believes that although he has made the sacrifice, nothing is lost, and his beloved will eventually be his to hold tangibly. Orlando progresses through both of these movements as he journeys through the play and into the forest.
The beginning of Orlando’s transformation is in Act One, Scene Two. He wins the wrestling match, and in doing so greatly impresses Rosalind. When she desires to speak to him and congratulate him, however, he finds that he cannot speak. “What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?” he asks himself. “I cannot speak to her, yet she urged conference. O poor Orlando, thou art overthrown! Or Charles or something weaker masters thee,” (Shakespeare, 18). In fact, what now “masters” Orlando is not something weak, but something very strong. It is the kindling of love, which will lead to the faith that transforms Orlando enough to give his whole life meaning and devotion.
As evinced by his inability to speak to her, Orlando knows that he cannot have Rosalind. She is the Duke’s niece, and ward of the Duke’s court. Orlando himself is the youngest son of someone whom the Duke hated. If he cannot even receive his rightful reward for winning the wrestling match, then surely he has no hope of ever having Rosalind for his lover. Kierkegaard describes this condition on page 41 of Fear and Trembling. “A young lad falls in love with a princess, and this love is the entire substance of his life, and yet the relation is such that it cannot possibly be realized, cannot possibly be translated from ideality into reality.” Here, the stage is set for Orlando to step into infinite resignation. “First of all, he assures himself that it actually is the substance of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to waste the least of it in intoxication,” (Kierkegaard, 42). By the time Orlando has made himself comfortable in the forest, he is writing poetry about his beloved and hanging it on all the trees. He has made the movement of infinite resignation. Kierkegaard writes:
“The knight will then have the power to concentrate the whole substance of his life and the meaning of actuality into one single desire … His love for that princess would become for him the statement of an eternal love, would assume a religious character, would be transfigured into a love of the eternal being” (Kierkegaard, 43).
Orlando’s love for Rosalind clearly takes on a religious quality, as expressed in his poems. He describes her as an ethereal, divine creature. “Thus Rosalind of many parts by heavenly synod was devised,” (Shakespeare, 52) he writes, as read by Rosalind in Act Three, Scene Two. He has met her only once, and doesn’t know much about her personally, yet his words are so transcendent and passionate. He’s not describing a real person at all. She has become a divine being to him, and he declares it proudly and boldly.
The movement of infinite resignation once complete, Orlando then makes the final movement of finitude, of faith. “If this be so, why blame you me to love you?” (Shakespeare, 94), Orlando asks the unpresent Rosalind at the end of Act Five, Scene Two. He is responding to Silvius’s description of what it is to love, and recognising that although Rosalind is not there to hear him, he does indeed love her, and although she is not there to hear him, he nevertheless believes that she can hear him. This is the paradox of faith. This is the final transformation. “He makes one more movement even more wonderful than all the others, for he says: Nevertheless I have faith that I will get her — that is, by virtue of the absurd … The absurd does not belong to the differences that lie within the proper domain of the understanding,” (Kierkegaard, 46). In Scene Four of Act Five, Orlando again reaffirms the movement of faith that he has made: “I sometimes do believe, and sometimes do not, as those that fear they hope, and know they fear,” Shakespeare, 97). He believes at once that she is lost to him, yet she will be his.
Thus, Orlando’s transformation is complete. He find something to do with his life which is meaningful to him, which solves his existential crisis. He marries Rosalind in the final act of the play. But the ending could potentially undo his development. Once he finally has her, the paradox of resignation and anticipation will dissolve. With concrete evidence, faith is no longer an object. Orlando is no longer making a sacrifice. Shakespeare’s play does not go farther than the nuptial, perhaps because any further change (which is necessary for the dramatic formula) would be regression rather than progress, and the whole romantic drama would have been for naught.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling; Repetition. New Jersey. Princeton University Press.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. New York. Signet Classic. 1998.
1 Kierkegaard describes the movements of infinity and finitude in Fear and Trembling, a dissertation on the paradox of faith. While the book deals mainly with religious faith, faith is universal, and as illustrated in one of the author’s examples, it applies to romantic love as readily as it does to religious devotion. Infinity and finitude are the abstract motions that lead to faith.
2 This is the movement of self-sacrifice for a noble cause. In Orlando’s case, love is a noble cause, but he doesn’t have enough of a sense of self-worth at this point in the play to sacrifice himself to it. Later on in the play, the power of being wholeheartedly in love gives him a sense of pride and self-worth that enables him to make the sacrifice (page 4).