I’m trying to think of a more sincere cruelty displayed by a protagonist in a play thus far than what is displayed by Rosalind toward Phebe in Act Three, Scene Five of As You Like It.
And I cannot.
The key here, of course, is “protagonist” since the women had been pretty damned brutal in Act Five of Love’s Labor’s Lost. And yes, Petruchio is cruel to Kate in the taming sequence, but I would argue that it’s something less than sincere and something more akin to “the end justifies the means.”
Just take a look at Rosalind’s first words to Phebe, a nearly thirty-line tongue-lashing:
That you insult, exult, and all at once,
Over the wretched? What though you have no beauty,–
As, by my faith, I see no more in you
Than without candle may go dark to bed–
Must you be therefore proud and pitiless?
Why, what means this? Why do you look on me?
I see no more in you than in the ordinary
Of nature’s sale-work. ‘Od’s my little life,
I think she means to tangle my eyes too!
No, faith, proud mistress, hope not after it:
‘Tis not your inky brows, your black silk hair,
Your bugle eyeballs, nor your cheek of cream,
That can entame my spirits to your worship.
You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her,
Like foggy south puffing with wind and rain?
You are a thousand times a properer man
Than she a woman: ’tis such fools as you
That makes the world full of ill-favour’d children:
‘Tis not her glass, but you, that flatters her;
And out of you she sees herself more proper
Than any of her lineaments can show her.
But, mistress, know yourself: down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love:
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets:
Cry the man mercy; love him; take his offer:
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.
So take her to thee, shepherd: fare you well.
Rosalind begins with shaming (“who might be your mother”) and accusing (“you insult, exult…Over the wretched”) then moves on to insulting in general (“you have no beauty”), and specific (“inky brows, your black silk hair, // Your bulge eyeballs”). Then she insults the shepherdess to her shepherd (“You are a thousand times a properer man // Than she a woman”). Rosalind/Ganymede then demands that Phebe pray: “Down on your knees,// And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love” (… and is this an off-the-cuff insult that Phebe is fat [that she needs to fast]?). And though the punchline is funny, it’s still a cruel statement to say that Phebe should “sell when (she) can: (she is) not for all markets.”
Of course, even this verbal meanness is nothing compared to what Touchstone does to William, the former suitor to Audrey.
He builds from mere insults to total mocking condensation:
To Touchstone, William is but a “clown,” and “vulgar” and “boorish” and “common,” and is worthy of nothing but threats of death. This is simply brutal. And while–like Rosalind’s final insult to Phebe–the performance can make this cruelty funny, nothing can take away from the brutality.
Is it Touchstone’s cruelty a casual offshoot of his repeated disdain for the “forest class”? Does he feel that he can “get away” with this demeaning dialogue because of his social stratum?
If so, then how to explain Rosalind’s malice? Is her cruelty more gender-based? While she teased Touchstone back in Frederick’s court, it never seemed overtly mean. Yet, Ganymede’s statements to Phebe, have no precedent. Even if she is merely “play(ing)” (III.iv.55), why is she so emboldened to play at this level of cruelty? I think the root is found in her male disguise. When she describes her male appointments, she lists a “curtal ax…boarspear…and a martial outside” (I.iii.115,116, and 118), so maybe her inclination is to use this warlike aspect even in her language, especially to those “lower” than her new gender status?
Is cruelty part of the male purview?