Ganymede and the Rules (or is that Problem) of Attraction

So, in As You Like It, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy and the name Ganymede. As we discussed earlier, that name is a dirty joke:

According to Homer, Ganymede was the most beautiful of human, so it is no surprise that Zeus abducted him (in the form of an eagle). The OED defines a ganymede as

1. A cupbearer, a youth who serves out liquor; humorously, a pot-boy.
2. A catamite (which is defined as “A boy kept for homosexual practices; the passive partner in anal intercourse”)
  • “ganymede, n; 1a and b”
    OED Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    June 2014.
    Web. 15 July 2014.

Rosalind’s Ganymede is constantly referred to as “pretty” but not handsome. And her name is also a joke: to the Elizabethans, who knew all-too-well definition #2 above, this would mean that she would look like an effeminate homosexual youth.

Despite the fact that she “suit(s) (herself) all points like a man” (I.iii.114) and she takes on “a swashing and martial outside” (I.iii.118), no one is mistaking her for a man. Orlando has described to Oliver Oliver his Ganymede/Rosalind:

                The boy is fair,
Of female favor, and bestows himself
Like a ripe sister
  • IV.iii.84-6

He’s a boy, but has features (“favor”) like a woman and acts like one, too (“bestows”); and here, the use of “ripe” takes on not just a meaning of “mature” (“ripe, A. adj.; 1.c”, OED Online) but of some sexuality, as it also meant both “developed to the point of readiness for harvesting and eating, or for the dispersal of seed for propagation” (“ripe, A. adj.; 1.a.”, OED Online) and “marriageable” (“ripe, A. adj.; 5.b.”, OED Online). Does Orlando know Rosalind’s secret? Is all of this a game, a sport, playacting? Or is this sexualized language belying a less than heterosexual attraction to “Rosalind” and more of a homosexual love for “Ganymede”?

A couple of paragraphs back, I said that no one is mistaking her for a man. And that’s not altogether true. Phebe “hope(s) … after it” (III.v.45), even though she knows Ganymede is but a “peevish boy” and “a pretty youth” (III.v.110,113), and there is only the assumption that one day “he’ll make a proper man” (III.v.115). Phebe realizes that (despite Rosalind being “more than common tall” [I.iii.113] for a woman) Ganymede is “not very tall” (III.v.118) for a man, and his most striking feature is

                          a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper and more lusty red
Than mixed in his cheek; ’twas just the difference
Betwixt the constant red and mingled damask
  • III.v.120-123

She spends more time describing Ganymede’s complexion than on any other aspect, and the description of the color of his cheeks calls to mind Sonnet 130’s insults: “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red… I have seen roses damask’d, red and white // But no such roses see I in her cheeks.” And again, we get the idea of “ripe”-ness, and while it might be nice to use the meaning “of the complexion or lips: resembling ripe fruit; red and full.” (“ripe, A. adj.; 1.d.”, OED Online), that meaning was only beginning to come into use when As You Like It was written; instead, I’m going to lean toward the more sexual, especially given the word’s proximity to “lusty.” And thus, where does that leave Phebe? If Ganymede is so effeminate and like a “ripe sister,” what does that say about Phebe’s attraction to Ganymede?

If it’s a lesbian desire, she doesn’t seem to mind this, it’s only others who do, as Hymen says of her: “You to (Silvius’) love must accord, // Or have a woman to your lord” (V.iv.131-2), as if that is some horrible fate.

It seems that no matter which way to go with Rosalind’s appearance, there’s going to be some audience preconceived sexual/gender political hurdles to negotiate.

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