As we near the end of our two-month discussion of As You Like It, let’s take a look at the end of the play–in particular, the epilogue to the play.
Rosalind, or the actor (male, remember) playing her, begins by saying that it’s not usual to see the female lead delivering the epilogue. And this is true of the Canon: none of the other plays’ epilogues are spoken by a female character–Henry V: the Chorus; Pericles: Gower; The Tempest: Prospero (now The Second Part of Henry the Fourth’s epilogue is spoken by “a dancer” but there is nothing in the text that posits that character as female). Then as if to create a sense of balance, Rosalind states that it’s also not usual for the male character to present the prologue (true enough, too).
Rosalind then questions the need for any epilogue and says that she has in a problem (“what a case am I in then”) because she is neither a “good epilogue” nor can she suggest that this has been a good play (“insinuate, n.; 7” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 25 August 2014.). Also of note: in Shakespeare’s time, “case” was sexual slang for vagina (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 96), you know–something that holds something else.
Now, since she isn’t dressed like a beggar, she can’t beg, so–she says–she’ll have to “conjure” the audience, or “to make a privy compact by an oath” (“conjure, v.; I.1.a” OED). She starts with the women, calling for them to “like as much of the play as please(s)” them. That’s easy enough. She then moves on to the men, calling for them to find something “between (them) and the women” that pleases in the play. (btw, I love the perception of Rosalind that “by (the men’s) simpering, none of (them) hates” women… the meaning of “simper” in Shakespeare’s day was “to smile in a silly, self-conscious, or affected manner; to smirk” [“simper, v.; 1.a” OED]). So the audience’s side of this contract seemingly means pretty much nothing (like vs. find something that pleases). What is something is Rosalind’s side of the agreement.
She says she would kiss as many of men who had “good beards or good faces or sweet breaths” if she was a woman. And that’s the key. Rosalind’s not a woman. She is really a boy actor. And yet, that actor also says that those same men (with the good beards, etc) will bid him farewell… when he/she/it “make(s) curtsy,” which is “said only of women” (“curtsy, v.; 1.a” OED).
So we’re left with a pretty weird final moment.
We have the only epilogue spoken by a female character (if not a female), though there is some cheeky gender teasing taking place.
We also have the only prose epilogue in the Canon. The seeming statement made here is that this epilogue doesn’t need the heightened language of verse. And it certainly doesn’t need rhyme (maybe because of all the songs?).
So why have it at all?
Maybe the answer is in that “seemingly” meaningless audience end of the contract with the speaker of the epilogue: the women in the audience were asked to “like” the play; the men were asked to find between them and the women that the play pleases. The women get to make the decision; the men are to work with the women.
And this statement is made by a boy, playing a woman, who had spent much of the play disguised as a man. This male actor has seen it all from both sides of the gender coin now. And he knows who’s in charge.
The women are.
And for the first time in these two months, I’m finally getting some inkling of why the play has the title it does.
The women gets to decide what is to be liked, they are the “you” in the title. And what do they like? A world in which they make the rules, compose the contracts–remember how she says the couldn’t beg because she wasn’t dressed like a beggar; but she is dressed like a woman, and she immediately launches into the creation of the contract with the audience. This world is one were women can play both roles, the feminine and the masculine.
It’s almost a socio-political gender manifesto.