There’s an incredible tracking shot in Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film adaptation of As You Like It that perfectly sums up my feelings about the character of Celia and the treatment she receives from the pen of The Bard. It happens in Act III Scene ii, the one in which Celia and Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) first encounter Orlando in the Forest of Arden.
The shot begins on a boardwalk crossing a wetland. Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) has just told Celia (Romola Garai), “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him.” Rosalind and Orlando (David Oyelowo) proceed along the boardwalk, leaving Celia trailing behind as they trade quips about time and the love notes Orlando has been pinning to the trees. Celia seems to suffer from the fatigue she felt when she and Rosalind first came to the forest, or maybe she’s just appalled at her friend’s behavior. The camera loses track of her for a while as Orlando and Rosalind step onto dry land, but we soon get another glimpse of her in the background, now sitting on the boardwalk. Orlando and Ros circle around the wetland, then stop to face each other as they enter into their bargain, in which Orlando will pretend that Ganymede is Rosalind, and woo her in that guise. The pair stand far enough apart that in the far background between them we see poor Celia, now just an infinitesimal dot.
Yes, brilliant, Mr. Branagh! The blocking highlights the problematic nature of this scene (which leaves Celia with nothing to do for 130 lines of other characters’ dialogue) and also the problematic nature of Celia and Rosalind’s relationship.
That relationship is deep, much deeper than typical best friends or cousins. Near the opening of the play, Celia pledges her inheritance to her dear Ros, replacing what Celia’s father stole from Rosalind’s father. She tells her own father she cannot live without Rosalind. And she makes good on this statement, taking Rosalind’s banishment as her own, thus giving up not only her inheritance but a comfortable life at court and any likelihood of marrying. By the time of this scene, the two have pooled their jewels and wealth and set up their own household in the forest, purchasing a cottage, a flock of sheep, and the services of a shepherd to sustain them. In other words, they’re now independent of the economic and social forces that virtually required women to marry.
And now Rosalind is going all weak in her breeches-covered knees for Orlando. No wonder Celia sounds like a jealous, jilted lover in the ensuing scenes — because she well may be. (Heteronormative interpretations like this one have to do back flips to overlook all the evidence that Celia and Rosalind’s relationship is much deeper than the usual friendship. Do friends, or even cousins, sacrifice family, social position, and economic futures to be together, vowing that they can’t live apart? There’s a simpler explanation, but one unavailable to those who cannot recognize same-sex desire.) Even if they are “just friends,” Rosalind treats Celia horribly, as does Shakespeare.
Good old Will does toss Celia a bone by having her instantly fall in love with Oliver, which seems way too convenient. And I’ve always hated the way Celia disappears from the play toward the end, though I never realized until reading this article on Celia and Rosalind’s relationship that she has no lines in Act V. Poor Celia!
But the same article points out that Celia may have gone for Oliver, who is Orlando’s brother, as a way to stay close to Ros, since they’ll now be tied even more closely as sisters-in-law. So both can fulfill their traditional marriage and heir-bearing duties, but still maintain their own relationship, whatever its nature. (Myself, I like to imagine an alternate ending in which Rosalind sees Orlando for the prating fool he is, and she and Celia continue living happily in their sylvan paradise. Maybe Orlando will find an actual Ganymede, since that’s the way his desires seem to run.)
I included a few of these thoughts on Rosalind and Celia’s relationship in my novel, Daring and Decorum. Rebecca expresses similar feelings about Celia’s treatment to her own best friend, Elizabeth. The pair have just finished watching Dora Jordan’s performance as Rosalind at Bath’s Theatre Royal. (I had to take some liberties with history to get that to happen; what kind of historical novelist am I, anyway?) Rebecca has one thing in common with Rosalind: they both cross-dress at times, though Elizabeth doesn’t know this about Rebecca yet. (If the reader hasn’t caught on to it by this point, then the novel’s in big trouble.) In bringing Elizabeth to this play, Rebecca hopes to discover how her friend will react to a woman playing a “breeches part.”
Here are Elizabeth (the first-person narrator) and Rebecca discussing the play as they exit the theatre, with Rebecca having just expressed her disappointment in the way Rosalind drops Celia for Orlando:
Yet surely the love of a friend and the love of a husband are different,” I said, adjusting my fichu in expectation of the colder air outside the theatre. “And what is to prevent their remaining the closest of companions?”
“I have seen it too many times, friends drift apart once they have husbands and children. And it happens so quickly! I know Celia must have been hurt, as you saw when she abused Orlando for being an unfaithful lover. She was simply jealous. This business of Celia falling instantly in love with Oliver – it’s nothing but a paltry attempt to cover her wounded feelings.”
“You sound like Jaques! Do you not believe in love at first sight?”
She turned to look at me. “Strangely enough, I do.”
But this interesting conversation is cut short when the pair run into Elizabeth’s good friend, Anthony, Lord Burnside, who was supposed to be in London. (And just when Elizabeth was thinking “there are no Orlandos and no Olivers on our horizon.”) Anthony doesn’t quite pin love poems on trees, but he does betray his feelings by exclaiming one word in surprise at seeing her: “Lizzie!” Hardly proper for a gentleman of the late 18th century, not to mention that the woman his parents want him to marry is standing right next to him.
If and when I get this novel published, you’ll find out whether this Orlando or this Rosalind will win the day. (Given what I’ve written above, you might think there can be no doubt, but just wait until Chapter 26.) Meanwhile, you can check out the first chapters here. And to stay up-to-date with Daring and Decorum: A Highwayman Novel, fill out the form below, checking “The Highwayman.”