Thirlwell (Into the Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown, 2010, etc.) turns to a fictional subject in her charming appraisal of the gender-bending protagonist of As You Like It.
Though the author claims to be “writing Rosalind’s biography,” this delightfully rambling text is more properly described as a blend of literary criticism and theater history. Among its theatrical virtues are Thirlwell’s memories of great Rosalinds she has seen, beginning with Vanessa Redgrave in 1962; thoughtful reflections on the part from a number of gifted contemporary actors, including Juliet Rylance and Fiona Shaw; and a vivid recap of historic Rosalinds, from Dorothy Jordan’s erotically charged 18th-century performances to Charlotte Cushman’s butch version in the Victorian era to Edith Evans’ glittering 1936 incarnation. On the literary side, Thirlwell explores Shakespeare’s sources for As You Like It, the medieval Tale of Gamelyn and Thomas Lodge’s 1590 romance Rosalynde, making the interesting point that Lodge’s heroine is gentler and more feminine than Shakespeare’s powerfully androgynous Rosalind. A later chapter on “Rosalind’s Daughters” strains a bit to include every feisty female from Jo March to Yentl, but a number of surprising quotes reveal that writers as different as Virginia Woolf and Pat Barker have been inspired by Rosalind. Thirlwell devotes the bulk of the book to an exegesis of the text, focusing on Rosalind’s liberation through cross-dressing and her education of Orlando to be worthy of her love. These are fairly standard points, but the author makes them in lucid prose that sweeps up readers in her love for Shakespeare’s thoroughly modern woman. It’s also nice to see underappreciated Celia get her due for wit and wisdom that very nearly equal her cousin Rosalind’s, and Orlando—who can fade into the Forest of Arden in a bland performance—comes to life in Thirlwell’s sensitive appreciation as a romantic juvenile who grows into love between equals.
A model of popular Shakespearean scholarship: engagingly accessible and contagiously enthusiastic.