Basically, Orlando de Boys is “everything that doth become a man” — that is, he epitomizes the Elizabethan concept of the ideal manly virtues, and he is also the embodiment of his late father’s moral precepts. When the play begins, we hear him speaking about his late father’s final wishes, and we realize the extent that Orlando’s brother, Oliver de Boys, has violated those wishes. Thus the plot is begun and before the scene ends, the brothers almost come to physical blows when Oliver suggests that their father sired a “villain” in the person of Orlando.
Later in the play, Orlando is faced with the dilemma of whether or not he should let his evil brother be killed by a lioness or whether he (Orlando) should act according to the high moral standards of his father’s precepts and save his brother’s life. He reveals his disgust with evil when he begins to turn away from his brother’s peril, but he evinces his moral worth finally when he decides to kill the lioness. Thus he becomes even more heroic than he has seemed heretofore; he becomes a model of moral goodness.
“This excellent young man” is, by birth, a gentleman, the son of an illustrious knight, and, as noted, he is fiercely loyal to his father’s memory. The plot turns on the fact that Orlando has received only the most rudimentary upbringing; despite this unfortunate turn of events, however, his honorable nature is unimpaired, and the nobility of character that he inherited from his father, like the handsome physical features that he also inherited from his father, emerge as standards by which the rest of the men in this comedy can be judged by. Even Oliver, Orlando’s hostile brother, acknowledges Orlando’s fine character and popularity: “. . . he’s gentle; never school’d and yet learned” (I.i.172-77). Orlando’s courtesy, which gains him admiration and affection everywhere, is especially demonstrated when he is introduced to aristocratic society in Act I, Scene 2. In addition, his gentleness is exemplified in his solicitude for his old and ailing servant, Adam, in the Forest of Arden in Act II, Scene 6, and also in his decision to ultimately forgive his brother for his previous tyranny. In triumphing over the very human temptation to abandon his spiteful, hateful brother, Orlando reveals striking proof of his unselfish, good nature.
To these virtues may be added Orlando’s sturdy independence, which prompts him to rebel against his servitude (I.i.). In addition to his admirable independence, his remarkable courage is shown when he volunteers, against powerful odds, to enter the ring with the brutish Charles, Duke Frederick’s professional wrestler; he refuses to be dissuaded from fighting Charles, and, as a result, his physical strength is displayed for us in his quick defeat of the enormously powerful wrestler who has just defeated three challengers; later, of course, the narration of Orlando’s successful combat with the lioness in Act IV, Scene 3 is further proof of his physical heroism.
Although Orlando is a man of action, one should note that he can appreciate Rosalind’s wit; he has a superbly facile mind, and he can more than hold his own in his encounters with Jaques, a man of wise loquacity, or so he thinks (III.ii.268-312). Even Jaques admires Orlando’s mind: “You have a nimble wit,” Jaques admiringly notes.
All in all, Orlando embodies his age’s Anglo-Saxon virtues of courtesy, gentleness, independence, courage, strength, and filial devotion; and having established Orlando as a knight-of-sorts, Shakespeare then reveals his human frailties — in particular, when Rosaind gives Orlando a necklace, his strength, courage, and all his manly virtues desert him, momentarily, and he is speechless (I.ii.260-62). In this encounter with Rosalind, he is “overthrown” by love, even though he was not overthrown earlier by Charles, the gigantic wrestler. After Orlando’s decision to escape to safety in the Forest of Arden, we see him primarily in the role of a man who is, in Shakespeare’s words, “love-shak’d.” He pins verses on trees in the forest and carves Rosalind’s name into the bark of trees. Continually dreaming of Rosalind, he lies underneath the trees, “stretch’d along [in Celia’s words], like a wounded knight” (III.ii.253-54). Although Orlando has seen Rosalind only once and has no certainty that he will see her again, he never wavers in his “true faith” for her, and, initially, he has no wish to be cured of his “love-sickness” (III.ii.446). Thus is Orlando, the strutting, fiery, strong, and sensual male, brought to bay not by a ferocious foe but by the whim of Eros. He is manacled not by a ball and chain but by a simple chain, the necklace from a beautiful woman’s neck. And all this is achieved within the framework of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and merry comedies.
In Shakespeare’s day, the ideal man was a lover, as well as a physical hero; he excelled in sports and in battle, and he also celebrated his beloved in verse. And important to this definition of the ideal man is the fact that the ideal Renaissance man need not be a good poet (proof of this is in Orlando’s poetry). This, of course, makes him, and the comedy, all the more delightful and human; Orlando is one of Shakespeare’s most “human” creations — that is, he has his moments of weakness, but in many ways, he lives up to all the sterling ideals which have been for centuries the strengths of English character and culture.