Just as Orlando, the hero of the play, exemplifies the best of the Anglo-Saxon and Elizabethan virtues of a man, Rosalind, the heroine of this comedy, exemplifies the best of virtues to be found in a Renaissance English woman. She is intelligent, witty, warm, strong of character, and she possesses an unshakable integrity. Yet, there is nothing overbearing or pedantic about her intelligence; she intimidates no one. As a result, she remains always gently and wittily human, whereas Orlando, at times, seems almost too intense in his quest to measure up to his father’s precepts. Rosalind always seems to rise above the failings of fate by using her resourceful, realistic understanding, and she emerges as a human being who is to be admired. “The people praise her for her virtues,” Le Beau informs us (I.ii.291); her goodness and especially her ability to calmly endure misfortune are confirmed by Duke Frederick (I.iii.79-84).
But Rosalind’s patience is not without limits. She is no saint, and she can assert herself with an authority appropriate to her status as the daughter of a duke. Falsely charged with treason and condemned to exile, she is nevertheless secure in her integrity, and she is able to defend herself with courteous yet firm eloquence (I.iii.47-67).
Rosalind’s exceptional mental gifts are most strikingly demonstrated during the bright flow of her conversation. She can seemingly be witty on all occasions, and her repartee is especially sparkling when she is alone with Celia, when she’s drawing out the philosophical Touchstone, or when she is caricaturing Jaques, and it must also be admitted that she is particularly charming when she is lovingly teasing Orlando.
Rosalind is a discerning judge of character. Jaques, for all of his “Continental” pretensions, does not impress her at all; in contrast, she appreciates the wisdom, as well as the occasional witty foolishness, of Touchstone — a wisdom that the clown is not always fully aware of. That is, being a fool, Touchstone cannot be aware, she thinks, of how profoundly true his statements are. “Thou speak’st wiser than thou art ware of,” she says, in response to Touchstone’s speech about his courting with a “peascod” (II.iv.57-58). With a many-sided intelligence that is verbal, practical, and imaginative, Rosalind outshines everyone else, male and female, in the play. Her bright humor and ready wit are so much in evidence that her deeper feelings are too often overlooked. At first, she is depressed about her father’s being exiled, but then in a revealing passage, she promises to make a conscious effort to forget her sorrows and appear happy: “From henceforth I will [be merry], coz, and devise sports” (I.ii.26-27). This statement is proof that her surface gaiety is not always to be taken at face value.
Rosalind falls in love with Orlando at first sight. Impulsively, she declares her feelings by giving him her necklace and confessing:
Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown
More than your enemies. (I.ii.266-67)
And later, she is rashly impatient for Celia to identify the forester who has been decking the trees with verses in praise of Rosalind; when she is told that it is Orlando, she questions her cousin breathlessly (III.ii.189-244) and becomes concerned about her appearance — forgetting momentarily that she is in disguise as a man and shouldn’t worry about such things. This sudden weakness is humorous; yet it is very human and girlish, and it receives understanding sympathy from the audience.
Although Rosalind laughs at love in her later bantering with Orlando (“Love is merely a madness”), she assures him (II I.ii.420) that her cynicism is not to be taken literally. Later, for example, she is anxious and depressed when Orlando is late for their meeting in Act III, Scene 4, to cure his love-sickness. “Never talk to me!” she pleads with Celia, “I will weep.” Rosalind’s commitment to Orlando is total. “O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz,” she exclaims to Celia, “that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love. . . . My affection hath an unknown bottom (IV.i.209-13).
On the other hand, Rosalind’s relationship with her father presents a possible stumbling block to the modern reader’s appreciation of her warmly emotional nature. She chooses, for example, to remain with Celia rather than join Duke Senior in exile (I.i.110-18); this decision, however, could have been based on a decision to obey her father, who could hardly expect his daughter to withstand the “. . . churlish chiding of the winter’s wind” in the Forest of Arden. Significantly, it is Celia, rather than Rosalind, who proposes that they go into the Forest of Arden to seek the Duke (I.iii.109), and Rosalind’s agreement is partly explained by the fact that she has just given her heart to Orlando; he occupies her every thought. Such a state of affairs is entirely natural in a romantic play, and Rosalind’s final reunion with her father, Duke Senior, is as affectionate as could be wished (V.iv.122-24).
Favored with youth, beauty, intelligence, wit, and depth of feeling, Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing creations. She has, indeed, been frequently regarded as the ideal romantic heroine — very warm and very human, and in any good production, she dominates the stage.