It is past two o’clock, and Orlando has not arrived for his meeting with Ganymede. Silvius does arrive, however, bringing Phebe’s letter to Ganymede, and Rosalind playfully pretends that it is, as the illiterate shepherd supposed, full of invective, and she teasingly accuses Silvius of writing it because it is a “man’s invention and his hand.” But when she stops and actually reads the letter aloud, even the gullible Silvius realizes that the note is, in actuality, a love poem — to Ganymede. Silvius is ordered to return to Phebe with this message: “if she loves me [Ganymede], I charge her to love thee; if she will not, I will never have her unless thou entreat for her.”
A stranger arrives onstage next. It is Oliver; he has come in search of Ganymede, and he presents “him” with a token from Orlando, a bloody handkerchief. He explains that Orlando, while walking in the forest, discovered Oliver sleeping under an oak. A snake had coiled itself around Oliver’s neck, but because it was frightened by Orlando’s entrance, it slid away. Nearby, a hungry lioness waited for Oliver to awaken before pouncing upon him. After debating with himself whether to save Oliver or leave him to certain death, Orlando fought and killed the lioness. Oliver, awakening to see his brother risking his life to save him, realized that his brother loved him deeply, and so his hatred for Orlando changed to love. Now reconciled, the brothers proceeded to Duke Senior’s encampment, where Oliver discovered that the lioness had torn Orlando’s flesh. He has brought the handkerchief which Orlando used to bind his wounded arm, and he presents it to Ganymede with apologies for Orlando’s broken promise — that is, he presents it “unto the shepherd youth / That he [Orlando] in sport doth call his Rosalind.” At this point, Ganymede swoons. As he is helped up and led away, he insists — although not very convincingly — that his fainting was merely an act, an unconscious reaction by his persona, “Rosalind.”
In the brief exchange between Ganymede and Silvius, at first Rosalind isn’t sure if Silvius is aware of the contents of the letter. She only pretends to read it, therefore, and gives a false interpretation of the contents. Finally, she asks Silvius if the letter was written by him. It is a clever ruse to discover whether or not he is aware of the contents. Realizing that Silvius is ignorant of the message, Rosalind, with compassion, reads the letter aloud (for the benefit of the audience) and attempts to misconstrue its meaning. But Silvius is not so easily duped; Rosalind, therefore, drops all pretense and reads the full letter.
It is interesting here to note that Celia expresses pity for Silvius, but Rosalind, in keeping with her manly characterization of Ganymede, sneers at pity. Likewise, Ganymede’s command to Phebe, via Silvius, is in keeping with the indifference shown to Phebe in Act III, Scene 5.
When Oliver makes his entrance, he says, “Good morrow, fair ones. The use of the word “fair” was in keeping with the times when men could also be described as being “fair.” Certainly Oliver is unaware of Rosalind’s disguise, as evidenced by his use of “you” in line 85, where he describes Rosalind as being both “fair” and “a boy” and where he describes Celia as being “a woman” and “browner than her brother.”
Oliver’s sudden conversion from hate to love for his brother, one should note, though it might strain the credulity of a modern audience, was a commonplace device in Elizabethan plays. Sudden conversions can also be found in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Cymbeline.
When Oliver tells Ganymede about Orlando’s wound, Ganymede faints, but Celia, being quick-witted, remembers to call her cousin “Ganymede.” However, Celia does slip when she inadvertently refers to Ganymede as “Cousin Ganymede” in line 160. Luckily, Oliver misses this error on Celia’s part. Rosalind, on awakening, resumes the game that she is playing with Oliver, and the comic masquerade continues as she tells him to tell Orlando that Ganymede “counterfeited” so well that when he heard that Orlando had been wounded, he swooned, as if he were, really, the fair, faint-hearted Rosalind.