Woman as Actor
Although we have seen a progression from a predominantly passive character such as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Ophelia in Hamlet, to the active assertiveness of Paulina in The Winter's Tale, and the final defiance of the Duchess in her calm acceptance of death, it appears that the alternatives for women qua women are few in English Renaissance Drama--either to defy the dictates of the masculine code, to counter them by subterfuge, or to accept them. In any case, the fact that they are women in a man's world places them in a dangerously precarious position.
In at least three Shakespearean comedies, however, notably The Merchant of Venice ( 1596-97), As You Like It ( 1599), and Twelfth Night ( 1600- 1601), as well as, to a lesser degree, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona ( 1592-93?) and Cymbeline ( 1609-10), a different pattern emerges as women (who were, of course, played by boys, thus creating a double disguise) don male garb and appear for a time as equals in a male world where they are allowed to openly initiate the action. In her introduction to As You Like It in The Riverside Shakespeare, Anne Barton makes the following observation about the efficacy of Rosalind's disguise:
Long after such a masculine impersonation is necessary, Rosalind clings to the part of Ganymede because of the freedom it allows her. In her boy's disguise, she escapes (for a time) the limitations of being a woman, Duke Senior's daughter, the conscious object of Orlando's love. She learns a great deal about herself, about Orlando, and about love itself which she could not have done within the normal conventions of society (366).