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Wise women in disguise; OUR expert CHRISTINE CHAPMAN looks at resourceful women in the plays of Shakespeare, with particular reference to As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.

Byline: CHRISTINE CHAPMAN

FANS of Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin know that Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves these days but resourceful women are hardly a modern phenomenon.

Although women were not allowed to act on stage in Shakespeare's time, strong female roles abound in his plays, particularly in the comedies.

Rosalind's line, "Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak", is usually greeted by laughter when As You Like It is performed. But Shakespeare's comedies aim to do more than just amuse.

Where the tragedies end in disorder and death, the life-affirming comedies conclude in joyous union, though the journey to the altar is rarely straightforward.

These plays transport young lovers from an unhappy normal world to an unrestricted 'green' place where necessary transformations occur and satisfactory resolutions are achieved. This comic structure lies behind both As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, their defining moments taking place in leafy Arden and idyllic Belmont respectively. Gallant Orlando and sweet Bassanio are the great men here; heavenly Rosalind and fair Portia the great women behind them who engineer their own chance of happiness.

But in life not everyone wants to join the party and at the end of a Shakespearean comedy one character always disrupts the harmony. In As You Like It, it is melancholy Jacques; in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock the rich Jew. Audiences rarely forget the sight of ruthless Shylock demanding repayment of Antonio's bond by a pound of flesh cut nearest the merchant's heart.

Like Jacques at the end of As You Like It, they "see no pastime" here.

Jacques, a traveller, views life from the outside looking in. For him, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players".

Human foolishness is also noted by Touchstone, a court jester whose very name suggests an innate ability to test the quality and genuineness of others.

A love test lies at the heart of both these famous plays. Orlando, ill-treated by tyrant brother and exiled in Arden, wrestles with his affections.

Sustained by writing verses on trees and a chain about his neck, wooing Rosalind by proxy he swears love "For ever and a day".

Bassanio's love is tested too. Using money Antonio has borrowed from Shylock, he journeys to Belmont to court Portia, "a lady richly left".

Three metal caskets test Bassanio's estimation of beauty, his recognition that all that glisters is not gold finally winning him a wife.

However, Portia must don male clothing and teach Shylock the quality of mercy before married life can be enjoyed.

Because female parts were played by boys in Shakespeare's day, for practical purposes his heroines frequently adopt male disguise - often for much of the play. The best example of this is surely Rosalind, often described as Shakespeare's most complete woman. Daughter of an exiled duke, Rosalind recognises in Orlando another person "out of suits with fortune" and gives him her neck-chain, along with her heart.

When forced to seek her father in the Forest of Arden, she decides to suit herself at "all points like a man". Dressed as Ganymede, her doublet and hose allow freer contact when she re-encounters Orlando. However, in carefree holiday humour she ingeniously uses her disguise to devise a daring wooing-game to test Orlando's love, forging a way for herself and others to joyfully "join in Hymen's bands".

Led by Rosalind's wise advice, we must "let Time try" the winning character but this week, as always, you have a say in the matter. Your all-important vote may be cast very much as you like it.

YOUR CHOICES IN AS YOU LIKE IT YOU COULD VOTE FOR...

Jacques: A melancholy lord, one of Duke Senior's followers, who is living with him in exile in the Forest of Arden.

Orlando: Youngest son of the deceased Sir Roland de Boys who falls for Rosalind and posts love letters to her in the trees.

Rosalind: Feisty daughter of exiled Duke Senior who is also banished to the forest where she dresses as a man and calls herself Ganymede. IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE YOU COULD VOTE FOR...

Antonio: The merchant of the title who underwrites a loan from Shylock to Bassanio, promising to repay a pound of his own flesh if the young man defaults. Bassanio: A young Venetian nobleman who borrows money from Shylock in order to travel to Belmont to woo wealthy heiress Portia. Shylock: A rich Jew who demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, whom he hates.

CAPTION(S):

DISGUISE Katie Stephens as Rosalind who dresses as a man and devises a wooing game to test her lover ETERNAL BATTLE Shakespeare expert Christine Chapman
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 3, 2010
Words:783
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