Ganymede: From the Gods to Shakespeare

“I’ll have no worse name than Jove’s own page, / And therefore look you call me Ganymede.” (2.1.122-3). In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, Rosalind utters these lines to proclaim here new undercover identity as she goes to the Forest of Arden. But Ganymede is not just any old name; it has a long history rooted in mythology and is often associated with homosexuality. Also, Rosalind is the daughter of a banished duke and thus an aristocratic figure, yet Ganymede is a “page”, or servant.

This begs the question, why does Shakespeare choose the name Ganymede to be Rosalind’s alter ego?

The story of Ganymede was originally a Greek myth, but was later adopted by the Romans. In Greek mythology Ganymede was a prince of Troy who was and extremely beautiful young man. In the Iliad Homer even states “godlike Ganymede, / Who was the loveliest born of the race of mortals” (20:232-4). One day Zeus either sent an eagle or transformed into an eagle, and kidnapped Ganymede to be cupbearer to the gods on Mt. Olympus. Their Zeus gave him eternal youth, and made him his lover. In Roman mythology, the story of Ganymede remains relatively unchanged. The main difference is that it is Jupiter, and not Zeus, who captures and makes Ganymede his servant and concubine. In Roman understandings of this myth the connection of Ganymede to homosexuality is made even more explicit than in Greek interpretations. Some surviving Roman literary works blatantly call Ganymede “Jupiter’s concubine“. jupiter-ganymede-albani

One reading of Rosalind taking on the name Ganymede is a commentary on wealth. In Roman times having a sexually desirable boy servant was seen as a prerequisite for wealth and privilege. Rosalind is the daughter of a duke, and although her father is banished at the beginning of the play he is restored to his title and wealth by its conclusion. Thus, by extension Rosalind becomes a way for a man to access wealth and privilege. Through this lenses Shakespeare’s choice of the name Ganymede, can be seen as him commenting on aristocratic women functioning as a way for men to gain wealth and privilege.

A more likely reading of the name Ganymede in As You Like It as a symbol of longing for sexual freedom. By the sixth century B.C.E Ganymede was already a symbol for homoerotic desire and freedom from restricting sexual structures. This is reflected in the play.

The first example of homoerotic desire and wanting sexual freedom in the play is between Rosalind and Celia. In act one scene two Celia makes many statement professing love for Rosalind such as “I will render thee again in affection/… Therefore, my sweet Rose, my dear Rose, be merry” (1.2.19-21). Also, later in the play as Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) falls in love with Orlando, Celia speaks against Orlando. She does this to convince Rosalind that Orlando does not truly love her, so that Rosalind will not marry Orlando and thus become inaccessible to Celia’s homoerotic love.

shak gayAnother example of desiring sexual freedom and homoerotic desire in this play is the interaction of Rosalind as Ganymede and Orlando. Orlando makes comments to the disguised Rosalind that suggests a homosexual attraction to the male figure of Ganymede in the play. Such comments can be found in act three scene 2, and include calling Ganymede “Fair youth” and “pretty youth” (3.2. 335, 372). Also, when describing a past love affair to Orlando Rosalind as Ganymede, repeatedly refers to the partner in this affair as a man. Orlando is not the least bit phased by what is from his perspective a description of a homosexual relationship. These interactions between Rosalind as Ganymede and Orlando demonstrate that Shakespeare is implying that sexual freedom and homoerotic desires are ok and acceptable. Furthermore, he uses Ganymede as a symbol for homoerotic desirers and sexual freedom in As You Like It.