Performing Power Dynamics for Celia and Rosalind

Celia and Rosalind—Rosalind and Celia—are not just a retread of Helena and Hermia from A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Their identities, though bound to and mirrored in each other, also clash, and not over the ways they’re alike. Power, from the outset, between the two women is up for grabs, but not in standard competition. There’s no object of mimetic desire suspended between them, and they’re no subject of someone else’s. The power exists only between them and can only be granted from one to the other.

The question then, is, how to play them?

Julie Stevenson and Fiona Shaw played the women as Rosalind and Celia respectively for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 19865. Sophie Thompson, in a brief span of time, played first Celia then Rosalind around 1989.

Stevenson and Shaw say, in their version, they set out to “liberate Shakespeare’s women from the confines of literary and theatrical tradition” (Players of Shakespeare 2, 57). They made Celia taller than Rosalind, for instance (recall Helena calling Hermia a dwarf). They put the women in modern dress. And, they decided, one of those confines was the expectation of female friendship to be defined by its divisiveness, not its bond.

In Act I Scene 3 Celia remarks, “… Rosalind lacks then the love / Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one” (94-95). Love, between the two women, makes them in Celia’s eyes indistinguishable: creates unity.

That’s not the story. Neither at court or in the forest are the women of equal power. At court, as Stevenson and Shaw argue, speech patterns indicate Celia’s the true master of her environment. Rosalind’s interjections in Touchstone and Celia’s banter they call, and I agree, “spasmodic,” out of place with the rhythm of the familiar fool and the Duke’s daughter. But in the forest, it’s Celia who’s gradually silenced, while Rosalind warps her speech and identity. In the court, they’re in the domain of Celia and her father. In the forest, it’s Rosalind’s—but soon, she has no need of him to establish her own power.

The first transition in their relationship is either the moment Celia recognizes that Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando, or it’s the love at first sight.

The more interesting moment, if you ask me, comes in Act III, in Scenes 4 and 5. Both the three reflecting actresses highlight these scenes as extremely difficult to play. Shaw and Stevenson couldn’t find the right tone until the last month for III.4. Who’s leading the conversation? How do we read their dynamic?

III.4 comes when Orlando has failed to show to meet “Ganymede” as promised. Celia has taken a bit of a backseat for much of the forest now, receding with the surprise reappearance of Orlando. But here, she’s back in full form, with ironic and edgy language picking at Orlando. The difference is, Rosalind isn’t playing.

I would read the scene as Celia at last ready to dismiss Orlando. To see their state return to as it was. She invokes Rosalind’s father (III.4.31)—trade one Duke for another, maybe. She names Orlando as someone who “Was” in love (28). A man driven by youth and folly (42), a sport of falling in love. As Shaw and Stevenson observe, unlike Rosalind, Celia’s manner of speech hasn’t changed in the forest. She, at least to some degree, wants things to say as they were.

But Rosalind doesn’t. She dismisses the idea of her father in favor of Orlando. Maybe the final blow, which cements what Shaw and Stevenson see as the split between the women, is when Corin shows up regarding Silvius and Phoebe, and Rosalind—who should be forgetting Orlando—remarks, “The sight of lovers feedeth those in love” (54), and then all three engage in yet another game of pretend. For the following scene, III.5, Celia is present and absolutely silent. Rosalind has the power; Celia, pointedly or not, has even lost hers of speech.

What, as actresses, do you make of that? Neither account has much of an answer. Thompson says she didn’t really know what do in that scene (Players… 3, 83). Shaw and Stevenson gloss over it and move on IV.1, in which Celia makes her distaste for Rosalind’s games known.

But I won’t. I’ll end here, in III.5, as Rosalind toys with Silvius and Phoebe, and Celia haunts the background. The forest is a place that rewards the translating identities, those who can plot a course through a world of conditionality and contingency (except for Orlando, who just luckily attaches himself to one exemplary navigator). Celia, for her cleverness, her devotion, the power of her birth, fades. She only again seems to surface for Rosalind in IV.3.181, when Celia herself almost becomes an object of Rosalind’s mimetic desire: “Will you go?” Rosalind demands, as Oliver and Celia fall in love.

As Shaw and Stevenson discuss, their relationship, their scenes, in microcosm and the play as a whole toy with both the tragic and comic. Instead of forcing them to fit in any box, it’s best as actresses to just let Celia and Rosalind play out their own messy rhythms.