The Cornucopia of Power: How Horns Expose Power Dynamics

Shakespeare often exploits the semantic range of a word to achieve crude humor; it has been said – all the world’s a dick joke. In most cases, there are many layers to the word or phrase in question, but the variable meaning is often brought to light at first by an underlying dirty joke. That was the case while reading As You Like It. “The horn, the horn, the lustful horn” (4.2.19) seemed clearly to be a pun on a male’s certain lusty horn. As with all things Shakespeare, there is more underlying than the two most obvious meanings.

Further analysis of the keyword horn exposes social commentary on the balance of power in a relationship between a male and a female. The idea is toyed with throughout the play, brought to life by the relationships of Phoebe and Silvius, Touchstone and Audrey and Rosalind and Celia, as Ganymede and Aliena, though never overtly addressed.

Horns, firstly and most obviously, are the bones atop a creature’s head that signify that it is male, with the ability to be used as a weapon. Touchstone’s speech, beginning with “Amen. A man may…” (3.3.45), acknowledges horns as an indication of a male, beings a man’s goods, but also implies the definition of horn as a symbol for wealth and power, similar to the cornucopia. This definition of horn suggests the following reading beginning from the description of horns as odious:

Wealth and power may be resented, but are necessary to realize the complete meaning of what a man owns. Power in a marriage is largely derived from wealth, applying to both poor and wealthy men. Men who bring wealth to a marriage will have the power, but, similar to the relationship between Portia and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, the dowry of a woman can supply matriarchal dominance to a relationship also. The definition of horn as the symbol of a male is reiterated in the statement that a horn on “the forehead of a married man [is] more honorable than the bare brow of a bachelor” (3.3.55-57). This implies that it is better for a man to secede power in a relationship if it leads to marriage, because he is still higher in the social hierarchy than an unmarried man.

Shakespeare creates a balance of opportunities to gain power in a relationship through this reading, which is brought in and out of harmony in the song Jaques bids a lord to sing in Act 4 scene 2. The phallic implications within the song bid a man not to be afraid to show off his ‘horn’ because its sexual power is important. Though a man may control his marriage with sexual power, the definition of horn as a phallus opens a new interpretation for the line “that is the dowry of his wife, ‘tis none of his own getting” (3.3.51-52). A wife ultimately has sexual power in a relationship because she furnishes the man’s horn. Without a female attraction, a horn is useless.

Different definitions of a horn expose different balances of power within a marriage between a man and a woman. These balances are both maintained and disrupted by the relationships in As You Like It, exposed by conversations such as the sexually charged encounter between Touchstone and Audrey regarding sluttishness.