Rosalind: Shakespeare's Immortal heroine

Transgender triumph


By Angela Thirlwell
Oberon Books, £16.99

Few authors simultaneously capture the zeitgeist of the moment and confront the universal wish for immortality. But, taking a fictional character - Shakespeare's "mercurial, mischievous" heroine, Rosalind - as her beguiling subject, Angela Thirlwell, in her latest biography, achieves this.

"We can all inhabit Rosalind," Thirlwell claims. Excavating history, literature, art, theatre and film, she presents Rosalind's many incarnations.

Thirlwell reveals the full potential of a character who, played originally by a boy dressed as a girl, dons male breeches before resuming womanhood to pair with her beloved Orlando.

Who doesn't hope that Rosalind keeps hold of the inner Ganymede who empowered her as speaker, and teacher of the meaning of loving well?

The only woman in Shakespeare to deliver a play's epilogue, Rosalind, heroine of As You Like It, is infinitely resourceful. Thirlwell, too, demonstrates resourcefulness by threading her text with insightful comments from a range of actors who have played the part: Judi Dench, Janet Suzman, Rebecca Hall, Michelle Terry - and Ronald Pickup - to name but a few.

As well as contextualising the play, Thirlwell explores family history: Rosalind's sisters and daughters, dipping back as far as Ovid and forward to Jeanette Winterson. Inevitably, she lights on Virginia Woolf's Orlando and, in recalling that Leonard Woolf was Jewish, asks whether Rosalind might have engendered a literary Jewish daughter:

Isaac Bashevis' Singer's Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy plays the part to perfection: "Hovering between the sexes, 'there was even a slight down on her upper lip,' she longs for the intellectual life."

In order to enter a yeshiva, she has to cross-dress. Like Rosalind, she finds the "freedom to speak her mind… Intellect is what is important to Yentl but she also has the emotional strength to unmask herself eventually, with a flash of nudity, to Avigdor the man she secretly loves." Thirlwell acknowledges that: "Unlike Rosalind, there's no happy ending for Yentl."

But, as readers, we are pressed to revisit the question of the role of women in our communities.

Prompted by Virginia Woolf to ask, "What is biography," Thirlwell finds a convincingly original form to accommodate her challenging subject.

Instead of chapters, she chooses "Acts" and, in an "Interval", she compares Rosalind with Elizabeth 1. Here, she might have mentioned the Virgin Queen's satisfaction in being compared to the Prophet Deborah, who plays a leading role in our own, Jewish history.

If repetitiveness is sometimes an irritation, Rosalind: a Biography of Shakespeare's Immortal Heroine - to give it its full title - nevertheless remains richly provocative. And its illustrations provide a visual feast.

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