Guys in Shakespeare are all sure their wives are cheating on them. If your wife hasn't cheated yet, she soon will. She's going to want something more, someone who's more of a man than you. So, sooner or later, all married men grow horns on their foreheads. They're there for everyone to see and laugh at, except for the man wearing them, who's always the last to know. Horns! The mark of the cuckold. The shame and inevitable fate of the ordinary husband.
There's more talk of horns in As You Like It than in any other play by Shakespeare, and that's saying something. That's partly because the play is about people getting married—the play ends happily with four weddings and no funeral in sight. But if death is something not yet to be thought of, we're reminded horns are just around the corner. Touchstone steps aside just after proposing to Audrey, to confess he's shaking in his tennis shoes knowing what awaits him—everywhere he looks all he sees are "horned beasts." (deer and cuckolds). As soon as Rosalind accepts Orlando's offer or marriage she says she'll take him and "twenty such" because you can never have too much much of a good thing. She warns him no man can control his woman. Shut the doors on a woman's "wit" and it will jump out the window, shut the window and it slips through the keyhole; plug that and it will fly up the chimney—and where is wit going? Yup. To your "neighbor's bed." In this play, like it or not, marriage is a prelude to adultery. Or rather to an adulterous wife.
Orlando protests his Rosalind is "no horn maker" and he's surely right. There's no evidence that any of the play's four brides are planning to cheat on their husbands. Just after Rosalind warns Orlando she's going to want more, we see her confessing her bottomless and helpless love for him alone. In this play, as elsewhere in Shakespeare, cheating wives are much suspected (often with tragic or near tragic consquences; see Othello and Leontes) but rarely found. We all know the truth: it's the husbands who are more likely to do the cheating.
So why are all these guys convinced their wives are or will be unfaithful? Is this simply projection? Possibly. Perhaps, as Celia says in another context, "there's more in it." In Shakespeare there usually is. 400 years after the play was written, and thanks in part to the proliferation of everything, we know that cuckolding is not simply a fear, but sometimes an actual desire, a sexual fetish. It seems to me talk of horns is more interesting when you consider that a cuckolding wife is something that might be desired and well as feared. Such humiliation is dreadful, and shaming, and also a turn on. Another possibity, onemore directly occasioned by the play, is that women really can run circles around men if they have a mind to. Rosalind is exhibit #1. Here she is dressed up as a boy playing a girl and Orlando has no clue. She could have him and twenty such and he'd never be the wiser. But she's just fooling—isn't she? (Yes.)
The climax of horn play in Arden arrives late in the play when a group of foresters fresh from a hunting expedition meet Jaques, and the result is another song, this one a mock tribute to the cuckold.. As always, the scene could go in may ways. Somewhere in central Europe I'm sure it has been played very darkly—the hunters entering with a stag's head and blood on their hands, with their song implying married men are just so much dead meat—as well as murderers of the forest's native citizens. It is not like that in our production. The deer is an inflated dummy. The foresters enter obviously more than a little drunk after their triumphant hunt, and their song has all the qualities you might expect from guys ripped in the woods. It's bawdy and silly and raucous (as Jaques specifies, the song doesn't have to be tuneful; it just has to be loud). A mock tribute to the cuckold becomes a rowdy celebration of men's fate; the badge of shame becomes a crest to be worn with pride: Take thou no scorn to wear the horn It was a crest ere thou was born Thy father's father wore it And thy father bore it The horn, the horn, the lusty horn, Is not a thing to last to scorn. Who's getting horns? Men with desires so strong they'll accept any fate, including the humilation of their wives finding satisfaction elsewhere. In other words the cuckolds are the real men, the men with balls. In this wonderful and hilarious song, a sexual fear introduced by the play is transformed into communal and celebratory energy. Who needs Robert Bly, men's groups or drumming? This is true male bonding: admitting how pathetic we are, and then making the most of it. It's good to be a cuckold, or, as the duke himself has said, "sweet are the uses of adversity."