Much has been made of how Rosalind educates her ardent lover, Orlando, by remaining disguised as a boy during their courtship in the woods. James Shapiro, for instance, writes of how, by the fourth act, the two "now speak a shared language, their witty dialogue barely concealing a subtext that explores how they imagine what life would be like with each other." Sound good, doesn't it? Shapiro is the author of a fine and much praised book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599. But as fine as this sounds, it's just wrong, wrong, wrong.
Shapiro makes a strong case for the relationship of Orlando and Rosalind, which "moves from a love that is self-centered to one that is complex and mutual." And there is some truth in this, for sure. But when Shapiro speaks of a shared language and witty exchanges, he's forcing the issue. He can produce only one example, when Orlando says of a wife with a wandering wit that "a man that had a wife with such a wit, he might say, 'Wit, whither wilt?" As Shapiro says, "It's a start." Yes, maybe, but it's also a finish—the first last and only instance we get of Orlando's "wit." One of the play's many jokes is that Orlando is not often witty, and not even especially verbal. Once in love he explodes with poetry, all of it very bad. He's eager, open, enthusiastic, prolific, but he'll never be in Rosalind's league (no shame, there). When Rosalind flames into love diva melodrama after Orlando says he has to go, she wails in mock self pity, "That flattering tongue of yours won me." It's a patently preposterous line. When Orlando's tongue was tied it won her more than when it flattered in corny rhyme.
Shapiro goes on to say Orlando realizes that Ganymede is Rosalind while they are playing in the forest, and that he goes on with the game, suppressing his own knowledge of the truth. Shapiro criticizes many modern productions for missing "Shakespeare's signals" and not allowing Orlando to discover the truth "until it's far too late." It's true we can find many instances of Shakespeare directing from beyond the grave, but this is not one of them. There are no signals that Orlando realizes Rosalind's deception—not a single one. Shapiro is working very hard to find an Orlando who is Rosalind's mental equal. But no one is her equal. George Bernard Shaw called Orlando "a safely stupid and totally unobservant young man." He's wrong too. Orlando is not safe, or stupid or unobservant or complex or sophisticated. Rosalind would never go for a dope and she doesn't need a giant brain either—she's got enough wit for 10 men of Harvard.
What she wants, and what she gets, is a young man with an open heart and real courage. Someone not afraid to be taught, eager for information and play and her company. Someone devoted to her entirely. Someone who thrills her. She falls in love with Orlando after he wins a wrestling match. She doesn't mind one bit that she leaves him speechless—she's got words enough for the both of them. She doesn't mind that he doesn't look like the fashionable carelessly distracted lover—she likes that he seems to like himself. Orlando is man of strong feeling;he's got plenty of native intelligence and he's also hot. He's naturally gentle and a man of action. He defeats the house champion; he fights lions; he rescues people. He's a hero. He's not a wit, but he knows when the witty game is over. Rosalind might go on playing forever—her capacity for invention seems infinite. But Orlando finally tells her "he can no longer live by thinking." Rosalind immediately says she will no longer weary him with talking. It's Orlando who speaks the truth of a clear heart and who moves their relationship to the next level, to marriage and to sex, to the place where Rosalind can finally, wonderfully serve "his turn" as his bride. Orlando is what Rosalind wants and needs—a gentle and real man.