“Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
--Rosalind, As You Like It, Act IV, scene 1
In February, the country decks itself in hearts and Cupids in preparation for one of America’s most showy holidays. Half the advertisements on television and the radio are for romantic restaurants, diamonds, flowers, or secluded getaways; the greetings card aisles in drug and grocery stores fill with red and pink. The cards themselves express undying love, joy at the joining of two spirits for all that life may bring, and other similar sentiments, often in sing-song rhyming couplets.
As You Like It is rife with such unabashed sentimentality. Guiltiest of all is Orlando, a man who is head over heels for a woman he believes he has met but once. In fact he spends half the play with her, in the forest of Arden, where she is disguised as a boy. Not knowing that the boy Ganymede is actually Rosalind, the object of his affections, Orlando tells her in Act IV that he will die if Rosalind will not have him. She responds with a list of romantic heroes who are said to have died for love and explains how each of them really died of other causes. Never in history, she says, has a man died from love. Rosalind’s language is blunt and about as unromantic as it gets.
This isn’t because Rosalind doesn’t believe in love. On the contrary, the whole play and almost everything she does in it is steeped in love, blind, mad, passionate love, the kind of love professed in over-the-top Valentine’s Day cards and by those heroes of ancient poetry. Rosalind’s experience of love is alternately joyful and woeful, playful and aching; she is equally likely to fling herself around the forest shouting and to burst into tears.
Indeed, there are no rational, measured love stories in this play. Each lover—with the conceivable exception of Touchstone, who might or might not even deserve the designation “lover”—loves blindly, foolishly, without a moment’s caution or doubt. Rosalind is surrounded by mad love and deep in the throes of it herself.
So why does she try to shut down Orlando’s romantic rhapsodizing—especially when she knows he is talking about her? The answer depends on the actor’s and director’s choices, but one possible reason is that she knows his professions must be exaggeration. He simply doesn’t know her well enough to die of a broken heart if she rejects him. Such professions are just words: speak them and they vanish. Rosalind doesn’t want trite expressions or excessive vows; she wants a love she can trust. Throughout the act, she questions the value of a love that comes on so quickly and weighs how much she can trust Orlando, and each time he says something excessively sappy or intense, she balks.
Many of today’s lovers also balk at the overt sentimentality (and mercantile underpinnings) of Valentine’s Day. But when Rosalind scolds Orlando for his hyperbole, she isn’t trying to send him away or even to stop him from expressing his feelings. She’s just demanding an accurate, truthful expression. When a couple chooses simple, heartfelt professions over poems and vows—when they don’t buy each other gifts or perhaps even dine out on Valentine’s Day, but instead find small ways to remind each other of their devotion every day of the year—it doesn’t mean they aren’t in the spirit of the occasion. Like Rosalind, they may be so in love that they must reject the show and the overwrought romance in favor of more plausible statements and more lasting actions.