As many critics have pointed out, Rosalind’s relationship with Celia suggests an element of homoeroticism. Homoeroticism differs from homosexuality in connoting feelings of desire or longing between members of the same sex, but not necessarily the desire for actual sex acts. Celia begins Act I, scene ii by challenging the depth of her cousin’s love for her, claiming that the depressed Rosalind would be content if she only returned Celia’s love. Celia’s language here conforms to conventional protestations of romantic love, and there is no doubt that the women’s friendship is remarkable. When Celia pleads with Duke Frederick to allow Rosalind to stay at court, she points out that the pair has always slept in the same bed—people normally slept two to a bed in Shakespeare’s time—and went everywhere together, “coupled and inseparable”. The women’s special bond is not lost on those who witness their friendship—as Duke Frederick’s courtier, Le Beau, exclaims, the cousins share a love that is “dearer than the natural bond of sisters”.
Before jumping to conclusions about the nature of Rosalind and Celia’s relationship, it is important to note that contemporary ideas about sexuality are quite different from Elizabethan ideas. Whereas people today tend to expect adherence to neatly defined and mutually exclusive categories of behavior, such as -heterosexuality or homosexuality, sexual identity was more loosely defined in Shakespeare’s England. Then, in literature and culture, if not in actual practice, Elizabethans were tolerant of same-sex couplings—indeed, homosexuality was an inescapable part of the Greek and Roman classics that made up an educated person’s culture in Shakespeare’s day. At the same time, Elizabethans could be very inflexible in their notions of the sexual and social roles that different genders play. They placed greater importance than we do on the external markers of gender such as clothing and behavior; so to Elizabethans, Rosalind’s decision to masquerade as a man may have been more thrilling than her homoerotic bond with Celia and perhaps even threatening to the social order. By assuming the clothes and likeness of a man, Rosalind treats herself to powers that are normally beyond her reach as a woman. For instance, instead of waiting to be wooed, she adopts the freedom to court a lover of her choosing. By subverting something as simple as a dress code, Rosalind ends up transgressing the Elizabethans’ carefully monitored boundaries of gender and social power.
Indeed, it is this very freedom that Rosalind seeks as she departs for the Forest of Arden: “Now go we in content, / To liberty, and not to banishment”. By christening herself Ganymede, Rosalind underscores the liberation that awaits her in the woods. Ganymede is the name of Jove’s beautiful young male page and lover, and the name is borrowed in other works of literature and applied to beautiful young homosexuals. But while the name links Rosalind to a long tradition of homosexuals in literature, it does not necessarily confine her to an exclusively homosexual identity. To view Rosalind as a lesbian who settles for a socially sanctifying marriage with Orlando, or to view Celia as her jilted lover, is to relegate both of them to the unpleasantly restrictive quarters of contemporary sexual politics. The Forest of Arden is big enough to embrace both homosexual and heterosexual desires—it allows for both, for all, rather than either/or.