In Act 3, Scene 2, Celia reads out loud from Orlando’s poem to Rosalind. Replete with mythological and legendary allusions, it features a series of hyperbolic comparisons between Celia and several figures of antiquity:
Nature presently distilled
Helen’s cheek, but not [her] heart,
Atalanta’s better part,
Sad Lucretia’s modesty.
Thus Rosalind of many parts
By heavenly synod was devised
Of many faces, eyes, and hearts
To have the touches dearest prized.
Heaven would that she these gifts should have
And I to live and die her slave.
Orlando describes Rosalind as having the best qualities of every mythological woman. He writes that Rosalind has Helen of Troy’s beauty (but not her faithless heart) and the regality of Cleopatra. He also describes her as being as modest as Lucretia, a legendary Roman noblewoman known for her beauty and virtue, and as having the “better part” of Atalanta, the Greek huntress who would only marry a man who could outrun her in a footrace. In this way, Orlando says, Rosalind was created from many parts (“faces, eyes, and hearts”), a treasure trove of positive attributes, by the will of “Heaven.” In so doing, Heaven has also willed Orlando to “live and die [Rosalind’s] slave,” in love with her and bent to her will.
To say that Orlando’s poem deals in cliches is an understatement–even Rosalind terms it a “tedious sermon of love.” It deals in the hyperbole typical of love poetry in this period: the qualification of the beloved as the most beautiful, the most chaste, the most ideal woman on Earth, and the lowering of the admirer to a “slave” of her charms. Not even Rosalind can take this seriously, though she seemed to be flattered by his earlier poetry.
This hyperbole is important because it shows how most of what Orlando knows about love has come from stories, poems, and myth, rather than his own experience. Not only are the comparisons borrowed, they depict a relationship dynamic that doesn’t exist between Orlando and Rosalind, or really anyone they know (except Silvius and Phoebe, who are deeply unhappy). This poem is the one that convinces Rosalind that Orlando needs an education in love.
In Act 4, Scene 1, “Ganymede” pretends to be struck by despair when Orlando leaves their meeting in the forest. Rosalind offers a hyperbolic goodbye:
Ay, go your ways, go your ways. I knew what you would prove. My friends told me as much, and I thought no less. That flattering tongue of yours won me. ’Tis but one cast away, and so, come, death. Two o’clock is your hour?
She begins by jokingly chiding Orlando, saying her friends told her what he “would prove” (amount to) as a lover. Though she knew better, his compliments won her over (“flattering tongue”). She is but one more woman won over, only to be “cast away.” So, “come death,” she says—may death take her! Then she asks if he’ll be back by two.
Rosalind’s hyperbole satirizes the melodrama traditionally associated with lovers (and practiced by many of her friends in the play). It also references a playful argument between Rosalind and Orlando earlier in this scene over whether or not someone can die of love (Orlando says yes, Rosalind says no).
Rosalind’s mischievous sense of humor is on full display here, even as she genuinely feels distress at Orlando’s departure. Her joking concession to his argument, which perhaps foreshadows her eventual concession to Orlando’s romantic advances, belies the depth of her true feelings. As soon as she leaves, she confides to Celia that she “cannot be out of the sight of Orlando.” Rosalind’s use of hyperbole to cope with her new and powerful feelings for Orlando reflects the sense of humor, practicality (“Two o’clock is your hour?”), and caution which mark her attitude to love.