As You Neg It: Shakespeare and the Psychology of Attraction

In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, we see a pattern of interaction that illustrates something common in our culture, today. The practice of disingenuously criticizing someone to achieve a psychological effect, or negging, is shown through Rosalind’s interactions with Orlando and with Phoebe. She uses false criticism to create a power dynamic with both characters.

With Orlando, she is costumed as a man, and she guides the conversation and uses it to test him. She questions him, negating his declarations of love as nonsense. Orlando, in turn, asks her if she is from the forest, and she says yes. When he suggests that her pattern of speech is too educated to belong to these parts, she explains that she was educated by an uncle who also happened to be an expert in courtly love. Her lies become part of the game. She positions herself as an expert, even though she is pretending to be foreign to the court and questions his authenticity, turning the conversation back to interrogating him. 

Through her questioning his integrity, she manipulates him into working to prove himself. He responds by giving her more of what she wants: evidence of his feelings for Rosalind. A master of manipulation, Rosalind leads Orlando around like a lion on a leash lashing him with her tongue. It is an erotic exchange, as well. Rosalind’s negging includes assuring him that she would likely sleep with 20 or so men like him if they were married. She tortures him with the idea of her infidelity to test his true feelings.

The layers of deception and identity in Rosalind demonstrate how gender in Shakespeare is a performance of power. He uses cultural norms and customs to present an image of gender that the public reads and believes to be true within the context of the play. Many characters in Shakespeare’s comedies use costume to change genders and, in this case, Rosalind is disguised as a rural dude named Ganymede who is then pretending to be Rosalind to Orlando for him to practice expressing his love. She is pretending to be a man who is pretending to be her, a kind of double negative.

Ironically, this gives her the opportunity to be herself without any exposure. She is a spy watching her future husband react to her ideas. By negging him, by questioning his character and his devotion to love, she also eggs him on. She puts fuel on the fire. She gets to see what he is made of and how he feels about her.

Rosalind, while in disguise as Ganymede, also has a strange encounter with a young woman in the forest. Phoebe is actively rejecting the courtship of a suitor named Sylvius. With not much else to do in the woods, Rosalind is there for the sport of it. She is there to be entertained by their unhappy love connection and to play a trickster kind of role in their affairs. She interrupts their conversation and starts to criticize Phoebe suggesting that she should take the offer Sylvius is making because she is not beautiful enough to do better.

Phoebe’s response is to fall in love with Ganymede. Rosalind explains the psychology behind this reversal. Sylvius was being overly complimentary. He was making Phoebe think that she was better than she is. He was falsely flattering her, and it had the effect of making her think too highly of herself and that she was better than him. Because Sylvius has been worshipping her, she sees him as subordinate.  When Rosalind as Ganymede dresses her down, she feels more attracted to “him,” because his judgmental speech suggests that he is better than her. She is attracted to being negged because it makes her think she is with someone superior. 

We see this kind of cynical darkly humorous stance often on Twitter or generally online. We are pretending to laugh so we aren’t seen crying. We perform wokeness so nobody questions our complicity. We neg our crush so they will give us some attention. We know it works, but does it work to our advantage? What is that pattern keeping us from doing or knowing? 

Romantic love is a drug and a form of madness in Shakespeare. We see characters behaving in uncharacteristic fashion, lying, and deceiving people around them to pursue the feeling of being in love. This is much different than the effect of negging. Rosalind loves Orlando both for how she feels around him and for how she feels about him. She judges him to be worthy of her love and negging him is simply testing him and having fun with him until she can reveal herself to him and claim her place as his love.

Poor Phoebe is repelled by Sylvius who is in love with her, but she becomes attracted to Ganymede for negatively criticizing her. Shakespeare gives us a comparative study of different kinds of attraction to think about the differences between love, attraction, negation and power.