This painting shows the characters of Celia and Rosalind from Shakespeare's play 'As You Like It'. The two women are cousins. They have fled from the court of Celia's father, Duke Frederick. To ensure their anonymity, Rosalind has dressed as a man called Ganymede. Celia is disguised as a shepherdess called Aliena.
Works based on literary and Shakespearean themes were popular with middle-class art audiences and buyers during the Victorian period. Scenes from ‘As You Like It’ were particularly sought after. This was because the play had a subversive reputation owing to its central themes of cross-dressing, entangled relationships and same-sex desire.
Celia’s love for Rosalind is often regarded as being stronger than conventional relationships between cousins. Le Beau, the courtier in the play, describes their love as 'dearer than the natural bond of sisters’. Celia eventually marries a man, but her strong and sometimes erotic desire for Rosalind remains a consistent theme throughout the play. The cousins’ relationship challenges the conventions of heterosexual marriage. After Rosalind’s banishment they pool their wealth to raise funds to set up home together in the forest. They purchase a flock and pasture to become financially self-sufficient.
The artist Bromley was taught by his father, who was an engraver. Bromley worked regularly as an illustrator. He produced an important series of illustrations of Shakespeare for his publishers, Cassell, Petter and Galphin. This image may have been intended for engraving, but it has not been possible to link it to a particular publication.