Jaques, a character from the play As You Like It by William Shakespeare, creates an unexpected contrast to the entire premise of the Arden Forest. In broad terms, he aligns poorly with the setting of optimism and change for the better conveyed by the rest of the characters. However, upon closer inspection of his worldview, it becomes apparent that his existence is vital to the setting. The following paper argues that by contrasting Jaques with Touchstone, the author introduces an element of realism that makes the world of Arden more believable.
The most obvious characteristic feature of Jaques, which can also be considered its main difference to Touchstone, is his melancholic demeanor. The character is commonly referred to as the Melancholy Jaques. However, this is not to say that his melancholy is a result of misfortune or a tragic event in the past – instead, he seems to deliberately pursue this attitude and, in fact, enjoy such a state. He does not appear to be weak of heart – instead, he seems to consider his melancholy a philosophical stance, a cynical view that is built upon the premise that life is futile and humankind is inherently weak and unworthy of compassion. In stark contrast, Touchstone, Duke Frederick’s jester, seems to embody the joy and delight. Touchstone is witty, intelligent, and often criticizes the ways of life in court. However, he does so in a light and entertaining manner, and never burdens anyone with the musings of the futility of life.
At face value, it is tempting to say that that they are a foil to each other purely by their worldview, with Jaques’ pessimism and gloom serving a sharp contrast to Touchstone’s joyous optimism. However, a closer look reveals several peculiar details. First, it is worth noting that Touchstone is a professional jester – that is, he is expected to be entertaining and witty. Thus, the comments he makes regarding the behavior of the characters is a part of his professional responsibilities. On the other hand, Jaques maintains his worldview regardless of the expectations of the people around him, which suggests that he genuinely believes what he says and does. Thus, it is possible to argue that another aspect of the contrast between the two characters is the level of commitment they display in their worldviews. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare favors Touchstone’s position more since on several occasions he manages to baffle Jaques with a clever parody of his behavior.
As a result of their first meeting, Jaques recalls Touchstone as “laid him down, and bask’d him in the sun” (Shakespeare 32), which, as we can see later in the course of events, closely resembles the scene with the deer, although in an ironic manner. The speech given by Touchstone begins with the phrase “Thus may we see… how the world wags. ‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine, And after one hour more ’twill be eleven” (Shakespeare 32), which points to the clear exaggeration of the existential themes characteristic for Jaques. It can be argued that it can serve as a critique of Jaques’ most famous “All the world’s a stage” speech, which may seem relatively insightful but does not stand up to the test – in the play, the final words that assert the demise of a human being into oblivion are immediately challenged by the entry of Adam, whose old age does not compromise his integrity or loyalty to his master (Shakespeare 35).
When contrasted to the speech by Touchstone mentioned above, the vagueness and overblown significance of Jaques’ character becomes obvious. In an interesting turn of events, Jaques is not offended by Touchstone’s performance, and instead uncritically accepts it as it is, considering the jester his ally, and praising him by saying that “fools should be so deep contemplative” (Shakespeare 32). This turn of events reveals another weakness of Jaques’ personality – he is not well aware of how shallow and predictive his worldview is. Again, the same cannot be said of Touchstone, whose comments reveal both intelligence and self-awareness.
Therefore, instead of viewing them as a foil to each other based on their perception of the world, it would be more appropriate to contrast the ignorance and banality of Jaques to the sharp and clever worldview of Touchstone. It is also likely that the superficial nature of Jaques’ beliefs and values is the reason for his affection towards the jester: instead of understanding the critique, the former considers it a proof of his hypothesized seven stages of life. Similarly, Jaques’ fondness of courteousness is promptly reflected in the Touchstone’s overemphasized politeness in his interactions with the former. Similarly, such “courteousness” serves as a reason for his affection with the jester, who is characterized as a “courtier” (Shakespeare 67). Thus, we can safely assume that whatever the initial cause of Jaques’ melancholy, in its current form it is more indicative of ignorance and lack of integrity than a genuine worldview.
At first glance, it may appear as if the character is suffering from what is popularly known as depression. Many of his features of character are consistent with the symptoms of the disorder. Most prominently, Jaques constantly expresses negative thoughts and sees the dark side in every aspect of human existence. The entire idea of seven stages of human life that the character holds as a core of his worldview is based on the premise of overwhelming futility and emphasizes the negative traits of their nature, describing humans as “jealous in honor,” “quick in quarrel,” and ending up falling into “mere oblivion” (Shakespeare 35). However, it should be noted that the mood associated with depression is always unpleasant for the person who suffers from the condition whereas Jaques does not seem to be affected by it.
On the contrary, he consciously pursues the possibility to be exposed to the gloomy and depressing side of life, going as far as asking other people to sing him sad songs to get in the right mood. What is more, he seems to take pride in the fact that he can find the depressing motifs in any source as he boasts of his ability to “suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs” (Shakespeare 27). This argument alone suggests that perhaps Jaques is keen on finding the themes that align with his worldview and that, therefore, he is not a victim of the clinical condition. Besides, there is no indication that the character is restless, agitated, or exhausted, which he should be as someone with clinical depression. At this point, it is also worth mentioning that the fictional literature does not necessarily give a detailed account of the character’s emotional state and that it is, therefore, impossible to state with certainty whether he is affected by the condition.
However, the attitude displayed by the characters, and especially the constant mockery on the part of Touchstone, points to the fact that the character is not worthy of any sympathy and, therefore, is unlikely to be a victim, at least from the author’s standpoint. Also, his consistent inability to distinguish between the irony aimed directly toward his attitudes and a genuine worldview further dispels the assumption that Jaques is in any way negatively affected by his melancholic mood. Instead, it is more probable that he is eager to find support in someone who shares his preferred standpoint and does not bother to reflect upon its integrity or its value in the eyes of the others.
In terms of realism, I can say that both characters are believable and convincing in their own right, although perhaps for different reasons. Jaques represents a type of personality that is focused on the negative side of life and deliberately seeks the reasons for melancholy in the world around him. To some extent, he also serves as a backdrop against the happiness and joy that permeates Arden and can be seen in each of its inhabitants. Admittedly, this contributes to the symbolic aspect of the character and makes it slightly less realistic. However, the fact that he is subject to mockery by another character strips him of his existential qualities and makes him much more believable. Touchstone, on the other hand, combines intelligence and wit with a sharp eye and, due to his social status, the ability to comment on the matters which would be considered taboo to the majority. While such a role is uncommon in modern society, it is not impossible to encounter and is certainly not improbable. His motifs and attitudes are well-understood and can be empathized with, and his worldview is appealing, for which reason I consider him equally believable.
However, I still consider Touchstone to be more representative of my views. There are several reasons for this decision. First, he is critical of the hypocrisy that he encounters daily at the court. While it is possible to think of the phenomenon as more characteristic for the Shakespearean times, it certainly is not extinct in the modern world, and, to me, is every bit as annoying and disquieting as it was to the character in question. The skill with which he can tackle the matter without boring anyone and remaining a likable and popular person is admirable and can be considered exemplary. Next, unlike Jaques, Touchstone is much more self-aware and self-critical, which makes him an attractive role model. It is possible to assume that it is his graceful intellectual victories over Jaques’ exaggerated melancholy that seems to evade his understanding make him even more attractive and, as a result, a better candidate for worldview representation. Nevertheless, it is the commitment and self-awareness, not intellectual superiority, that I consider the primary reason for choosing him as a representation of my world view.
In conclusion, Jaques can be considered an important figure in the play. His persistent melancholic speeches and actions create a backdrop for the permeating optimism. Admittedly, his worldview appears shallow and does not stand up to the mockery of the jester. Nevertheless, his presence makes the world depicted in the play more believable. Thus, instead of being considered the source of wisdom, he serves as a reminder of the reality outside the idyllic community of Arden Forest.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. S. Gosnell, 1810.