The Shakespearean play ‘As You like it’ is an exploration of love and marriage presented in a comic setting. The main characters of the play are active participants in what some might classify as the typical love/hate relationship. The relationship among these characters reflects vastly on the bard’s own feelings regarding love and marriage, and interestingly enough, the two main characters function as the main critics of love although they later do fall in love themselves. The relationship between the two main characters reflects greatly on the overall feelings of the sexes in general. However, Jacques is a character who is the blending element among the characters. He is virtually inactive but helps the play to develop.
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In this play, “As You Like It”, Jacques is the discontented melancholy ex-courtier who is part of Duke Senior’s troupe in the forest. The main characters Rosalind and Orlando take an instant dislike to him which brings out their characters more beautifully in this pastoral comedy.
In this romantic tale, he exists as one discordant note, Jacques, who sees the whole pageant of human life as one depressing role after another. His is the voice of the satirist who wishes to “Cleanse the foul body of the infected world” (Act 2, Scene 7). He is a person who could be termed as a thinker but in the play we find him doing nothing or he does not indulge himself in any substantial action. He is a person who ‘suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs‘ (Dennie, 195). He is a character ‘who morals on the time‘ (Wheeler, 189). He can be termed as an individual who finds his greatest prize in the woods.
He is a moody misogynist cynic who muses at the unsatisfactory nature of the world. He takes delight in being sad (an ironical situation in a play that delights in happiness) and loves to complain about things around him. He believes that his melancholy makes him the perfect candidate to be Duke Senior’s fool. In fact, “he is more like an aspiring fool than a professional one” (Lamb, 221).
His down and out dejected character brings a touch of sadness and dark thoughts in the play while everything else around him is light and foolish. He reflects constantly on life and believes that though he and the duke think alike on many matters, he does not express them. He is a philosopher, and they are rarely jolly, happy fellows. And he is strangely proud of his thoughts and seems to look out for someone who wallows in the same emotional mud.
He is a silent spectator in the course of things who views all the characters from the sidelines and judges their actions but never participates.
Act II, Scene 7, features one of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues, which states:
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“All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts are seven years old.” (Act II, Scene 7)
This is spoken by Jacques. This monologue makes Jacques the wise fool who acts as the fundamental voice of humanity in the play. The phases, “seven ages,” begin with
“At first, the infant
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” (Act II, Scene 7) and then move over to describe the different areas of life and the conclusion appears as
“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” (Act II, Scene 7)
Jacques philosophizes on the seven stages of human life: man passes from part to parts of life, until he reaches the stage where there is
“Second childishness and mere oblivion” (act 2 scene 7). Through these epic lines the character of Jacques appears before us as the voice of the poet himself and makes the play philosophical in a blend of a comedy. This monologue vividly analyses the inner truth of human existence and the character develops into the soul of the play. Thus, his role in the play becomes significant even though the on stage presence of the character remains nominal.
Though it may sound banal, Jacques’s speech remains an example as to how quickly and thoroughly human beings can change and grow in different directions, and, indeed, do change in the play. It is fitting to see that he does not accompany the others while they leave the forest. This clearly depicts his ability to participate and enjoy life. While the other characters merrily indulge in revelry, Jacques decides that he will follow the reformed Duke Frederick into the monastery, as there is a belief that by doing so he would be able to learn more about life.
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In act IV, scene 1, Rosalind tells Jacques that she has heard that he is a melancholy fellow, and Jacques concurs, describing this aspect of his personality as different from
“the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation,
the musician’s, which is fantastical,
the courtier’s, which is proud,
the soldier’s, which is ambitious,
the lawyer’s, which is politic,
the lady’s, which is nice,
the lover’s, which is all of these (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 10-15)”.
He compares his disposition to seven different kinds of people and tells her that his melancholy is uniquely his own, and drawn from his many travels. Through these lines Jacques makes it possible for the audience to visualize his own views and makes the play in favor of the justifications established by the poet himself. However, it can be stated that “Jacques is an example of a stock figure in Elizabethan comedy” (Dennie, 34), the man possessed of a hopelessly melancholy disposition. His pessimism is a huge disadvantage for the troupe who are trying to survive in the forest but he undoubtedly brings a balance to the side.
There are many facets of his otherwise, “gloomy” personality. Jacques’ empathy for the deer is strength as a human. It might be a weakness for someone trying to survive in the forest but it shows the humane side of a mirthless personality. Above all, he loves an argument and verbal duels. His conversations on love with Orlando speak volumes about how his reasoning maintains that there is no real love in humans. He enjoys making fools out of others, as in calling the men into a circle of fools to hear him.
Strength of his character is his view of things in alternative perspectives which allow him to generate good advice.
Jacques appears to be included in the play in the mode of the fool. The fool, particularly in Shakespearean play, is used to speak a greater truth that is generally overlooked by the characters of the play. However, he is also a funny character who induces relief in a play such as song and dance. However, Shakespeare used this character of fool to show proper sense and morality in this play through the character Jacques. It was a general approach of the “Elizabethan drama to put acts of fool and some other associates to combine silly acts”. (Wheeler, 154) Shakespeare, however, used this tool, through the character of Jacques, as a greater weapon than just humor and confusion and made it into a social voice against injustice and truthfulness through satire. Jacques is the voice of Shakespeare on the stage.
Jacques seems to be the most sensible character of the play. Jacques is philosophical in nature and understands the greater truth of life. The evidence of this becomes evident during his monologue ‘seven ages’ reveals this truth. Here we find a person who is not afraid to speak the truth. He is able to express his feelings in his own unique manners and approach. Jacques is the character through which Shakespeare is expressing himself to the audience.
His beliefs and vision are being expressed to the readers. In a way, “it is not Jacques alone who can be regarded as the fool, but the presentation of his wisdom indicates the readers to think that his folly and wisdom is a targeted as a mockery” (Wheeler, 154) to the audience of the Elizabethan period.
As “Monsieur Melancholy,” (Wheeler, 156) Jacques cannot share the classic happy ending at the conclusion of the play. Instead, as an outside observer, he tells the Duke that he will wait for the celebration to end in an abandoned cave. Even in this capacity, Jacques fills the role of the comic scapegoat. The main motive of having such a character in the play was to relate to “real” life (Wheeler, 155). We complicate and worsen things around us a bit too much.
We sweat the small stuff. Without him “the play would have been a sugar shock” (Wheeler, 154). He makes it more realistic. Secretly, we all agree with Jacques. Man does make a mess of life, and sometimes it takes Jacques to point it out. He has an important job: to make the story not so sweet.
Dennie, Joseph. The plays of William Shakespeare: With the corrections and illustrations of various commentators. New York: C. and A. Conrad, 1806.
Lamb, Donald. Cult to Culture: The Development of Civilization. Wellington: National Book Trust, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. Complete Works of Shakespeare. Auckland: UPD Ltd, 2005.
Wheeler, William Adolphus. An explanatory and pronouncing dictionary of the noted names of fiction: including also familiar pseudonyms, surnames bestowed on eminent men, and analogous popular appellations often referred to in literature and conversation. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1893.