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The Character of  Touchstone in As You Like It

 

As You Like It features, like so many of Shakespeare's plays, a professional clown, Touchstone, and it's worth paying some attention to his role for what it contributes towards establishing and maintaining the upbeat comic spirit of the play. For the jester is the constant commentator on what is going on. His humour, pointed or otherwise, thus inevitably contributes to the audience's awareness of what is happening, and the way in which other characters treat him is often a key indicator of their sensibilities.

Touchstone is one of the gentlest and happiest clowns in all of Shakespeare. He comments on the action, makes jokes at other people's expense, and offers ironic insights about their situation. But throughout As You Like It, such traditional roles of the fool are offered and taken with a generosity of spirit so that his remarks never shake the firm comic energies of the play. When he ridicules Orlando's verses, Rosalind laughs along with him. When he points out to Corin (in 3.2) that the shepherd must be damned for never having lived at court, Corin takes it as good natured jesting (which it is). When Touchstone takes Audrey away from her rural swain, William, there are apparently no hard feelings (although much here depends on the staging). In this play, the professional jester participates in and contributes to a style of social interaction which is unqualified by any more sober and serious reflections. This makes Touchstone very different from the bitter fool of King Lear or from the most complex fool of all, the sad Feste of Twelfth Night , both of whom offer comments that cast either a shrewd, melancholy, or bitter irony on the proceedings.

 

Touchstone himself becomes the target of much humour by his immediate attraction to Audrey, the "foul" country lass. There is something richly comic here, seeing the staunch apologist for the sophisticated life of the court fall so quickly to his animal lust. But the satire here is very good humoured. Touchstone himself acknowledges the frailty of his vows and does not attempt to deceive anyone about his intentions. He knows he is serving his lusts and that that is no good basis for a lasting and significant marriage. But the play builds up no severe indictment against what he is doing, and Audrey herself makes no protest. So this most unlikely of unions becomes part of the celebration of love at the end of the play, an expression of the comic variety of the experience, rather than offering any ironic commentary.

 

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