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Role Of Jaques in As You Like It
The essentially healthy emotional intelligence of Rosalind and Orlando and their suitability for each other emerge from their separate encounters with Jaques (in some editions Jacques), the melancholy ex-courtier who is part of Duke Senior's troupe in the forest. Both Rosalind and Orlando take an instant dislike to Jaques (which is mutual). And in that dislike we are invited to see something vitally right about the two of them.
For Jaques is, in effect, the opposite of everything Rosalind stands for. He is a moody cynic, who likes to look at life and draw from it poetical contemplations at the generally unsatisfactory nature of the world. He is, in a sense, an initial Hamlet-like figure (the comparison is frequently made), someone without any motivating erotic joy, who compensates for his inadequacy by trying to drag everything down to the level of his empty emotions and by verbalizing at length in poetical images. He takes some pride in what he calls his very own brand of melancholy which can suck the joy out of life as a weasel sucks the protein out of an egg (an interesting image of the destruction of new living potential), and he spends his time wallowing in it. His own social desire seems to be to find someone else to wallow in the same emotional mud as he does. But the spirits of the other characters, especially of Rosalind and Orlando, are too vital and creative to respond favourably to Jaques's attempts to cut life down to fit his limited moods.
That judgment no doubt sounds quite harsh. And perhaps it is, for Jaques is a relatively harmless person, who deceives no one (nor does he try to), and his poetical reflections, like Hamlet's, are often seductive. But we should not let the fame of some of his utterances (particularly the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech in 2.7, a frequently anthologized piece of so-called Shakespearean "wisdom") conceal the fact that his approach to life is thoroughly negative. He sees no value in anything other than calling attention to the world's deficiencies. He does not recognize in the fellowship, music, and love all around him any countervailing virtues.
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This point is made really explicit at the very end of the "Seven Ages of Man" speech (2.7.138-165). As Jaques concludes his cynical evaluation of the emptiness of human life by talking about how in old age men become useless lumps of flesh ("Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything"), Orlando enters carrying Adam. The latter is the living denial of everything Jaques has just said, for Adam is very old, but has actively striven to help Orlando with generosity, love, and a sense of duty, qualities which confer upon him an emphatic and obvious value. The dramatic irony in that entrance points us to the severely limited and limiting understanding of the world which Jaques has just uttered.
[As an aside, it might be worth remarking that this habit of excerpting speeches of Shakespeare and setting them up as "gems" outside of their immediate dramatic context has the unfortunate tendency to immortalize a passage as some special insight into the nature of life when it is, in fact, quite the reverse. The speech of Jaques is, along with the advice of the Polonius to his son, the most famous example of this problem. Far from being a particularly mature earned insight into anything important, Jaques's speech is an indication of his limited and unwelcome sense of the unsatisfactory nature of life. The entrance of Orlando and Adam underscores this point.]
Oscar Wilde, in one of his most famous apophthegems, once defined a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. That definition applies very well to Jaques, and it helps us at once understand why Rosalind and Orlando will have nothing to do with him. Rosalind understands that love comes at a price. Time will change things, and a commitment in love brings with it the risk of infidelity (and there is much talk of that in the play). But she will not therefore deny its value or refuse to take the risk. On the contrary, she determines to extract the full value from her excited feelings for Orlando, not by freezing those feelings in some sour poetical reflections but by experiencing them moment by moment, no matter what the future may bring. Orlando also is too full of the spirit of life to find anything in Jaques's gentle but persistent pessimism at all worth bothering about.
I don't mean to over-emphasize the kill-joy quality of Jaques. He is generally harmless enough, particularly in this play where everyone recognizes him for what he is and where he has no particular interest in pulling others down to his level against their will. If they don't want to sit down with him and rail against the first born of Egypt, he's content to move away on his own. But it's significant that he's not a fully participating member of the final celebrations and that he is going to remain in the forest. He has learned nothing and, indeed, is incapable of learning anything, simply because he is not open to experience (in terms of the earlier analysis I offered of Richard II and Hamlet, Jaques is a "chatterer"). He's made up his mind what life is all about, and he is seeking confirmation of a pre-set attitude.
Traversi's summary comment on Jaques hits the mark precisely:
. . . Jacques' motive is, in the last analysis "observation," the gratifying of a self regarding curiosity based on a kind of personal impotence, an inability to participate fully and naturally in the processes of life; and, since his attitude is one which implies throughout an incapacity for genuine giving, for the positive acceptance of an order, at once natural and distinctively human, beyond the isolated self--the acceptance by which, in love or otherwise, the self is at last justified--he remains a mere marginal presence in the process by which that order is finally . . . consummated. (An Approach to Shakespeare, Vol. 1, p. 328)