Jaques is one of the best-loved characters from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. While he does not play a central role regarding the development of the plot, his pessimistic and contemplative nature makes him an interesting study for readers and actors alike.
Jaques Character Analysis
Jaques lives alongside Duke Senior, the rightful heir to the throne, within the Forest Ardenne. He’s one of the Duke’s loyal followers, all of whom have gone into exile voluntarily. Despite this, Jacques often complains about their situation. He is all talk and no action, seeing himself as a purely philosophical person with wise insights into the minds of those around him (something that is called into question, especially when his intellect is compared to Rosalind’s).
Duke Senior is interested in Jaques’s unusual attitude and often seeks his counsel. Respect is not usually reciprocated though. Jaques often criticizes the Duke and complains about the situation they’ve found themselves in.
Jaques’s personality and approach to the world are defined by his sadness. He is continually melancholy and pessimistic, which sticks out quite dramatically in the play which is filled with mostly happy characters. He is often seen to revel in his own sadness, enjoying it as something that sets him apart from other characters and makes him feel like an apt critic of the world. For example, in act 4, scene 1, when Rosalind is disguised as Ganymede and asks Jaques to tell her more about his past, he says he loves sadness “better than laughing.” It’s a sense, he later says, that has been “compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels.”
He points out numerous things throughout the play he says are to blame for his melancholy, everything from a wounded deer to frustrating people he does not enjoy talking to. He uses the following quote in act 2, scene 5 to describe his outlook on life:
I can suck
The melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks an egg
This is not something he says as a critic of himself, but as something he’s proud of. He likes feeling this way and expressing it depressingly. Jaques believes his melancholic view on life and his constant philosophizing make him the perfect candidate to be Duke Senior’s “fool.”
Jaques as the Fool
In Shakespearean plays, the fool is a character defined by their wit and ability to outmaneuver those of a higher class. Due to the role they fulfill in court, fools can say whatever they want without fear of consequences. This means they can critique the nobility, and even royalty, without worrying that they will be executed. Often, the fool is the wisest person on stage at any one time. They see the world more clearly than their fellows do.
In As You Like It, Jaques comes into contact with Touchstone, Duke Frederick’s court jester, who accompanies Rosalind and Cecilia into the Forest Ardenne. He’s an insightful character, one who likes to analyze a situation (not unlike Jaques), but also one who can make characters laugh. He’s far jollier than Jaques and is described at one point as a “natural fool,” meaning that his more outlandish moments are not inventions but simply a part of his personality. The latter point makes Jaques’s interest in Touchstone and taking on the role of the fool for Duke Senior all the most interesting.
Jaques tells the Duke in act 2, scene 7 that the Duke should “Give [him] leave / To speak [his] mind,” despite the fact that nothing about Jaques’s current role keeps him from doing just that. The Duke doubts Jaques’s intentions and suggests that he’ll only use his new position to critique others unfairly.
Jaques and “All the World’s a Stage”
Despite Jaques’s interest in being a fool, he doesn’t exhibit many of the character traits most commonly associated with Shakespearean fools like Touchstone. He spends more time engaging with drawn-out discourses on life. The best-known example is his “All the world’s a stage” speech, also known as “The Ages of Man” speech, from act 2, scene 7 of As You Like It. The speech begins with these famous lines:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
After comparing “men and women” to actors on a stage, he goes on to dwell on the “Seven Ages of Man,” a medieval concept that breaks down life into seven parts, starting with infancy, moving through childhood, one’s role as lover, soldier, justice, aged man, and then invalid. The latter is related to the first stage in life—infancy. One becomes, in Jaques’s words, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Although the speech is incredibly popular and certainly one of the most commonly quoted Shakespearean monologues, within the context of the play, it was not as well received. The idea is not an original one, nor was it in Shakespeare’s time, and characters push back against his assertions and prove him wrong. The best example comes after Jaques finishes talking and Adam, Oliver’s aging servant, joins him, and proves himself (not for the first time) to be loyal and sharp-witted. Aging is a theme that can be found in many other plays, as well as within Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Jaques’s differences from the rest of the characters in As You Like It are never more clearly defined than at the end of the play. Everyone celebrates Duke Senior’s reinstatement to the throne and their newfound wealth, while Jaques decides to seek out Duke Frederick and learn from him. During the story’s falling action, Jaques uses the following words in act 5, scene 4 to describe the resolution of the many happy couples in the narrative:
There is sure another flood toward, and these couples are coming to the ark. Here comes a pair of very strange beasts, which in all tongues are called fools.
He uses the image of the biblical flood and compares the couples to animals climbing into Noah’s ark, fully showing his cynicism and proving that not every character in As You Like It gets a resolution that they “like.” He’s the only character who finds himself as unhappy as he was at the beginning of the play at the end.