Jaques delights in being sad—a disparate role in a play that so delights in happiness. Jaques believes that his melancholy makes him the perfect candidate to be Duke Senior’s fool. Such a position, he claims, will “Give me leave / To speak my mind,” and the criticism that flows forth will “Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world” (II.vii.58–60). Duke Senior is rightly cautious about installing Jaques as the fool, fearing that Jaques would do little more than excoriate the sins that Jaques himself has committed. Indeed, Jaques lacks the keenness of insight of Shakespeare’s most accomplished jesters: he is not as penetrating as Twelfth Night’s Feste or King Lear’s fool. In fact, he is more like an aspiring fool than a professional one. When Jaques philosophizes on the seven stages of human life, for instance, his musings strike us as banal. His “All the world’s a stage” speech is famous today, but the play itself casts doubt on the ideas expressed in this speech (II.vii.138). No sooner does Jaques insist that man spends the final stages of his life in “mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” than Orlando’s aged servant, Adam, enters, bearing with him his loyalty, his incomparable service, and his undiminished integrity (II.vii.164–165).
Jaques’s own faculties as a critic of the goings-on around him are considerably diminished in comparison to Rosalind, who understands so much more and conveys her understanding with superior grace and charm. Rosalind criticizes in order to transform the world—to make Orlando a more reasonable husband and Phoebe a less disdainful lover—whereas Jaques is content to stew in his own melancholy. It is appropriate that Jaques decides not to return to court. While the other characters merrily revel, Jaques determines that he will follow the reformed Duke Frederick into the monastery, where he believes the converts have much to teach him. Jaques’s refusal to resume life in the dukedom not only confirms our impression of his character, but also resonates with larger issues in the play. Here, the play makes good on the promise of its title: everyone gets just what he or she wants. It also betrays a small but inevitable crack in the community that dances through the forest. In a world as complex and full of so many competing forces as the one portrayed in As You Like It, the absolute best one can hope for is consensus, but never complete unanimity.
More characters from As You Like It