By Ace G. Pilkington
Shakespeare, whose imagination could accomplish almost anything, made a fantasy forest from two real ones, Ardenne in France and Arden in Warwickshire. Even today, “Over 500 old oaks with girths of over 5 metres are still standing in the Arden area” (Sylvia Morris, “Finding Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden” [theshakespeareblog.com] 2012). However, Shakespeare has created a forest of the mind where real trees are superfluous. As John Wilders says, “The balancing and contrasting of one point of view with another is the way Shakespeare works in As You Like It” (Introduction to As You Like It [New York: Mayflower Books, Inc., 1978], 13). In this context, “The lack of setting enables each character to see in the forest whatever he is, temperamentally, inclined to see. It is not so much a place as a projection of the mind which enters it” (Wilders 13).
Even the characters themselves can be seen as projections of a particular version of reality. Orlando and Jaques label each other Love and Melancholy. Touchstone is a court fool, readily identified even when he is sprawled in the forest. Silvius and Phebe are ideal shepherds from a very artificial romance, while William and Audrey are a court cynic’s view of what it’s really like among the dull and dirty dolts in the country. And none of these conflicting visions is given primacy. They contradict but do not extinguish each other.
In this strange wood, “all reality is relative. Audrey and William are no more real than Silvius and Phebe; spontaneous idiocy is not inherently more real or even more common than affectation” (Janette Dillon, Shakespeare and the Solitary Man [New York: MacMillan, 1981], 100). As You Like It has, as Marilyn French says, “the most multiple focus of any of the comedies” (Shakespeare’s Division of Experience [New York: Summit Books, l98l], 112). This uncertainty extends into the performances—or at least it did on Shakespeare’s stage. As Neil MacGregor writes, “When As You Like It was first performed, a boy actor got dressed up as a girl to play Rosalind, the romantic lead. In the course of the play, Rosalind then pretends to be a boy, who then goes on to impersonate a girl” (Shakespeare’s Restless World [New York: Viking, 2012], 191).
By contrast, Jaques is consistently disagreeable, and it is not coincidental that we come to see him as the character whose values are most directly opposed to those of Rosalind. The abruptness of his nature can be seen in his “Nay then, God b’wi’you, an you talk in blank verse,” followed by an exit (all references to Shakespeare are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972], 4.1.29–30). In fact, though, Jaques stands out against all the other characters, not just Rosalind, and against the very current of the play. He says, “I am for other than for dancing measures.” At the end of the story, he responds to Duke Senior’s “Stay, Jaques, stay.” by refusing even to watch the dance, though he will be in the immediate vicinity, “To see no pastime I. What you would have I’ll stay to know at your abandoned cave” (5.4.193–6). It is the kind of behavior we have come to expect from him. He is on his way to inflict himself on the reformed Duke Frederick because “Out of these convertites / There is much matter to be heard and learned” (5.4.184–5). We are reminded of Jaques’s reaction in a similar situation when he was the one being sought rather than the one doing the seeking. Duke Senior used almost the same words, “Show me the place. / I love to cope him in these sullen fits. / For then he's full of matter” (2.1.66–68). When Amiens told Jaques that Duke Senior had been looking for him, he said, “And I have been all this day to avoid him. He is too disputable for my company” (2.5.32–33). It is probable that the newly converted Duke Frederick will feel the same way about Jaques, but it is highly unlikely that Jaques will see far enough into another human being to imagine the possibility. He is like the post Rosalind calls him, rising unmoved in the midst of a swiftly flowing stream. His melancholy, discontent, egotism, and especially his deliberate ignorance of himself and others mark him as the person in this play who is most unlike Rosalind and the positive forces she represents. (Ironically, even the villains in this piece are better able to perceive virtues than Jaques is.)
In a play about differing perceptions of reality and the limitations of a single vision, Rosalind is the transcendent center while Jaques is a dark wanderer on the periphery. In the words of C. L. Barber, “Romantic participation in love and humorous detachment from its follies, the two polar attitudes which are balanced against each other in the action as a whole, meet and are reconciled in Rosalind’s personality” (Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959], 233). He continues, “Because she remains always aware of love’s illusions while she herself is swept along by its deepest currents, she possesses as an attribute of character the power of combining wholehearted feeling and undistorted judgment which gives the play its value” (233).
She combines, of course, considerably more than that. She is a walking union of opposites—feigning player and true lady, mocker and lover, male and female—with something of the vision that belongs to each of her different parts. She prefigures (and largely arranges) the unions of opposites, conjunctions of conflicting visionaries—marriages, in short—which end the play and bring the actors in it as close to celestial harmony (“mirth in heaven”) as they are likely to come.
Jaques has excluded himself from any such approach to concord. He interferes in Touchstone's first attempt to marry Audrey, possibly because he sees the fool as in some ways similar to himself and wishes to save his fellow cynic from the perils of matrimony. Indeed, the two of them occupy the most negative positions in the marriage controversy, Touchstone choosing what he sees as a vile life because it satisfies desires he cannot resist, and Jaques refusing any companionship because it would endanger his precarious pride and his sense of his own uniqueness.
Rosalind opposes Jaques’s melancholy and transcends Touchstone’s cynicism. She sees all the perils of marriage that either of the pessimists could name, but she also sees the pleasures and the epiphanies. In the end, Jaques’s dark withdrawal parallels and points up Rosalind’s bright participation. His choice does not undercut, but confirms hers; his narrowness makes the vistas which she opens all the more breathtaking. Finally, his self-inflicted failure results from lack of perception and lack of courage, and while we may feel sympathy for him, we are not likely (if we keep the rest of the play in mind) to feel that he darkens the comedy or invalidates the love that swirls around him. And we are happily astonished that Shakespeare has managed to conjure from this landscape of uncertainties such a solidly happy ending.