Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a comedy with much cause for melancholy. Orlando rightly resents the problems he incurs because of primogeniture. Despite being born into nobility, Orlando is left penniless and uneducated as he is not the eldest son of his father, Sir Rowland de Boys. Duke Senior, who shows no signs of distress at his situation throughout the play, has been banished by his younger brother who usurped Senior’s birthright to the family wealth, land, and power. Rosalind, as Duke Senior’s daughter, is also banished from her home and left hapless. These characters all have due reason to lament their fortunes, however, none are quite so melancholy as Jacques.
Melancholy is used exclusively within As You Like It with reference to Jacques or by Jacques. However, this character’s reasons for melancholy are unclear. Although he is in a similar position as his brother Orlando, he does not reference the results of primogeniture on his own status as a cause for distress. Jacques denies himself legitimate reason for upset and instead pursues frivolous ones. First Lord indicates how Jacques is perceived by his peers when recalling the moans of an injured stag and stating, “the hairy fool,/Much markèd of the melancholy Jaques,/Stood on th’ extremest verge of the swift brook,/ Augmenting it with tears” (2.1.40-43). Within this comment, it is clear that Jacques is thought to be of no consequence to his peers. By drawing a parallel between the stag, which is deemed a “fool” and Jacques, First Lord implies that Jacques is not someone taken seriously. This devaluation of Jacques is particularly ironic given his own serious demeanor. First Lord’s statement also indicates the extent to which Jacques’ melancholy is considered pointless—just as the tears of this stag will not significantly augment the river in which it falls, Jacques’ commentary seems to have no real impact on his company. So if Jacques is devalued, and melancholy is associated with Jacques, what meaning does melancholy hold?
Via the Oxford English Dictionary, melancholy is defined as ill temper, sullenness, brooding, anger, sadness, dejection, and pensiveness. Additionally, a now archaic definition of melancholy is “a short literary composition (usually poetical) of a sad or mournful character.” In short, melancholy seems clearly outlined as pertaining to moodiness. As such, this word seems rather one dimensional for one that Shakespeare highlights through Jacques as much as he does.
Perhaps Shakespeare plays with the idea of melancholy as pensiveness. In this sense, Shakespeare might hint that there is little sense in thinking quite so much as Jacques. Maybe the licensed fool, or even this play, are meant to be consumed at face value and not as things with deeper meaning. Or perhaps Shakespeare intends the opposite if he uses melancholy as short literary composition of a sad character. In this sense, Jacques might be likened to Shakespeare—the actual composer of the play.
What do you think? Why would Shakespeare create a character who revels in melancholy? How does Jacques help contextualize the events of the play? Perhaps his search for melancholy offers comic relief within itself if not with respect to the real suffering within As You Like It.