Marvin: I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.
Trillian: Well, we have something that may take your mind off it.
Marvin: It won’t work, I have an exceptionally large mind.
Trillian: Yeah, we know.
-Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The character of the brooding intellectual burdened and depressed by others’ inability to recognize and appreciate his genius: it’s a character we usually love to hate. In the case of Marvin, a robot programed with intelligence 50,000 times greater than a human, we can cut the guy some slack. For those Average-Joe’s like us who think themselves to be on Martin’s level of intellect and act as he does, we like to laugh at their misguided perception of the world and inflated ego.
In “As You Like It,” the character of Jacques fills the role of the wanna-be Marvin, and we do love to laugh at him. Jacques can be described as a malcontent, an Elizabethan stock character who is subversive to societal norms. Scholar Robert Bennett argues that they “are able to abstract experience into moral philosophy and to make immediate judgments about character and situation in the course of conversation and action,” and that the necessity to be either a thinker or a doer forms a central tension in the character of the malcontent.”
Jacque’s inability to reconcile with his philosophies with any of the milieus he encounters makes him a fool in the eyes of the protagonists. Even when he escapes the corrupt culture of the court and joins the Duke Senior and his men in their (almost) utopian retreat in the woods, he cannot live without finding fault in all around him- his nature as a malcontent has more to do with his own conception of himself rather than actual intellectual problems he has with society.
So, in other words, he’s a just a whiner.
But does his character’s value extend anywhere beyond that of a clown? Maybe, considering the fact that Jacques really does have good intentions. His constant melancholy is mostly an act, at least in its antisocial aspects. In wishing to be a fool and wear motley, he desires the ability to speak his mind:
Give me leave/ To speak my mind, and I will through and through/ Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world/ If they will patiently receive my medicine.
Jacques seems to truly believe that if he were free to express his satirical viewpoints to the culture that alienates him, he would be able to amend its issues. Again, he’s no Marvin, who is able to solve “all of the major mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philisophical, etymological, meteorological and psychological problems of the Universe except his own, three times over,” but you have to acknowledge a brand of good will tied to his self-inflicted melancholic and cynical state. His constant and unwavering disdain for society also serves a meaningful purpose in that it exposes subjective flaws in the “utopic” society that the Duke creates in the Forest of Arden, and therefore leads us to question the legitimacy or possibility of such a society.
In the end, Jacques loses some of his pessimism and antisocial behavior, as evidenced by his well-wishing goodbyes to several of the characters that had previously mocked his foolish attitude. This change in behavior makes us assess whether his decision to enter a life of contemplation in a monastery is going to be another exercise in futility in which he will continue to be a whiner, or if he really is reformed and is truly committed to exploring philosophies that will allow him to conceive of the proper “medicine” for the world. Shakespeare leaves his story open, leading us to question the value of a heavily satirical personality such as Jacques, and how their commentary on society may be valuable in assessing its perceived merits.
References and Images:
Bennett R. The Reform of a Malcontent: Jaques and the Meaning of As You Like It. Shakespeare Studies [serial online]. January 1976
“Jacques and the Wounded Stag” http://paintingandframe.com/prints/william_hodges_jacques_and_the_wounded_stag_’as_you_like_it_’_act_ii_scene_i-59398.html