What can we learn from Jaques' cynical humour in Shakespeare's As You Like It?

Expert Answers
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For the most part, literary critics assert that Jaques' comic cynicism provides an alternative perspective in the play. While the other characters are embracing pastoral life in the forest as safe life, free of corruption and care, Jaques' cynicism shows that even in the forest humanity has its share of corruption. However, despite his cynicism, Jaques is also conquered by the healing powers of the forest and at the end of the play when he decides to pursue the same life of contemplative religion as Duke Frederick, rather than return to his corrupt ways at court.

We especially see his comic cynicism pointing out the corruption of human nature even in the forest when one of Duke Senior's courtiers relays in Act 2, Scene 1 that Jaques was last seen weeping by a stream over a deer that had been wounded in hunting and now lies in misery "abandoned by his velvet friends" (II.i.50). More importantly Jaques is quoted as arguing that the hunters who wounded the deer are "mere usurpers, tyrants and what's worse" for killing animals in their "native dwelling-place" (61-63). In other words, Jaques is arguing that the fact of Duke Senior and his courtiers being in the woods needing food does not give them power over the animals. The animals were in the woods first, and now Duke Senior is overthrowing the animals' rule over the peaceful forest, in the exact same way that Duke Frederick overthrew Duke Senior. Hence Jaques' melancholy speech serves to prove that corruption and tyranny is not actually absent in the woods. In addition, since most wouldn't weep and tirade so long about a wounded deer, we can also see this cynical, melancholy speech as comical, but also serving the purpose of debunking the standard notion that the pastoral life is better than city life or courtly life. As You Like It serves as a satire of the popular pastoral genre. While the forest has it's healing traits, Shakespeare also uses the play to point out the absurdities in the genre, and one absurdity is the notion that pastoral life is a type of utopia. Jaques' continual comic cynicism in the forest certainly shows us that the forest is not truly a utopia.

At the end of the play, we learn that Duke Frederick has been converted to new ways of thinking by a religious man, restoring the dukedom to Duke Senior. When Jaques learns of this, he makes the decision not to remain in society by participating in the wedding ceremonies. Instead, he goes off into the woods seeking the religious man so that he can learn the new ways too. This is an ironic turn of events considering that Jaques was so very pessimistic about being in the woods; however, even though he is now turning to the healing properties of the woods through seeking the religious man, he is no less cynical in this scene. He still feels very cynical about human nature and is now going back into the woods to escape it. Hence, Jaques' sudden departure is comical due to its irony and even still maintains cynicism, plus his comic cynicism still serves to emphasize the corruption of human nature

Read the study guide:
As You Like It

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question