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Who am I this time?

As I wait for our version of As You Like It to arrive, I am of course reading and rereading the play. Or at least the forest court bits. II,i (for set-up, although Jaques does not appear), III,ii and IV,I (which are not in the court but dialogues), II,v and V,ii (Jaques loves music), III,iii and V,iv (Touchstone and the end) and of course most of all II,vii (from A fool! A fool! to All the world’s a stage. My scenes being seven ages. Although I could appear in more or in less, actually, depending on how the thing is shaped in the cutting.

You could do the play just fine without my part at all, really. The plot ignores him. What do you need for the plot? The two cousins, of course, and the brothers they eventually marry. The two fathers. You need, I think, the shepherdess and her swain. You need the clown that accompanies the cousins, and then you need the country wench that he marries, to make up the four couples at the end. The others are presumably dispensable, although I suppose you really do need someone to bring in the messages. You can have the wrestling offstage, though, right?

My point (if I have one) is that Jaques floats above the plot, or behind it, or beneath it, which gives a production a tremendous latitude in how to present him. Actually, the play as a whole admits of a terrible range of possible interpretations, but Jaques in particular is untethered. I’ve read that he stands between the audience and the play, preferably as a bridge rather than a wall. A recent production put Jaques in the prop trunk at the end, which I think speaks to a somewhat different level of respect. He can be played for laughs or for pathos, as the ultimate wit or the ultimate twit, as a man of mystery or as the butt of the cosmic joke.

For me, as I’ve been reading and rereading it, there’s one Big Question, though: is Jaques really one of the Duke’s men? Well, and he is an outsider to some extent, of course, but how much so? Is he a beloved mascot? Is he a tolerated freak? Is he a distrusted Duke’s pet? Does he, in turn trust that they aren’t laughing at him—or that they are laughing at him with love, anyway? When he launches into one of his bits, can he expect cheers and applause? Groans and eye-rolls? Blank bewilderment? Indifference? Snickers?

This is tied up with, but not entirely dependent on, a bigger question about the production: is the banished Duke the leader of a magical court in a magical forest, or of a desperate insurgency? Over the last few decades there seems to have been a trend to emphasize the usurpation of the Duchy as a civil war, and thus the Forest of Arden as a dangerous place, wild and unsettling. This goes along with an undertone of danger in the wooing—Orlando and Rosalind, Orlando and Ganymede, Aliena and Ganymede, Celia and Rosalind, the possibilities of love and hope amid very real terrors of exposure and death. In such a production, I might well play Jaques as a complete outsider, hesitant and fearful of his own exposure and death, even as his uncontrollable wit further alienates him from each companion.

And in the text as I read it, there’s this: When Jaques finds something sad (or funny) he finds it much much sadder (or funnier) than anyone else around him. He has tremendous difficulty matching his tone to the people around him (expressed as verse/prose issues among other things). He appears cold and disdainful most of the time. He is given to long stretches of silence, and then bursts into seemingly endless monologues. His enthusiasms extremely focused and are totally incomprehensible to anyone else. All of these seem to me consistent with Asperger syndrome. I don’t know if an actor and a production could pull off an actual Asperger Jaques, but there could certainly be some of that sense of outsider alienation and bewilderment on both sides.

Or not. Jaques can also be just a witty guy, getting off zingers in the magical dream forest and play-acting the Seven Ages with an appreciative band of brothers. That would work, too. It’s not my choice—and it’s not really a choice about Jaques, either.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

If you want a technical answer to the question of whether Jaques is one of the Duke's men--he certainly isn't. At the end of the play, he decides freely not to return to the court after the usurper Frederick abdicates: if he were a liege-man to Duke Senior in any sense, he couldn't make that choice without first resigning from the Duke's service. He could in a looser sense be a "follower" of Senior in the sense of following him into exile rather than remaining under Frederick's rule (which might not have been safe), or he might have come to Arden quite independently of Senior's arrival there, possibly from somewhere other than Senior's court. He is a traveller, after all. What kind of an outsider is he, and how invested is he in what happens to Senior? Those are questions which the actor playing Jaques has considerable latitude to answer for himself, and I bring them up as questions partly because their answers don't depend on how other decide to treat Jaques. Most of the hallmarks of outsides that you mention are signified socially by the behavior of other characters, which you won't determine and which might not have all that much influence in Jaques' manner, anyway, and Jaques could be treated to some degree as an outsider for any number of reasons.

Myself, I'd go with a choice that provides Jaques with at least a bit of a link to the society that surrounds him in the forest, a little bit of investment in it. Why else is he attracted to the role of the Fool, which is an intensely social occupation, if he is fundamentally disinterested in these people? I've seen As You Like Its in which Jaques might as well have been in a different play, because he showed no social engagement with the other characters at all. They might as well not have been there. And if he is in a different play, he's not intrinsically interesting enough to hold attention, and he's a character with a lot of intrinsic interest, so it seems a shame to make him so detached that his intrinsic interest is tossed away.


Thank you for this—I do think that much of my interpretation of Jaques will have to depend on how other people react to him, which I can't control, although I can and I assume will discuss it with the other actors and the Director. The issue, of course, isn't whether he is technically a Duke's Man (although even there, his relationship with the Duke could allow the ending to be played as a sort of sabbatical release, possibly even with paperwork to be signed and stamped by the newly-regnant Duke as the lovers dance) but whether he is one of the Band in his own eyes, in the Duke's and in theirs.

I want to draw a difference, in my mind at least, between a Jaques who is detached from the rest because he is uninterested in them and their society and a Jaques who is detached from the rest because he lacks the ability to connect to them. That is—a Jaques who wants to be one of the Duke's men but can't, because of the various barriers (outlook, education, experience, perhaps language and ethnicity, and my suggestion of neurological difference) should be interesting even if he has put up defenses against engagement. Or not… I often tell my castmates and crew that I have thousands of good ideas and thousands of bad ideas and I cannot tell which are which.

And then—why does Jaques want to be a Fool? Does he really know what a Fool's life is like? He is, I believe, deadly serious about it in the moment, although that I don't think that seriousness lasts very long. I will be writing about that later, probably more than once.

Thanks,
-V.


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