That Fool's Gold
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
That Fool's Gold
Stand-up comedy is an important art form of our time. While standing on a stage, comedians address important issues that many of us think about, but are too afraid to actually say out loud. These jokes are funny since we usually relate to them. Comedy serves as a forum for the discussion of societal conventions we notice are odd, yet we continue to follow. The need for a person to point out the folly of society without being reprimanded has been in existence since civilization began. The character Touchstone in Shakespeare's As You Like It exemplifies the Elizabethan stand-up comic. He, like many other fools in Shakespeare's plays, demonstrates extreme sense, wit, and knowledge of his society.
Fools and clowns are often presented as having sense in Shakespeare's plays, while more prestigious characters are depicted as fools. Shakespeare provides many such instances in As You Like It. When Jaques, a lord of Duke Senior, comes across Touchstone in the woods, Touchstone is making vulgar puns at Audrey, who doesn't understand any of them. Like Touchstone, Jaques is disappointed that his jokes are not being well appreciated-Jaques says, "O knowledge ill-inhabited"(3.3.9). Jacques realizes that Touchstone possesses knowledge that is not being used to its best ability.
Duke Senior, upon his first encounter with Touchstone, is also extremely impressed with Touchstone's wit and knowledge. Duke Senior describes Touchstone as "very swift and sententious"(5.4.63-64). Jaques explains, "He's as good at anything and yet a fool"(5.4.104). Touchstone is one of the smartest people Jaques has ever met. Duke Senior suspects, "He uses his folly like a stalking horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit"(5.4.106-7), meaning Touchstone uses his position as a fool to be able to speak truths without having to be punished for it. He uses his power as a comedian to discuss forbidden topics.
Jaques, who notices the power that jesters have, craves the freedom to point out society's faults without restriction. He begs Duke Senior to let him wear a motley coat so he can "have liberty / Withal, as large a charter as the wind, / To blow on whom I please, for so fools have"(2.7.47-50). Jaques seeks to point out the follies of his society. He wants to be under the protection of the motley coat where he is free to speak as he wishes. Before this line, it's worth mentioning that Jaques also asks Duke Senior to never consider him to be wise. He's speaking of wisdom in the conventional way, wherein only persons of notability are considered to be wise. Jacques wishes to be considered a fool because by acting as a fool one gains knowledge and true intelligence.
One scene in the play illustrates how this humor resonated with Elizabethans. During Act 5 Scene 4, right before the marriages and the resolution of the play, Touchstone entertains the guests during a lull in events. He explains that he has wooed ladies before and, in fact, almost fought over one. Jaques asks for more information about how he avoided the altercation. Touchstone then goes on to hilariously explain the names and degrees of arguments.
To understand this humor, one has to understand the Elizabethans. Unlike people in modern society, the Elizabethans studied language, rhetoric, and debate extensively. They gained pleasure in noticing wordplay and uses of rhetoric and could spot these literary devices easily. An important thing to note is that Elizabethans were a structured society. They studied very hard from a young age and had very strict expectations of each person and class. Essentially, they had rules about everything.
In his speech about the rules of arguing, Touchstone makes fun of Elizabethan society. By creating rules about something as trivial as arguing (not debating, but more pitiful arguments), he points out the absurdity and strictness in society. He explains that he "[quarrels] in print, by the book, as you have books for good manners"(5.4.90-1). The example he chooses-an argument of the cut of a man's beard-to explain this process is extremely absurd, which makes it even more delightful to the Elizabethans. This scene illustrates the trivial things that Elizabethans tend to make important. A man's beard is so important that the way he cuts it can affect him greatly. When a fool or jester points this out, the Elizabethans realize the insignificance of the idea, forcing them to laugh at the rigidity of their society.
Touchstone is a knowledgeable, likable, and wise character, who embodies the function of clowns, jesters, and fools in Shakespeare's play. By taking a closer look at the text, we can appreciate the importance of societal criticism, and we realize those we assume to be fools may have more knowledge than expected.