Scene 12 introduces the melancholy lord, Jaques, who offers a sullen perspective on the otherwise comedic events in Arden. He comes close to playing the part of the fool, in the sense that he turns a critical eye on a world in which he lives but does not fully inhabit. But unlike Feste in Twelfth Night or the fool in King Lear, Jaques does not demonstrate the insight or wisdom that would make his observations truly arresting or illuminating. His most impressive speech in the play begins with a familiar set piece in Elizabethan drama: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players”. He goes on to describe the seven stages of a man’s life, from infancy to death, through his roles as lover and soldier, but Jaques’s observations may strike us as untrue or banal. His estimation that lovers sigh “like furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow” is humorous, and it certainly describes the kind of intemperate, undiscriminating affection that Silvius shows to Phoebe, or Phoebe to Ganymede. But the criticism seems ill-suited to a play as aware and forgiving of love’s silliness as As You Like It. As a philosopher, Jaques falls short of accurately describing the complexity of Rosalind’s feelings for Orlando; his musings bear the narrow and pinched shortcomings of the habitually sullen.
Jaques’s sullenness blinds him to his own foolishness regarding life. Jaques goes on to describe man’s later years, the decline into second childhood and obliviousness, without teeth, eyesight, taste, or anything else. Countering Jaques’s unflattering picture of old age, Orlando carries Adam to the duke’s banquet table, the old man entering his final years with his loyalty, generosity of spirit, and appetite intact. Although the thought of serving as Duke Frederick’s fool appeals to him, Jaques ultimately lacks the wit, wisdom, and heart to perform the task. When he meets Touchstone in the forest, he sings the clown’s praises, quoting with glee Touchstone’s nihilistic musings on the passage of time: “And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, / And then from hour to hour we rot and rot”. Jaques does not realize that Touchstone’s “deep--contemplative” speech is a bawdy mockery of his own brooding behavior. Indeed, throughout the play, Jaques remains so mired in his own moodiness that he sees very little of the world he so desperately wants to criticize. Knowing that Jaques’s eyes are trained on men’s baser instincts, the duke doubts Jaques’s ability to serve as a proper and entertaining fool. Jaques, he feels, would be a boor, berating the courtiers for sins that Jaques himself has committed. This exchange points to an important difference between Jaques and the duke: the former is committed to being unhappy in the world and will suffer in it, while the latter is happy to make the best of the world he is given and will thrive, as the title of the play seems to promise.