As You Like It (or Not)

This is a sermon on pessimism. There will be no footnotes, but you can expect lots of italics (and parentheses). Philosophically, pessimism is usually defined as something like “the doctrine or belief that this is the worst of all possible worlds (or at least a really, really bad one) and that all things ultimately tend toward evil (or, at best, things just kind of fade away without any ultimate meaning or redemption).” Another tradition defines pessimism as “the doctrine or belief that the evil in the world outweighs (or will ultimately outweigh) the good.” Or, as another major philosophical tradition has expressed it: “Reality bites.”

Loosely speaking, and philosophically I’m loose as a goose, we use pessimism to describe “the tendency to take the least hopeful view of human life (or of a given situation).” For my purposes today (which, as always, is total mind control of my audience) I will use pessimism to mean “a view of human life which rejects hopefulness as an appropriate or adequate response to reality.” I hope (oops) that what I have to say will be of value even to you optimists (who, as my favorite skeptic, Voltaire, has taught us, are almost as dangerous and unreliable as the pessimists). I hope (oops) that I can help you understand the roots and symptoms of some of the pessimism and cynicism of our own time, while at the same time helping you see yourself as a messenger and embodiment of hope. For those of you who, like myself, struggle with pessimism, I hope to coerce you against your will once and for all to start being happy. Maybe even . . . perky? Nah.

How do we understand and confront pessimism?  Because I’m not really a philosopher (and why they tacked on that Ph with my D, I’ll never know), I’d rather not consider P. in the abstract. Picasso, in the abstract, I like. Pessimism, not so much. Instead I’d like to turn your attention to what I take to be a profoundly pessimistic text, Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis. Just kidding. We will save Kafka for another day when we are feeling more . . . buggy. My text today is just a brief passage about the passages of life (all of them apparently rather unsatisfactory) from Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It. Many of you, no doubt, are familiar with these lines, which begin “All the World’s a Stage.” I will bet that some of you had to memorize it back in your late nineteenth century Little Schoolhouses on the Prairie. I wonder, though, how many of us have paid close attention to what’s happening in the speech. Yes, it’s more eloquent than Black Sabbath lyrics, but, as we shall see, it’s not necessarily any more uplifting. Here it is –

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like a snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Well, there you go. All of life wrapped up in seven not-so-pretty (st)ages, moving from puking babies to senile older babies with some role-playing stuff in the middle. What is this speech doing in this play? And why is it in the mouth of the character who speaks it? And who is he? And why do I ask so many questions?


The speaker is Jaques. His name is probably pronounced “Jake-weez” or “Jake-wes” or, as I hope, “Jakes” (which means a latrine). Jaques is a “melancholy fellow,” according to another character. He is an attendant of sorts in the court of the much revered but recently deposed (by his brother) Duke Senior. He has accompanied the Duke, along with the Duke’s “co-mates and brothers in exile,” to the Forest of Arden, where they live together like “the old Robin Hood of England and his merry men.” The Forest is a sometimes harsh and at other times rather benevolent and magical place, full of deer, shepherds, and assorted country bumpkins (and eventually some other exiles from the court).

The play is a comedy, meaning that, among other things, it has a happy ending, including four marriages, the restoration of the Duke’s dukedom, the reunion of the Duke with his daughter Rosalind, the conversions of two different villains, and the reunion of the two aforementioned brothers who had been seen in a Cain and Abel-like struggle in Act I. And, if that wasn’t enough, in Act Five a god — Hymen, god of marriage — appears to bless the assorted characters as they prepare to start their transformed lives together. All this happiness is symbolized by a dance, called for by the Duke:

Forget this new fallen dignity

And fall into our rustic revelry.

Play, music, and you brides and bridegrooms all,

With measure heaped in joy to th’ measures fall.

Jaques (remember him?), though, refuses to dance. He will not enter into the final harmony. “To your pleasures,” he says to the wedding party; “I am for other than dancing measures.” Shakespeare emphasizes the significance of Jaques’ rejection of happiness by its ultimate placement in his plot. In a play about love, reunions, marriages, song, and lovesick shepherds and shepherdesses, the final few lines draw our attention instead (both by language and structure) to Jaques. “Stay, Jaques, stay,” the Duke implores. But Jaques declines and retreats to the Duke’s cold, lonely, “abandoned cave.” In performance all the characters watch Jaques depart, before the Duke reminds them that this is one of those Ecclesiastes “times to dance.” And the play ends with their rustic revelry. I mean dancing.

Jaques might appear to be Hamlet trapped in a comedy, but Shakespeare differentiates them in very important ways. Hamlet experiences several major shocks to his system; and it is not at all clear that, before the suspicious-looking death of his father, the hasty remarriage of his mother (to her brother-in-law), and the sudden appearance of the ghost of his father, he looked at life in quite such “to be or not to be” terms. As far as we know, Jaques has suffered no such losses, though in a wonderful poem in this volume, Jennifer Woodruff Tait imagines just that. Still, both Hamlet and Jaques are striking examples of what was a rather conventional melancholy character on the early modern stage — wearing dark clothing, brooding, sick of life (yet usually a privileged aristocrat), and wasting few opportunities to, as Jaques says, “rail against our mistress the world, and all our misery.” Treatises, entire books, and, as I said, whole plays were written about melancholy and melancholic people. You may be interested to know that studying too much and imbalances in the blood were thought to be major contributors to melancholy. This is probably why the one non-negotiable absolute across the experience at every college and university in America is the campus Blood Drive.


Much of what happens in the play is significant context for Jaques’ speech, but I will limit myself now to the immediate context. Here’s how the events unfold in Act 2. Please pay attention.

While the Duke and his men, including Jaques, prepare a picnic of bread, fruit, and cold venison, we meet a young man named Orlando (the  romantic lead) heading for the same area of the forest. This outcast is running away from certain murder at the hands of his nasty older brother, Oliver. And Orlando has with him an old faithful servant named Adam. How faithful? Glad you asked. It is only because Adam has saved up a little bit of money over his long life of service and only because he has freely offered this money, all that he owns in the world, to Orlando that they are able to run away. In fact, earlier Adam had warned Orlando to flee and argued with him until he convinced him to go. In short, Adam saves the young Orlando’s life (remember that). At this point though, Adam is exhausted, starving, and near death. “Dear master, I can go no further. O, I die for food. Here lie I down and measure out my grave. Farewell, kind master.” Orlando promises not to let the old man die and runs off in search of food. He eventually finds a band of outlaws (or so he thinks) deep in the forest. Of course, this is actually the Duke and his merry men, who have just been listening to Jaques complain about how sickening the world (he means humanity) is.

At this point, the Duke criticizes Jaques, pointing out that this world-class world-hater was once a free-spirited sinner himself (“a libertine, as sensual as the brutish sting itself”) who is just vomiting forth all the diseases he caught during his years of sin. As Jaques starts to defend himself, a young man (Orlando) with drawn sword plunges into the circle demanding food. The sparse stage directions don’t specify, but the lines imply that he might be holding Jaques as a kind of knife-point hostage. In the meantime, the Duke convinces Orlando that his band of thieves is actually a group of civilized people and that the way to get some food from them would be to ask please and then say thank you afterwards. Amazed, Orlando asks their pardons and also asks them to

Forbear your food a little while

Whiles, like a doe, I go to find my fawn

And give it food. There is an old poor man

Who after me hath many a weary step

Limped in pure love. Till he be first sufficed,

Oppressed with two weak evils, age and hunger,

I will not touch a bit.

Blessing them for their hospitality, Orlando departs to fetch old Adam. The Duke, who, like Jaques, loves to moralize about life (though in a more hopeful manner), introduces the “life as theater” metaphor to evoke pity rather than cynicism:

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.

This wide and universal theatre

Presents more woeful pageants than the scene

Wherein we play in.

In other words, some people have it worse off than us, so we should help them.

Jaques follows immediately with his powerful, rhetorically effective, pessimistic speech. I don’t think that Shakespeare, the production, or the actor playing Jaques are successful unless at least for a moment we are moved to sadly bow our heads and acknowledge the “truth” of what Jaques has said. We’re all just playing the roles life forces on us, none of it really amounts to much, it begins with a helpless baby and ends with the radical helpless absurdity of senility and oblivion—toothlessness, sightlessness, tastelessness, nothingness. The ugly end of the aging process is the universe’s final joke on all of us. We play our roles, refusing to admit that all our beautiful ideas and beautiful words — like love, honor, and justice — ultimately deconstruct in the meaningless whinings of first and second childhoods.

However . . . .

Just as Jaques finishes, Orlando enters, carrying, let’s say cradling, old Adam. In fact, when I directed the play (twice), Jaques’ first line about the final stage of life — “Last scene of all”— was the Orlando actor’s cue to come on slowly bearing Adam towards center stage, setting him down at Jaques’ feet. I love Duke Senior’s lines to Orlando: “Welcome. Set down your venerable burden and let him feed” — echoing St. Paul’s “bear ye one another’s burdens.” The act concludes with a haunting song “Blow, blow, thou winter wind”—which suggests  that the harshness of nature is nothing compared to the harshness of other human beings (rendered ironic by this lovely display of human goodness and charity) and concludes with the famous chorus (again, made ironic by the action): “Hey-ho, sing hey-ho, unto the green holly. / Most [not all] friendship is feigning, most [not all] loving mere folly.” After or during the song, the Robin Hood character reveals to Orlando that he is really the long-lost Duke, the dearest friend of Orlando’s late father. In other words, things are looking up for Orlando. Duke Senior once again welcomes “the good old man,” instructs his friends to “support him by the arm,” and then asks Orlando to “give me your hand” as they leave the stage. Jaques, we presume, looks on cynically. Or perhaps he helps the old man off the stage along with the others. We don’t know. In some productions, old Adam dies happy and loved at this moment of the play.


The question before us is how we should interpret Jaques in general and his speech specifically. We are invited to wonder, I think, how his ideas might work out as a general interpretation of life. One view of course is that this is primarily a speech in praise of art, especially theatrical art. If all the world is a stage, then the stage or the theater must be the greatest form of art, holding “a mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet says. Sounds good, but it doesn’t seem to be what Jaques is talking about. His point seems to be instead that we are all merely playing pre-determined roles. Nothing particularly wonderful is affirmed about the theater, unless we find determinism wonderful.

Of course, another way of thinking about Jaques’ big solo is as a set piece for memorization. It is. It has been. It will be. Some lines even ironically suggest that he knows it is. Earlier in the play, he talks about railing against the world “in good terms, in good set terms,” as if he has a few good old standard pessimistic quotations he cuts and pastes into his dialogue whenever the conversation turns a little too upbeat. The perfect stylization of the piece may even suggest its triteness, its overgeneralization, its proverbial memorability. Shakespeare does pretty much the same with a character in Hamlet named Polonius, who has “set terms” for everything, but seems to be a prisoner of his rhetoric.

Another possibility is that it espouses Shakespeare’s philosophy of life. I can’t take that position seriously, since in a Shakespeare play, one of the most dialogical forms of art we have, many perspectives on any number of things are voiced and acted out  by various characters in different contexts. So the question of just what “Shakespeare believes” is very complicated. Further, if this is Shakespeare’s point of view, it’s difficult to see how he forced himself to write the rest of the play with its hopeful characters and its redemptive vision of life.

There is another option. I like to call it the right one. Jaques represents a significant, compelling, but not necessarily ultimate voice in a dialogue found in Shakespeare’s play and, at least when I was in college, in late-night dorm discussions about human life. Part of the interpretation of such dialogical texts is uncovering the different voices at work, how they intermingle with each other, challenge each other, cancel each other out, and so on. To be fair, other characters in the play are relatively pessimistic too about specific things. They even seem to be exploring whether hope holds water or not. Rosalind is the most obvious example, tempted to be cynical about love and the fidelity of men. We best evaluate Jaques’ words and ideas within the context of other characters’ behavior, other speeches, other points of view, as well as our own histories, our own beliefs, our own experiences of the world.

I think Shakespeare uses Jaques’ perspective to express the pessimistic perspective in a dialogue he sets up in his play. Our role is to enter that dialogue, question it, let it question us. Along the way, I hope (oops, again) to show how Shakespeare’s play itself questions Jaques’ brilliantly performed pessimism in his “All the World’s a Stage” speech. And also provides other voices and actions which offer alternative possibilities.


As a specimen of pessimism, Jaques’ presentation of human life leans heavily on a reductive vision of human life, which uses metaphors and then forgets or, more likely, pretends not to remember that they are metaphors. Such metaphors are helpful to our understanding, but are not absolute guides to the tricky terrain I like to call reality. Yes, all the world is a stage, meaning we all do really have parts we have to “perform.” On the other hand, although playing is sometimes a synonym for performing, the roles we perform in life are not necessarily equal to acting a part in a play or even just . . . playing a role. I can fill my role as a husband without simply (merely, Jaques would say) going through the motions.

“All the world’s a stage.” That’s true-ish, the best one can say about even the best metaphors. No metaphor is so apt that it moves beyond the -ish level. All the world is sort of  like a stage, yes. However, no one metaphor exhausts our understanding of the world; other comparisons contend with it. “All the world” is also like a testing ground for character (Milton), an exercise field for virtue (Milton), a dark wood (Dante), and a playground for the rich (“journalists” for The Travel Channel). These metaphors are not only different, but in competition. Jaques’ metaphor pretends to dominate the meaning of “the world,” as we can see when he says “and all the men and women merely players.” But this is his fallacy. Yes, to the degree that the world is a stage, we can helpfully be thought of as players upon that stage. But we can all agree that the world is in some ways like a stage without insisting that all humans are “merely players.” They are more than that, as reflected in other metaphors which Jaques ignores.

Another limiter in Jaques’ vision is his insistence of following “one man” through “his acts.” It was, of course, common in Shakespeare’s day and afterwards to imply the female’s inclusion in general references to men, still it might have been more fair if Jaques had included a mother along with the infant, the lover, the soldier, etc. One of the roles a mother plays is giving life to all men and women. Surely, this role might feel significant to someone, if not Jaques. His lack of a mother reflects his reductionist view of the lifespan into his seven parts. Of course, we often classify and divide in order to explain. The problem, though, is that his initial reductions enable his ongoing reduction of meanings and options for human life. For something this important — the meaningfulness and desirability of human life — we should be as accurate as possible.

About babies, Jaques seems to have an especially bad attitude. According to him, all they do is mewl (whimper) and puke (infantile gastroesophageal reflux). They do do that, but that isn’t all they do (do). I am inclined to think that Jaques never held a baby, although, if the Duke is right, he might have engendered a few. He fails to apprehend the commonly observed reality that babies sometimes provide hope for the future, joy in the moment, comic relief, and even (eventually) help around the farm or the household business (on which Jaques almost certainly never worked).

Jaques seems to have a point, though, about schoolboys. They do whine and, at least often, unwillingly go to school. On the other hand, one assumes that some students like Jaques learned to philosophize like a cynic (or in Shakespeare’s case, write like a boss) partly by studying in school. Besides, not everyone whines about school. I loved it.

I must, however, take exception to Jaques’ depiction of a lover. He – another he — spends his time alone in his room, fantasizing about his “beloved” with whom he probably has never had a conversation. Sure, we have all been there, but it ain’t the whole story about love. As You Like It’s (disguised) Rosalind and Orlando present a powerful alternative, with the joy they express in each other’s company and their lively conversation. Some lovers, like Orlando, actually get beyond the sonnet-writing stage. Some actually talk to each other, and perhaps, feel their lives transformed by each other, and, if they are lucky, experience the pleasures of deep, deeper, and deepest connection. All kinds. There is abundant evidence that this is sometimes, at the very least, satisfactory.

Jaques’ soldier is also oddly limited. Rather than fighting to defend his people and his homeland, he only seeks the “bubble” of reputation. Even reputation is unjustly slighted here, since it’s often not a bubble, but – as with Caesar, Alexander, and Joan of Arc – lasting fame. Regardless, is this really the only idea that motivates soldiers? One can think of a great many other reasons, some noble, some perhaps not.

And about the Justice. Some have thought that young lovers and soldiers grow up, as Freud suggests, and transfer some of their eros and violence into building the life of the community, perhaps even working for justice. But the Justice Jaques presents uses the system to line his pockets, not to mention his stomach. Sad but true, sometimes this happens, but only a morbid eye would say it’s all that ever happens. Look at Duke Senior, for example. He is just, good, kind. And so are some public officials in the offstage world. Sometimes, as Father Hopkins says, “the just man justices.” Obviously, there are monstrous predatory “justices” among us. But there are also those who administer justice in and to the world, not just punitive, but protective, might we even say, productive. Some “wise saws and modern instances” are actually wise and, if C.S. Lewis is right about the Tao (in The Abolition of Man), they just might be universal in time and space as well. Finally, to me it’s obvious that Shakespeare wants to make it obvious that nobody is more full of “wise saws and modern instances” —  proverbial reductive cliches in other words — than Jaques himself.

It gets worse. We get old, our butts shrink, our pants don’t stay up, and things stop working. And we slip not only out our pants but into the “last scene of all” — “second childishness” and “mere oblivion,” involving the loss of everything. A few quick questions for  Monsieur Jaques, however. First, are we sure this is the last scene? Do we have the perspective, the fulcrum that moves all things, to know? Isn’t he guessing? Second, how accurate is the figure of speech “second childishness?” Another metaphor passed off as law. We come into the world and we leave the world with some similar “helpless” characteristics, true. But what happened in between? What of the growth of a person’s soul? Why does our history count for “mere” nothing just because our bodies rot and die?

But we can know, I think, that Shakespeare constructs a play that reveals Jaques’ pessimistic vision as inadequate. Adam is going to die soon, maybe he already has by Act 3, but he saved Orlando’s life. That counts for something. At least to Orlando, to Rosalind, and to the future child by Orlando she imagines in her conversation with Celia. Finally, what of Jaques’ memorable repetition of “sans”? He implies that life is horrifically meaningless because we end it “sans” senses. But is that true? Are the only senses the ones we commonly call the senses? And more, are the senses “everything,” as he implies? How could we know? In what does he root his assumption that his personal vision of human life is the big-picture truth?


Jaques’ reductive vision leaves out some things many of us (for most of human history) have found meaningful. It’s easy to say that Jaques leaves out God. But let’s start with ourselves, and some of the reasons that most of us, at least some of the time, have thought life worthwhile and meaningful. Gratitude (shown or given), wonder, familial bonding, erotic arousal, the joy of doing good work with a co-worker, looking deep into someone’s eyes and sensing that they “get you,” friendship, the earth itself (farming, gardening, rock climbing, shepherding, tree hugging). All these give us joy but, at the same time, get us out of ourselves. They are relational in some way. They take us into what Martin Buber called “I-Thou” rather than “I-It” relationships.” Indeed, relationality itself is completely missing from Jaques’ “one man in his time” vision. We don’t live as “one man” (or one woman). Neither do we really live “in one time.” We relate to others, past, present, and future, in myriad ways. Infants have parents who had parents. Parents have children who have children. Children have teachers and become teachers. People have friends whose memories they keep alive after they depart. Real lovers don’t just write sonnets. They embrace and look deep into the eyes of the person they love. They love people with faces and ideas and characters. They give names to them like “Beloved,” or “Darling.” Sometimes mewling and puking comes along as a blessed result.

“Justice” too is relational. It’s not some cold abstraction, or at least not necessarily. It includes, among other things, caring for the elderly and protecting the vulnerable. It is the traditions that make homo sapiens humans. It is why we can cross the street in safety, if we can. Justice is, in part at least, a feeling, a guide for the affections. In truth, even the lean Pantaloon with his “shrunk shank,” though diminished in strength, still has a mind, soul, spirit, family, and memories (his own of others and others’ of him), not to mention the ongoing effect of his life on others (the result of how he invested his talents, a biblical notion popular in Shakespeare’s time). Of course, there is great sadness in “second childhood,” given the inherent goodness of healthy, robust human life. But in that grand finale of life, those who now nurse the old and feeble (who mother their mothers, so to speak, or father their father-figures as Orlando does Adam) may be the most fully human of us all. And like much long division, loss through death leaves a remainder and a reminder: children, grandchildren, the bonds of love, loyalty and duty forged over a lifetime. And stories for future generations.


This is a sermon, so let me conclude by reiterating the problems I have with Jaques’ ‘false doctrines.” He is reductive, unimaginative, and static. These are not just differences of opinion between him and me, but ways in which Shakespeare’s play suggests that Jaques does not do justice to reality.

A. Reductive Jaques

Jaques’ vision is entirely individualistic not even giving a high five to the nurse cradling the puking baby in her arms. There is no “we,” no “I-Thou,” no dancing, that great metaphor for community and communion, as the finale makes clear. Surrounded by flawed humanity, Jake prefers the cave. He is unwilling to give himself to the absurd and imperfect world. I was there once; still am sometimes. That’s no excuse for either of us. The character who contrasts with him most strongly is Rosalind. In the play’s final scene, she performs an almost liturgical ceremonial acceptance of commitment to significant others, surprising both her father and her lover by dropping the disguise she’s worn throughout the play, revealing herself as herself, and saying both to her father and her beloved, “To you I give myself, for I am yours.” Jaques’ ultimate rhetorical trick, his most profoundly reductive strategy, is to protect his own isolation by seeing and saying things as “mere” and “merely,” meaning “definitely” or “completely” instead of “seemingly” or “possibly.”  Jaques’ speech is also dangerously reductive in that it describes all the world’s experiences as though these were those of a male aristocrat . He ignores (and doesn’t seem to know or like) shepherds, women, wrestlers, or gods.

Jaques’ view also contrasts with the expansive/redemptive view of Duke Senior. The good Duke faces exile and adversity and yet “finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” He is like his daughter, Rosalind, and she like him. She doesn’t limit herself to the Seven Ages of Man (or Woman), but tries out being both a woman and a man at different times in the play. She too is an exile, yet she plays with what she is given, and while experimenting with her new life, she helps the locals sort out their problems as well.

B. Unimaginative Jaques

Despite its expression in pretty verse, Jaques’ vision is finally, like much pessimism, rather unimaginative. Like Sartre, he seems to imagine hell as other people. I imagine hell as being trapped with a person who imagines that hell is other people. Of course, hell might (and I think will) include other people, as will purgatory and heaven and, eventually, whatever planet Elon Musk decides to colonize in the years to come.

In truth, Jaques’ negative “counter-cultural” ideas are really quite traditional. They are, in their own way, proverbial “wise saws and modern instances,” such as those he criticizes when talking about the Justice. Rosalind points out that Jaques has traveled all over the world but sees no difference between people and places, only the same imperfections everywhere. The play itself, on the other hand, specifically contrasts the court and the country, the aristocratic world and the pastoral, the cold of the wind and the worse cold of “benefits forgot” at court. Most of us could at least do some basic comparison/contrasts after a trip from Rhode Island to Alabama. But Jaques sees only “the sundry contemplations of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.” In other words, no matter what he actually sees (if he looks), his imagination chews it up and spits it forth as part of the pleasurable mist of pessimism in which he walks.

Why, though, has he become so blind to difference and the possibilities it holds? Shakespeare suggests through Rosalind and Orlando that he has come to love his “melancholy,” an addiction from which he cannot escape, beyond which he cannot see. His pessimism is like a long lazy nap on a day when there’s much to do. The main way Shakespeare dramatizes his weary indolence is by contrasting it with the imaginative power (and will to use it) of Rosalind and Duke, both of whom are real victims of fate and human malice. As Amiens says to the Duke (and could say to Rosalind, his daughter), “Happy is your grace that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so sweet a style.” When she’s threatened, Rosalind’s imagination kicks into gear. She plans her escape, dresses as a boy, plays the role of a “male lover” (a female playing a male playing a female at that), makes up story about her uncle (“a great magician”) to explain how she knows so much about wooing women, organizes a pretend marriage (like most kids), and arranges real marriages, including her own. It is unclear whether she personally invited the god to attend, but we wouldn’t put it past her. And she reunites everybody who needs to be reunited or wants to be united.

More to the point, the imaginative power of Shakespeare is on display in the creation of Rosalind, Hymen (the god), Touchstone (the wise fool) and Jaques himself, as a way to depict, expose, and, I think, pity (not just criticize) the inability or unwillingness to get up off the couch of moral and imaginative lethargy. The wild and crazy adventure ride that is As You Like It is not, as the title suggests, an example of “slice of life realism.” But neither is its comic topsy-turvy, and the choices its world affords, all that different than the actual experience of many of us mortals most of the time.

C. Static Jaques

Sixthly and lastly, Jaques’ perspective (and life) is static. He sees life in seven stages, each one moving necessarily, deterministically into the next, but for him change is always only apparent change. In his version of reality, life is one long, predetermined slide into oblivion, with no possibility envisioned or even hinted at of change, conversion (in all its meanings), or miracle. You’re a man, you’re a woman, you’re poor, you’re rich, you’re addicted, you’re lonely, you’re a shepherd, you’re an older brother, you’re the bad guy in this story. . . .

But the play doesn’t demonstrate this kind of stasis. Instead, it gives us “fine revolutions,” a phrase I cribbed from Hamlet. Celia chooses to give up her future, her father, and her home for her dear girlfriend Ros. Orlando (the lover!) risks his life for Adam (the old man!), just as Adam (sans almost everything except a little money) had risked everything on the young man, saying: “Take that, and he that doth the ravens feed, yea providently caters for the sparrow / Be comfort to my age.” Duke Senior (“the justice,” whom we might expect, on Jaques “terms” to be happily lining his belly) is “reborn” as Robin Hood, who calls his followers, “his co-mates and brothers in exile.”

And there is more. The evil usurping Duke (Senior’s junior), coming out to the forest to once and for all destroy his brother, meets “an old religious man” and is converted. Deus ex machina? Obviously. It’s Aristotle who has problems with that, not Shakespeare and me. We are Christians, for heaven’s sake, and profess the miraculous every time we say the Creed. Oliver—Orlando’s nasty brother who also comes out to the forest for his own dastardly reasons — falls prey to a serpent, a lion, and finally into the agape arms of the brother he has hated and persecuted. True, Orlando is tempted to turn away from Oliver, but “kindness” and “nature” (compassion) kick in and he finds himself unable to desert his traitor brother. Perhaps Orlando’s choice might be interpreted as the influence of old Adam or the memory of his good father or his growing love for Rosalind, whom he is wooing every day in the forest. Oliver says that he too has been converted. He and Celia, in fact, seem to plan to stay in the forest rather than return to the court. Good luck, kids.

Of course, it’s Shakespeare, so miraculous meetings, conversions, and four marriages aren’t quite enough yet. He throws in the kitchen sink, for which Jaques’ vision does not account. A god appears. Because maybe sometimes, when we least expect them, the gods descend to be among us, to bless us, to tell the true stories which the bad poems (of Orlando) and the nearly perfect plays (of Will Shakespeare) not to mention the whinings of children and mumblings of the aged only hint at. Life is not a circle, it’s more like a crooked line. There are bumpy rides, big surprises, and even dances we might dance if we could lower ourselves to join with the “rest of the country copulatives” (as Touchstone puts it).


Shakespeare’s comic vision suggests a more expansive, less reductive vision than that provided by Jaques’ seven ages speech. As Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In As You Like It, the “more” includes issues of male and female, labor and class (farmers and aristocracy), cross-cultural engagement (court and country), and especially the problem of getting beyond ourselves into something like relationship, community, maybe even communion. We could do worse than have a friend like Rosalind (or Celia), an old mentor like Adam (whom Jaques and Oliver would both just as soon throw out with the trash), a wise-cracking fool (who resists both melancholy and blind faith), a wise old shepherd like Corin, and a lover who makes fun of love even as she loves. As Dogberry might say (in another play): “gifts God gives.”[1] If these are not available to us, we might at least volunteer to teach pre-school. Perhaps even sign up for nursery duty to help us get over our aversion to mewling and puking babies.

Shakespeare gives us examples and counter-examples of life lived looking outward, with imagination, hope, and willingness to be transformed. My prayer for the Jaques lurking in me is more openness to the world in which “birds do sing, hey ding a ding a ding” and what that might suggest about the good things I can’t hear or see living in a cave. Life itself is dynamic not static and holds the possibility of all kinds of conversions. Ask a chemist if you don’t agree. Change is as much a part of reality as “the same old thing” is. For we human animals, conversion comes from the willingness to give ourselves away (“To you I give myself, for I am yours”), to give up our own addiction to selfishness (like Jaques’ humorous sadness) to find ourselves made more fully alive within the awkward and, yes, difficult dance of community.


When I first preached this sermon in university chapel, I was thinking a lot about my mother. She was sans a lot of things. She had lived a life which denied her much, she made some choices along the way that made things worse, and was, at the moment of which I speak, in a “nursing facility” rarely communicating except when I came and sang to her.

She had grown up poor, with a series of rather abusive step-fathers, but, thanks to the gifts of God or an accident of nature, it came to pass that, with all that painful growing, she grew up drop-dead Hollywood beautiful. By means of this and the rather dramatic personality she had developed to a.) go along with those looks and b.) like the usurped Duke Senior, “translate the stubbornness of fortune” into a sweet style of her own,” she caught the eye of a rugged, handsome, Catholic fellow from down the street. My father. And the rest was . . . a hurricane.

He went away to war, she got lonely, they got divorced, she got lonelier. When he got back, they got back together. But they couldn’t have children. She got really badly depressed and suicidal, spending considerable time throughout my childhood in mental hospitals, getting various forms of shock treatment, a world sorrow worth railing against. Oh wait, back up, I said throughout my childhood. She had also experienced what she considered a miracle conception during those dark days, and then another one, and then another, and then, finally, one more. Each time with new hope and joy and love for her babies and her new faith (She had converted to Catholicism after the first miracle).

But the depression didn’t stop, and the drinking got really bad. She tried to end it all several times, but was not very good at that either. One day she made a call to a guy who had given her a card “in case you might ever want some help.” No, not a lonely hermit in a cave; a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I remember that she got dressed up to make the call. She went to a meeting. Then another meeting. And another one. And she never drank again, reversing the predictable arc of her life.

From then on everything was wonderful. I am lying. But her sobriety and new-found faith in . . . everything led to her getting a factory job, of all things, so that the children still at home could have one. After that, she enrolled in a course for alcohol and drug abuse counseling, graduated, and ran a half-way house for recovering alcoholic women in Houston. Oh, and somewhere in that time she remarried the same tall, handsome, rugged Catholic boy. If you are keeping track, that was the third time. After he died suddenly of a heart attack, she moved from Houston and became the Country Substance Abuse Counselor for two different Texas counties.

But then came strokes. And more strokes. Until she was finally living in the Stonebridge Facility outside Austin near my brother and sister-in-law who, thank Someone, “Orlando’d” her in her weakness.

So when I first wrote this, I was thinking of her lying on her bed every day in a nursing home. Sans teeth, mostly. Sight was going, but we were experimenting with my glasses the last time I went to see her. Sans everything? Well, dementia is real, but she seemed to know me, to respond to touch, and, especially, to respond to songs like “Amazing Grace” and, her favorite, “Morning is Broken.”

In her moments of clarity, I’m sure she wished she could have gone back and undone some of her choices. And could erase other sorrows not of her own doing. But I am also sure that she would say that the life she had been clinging to for many years now was far too precious to try to end it the way she’d tried  when she was younger. Especially when there were still songs to hear, memories to savor, dreams to dream, and a roommate who talked to her.

I wanted to explain why it bothered me that Jaques would try to tell her or me that her last scene of all (or, what I hope was her next-to-last scene) signified nothing because her physical life had shrunk so drastically. It had, of course, and I realize that such is horrible.

But there is also always more to the story than that. More than Jaques saw, more than Jacques’ saws. More than I see (now) or saw (then). More than any of us could ever calculate until the final conversion, the ultimate translation of the stubbornness of fortune into the sweet style of eternity. Of course, I can’t prove this. But I certainly wouldn’t want to neglect the evidence that Jaques is wrong. Besides, people are holding out their hands inviting me to dance. And, after Act Five, maybe I’ll even get to meet that god hiding in the wings.

Citation Information

Joe Ricke, “Against Pessimism: As You Like It (or Not),” An Unexpected Journal: Shakespeare & Cultural Apologetics 5, no. 4. (Advent 2022), 149-169.


[1] I lied. See Jack Heller’s essay in this volume.