Comment on the Sources of Humor in As You Like It
One of the most prominent and interesting features of As You Like It is the three-fold manner in which humor is presented by Shakespeare. It is observed in this connection that the word “humor” is employed by Shakespeare in a different sense. Humor, as used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, is a certain individual trait of a person’s character by the presence of which the person is distinguished from his fellowmen. There are three clearly distinguishable formed wits in this play, there is the healthy and wholesome wit of Celia and Rosalind; there is the professional wit of Touchstone, and there is the Cynical wit of Jaques. The fact is that the play keeps us happy and laughing most of the time because of the abundance of wit and humor in it.
The type of humor represented by Rosalind may be described as sprightly, natural and healthy. By natural and healthy we mean a type of humor which is spontaneous and unsophisticated. She responds to life in a very natural manner, appreciating as she does the ridiculous and the funny sides of life. Here is a gift which at once seizes on what is abnormal and uncommon and she endeavors to set it right by pointing out the absurdity. In this connection, we sense that the standard of Rosalind’s observation of life is one which keeps to the golden mean, which avoids extremes. She is full of fun and vitality and delights in every form of sport. We find her laughing over a secret joke with Celia teasing Orlando, and tantalizing Phoebe with Silvius she laughs out her sadness and plays out her seriousness. We feel that we can listen to her by the hour without tiring when Celia shows tardiness in revealing the identity of the man who put those verses on the tree, Rosalind says, “I prithee, take the cork out of thy mouth that I may drink thy tidings.”
The humor of Touchstone is healthy also because it is free from bitterness. But he holds the office of a court-jester and therefore his humor is professional. He lives by his wits. As a professional fool Touchstone has privileges. He has the right to attack everything and everybody. But equally, he has professional duties. He must use his folly as musk under which to present wisdom.
The professional wit of Touchstone does not possess that quality of spontaneity which we find in Rosalind’s natural wit. In the course of the play, Touchstone has to draw fun on demand from such various topics as courtiers’ oaths, travelers, complaints, the course of time etc. About his would be wife Audrey, he says, “A poor virgin, sir, an ill favoured thing, sir, but mine own.” Touchstone has been thought to be the most entertaining of Shakespeare’s clowns.
Lastly, we have to consider the humor of Jaques, this character is fully imbued with what he calls the humor of melancholy. Obviously, Jaques humor is in direct contrast with that of Rosalind. It is not humor because humor is the guarantee of sanity and it sounds common sense, and Jaquesmelancholy takes him to the extreme, instead of “keeping him gay” and happy. Jaque’s humor makes him more and more dissatisfied with life. No doubt some of his observations are full of point and interest but in the contrary Jaques, humor has made of him a pessimist and almost a cynic. He says:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exists and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages”
He remains at the conclusion of the play a single, solitary soul, and the characteristic of him is that he is not wishing for a change.
Humour, as we know is fun, laughter, and satire which are also there in As You Like it. The antics of Audrey, Phoebe, Silvius, and Touchstone provide laughter. The wit of Rosalind and Celia is sparkling. And Jaques melancholic disposition itself arouses a smile in the audience.