Jacques, Melancholia and the Just World

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:22

Royal Shakespeare Company
Programme Notes for As You Like It
September 2005

Dorothy Rowe

Jaques, Melancholia, and the Just World  

Melancholy has always been in fashion, and not just in Elizabethan times. It might not be called melancholy, but the way it manifests itself remains much the same. The melancholic person presents himself to others as someone who is alone and weighed down by the sorrows of the world. He has seen and suffered much, and, although he professes a preference for being alone, he requires an audience to hear and to be moved by his stark vision of the world, and to sense his hidden depths and profound suffering. This way of presenting oneself is currently much favoured by advertisers of men's apparel who produce a stream of photographs of young men looking profound and melancholic, all trying to pretend that they are unaware of their own beauty and that they are the cynosure of admiring eyes. Men who are uncertain of their acceptance by others try to imitate this melancholic stance. Young women who know that they can never be the 'bubbly personality' much favoured by the media try to engage the interest of others by using a melancholic presentation of themselves which consists of smoking in an edgy, tense manner to imply that they have some serious troubles in their lives, unlike those happy, bubbly girls who don't know what sorrow is. Some young women add to this presentation the frequent and profound sigh of martyrdom, which is the price and the pride of being a melancholic. 

When we construct a stance towards the world with which we can defend ourselves from the slights and hurts that other people can inflict on us we draw on aspects of ourselves that are based on real, lived experience. No doubt the young people who affect a melancholic pose have suffered at the hands of others in ways which dealt their self-confidence a serious blow. For many people the melancholic pose is a passing fad, but for others it becomes a life-long way of being. Shakespeare tells us nothing of Jaques' early life but, whatever it was, it led him to become a man profoundly dissatisfied and disappointed with the world. 

To be disappointed we have to have had expectations, and so we can suppose that Jaques when young had high expectations of the world. This is not unusual because most children are taught that they live in a Just World where good people are rewarded and bad people punished. All religions teach this, though they differ on their definitions of good and bad, rewards and punishments. Most parents teach this in the hope that looking for a reward and fearing punishment will civilise their children. Children want to believe in the Just World because it gives them the security of living in a predictable world and the hope that, if they are good, they will be rewarded. Jaques must have been such a child, accepting his punishments and dreaming of the day when he would receive his rewards. Most of our fairy stories are about children who suffer much but then are rewarded greatly. Boys win fame and fortune and the admiration of others, while girls are rescued and loved by Prince Charming. In his book The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion the American psychologist Melvin Lerner argued that, in learning to be good, children make a contract with the world which states that, in return for giving up much of themselves in order to become good, in the future they will be rewarded for their sacrifice. For their contract to be fulfilled the world must be a Just World. Thus many children grow up believing in the Just World and that if you're good nothing bad can happen to you. 

The discovery that no amount of goodness prevents disaster has plunged many people into depression because, rather than recognise that there is no Just World, they blame themselves for the disaster they have suffered. Depression can be seen as the refusal to mourn something precious which has been lost by chance. Jaques is not depressed. He does not blame himself for the undeserved disasters that have befallen him, but he is angry that the world has not lived up to his expectations. He is good and he has not been given his just rewards. Like a plaintive child whose mother has failed to live up to his expectations Jaques invites Orlando, 'Will you sit with me and we two will rail against our mistress the world, and all our misery?'

Determined to preserve his belief in the Just World Jaques aims to 'Cleanse the foul body of th' infected world.' To do this he must have



Withal, as large a charter as the wind

To blow on whom I please.

Believing that he is good, Jaques feels that he has the right to criticise those who do not live up to his high standards. His companions refuse to take him as seriously as he takes himself. They laugh at him. Some laugh because at some point in their lives they have realised that justice is a concept created by human beings and not an inherent guiding principle of the natural world which is, in fact, indifferent to our existence. Such people know that within human society justice is fallible, and with luck they can escape the punishments they deserve and reap some undeserved rewards. Other people laugh at him because they still believe in the Just World and do not want to give it up. They want to avoid having to take account of Jaques' stark vision of the world and the futility of a life that leads to 'mere oblivion'. Many people will believe in anything, however lacking in logic or reason, in order to preserve their belief in the Just World. Duke Senior, rather than lose his belief in the Just World, insists that 'sweet are the uses of adversity' and finds 'good in everything'. His dispute with Jaques is not over whether the Just World exists but whether any imbalance in the Just World is tilted more to the bad than the good. 

The stories which we find satisfactory are those which assure us of the existence of the Just World. If, as in tragedies, the good suffer and die, then, somehow, their deaths ensure that the living are rewarded in some way and the balance of the Just World is restored. Comedies end happily with the justice of the Just World being properly applied. In As You Like It the champion of the Just World himself, Jaques sums up its working. The wicked Duke Frederick sees his wickedness and repents, while Duke Senior, Orlando, Oliver, Silvius and Touchstone all receive their just rewards. 

For Jaques himself the reward of a loving wife would not be large enough to match his own estimation of his virtue. He needs a greater reward, that of martyrdom - the lone figure etched against the sky. In Western movies the lone hero rides off into the sunset: in Elizabethan dramas he seeks an 'abandoned cave'. Whichever, the martyr knows that he is held in our astounded, admiring eyes because he has restored the justice of the Just World and all is well.