Touchstone begins the play in Duke Ferdinand’s service, working in his capacity as a professional fool. Also known as “licensed fools,” such figures had long been part of royal courts in England and Europe, and they were permitted to make critical and even dangerous statements with impunity. Being thus able to utter otherwise unwelcome truths or speak truth to power, fools operated in a comic mode and used their wit to subvert the normative conventions and attitudes of the nobility. This is precisely the function Touchstone fulfills in courtly life. In early modern English, a touchstone was a stone used to test the purity of precious metals like silver and gold. In like wise, Touchstone functions as a kind of spot test for many of the ideas that arise among Arden’s community of exiled nobles. In the case of romantic love, Touchstone repeatedly asserts that it’s counterfeit. He’s the first to point out just how terrible Orlando’s love poems are. Hung on branches around the forest as they are, Touchstone quips: “Truly, the tree yields bad fruit” (3.2.117). And when Touchstone himself falls for the rustic shepherdess Audrey, he dispenses entirely with all romantic trappings. For him, love is purely a matter of sex.

As a licensed fool of jolly disposition, Touchstone provides a comic counterpoint to Jaques, whose affectation of sullenness makes him merely foolish. When Jaques first encounters Touchstone in the forest, he’s immediately smitten by the fool, but he neglects to see that Touchstone has weaponized his wit to make fun of him. Though unintentionally, Touchstone will spoof on Jaques again in act 5, scene 4, when he outlines the seven degrees of the lie that lead to a noble duel. These seven degrees implicitly satirize Jaques’s solemn and clichéd speech on the seven ages of man from act 2, scene 7. Elsewhere, Touchstone’s comic refutation of philosophical reason makes another implicit critique of Jaques and his relentless moralizing. In act 3, scene 2, for instance, Touchstone addresses the elderly Corin, offering a series of qualified statements on the shepherd’s lifestyle: “Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught” (3.2.13–15). For Touchstone, philosophy entails reducing things to irreconcilable opposites. Yet even as he spoofs on philosophy’s inability to make meaningful distinctions, Touchstone describes his own apparent attitude. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular.