Summary: Act 2, Scene 5

As Amiens strolls through the Forest of Arden with Jaques in tow, he sings a song inviting his listeners to lie with him “[u]nder the greenwood tree” (2.5.1), where there are no enemies but “winter and rough weather” (2.5.8). Jaques begs him to continue, but Amiens hesitates, claiming that the song will only make Jaques melancholy. However, this warning doesn’t deter Jaques. While the other lords in attendance prepare for Duke Senior’s meal, Amiens leads them in finishing the song. Jaques follows with a verse set to the same tune, which he himself wrote. In it, he chides those foolish enough to leave their wealth and leisure for life in the forest. Amiens leaves to summon the duke to dinner.

Read a translation of Act 2, Scene 5.

Summary: Act 2, Scene 6

Orlando and Adam enter the Forest of Arden. Adam is exhausted from travel and claims that he will soon die from hunger. Orlando assures his loyal servant that he will find him food. Before he sets off to hunt, Orlando fears leaving Adam lying in “the bleak air” and carries him off to shelter (2.6.15).

Read a translation of Act 2, Scene 6.

Summary: Act 2, Scene 7

Duke Senior returns to camp to find that Jaques has disappeared. When a lord reports that Jaques was last seen in good spirits, the duke worries that happiness in one who is typically so miserable portends discord in the universe. Just after the duke commands the lord to find him, Jaques appears. He is uncharacteristically merry and explains that while wandering through the forest, he met a fool. He repeats the fool’s witty observations about Lady Fortune and proclaims that he himself would like to be a fool. In this position, Jaques reasons, he would be able to speak his mind freely, thereby cleansing “the foul body of th’ infected world” with the “medicine” of his criticism (2.7.62–63). The duke notes that “chiding sin” is itself a sin (2.5.66), and he reminds Jaques that he himself is guilty of many of the evils he would criticize in others.

This playful argument is interrupted when Orlando barges into the scene, drawing his sword and demanding food. The duke asks whether Orlando’s rudeness is a function of distress or bad breeding. Once Orlando has regained his composure, he explains his woeful situation, and the duke invites him to partake of the banquet.

As Orlando runs off to fetch Adam, Duke Senior observes that he and his men aren’t alone in their unhappiness: there is much strife in the world. Jaques replies that the world is a stage and “all the men and women merely players” (2.7.139). All humans pass through the stages of infancy, childhood, and adulthood, all the while experiencing love and seeking honor. But eventually, everyone succumbs to the debility of old age and “mere oblivion” (2.7.172). Orlando returns with Adam, and all begin to eat. The duke soon realizes that Orlando is the son of Sir Rowland, the duke’s old friend, and heartily welcomes the young man.

Read a translation of Act 2, Scene 7.

Analysis: Act 2, Scenes 5–7

We first heard tell of Jaques in act 2, scene 1, where we learned of his melancholy disposition. In act 2, scene 5, we officially meet him, and though he seems cheerful enough, he also insists that he can “suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs” (2.5.12–13). The evident pride in this statement suggests the absurd extent to which Jaques is committed to being sullen. Unable—or perhaps just unwilling—to see matters from another perspective, he can’t resist casting a critical and even caustic eye on everything. Yet if his criticism doesn’t seem to anger or frustrate others, it’s because his melancholy is, above all, aesthetic—that is, something of a faddish pose. Jaques relishes the perverse pleasure of his melancholy, which explains why he appears to find delight in his satirical revision of Amiens’s song. Whereas Amiens sings a pastoral tune about the pleasures of leisurely life, Jaques revises the song to make fun of all those who would give up their wealth and flee to the forest. In his haste to point out the absurdity of others’ actions, he doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that he belongs among those he mocks.

Jaques’s dedication to sullenness comes across most clearly in his famous speech on the “seven ages of man.” This speech begins with the conventional metaphor that likens life to theater: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.146–47). These lines seem to convey a degree of cynicism, as if to suggest that life is little more than an elaborate performance where people come and go in a drama that’s ultimately bereft of meaning. Jaques develops this cynical view in his sketch of the seven stages through which every human being passes. No matter what loves or achievements a person enjoys in their life, everyone ends up in a debilitating decline, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (2.7.173). The fact that no one present bothers to respond to Jaques’s lengthy speech indicates, once again, that his sullen cynicism stands at odds with the play’s broader themes. Indeed, far more urgent that Jaques’s philosophizing is the return of Orlando, who arrives carrying Adam. There could be no more fitting counterargument to Jaques’s nihilism about old age than this tender moment in which a young man takes such care of his faithful older companion.

Further evidence of Jaques’s foolishness arises in his newfound desire to become Duke Senior’s fool. After meeting Touchstone in the forest, Jaques sings the clown’s praises, quoting with glee his 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” (2.7.27–28). However, Jaques doesn’t realize that Touchstone’s “deep-contemplative” speech could in fact be understood as mockery of his own brooding behavior (2.7.32). Indeed, Jaques remains so mired in his own narrow worldview that he fails to see the world clearly. By contrast, the duke intuitively grasps that Jaques wouldn’t make an effective fool. A true fool would wield his satirical wit in a way that would provide both entertainment and real insight. Jaques, however, would simply berate courtiers for sins of which he is equally guilty. No real fool, then, Jaques is merely foolish.

Whereas Jaques is committed to his unhappiness, Duke Senior seems content to make the best of the situation he’s been given. The contrast between these men will prove thematically significant for the play as a whole. Indeed, the permissive openness of the play’s title suggests that the worldview privileged by Shakespeare is a “comic” one in which the best way to survive is to roll with the punches. The duke doesn’t deny the hardships that he and his followers have had to face. However, he refuses to dwell on those hardships and instead extols the virtues of the place where they have ended up: the almost ideal Forest of Arden. Likewise, he finds comfort in the fact that others in the world have suffered worse than him, which at once puts his own pain into perspective and yet also offers the comfort of shared experience. Had Jaques’s speech ended the scene 7, then act 2 would have concluded on a very dour note of decline and death. Instead, the play ends with the duke’s life-affirming invitation for Amiens to sing and a generous renewal of his welcome to Orlando.