Rosalind: They say you are a melancholy fellow.
Jacques: I am so; I do love it better than laughing.
Rosalind: Those that are in extremity of either are abominable fellows.
Shakespeare’s As You Like It
I have always known that I am partly melancholic. Melancholics are deep thinkers and feelers; they look for happiness in the worth and truth of that depth. It takes time to process such thoughts and feelings, so they tend to be introverts. They are detail-oriented and look at life as a puzzle to be solved. They naturally put their problems into a universal context to find a solution.
I have always been glad to be melancholic; the temperament has many advantages. But I have also had to face some hard truths. Melancholics are excessively dramatic and stubborn. We tend towards loneliness and self-pity.
And sadness. Sadness is a problem.
The Problem of Melancholy
Shakespeare addresses the problem of melancholy in his play As You Like It. The story is enchanting. Earthliness rises to divinity; charity permeates every jest; love of life defeats hardship, and marriage overcomes sensuality. But there is one character, Jacques, who stands out. Jacques is “a melancholy fellow”.
We know Jacques has problems. The Duke and his lords, the closest thing Jacques has to friends, tell an anecdote of his excessive melancholy. They laugh and pity him.
Jacques’s opinion of himself also shows excess: “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” This tells us two things. First, he focuses on what is below the surface. The happiness of the song he hears is only the outer layer; he cracks it to get to the hidden truth—sadness. He chooses to ignore any truth that the surface might hold.
Second, it shows his voracious appetite. He never has enough of melancholy. He sucks it out of life until everything is dry. And he’s always in search of more eggs.
Jacques is looking for worth, which—according to the Melancholic’s scale—is depth. Depth without surface makes him sad, but he would rather be sad than have any taste of what is shallow. To him, depth of truth is happiness.
Because of his high ideals, everyone he meets is a failure. He wants to make the world better (hence his ambition for a motley coat), but he cannot find acceptance to temper his disdain. He would condemn rather than correct.
The more he sees, the more he despairs. No good can outweigh the evil he observes everywhere. Reminiscent of Hamlet‘s “It is not, nor it cannot come to good,” Jacques rails “against our mistress the world and all our misery!”
To very intense Melancholics, such as Jacques, people are all surface and no depth. He either dismisses them or translates them into objects of thought. It’s not personal; it’s just how he thinks he should deal with people. As a result, he becomes less human himself.
The story of love and divinity challenges Jacques’s cynical “Seven Ages” speech. The beauty in caring for the old—even when they are “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”—cannot be ignored. Love and religion triumph, bringing good out of evil. Infectious happiness touches everyone but him.
Where he used to flee company, he now seeks it out. But instead of understanding, he gets reactions that shake him further. Touchstone the fool rejoices to see him, accepting him as he is. Orlando can’t stand him and isn’t too polite to say so. Rosalind pities him. For the first time, his penetrating gaze is turned inward—to himself.
By the end of the play, he can’t ignore the change in himself. He can no longer suck melancholy out of the story. This egg is happiness to its core.
They have something good that he can’t process yet, and so he must leave. Rather than loudly moralizing, as he would have done before, he gives them sincere blessing. When he comes to Touchstone, we see the extent of his change; he makes a joke, willingly causing laughter.
It is not a complete conversion; like any Melancholic, Jacques must contemplate these changes a long time before he finds the answer. The search will go on, but we have hope that these events may mend him.