from As You Like It
[Jacques and Touchstone]
A fool, a fool! I met a fool in the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and, yet, a motley fool.
'Good morrow, fool,' quoth I. 'No, sir,' quoth he,
'Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune:'
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.' When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear.
In a speech about foolishness, we must wonder who Shakespeare truly casts as the fool. First, there is the man called "fool," the most obvious candidate; a second, intelligent glance, however, casts Jacques himself as the fool. Ultimately, I argue that the ultimate absurdity of the moment pulls Jacques, the man, and the rest of human life into fooldom.
What is the case for calling the man by the side of the road a fool? We can find socioeconomic and physical reasons. To begin, the word "motley" returns over and over in reference to the man, probably a dual reference. His messy clothes signal a low economic class, which could be due to some kind of mental disorder. Less tangibly, "motley" could refer to his demeanor, which could be as varied and patched together as his penniless clothes. After all, he seems to sing nonsense, obsessed with time and a sundial made from nothing more than a grubby stick in his pocket, hardly the artifacts of a sane man, after all.
And yet, this is not a comfortable reading! It takes the man's clothes and the loud words of Jacques at face value, and fails to listen to the "fool's" profound message treating decay and mortality; were we to side with the first interpretation, we would be the fools who failed to listen. But this is precisely what Jacques does. From a careful listen, Touchstone seems "contemplative," artistic, creative, and perhaps wise, meditating on life's impermenance. That Jacques guffaws for an hour, literally, makes him seem the fool to an intelligent listener.
And while this is the more convincing of the arguments, I believe that it's interesting, at least, to take the man at his word and imagine that, if all of human life is rotting, falling away, and final, then is it possible for any man to not be the fool, of time at least? I admit, this feels attractive to write of and less so when really thinking about it--for, if true, wouldn't a wise man be the one who knows his enemies, knows of time, knows his death? It is a question of knowledge of one's ignorance, and one, I suppose, that you could land on either end of; I'm not hesitant to say that what lies between and fool and a wise man is understanding, yes, that strange idea we think we all have, and yet, most likely, have not.