A fool in the service of first Oliver, then Rosalind and Celia, Touchstone is all that his name implies: he acts as a touchstone, testing the qualities of the other characters both at Duke Frederick’s court and in the forest. He also is an apt persona for conveying bits and piece of philosophy to the audience, whether they be genuine or ironic. Many commentators have noted that Touchstone differs from the fools in Shakespeare’s preceding plays largely because the playwright shaped the part to a different actor: Robert Armin. Armin, who himself wrote a work on the varying natures of court fools, was perhaps fit to play a jester of greater sophistication than the man he replaced within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kempe, who had proven successful playing strictly comic roles. In fact, Armin may have joined the company midway through Shakespeare’s writing of As You Like It, which would account for the difference in Touchstone’s temperament in the first act as compared to the later acts; in ‘‘Touchstone in Arcadia,’’ Robert H. Goldsmith notes that this change may also simply reflect the respective degrees of intellectual freedom that Touchstone felt at court and in the forest, as any court fool would have been wise to restrain his wit somewhat in the presence of a usurper.
Touchstone is perhaps more out of place in the Forest of Arden than any other character in the play.While Touchstone marries Audrey at the end, the audience understands that he does so merely to enjoy the associated conjugal rights. Otherwise, throughout much of the play Touchstone remarks not on the merrier aspects of the forest but on what the forest lacks as compared to the court, as in his remarks to Corin about the shepherd’s life, where he expresses the negative view: ‘‘in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught… . in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life … . in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious… . as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach’’ (3.2.14–21).
In general, Touchstone looks at every situation from an oblique angle and speaks in a caustic voice. He sees Orlando’s poetry not as charming but pedantic; he insists that Corin is a sinner for having never learned court manners; and rather than enjoying their song, he condemns the pages as being off time. He even refuses to acknowledge himself as either witty or a fool: to Rosalind he states, ‘‘I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it’’ (2.4.56–7), while Jaques recalls him remarking, ‘‘Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune’’ (2.7.19). Goldsmith sums up Touchstone’s role in part by quoting C. S. Lewis, who notes in The Allegory of Love that a tale in the mode of As You Like It ‘‘protects itself against the laughter of the vulgar… by allowing laughter and cynicism their place inside the poem’’ (199). Goldsmith himself notes, ‘‘Touchstone’s presence within the pastoral romance is a concession to our sense of comic realism and protects the play from corrosive criticism’’ (200). Indeed, Touchstone’s sarcastic rejoinders quite likely preempted just such unruly commentary from the groundlings at the Globe Theatre.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007