Sunday, 2 September 2012

Jaques, depression, and Dealing With the Fear of Death part 2

I saw "As You Like It" recently. Here is the well-known speech by Jaques, which even if you know it well, is worth, I feel, revisiting, to get the full power of the last sentence:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I was lucky enough to see Alan Rickman as Jaques in the eighties. At the heart of a wonderful comedy was something truly chilling and disturbing.

The stage melancholic was, I understand, an increasingly fashionable figure in Shakespeare's day. So let's accept that Jaques is playing a part here, he is self-consciously being a melancholic character.

But it struck me when I heard these lines once again (and no doubt this is obvious enough) he is in a state of what these days we would call depression. He says nothing positive, does he? He puts himself at a distance from the rest of humanity and turns a cold and weary eye on it. The baby mewls and pukes - well, they do, but generally we don't regard them with disdain for doing so. The schoolboy whines. The obsessed lover writes daft poems to an eyebrow. The soldier risks getting blown to bits for what? Reputation. Huh. And so on.

Then eventually, we get to the dreadful ending, that of which so many of us are scared - old age as a second childhood, helpless, with what now we call dementia.

Poor Jaques. He can't take it, can he? The roles we act out as we progress through life count as nothing for him, because of the way he thinks life dwindles and is extinguished. He gets none of the warmth and comfort that comes from being engaged with the stages of life we see round us, from feeling compassion and identity with other people. He is analytical, cold, remote, self-conscious. What Sylvia Plath called the Bell Jar of depression has descended, and cut him off from the rest of us. Eventually, even the Forest of Arden isn't remote enough from human folly, and he goes into some sort of religious retreat from the world. Let's hope there he finds some peace, some comfort, some easing of his pain, some thawing of his disgust and terror.

Just as well that Jaques didn't encounter mindful meditation in the Forest - it might have helped him with his fear of death, eased depression, helped him face his own mortality - and then we would never have had this wonderful speech. 

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