“The clown’s name is Touchtone.”

The play’s name is As You Like It, and I used to like to invite my students to contemplate the clown’s name (let’s call him the Fool rather than the Clown) in relation to the title and to the multiple weddings that end the play.

The Fool, if you recall, lusts after Audrey, a country wench who considers herself “honest.” She’s attracted to him for his nimble wit, perhaps, and certainly for his courtly sophistication, stark contrasts to her friendly local suitor William, who can more accurately be called the clown in this play. The Fool-Audrey relationship nicely balances the other “country copulatives,” Phoebe and Silvius, a one-sided love match that becomes a marriage by default when Phoebe learns that the “man” she has a crush on is actually Rosalind. In the Phoebe-Silvius relationship, the male pines for lyrically pastoral love; in the Fool-Audrey relationship, the male just wants to jump some toothsome country bones.

So he has to find a way around her honesty, and he does: he proposes marriage, and she delightedly consents. Then he finds himself a drunken country priest who, he is sure, will not marry them “well,” in case he later needs to “leave my wife.” Unluckily for him, Hymen, God of Marriage, comes in in the last scene and blesses all four of the play’s marriages, which might tighten the bonds of wedlock just a bit.

Why do I invite the students to consider the Fool’s name? Because it’s Touchstone. Please note the “s”! The stone used by goldsmiths to test the purity of gold (rub this wedding ring on the stone, for example, and then apply certain solvents and observe the reaction: aha! 24k! aha! 18k! oy oy oy, base metal lightly plated…) is the name of the character in this play whose only motive for marriage is a case of the hots.

So when we look at the other couples—Silvius and Phoebe unevenly joined, Celia and Oliver newly but surely in love, Rosalind and Orlando over their crush and into earned devotion—and test their relationships by way of the carnal coupling of Touchstone and Audrey, do we find love that is spiritual, sane, practical, and lasting, or do we find that lust makes the world go round? Is Touchstone’s marriage the way we all secretly “like it,” or would if we could? or is it the cautionary note we should bring to our relationships, sorting out the motives and weighing their value?

The word “touchstone” may be unfamiliar to my students (although I can’t understand why: I knew it and had heard it frequently enough in various contexts by the time I was in college), but most people in Shakespeare’s audience would have picked up on it right away. Since the priest he finds is called Sir Oliver Martext, someone sure to make mistakes in the ceremony, the audience can entertain the probability that Touchstone’s name is substantive as well. Thus my question.

But this student here, and others of her generation, didn’t hear “touchstone,” probably because the word meant nothing to her; she heard “touchtone,” the latest and coolest kind of telephone.  She was a serious student, so I’m pretty sure she also read the play, but in that case her eye must have elided the “s” that made the word alien to her.

There goes the discussion. There goes the character—since the intrusion of communication mechanics into ideas of love and marriage may tempt students to think about the importance of communication in a relationship (but for that they would already have the clown William, a man of few words but those fairly honest) but not about the far more relevant issue that can be gleaned from the character’s behavior. Can you imagine looking at the Fool and seeing a phone receiver, or assuming all his clever words are nothing but beeps? (Well, now that I mention it, some of them arguably are.…)

Of course nowadays I never hear the word “touchtone,” either. I think we’re past it. The name is possibly now past all meaning—just a name.

So who’s the Fool now?

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““The clown’s name is Touchtone.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    If she used the word repeatedly, it couldn’t be a typo, I suppose? I shrieked with laughter when I saw the subject line, but, not so funny is the fact that many terms, and the subjects they refer to, come from an earlier time that is fast receding into the unremembered past. If education is supposed to train the mind, it’s also supposed to preserve the Tradition of the culture. I think the popular culture, which was on the periphery to us “serious students” in Days of Yore, is now first and foremost. And those of us who know what a touchstone is and saw “The Pawnbroker” and read Matthew Arnold are on the very peripherique of the culture. Or, as one of my students said to me, over a quarter of a century ago, “I bet you know Latin and everything. That’s so cool.” Trans. “Wow, I’m talking to a relic.”

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