Touchstone is a wise fool from Duke Frederick’s court who accompanies Rosalind and Celia to the Forest of Arden. The purpose of a touchstone is to test the purity of precious metals, and the character Touchstone plays a similar role in the play by exposing what is valuable and false in the people around him. While residing in the Forest of Arden he becomes betrothed to Audrey, a dim-witted country goatherd. As Touchstone and Audrey discuss their wedding plans in Act V, Scene I, Touchstone suddenly announces, “But, Audrey, there is a youth here in the forest lays claim to you.” Audrey denies that the forest lad, whose name soon proves to be William, has any interest in her. William then walks on stage. This is both his first and last scene; his character could be subtracted from the play without detriment to the action. Indeed, the only point of the scene seems to be to allow Touchstone to make fun of William and give him instructions.
Touchstone is delighted to see the forest youth, saying “It is meet and drink to me to see a clown.” He confesses that he is about to behave rudely—“we that have good wits have much to answer for”—but says that he cannot help himself from “flouting” William. When the youth pleasantly bids “good even” to Audrey and Touchstone,Touchstone replies, “Good even, gentle friend.” A gentle friend, interpreted literally, is a gentleman entitled to bear arms, as William Shakespeare was after 1596.
Touchstone interrogates the youth about his age (twenty five), his name (William), and his birthplace (the Forest). After some banter in which William, who prides himself on having a “pretty wit,” is thoroughly outclassed by Touchstone, the court fool asks William if he is learned. “No, sir,” replies William. “Then learn this of me,” says Touchstone, taking William’s hand in his own. Punning with the Latin word ipse, which means “I, myself,” he declares: “To have is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out of cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he; now, you are not ipse, for I am he.” Confused, William asks, “Which he, sir?” “He, sir, that must marry this woman,” says Touchstone aggressively. “Therefore, you clown, abandon, —which is in the vulgar, leave, —the society, —which in the boorish is company, —of this female, —which in the common is woman.” Continuing in this vein, Touchstone threatens to kill William if he does not leave Audrey. “I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado, or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction; will o'er-run thee with policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways; therefore tremble and depart.” William bids goodbye and is not heard from again.
It is difficult to know what to make of Touchstone’s apparently unprovoked verbal assault on William, culminating in the youth’s banishment from Audrey’s company. It is also hard to understand why the author, a consummate verbal artist whose every word choice was significant, gave this lackluster country bumpkin the name William. In a 2003 essay on the subject, Alex McNeil, an Oxfordian authorship skeptic, argued that Touchstone’s skirmish with William over the right to marry Audrey represents an allegorical struggle for control over the content of the Bard’s works. McNeil’s case rests on the following observations.
When Touchstone begins courting Audrey he offers to “fetch up” her goats. The word ‘goat’ connects to the word ‘tragedy’ through the Greek ‘tragoida,’ meaning goat song. Audrey’s association with goats may therefore imply she is associated with the drama. Touchstone wonders whether he pleases Audrey: “Am I the man yet? Does my simple feature content you?” He then jokes about being among Audrey and her goats “as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.” After humorously linking himself with the great Roman poet Ovid, Touchstone contemplates how sad it is to be a poet whose verses can’t be understood. “When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” Touchstone, representing the author, is remembering the great poet Christopher Marlowe’s sudden murder in a Deptford tavern after a quarrel with his dinner companions over the “reckoning,” or the bill. He is also paraphrasing the line “Infinite riches in a little room” from Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta. Marlowe’s death was again on Shakespeare’s mind when he penned a separate scene in As You Like It, in which the rustic wench Phoebe recalls one of Marlowe’s best-known lines from the poem Hero and Leander: “Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’”
Immediately after Touchstone recalls the “great reckoning in a little room” that killed Marlowe, he tells Audrey, “Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.” Confused by his wish, she wonders whether to be poetical is to be honest and true. He replies that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” Not wishing to feign, Audrey prays the gods will make her honest. Touchstone responds harshly, saying that “to cast away honesty upon a foul slut were to put good meat into an unclean dish.” He has arranged for a priest whose last name is “Mar-text,” meaning a marred or bad text, to marry him to Audrey, but at the last minute he cancels the ceremony. Disappointed, Audrey says the priest was “good enough,” but Touchstone insists that Mar-text was “most wicked” and “most vile,” and they must find a better priest to conduct the marriage ceremony. A strange undercurrent accompanies all of Touchstone’s interactions with Audrey. Shortly before their marriage in the play’s final scene, Touchstone claims her as an object that belongs to him. He tells Duke Senior she is “an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own,” and says that he dwells in her like a pearl in a “foul oyster.”
If Alex McNeil is right—if Touchstone represents the Bard, William represents the Stratford actor, and Audrey represents the Bard’s play texts—then the scene in which Touchstone lectures William about the preservation of water when it is poured from one glass into another is highly significant. His exact words bear repeating: “To have is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out of cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he; now, you are not ipse, for I am he.” A veiled message may be intended—“To have my text is to have my text, for the words, being poured from me to you, should fill you entirely, for I am the author and you are not, therefore cease modifying my language and let my plays stand intact.” Perhaps the true Shakespeare was upset that his chosen front man, William of Stratford, kept revising his plays in the manner of the Shakespearean ‘bad quarto’ texts—eliminating much of his soaring poetry and penetrating philosophical digressions to create shorter plays with faster action and greater appeal to the groundlings who attended the public theatres.
Although this interpretation of the interactions between Touchstone, Audrey, and William is not widely accepted, it makes sense of otherwise nonsensical language. The traditional authorship belief offers no meaningful interpretation in its place.